Harmeet Dhillon is using a discrimination case against Google to defend political values.
On a recent night in San Francisco, the woman representing the Google engineer famously fired for arguing women aren’t genetically suited to work in tech doesn’t have it in her to attend a dinner of her peers. Those peers—other San Francisco judges and attorneys—run the spectrum, in her view, from liberal to far lefty. The sort of people she’s surrounded by and specializes in riling up. But it can be exhausting.
“If I go today, I’ll be devoured by judges and attorneys asking me how I could represent James,” Harmeet Dhillon says of the annual bar association dinner. This was in January, months after her new client, James Damore, became an inescapable flashpoint in the workplace-gender war. Dhillon had just finished an interview on Fox News, where she makes regular appearances. She ditched the dinner and sat down for another interview instead.
Dhillon is a Republican in the People’s Republic of Northern California. She’s an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, and one of three elected leaders of the state’s Republican National Committee.
She’s a free-speech lawyer who argues the University of California at Berkeley stifled the First Amendment when it bumped a speech by conservative Ann Coulter. She doesn’t believe in fake-news conspiracies and, in an appearance on Fox News, has denounced Robert Mueller’s investigation as “absolutely” corrupt. “I didn’t say Mueller was corrupt. But the investigation itself, it appears to be corrupt on many levels.”
“She’s a person of some dichotomy. On the one hand, she was on the board of the ACLU and fights for many individual rights,” says Neel Chatterjee, a San Francisco lawyer who’s known Dhillon since the 1980s. “On the other hand, she’s a staunch Republican Trump supporter.” And as Chatterjee notes: “She likes fighting political fights.”
“When Harmeet decided to lend her voice to the Trump campaign, there were, especially in the South Asian community, a lot of people who really questioned her integrity and her good faith,” says Paul Grewal, a childhood friend and Facebook Inc.’s general counsel. “She made very clear in the toughest moments of that campaign that what she was standing up for were her own conservative ideals.”
Dhillon, 49, is in America’s progressive hub summoning her own life experience to craft a novel legal argument that posits Damore in her own mold: a conservative in a liberal bubble demanding and using free-speech rights.
Dhillon won’t say whether she agrees with her client’s 3,000-word manifesto, the one Damore used to blast Google‘s diversity policies before he was fired. In it he asserts, among other things, that biological variances are a likely explanation for Silicon Valley’s lopsided gender gap. But Dhillon does agree that Google’s work culture crushes conservative ideology while promoting a liberal echo chamber. That ethos, she argues, is ultimately what fueled her client’s termination.
Central to her case are a pair of 81-year-old sections of California’s Labor Code that prohibit employers from controlling employees’ political expression at work or firing them because of it. Where the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment ends, says Dhillon, California’s statute begins.
Dhillon argues that Google’s work culture changed in November 2016, after Trump’s electoral victory. Within days the reality of his victory set in, and many Google employees were in a panic, “having expected a different outcome fully in line with their political views,” Dhillon wrote in the 161-page complaint. The document mentions Trump nine times and uses the word “conservative” 101 times.
The lawsuit appears designed to maximally embarrass one of the world’s biggest companies. One section of her complaint—under the heading “Google Failed to Protect Employees from Workplace Harassment Due to Their Support for President Trump”—decries unnamed managers for sabotaging the careers of conservative employees while promoting like-minded progressives, and in another instance, Google employees allegedly encouraged “unambiguous social pecking” of conservative white men. Later, she accuses Google of welcoming a diverse realm of alternative lifestyles on its internal message boards, including mailing lists for employees identifying sexually as “yellow-scaled wingless dragonkin.” But, she notes, the tech giant neglected to create or encourage such a venue for “traditional monogamy.”
Dhillon says she’s the advocate for a true underdog here. While Google welcomes the “furries and transgender,” she says, conservative men are blacklisted. Among the loudest voices demanding social equality for conservative white males is, of course, President Trump.
Her approach to equality in Silicon Valley is an obvious deviation from the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements that have dominated social media in tandem with growing calls for gender equality for women in tech, Hollywood and elsewhere. In fact, while Dhillon sues Google for plotting to hire and promote women instead of men, the U.S. Department of Labor has filed suit against the company for quite the opposite: not hiring enough women.
Dhillon describes them as two different problems. Finding more women in the industry is a pipeline challenge. So long as American universities are churning out four male tech candidates for every one woman, she says, the supply issue can’t be solved. To achieve balance in Silicon Valley, employers cannot stop hiring men: “That’s not legal.”