Bashing our Heads Against the Brick Wall of Reality

The headline was pure clickbait.

“A Viral Google Memo Alleges Retaliation Against A Pregnant Manager.”

At least, that was the headline back in August when I first noticed the article. The headline has since been changed to,

“A Leaked Google Memo Exposes the Fallacy of ‘Generous’ Parental Leave”

That’s a lot less clickbaity, but the first paragraph is still pretty damning for Google:

On Monday, Motherboard re-published a memo written by a Google employee with the title, “I’m Not Returning to Google After Maternity Leave, and Here is Why.” First posted on an internal message board, it details a now-departing employee’s allegations of pregnancy-related discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The memo writer alleges that a manager made sexist and derogatory remarks about a coworker who might have been pregnant before retaliating following a related HR complaint. When the memo writer herself became pregnant, she says things got even worse.

op. cit.

Let’s find out what these sexist and derogatory things were. I am going to give you my take on this article, and you are welcome to click on the link, read it yourself, and draw you own conclusions.

 The writer of this latest viral memo … was a manager at Google when she says her own manager “started making inappropriate comments” about a member of her team, “including that the Googler was likely pregnant again and was overly emotional and hard to work with when pregnant.”

op. cit.

Hmm, the third party was “overly emotional and hard to work with when pregnant?” Does that sound like a thing that ever happens? Do you suppose it’s ever happened before? Oh, yes, it must have happened, to this very person, because the manager said the Googler was “likely pregnant again.”  So perhaps the manager is speaking from direct, even recent personal experience. And perhaps his or her words are, in some sense, true.

It is well known to all people with a brain that many women become emotional and forgetful when pregnant.  We also become easily fatigued. This could make us difficult to work with, especially in a high-pressure, fast-moving, competitive work environment.

This is not a slam on women. Pregnancy is a major life event. It drains the energy from your body, often makes you physically miserable, and messes with your hormones and, yes, your emotions something fierce. It is, in fact, a full-time job. It would be surprising if such a major physiological event weren’t.

 She continues, “My manager also discussed this person’s likely pregnancy-related mental health struggles and how it’s difficult because, ‘you can’t touch employees after they disclose such things.’” The author felt her manager was encouraging her “to manage the member of my staff off of the team.”

She says she then reached out to HR with a complaint and “almost immediately” found that her manager’s “demeanor towards me changed, and drastically.” The employee alleges “months of angry chats and emails, vetoed projects, her ignoring me during in-person encounters, and public shaming,” as well as the manager “sharing reputation-damaging remarks with other more senior Googlers” and “actively interviewing candidates to replace me.”

op.cit.

Wait a minute. Her? Her??? The evil, pregnancy-retaliating manager is a woman??? Don’t you think this might be relevant?  Yes, yes, I know that women can be sexist against other women too, but given what we’ve already heard, I can’t help but think there might be more going on here.  Like maybe this female manager wasn’t looking forward to having to manage an emotionally unstable employee, and now she finds out she’s got another direct report who is complaining to HR, calling her a sexist, over remarks she made in an unguarded moment. Remarks which, perhaps, she expected that another woman would understand.  Clearly, she was mistaken.

At this point, I no longer trust the author of the memo accurately to describe her manager’s behavior.

After complaining again to HR, the employee says she was told there was “no evidence of retaliation.” Then, she says she was encouraged, and agreed, to find a role on another team, but was told that she wouldn’t be able to manage her new team “until after returning from maternity leave for fear that my maternity leave might ​‘stress the team’ and ‘rock the boat.’”

op. cit.

Maternity leave might stress the team and rock the boat? You mean if the team manager had to leave for several months? Nah, that doesn’t sound at all likely.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.

Then, she writes, she was diagnosed with “a pregnancy-related condition that was life-threatening” to both her and her baby, and which would require an early maternity leave and bedrest. She relayed this to her new manager, who then allegedly told her that “she had just listened to an NPR segment that debunked the benefits of bedrest” and shared a personal story about how she had personally ignored her doctor’s bedrest order while pregnant herself. “My manager then emphasized in this same meeting that a management role was no longer guaranteed upon my return from maternity leave, and that she supported my interviewing for other roles at Google,” she writes.

When she later wrote her manager announcing that she was “experiencing concerning symptoms” and would likely be starting her leave, she says she received back “an angry email letting me know I wasn’t meeting the expectations of someone at my level, nor meeting the expectations of a manager.” 

op. cit.

OK. It’s time for some reality here.  Maybe, just maybe, the childbearing years do not mix well with building a high-powered, team-managing career at Google.  Maybe this is the elephant in the room that is being ignored by everyone in this story, heroes and villains alike.

Obviously it is not good to discourage a pregnant woman with a life-threatening condition from going on bedrest when her doctor has recommended it. Nor is it good to tell someone else how to care for their own health problems based on your own personal experience.  What could be causing all this bad, arguably sexist (though I prefer the term anti-pregnancy) behavior from another woman?

Maybe it’s the cultural expectation that prenancy is not a big deal and should not in any way affect a woman’s ability to “meet the expectations of a manager.” Which, of course, it is and it does.

This is a subset of the bigger problem of wanting to pretend that men and women are exactly the same and should behave and been seen as exactly the same at all times. Or, rather than being a subset, this is more like the real road test of that idea. Can women behave and perform exactly the same as men … even when pregnant? Even when on bedrest?  And if they can’t, does this make them inferior? And if you say they can’t, does this make you anti-woman?

One Google employee who dared to say “men and women are not the same” was James Damore. Adding insult to injury, he is now used in this article as an example of sexist attitudes within Google. 

Then-engineer James Damore wrote a memo arguing against the company’s diversity efforts on the scientifically inaccurate grounds that women are less competent in the field of technology than men.

op. cit.

The only part of that sentence that is accurate is the phrase “then-engineer.” That’s because Damore lost his job for writing the infamous memo. But the way the article quotes him is extremely misleading. He did not “argue against the company’s diversity efforts.” He suggested that there might be a natural limit to the number of women Google was able to recruit and retain. He didn’t say that “women are less competent in the field of tech,” at least not that all women are. He said that, in general, women tend to be less drawn to that field.  This is not “scientifically inaccurate.”  It’s extremely well-documented. As Jordan Peterson has pointed out, in countries where people are allowed the maximum freedom to choose their careers, women tend to gravitate toward the helping professions and men tend to gravitate toward the hard sciences. 

What is scientifically inaccurate is the idea that women and men are exactly the same in mind and body, that pregnancy is a minor exception to this sacred truth, and that in the service of “equality,” pregnancy should at all costs be minimized, ignored, and if possible avoided altogether.

Certainly, goes the reigning orthodoxy, pregnancy shouldn’t be a big deal, shouldn’t change a woman’s work performance or lifestyle in any major way.  And if it does, somebody is due for some blame. Usually it’s the pregnant or newborn-having career woman, who “needs to figure out how to balance work and family” (translation: how to care for an infant without any help and without anyone else ever having to see or hear about the infant).  Occasionally, as in this article, the person who gets blamed is the woman’s manager, who dares to point out that her childbearing might have some impact on what she’s able to do at work.

People are flawed and sinful, and often, when we are blamed for something, it is at least partially justified. Not in this case. In this case, people are being blamed for not being able to enact a completely false picture of reality.  

Expecting women to combine their child-bearing years with their prime career-building years is unfair to everybody. As we see in this article, it puts managers, co-workers, and teams in a bad position. It also, of course, puts the young moms in a bad position, guaranteeing them a bad experience at work and robbing them of the ability to focus on their bodies and their babies during those childbearing years.

I’m not trying to guilt anybody here. Some young moms need to work so the family can get by. I get that. But we need to stop insisting that this arrangement is desirable for everyone … no big deal … easy … possible without something having to give, something having to suffer. Until we stop pretending, we’ll continue demonizing people (like the poor manager in the story above) rather than question the flawed doctrine.  That attitude, and not James Damore, is the real sexism.

Recommended reading: Maxed Out by Katrina Alcorn

9 thoughts on “Bashing our Heads Against the Brick Wall of Reality

    1. Your summary only works if having any job we may happen to want is a basic human right like the right to vote or to use public facilities. Only then, would being denied a promition constitute discrimination. Actually, employers are free to hire whomever they wish. It’s tyranny to force them to hire and retain anyone who wants the job, whether or not they are able to do it.

      Editing the next part of my response for clarity …

      “Pregnant women can’t do work good.” That is a vicious caricature of what I said. I said that SOME pregnant women DO get emotionally unstable when hormonal, and that this might make them ill-equipped to work well in a high pressure environment. I also suggested that it is not possible to do a good job leading a team while on bedrest. This is not the same as saying that no pregnant woman can do any kind of work “good.”

      Women differ, and so do jobs. I believe we have to take these things on a case by case basis and understand that managers and moms are making complex decisions rather than treating pregnant women as a monolithic interest group and managers’ judgment calls as discrimination.

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  1. Benjamin Ledford

    It’s really impossible for us to know what actually went on, who was at fault, etc. Often the picture changes when we hear the other side, and in this case, even from her own words it’s not difficult to see the possibility that the woman writing the memo is the problem.

    I mean, isn’t it entirely possible that this person is indeed difficult to work with and is presenting her coworker unfairly? I mean, I don’t know that, but it’s certainly a possibility. Especially given that she made a complaint to HR, and they didn’t find anything to pursue, and she then went public with it?

    She could be a courageous whistle-blower standing up to powerful corporation. Or she could be contentious and resentful. Or even – dare we say? – emotionally unstable. As I said, we just can’t know. But her responses would actually be consistent with someone who exemplifies the stereotype she’s objecting to.

    This line really decreased her credibility, though. The harassment included:
    ‘the manager “sharing reputation-damaging remarks with other more senior Googlers.”‘

    Uh, no. No madam, if you make reputation-damaging remarks to your coworkers that is your fault, not theirs. And if you are now making things difficult for your manager and complaining to HR about her, don’t you think it’s possible that your previous remarks and patterns of behavior will come up when they’re evaluating the situation and the credibility of your accusations?

    Of course, there is also the possibility that everyone is at fault: the manager really is rude and unfair to pregnant employees, but the memo writer really is vindictive and unpleasant. That the manager did retaliate after she complained, but that the memo writer nevertheless exaggerated or misperceived the extent of her reaction; that the manager broke trust by sharing the “reputation damaging comments,” but that the writer was wrong to ever have made them in the first place…

    That’s how it usually is, isn’t it? There is probably real fault on the part of others, but our response, though partially justified, is itself tainted by sin. They now have been sinned against as well as being guilty themselves. And they probably respond badly to that, and so on. And it doesn’t help that we’re trying to navigate this all while (as you say) trying to maintain a lie about the nature of reality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t know about impossible. 😉 I think there is plenty on the memo writer’s own showing to show that she is being unreasonable. Particularly the fact that she has a problem with “please don’t start leading a team until after your maternity leave,” I think shows that she is running literally everything that happens through her “this is discrimination” filter. Much of this story took place while she herself was pregnant, so it sounds likely to me that she was overreacting to everything without realizing it.

      I think you might be over-parsing the phrase “shared reputation-damaging remarks.” I just took that to mean “she made remarks that damaged my reputation.” No doubt true, but we don’t know whether this constituted: an intentional smear campaign (evil); venting (unprofessional but understandable); or simply explaining her side of the story in the face of accusations.

      Even “ignoring me during in-person encounters” is kind of understandable. Perhaps the manager was afraid that any word she spoke to the memo writer would be used against her, or she simply hadn’t yet figured out what approach to take to the conflict.

      My main problem with this whole incident is not the personalities but the value system that allows the memo writer to invoke the discrimination paradigm and Jezebel web site to uncritically report it as such.

      When I saw the headline “pregnancy discrimination,” I expected the inappropriate remarks to be something like “she was so stupid/ unprofessional to get pregnant,” and I was all ready to ride out on my white horse in defense of the dignity of motherhood. Instead, I find an article that expects employers to make accommodations that are, basically, infinite, and cries discrimination if they can’t. I guess that’s just the other side of the coin. When the system isn’t working, you can blame either the peg or the hole, but God forbid you should stop trying to force it in.

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  2. Such a fantastic post!! Your point about how women are basically expected to juggle work and being pregnant and somehow have this not affect their performance is just mind boggling. Pregnancy is a big deal and we shouldn’t pretend like it isn’t- it does a disservice to women. I’ve seen it a lot in the workplace with pregnant women under a huge amount of strain. Also, it’s kind of a given that someone will be more emotional when pregnant- like you said, this isn’t a slam on women, it’s just a physiological fact. But acknowledging biology isn’t sexist- the problem a lot of the time is expecting women to be exactly like men- it just doesn’t fly with reality. The same goes for the Damore case- stating women are different to men isn’t sexist. The problem I’ve seen a lot is women being encouraged and pressured into career paths they don’t want, because of other women who incidentally usually didn’t choose those roles. I’ve personally seen a lot of unhappy dropouts and women who want to dropout of the engineering degree they were encouraged to do (and more likely to get on because of affirmative action for women on those courses)… and of course, it’s not just my anecdotes that support this- the dropout rates for STEM subjects for women are incredibly high. Basically, I don’t think it does women any favours to try and pretend we’re men in any way (sorry for going a little off topic!)

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    1. Thanks for sharing your own war stories. I figured this would resonate with you.

      Possibly the most important point in all this – one that I made and then that you made as well – is that becoming emotional during the child-bearing process (before and after pregnancy) is not a weakness or character flaw. It’s a design feature. The only reason pointing out this feature should be offensive, is if it is a flaw. And if we are thinking of it as a flaw, that I think betrays that we are thinking of childbearing itself as a kind of flaw.

      Sorry if I’m being a broken record, but I feel like this assumption is so deeply ingrained in most people’s minds that the counter arguments are worth repeating.

      You are not really off-topic when you mention women being pressured to go into STEM subjects. That is exactly what James Damore’s original memo was about: Google’s push to get exactly equal numbers of women in all jobs within Google. And they were doing that, I think, to protect themselves from accusations of sexism. So I don’t think it was really about lifting women so much as protecting the company’s reputation.

      Google has been accused of having a “boys’ network” internal atmosphere, which maybe it does, because that tends to happen when you put a bunch of nerdy men in one place, and smart, nerdy men overwhelmingly are the ones who want to work at Google. On the other hand, if you put a bunch of smart, driven women in one place, you can get a “mean girls” kind of atmosphere, which comes through so strongly in the memo above.

      One more point about women being pressured. In the memoir I mention above, Maxed Out, the author has an ideal working-mom situation. It’s a small company a, job she enjoys and is good at, understanding boss, supportive husband, and great child care. And her family doesn’t even need her income. She tries to quit a number of times, but her understanding (and very driven) boss keeps pressuring her to stay: “Oh, but you’re so good at this!” “I did it … you can do it too!” After a couple of years of this, she is driven into complete burnout (what they used to call a nervous breakdown). And that’s with the “perfect” setup.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah it really did.

        I couldn’t agree more. The irony is, thanks to modern feminists, it seems that womanhood itself is being viewed as a flaw. And it really depresses me that childbearing (and childrearing) are seen as the pinnacle of this flaw :/

        No worries- I think it’s an important point to make!

        Oh yeah- all of this political correctness in companies isn’t cos they genuinely care about people- it’s just to cover their backs.

        Yeah funny how putting a load of women in one place doesn’t make a utopia 😉 It’s almost as if women are human beings, capable of doing both good and bad… 😉

        It’s just such a shame that no one ever seems to question the “perfect” setup- because I see this a lot from this kind of article. There’s a pressure to “have it all”, but at the same time people struggling left right and centre with “having it all”- again, it’s almost as if there’s such a thing as having too much on your plate and maybe sometimes something’s got to give (and this doesn’t have to be a bad thing!) Again, it’s almost as if we’re human beings and not robots 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes agreed! A very unexpected outcome to feminism.

        Ha ha yes, so surprising that women don’t immediately make a utopia out of a workplace with their woman powers! 😀

        “It’s almost as if there’s such a thing as having too much on your plate.” Yes, well put!

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