MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. (KTVU) - Google's CEO Sundar Pichai spoke to hundreds of girls at a Technovation event in Mountain View Thursday night, sending a clear message that women are needed and welcome in the tech industry, despite a controversial memo by a former Google engineer who said the low number of women are in tech jobs is due to genetic differences.
Pichai did not talk directly about the controversy, but he said it's important for girls to learn coding and pursue tech careers.
"There's a place for you at Google. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. You belong here and we need you," said Pichai, whose remarks were greeted with cheers and applause.
Pichai's appearance at the Technovation event came just hours after the CEO canceled a previously scheduled 4 p.m. company meeting to confront the gender controversy and the engineer James Damore, whose memo claimed genetic differences explain why fewer women are in tech jobs.
In a statement to employees, Pichai said said the reason for cancelling the town hall meeting was "Googlers are writing in, concerned about their safety and worried they may be outed publicly for asking a question in the town hall."
Damore's claims that Google culture is hostile to conservative viewpoints and gives special treatment in hiring female and minority candidates, has been heralded by some alt-right websites. Photos of some Google employees
"It's definitely a defining moment for Google and for our culture. It's something that we're working through," said Maggie Johnson, Google's Vice President for Education and University Programs. Johnson, an engineer, says the larger problem is widening the pipeline of girls who see a future for themsleves in a traditionally male-dominated field.
"For a company like Google and other high tech companies the number that we can actually hire is small, because the pipeline and all of those factors are causing those issues," Johnson said.
The Technovation event is a partnership between Google and the non-profit Iridescent which organizes programs to inspire young women and underrepresented groups to learn coding and pursue tech careers.
At the event, Google CEO Pichai paused to greet students and hear their pitches. Girls from some 90 countries participated in the program. The finalists explained the mobile apps they had created to help solve problems in their communities.
"I wish the conversation was focusing a little more on how can we provide the opportunities so the girls especially have more of these opporutnities, isntead of what it's like in the workforce. If we don't address the pipeline, we'll never get more girls into the workforce," said Amy Hee Kim, the COO of Iridescent, which holds the Technovation event.
"To the girls who dream of being an engineer or entrepreneur and who dream of creating amazing things. I want you to know there's a place for you in this industry," said Pichai.
To help the girls reach those dreams, the top teams received up to $15,000 in scholarship money.
As for Google, the CEO said that in the coming days they will continue the conversation to tackle the gender issues that have surfaced in their company and in Silicon Valley.
Read the memo
TL;DR Sorry for the late notice but we are going to cancel today's Town Hall.
We had hoped to have a frank, open discussion today as we always do to bring us together and move forward. But our Dory questions appeared externally this afternoon, and on some websites Googlers are now being named personally. Googlers are writing in, concerned about their safety and worried they may be "outed" publicly for asking a question in the Town Hall.
In recognition of Googlers' concerns, we need to step back and create a better set of conditions for us to have the discussion. So in the coming days we will find several forums to gather and engage with Googlers, where people can feel comfortable to speak freely. We'll share details soon.
Over the past two days, I have had the chance to meet with so many people here, and I have read each of your emails carefully. The vast majority of you are very supportive of our decision. A smaller percentage of you wish we would do more. And some are worried that you cannot speak out at work freely. All of your voices and opinions matter...and I want to hear them.
In the meantime, let's not forget what unites us as a company-- our desire to build great products for everyone that make a big difference in their lives. I have been in a few product discussions today and felt energized by the important things we are working on. We can, and will continue, to come together to do the very best for the people we serve.
Pichai had cut his family vacation short to return to address the issue.
Pichai has released a memo of his own-- reading in part "to suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive, and not OK."
The author of that memo-- James Damore has been fired from Google for violating the company’s code of conduct.
Damore has already filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board-- and spoke on Bloomberg television defending himself-- saying he feels hurt and betrayed by Google-- that he was trying to improve Google's culture.
He said he had shared that memo internally a month ago-- and there was no pushback until it was widely released-- and went viral.
He says management didn't weigh in on it until after it was public knowledge.
He also said that the employees who had supported him have also been contacted by Google’s Human Resources - a claim Google has denied.
Damore has said he plans on pursuing further legal action.
Meanwhile, more than 60 women may sue Google, alleging gender discrimination, sexism and pay disparities. Some women claim they make roughly $40,000 less than their male counterparts.