A facile ar­gu­ment for male priv­i­lege

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - MICHAEL HILTZIK

The talk of Sil­i­con Val­ley just now is a doc­u­ment crit­i­cal of Google’s work­place di­ver­sity pro­grams, writ­ten by a now-fired soft­ware engi­neer named James Damore and vi­rally cir­cu­lated on­line.

En­ti­tled “Google’s Ide­o­log­i­cal Echo Cham­ber,” the memo ac­cuses Google of po­lit­i­cal bias aimed at “sham­ing into si­lence” em­ploy­ees wish­ing to chal­lenge “ideas … too sa­cred to be hon­estly dis­cussed.” Th­ese “sa­cred” ideas in­clude the no­tion that gen­der dis­par­i­ties in the Google work­force should be re­duced, if not erad­i­cated. Damore, 28, be­lieves that th­ese dis­par­i­ties may de­rive in part from in­nate dif­fer­ences be­tween men and women, and ig­nor­ing that will be “un­fair, di­vi­sive, and bad for busi­ness.”

Damore, who was fired on Mon­day “for per­pet­u­at­ing gen­der stereo­types,” has since given YouTube in­ter­views to a pair of men’s rights ad­vo­cates, Ste­fan

Molyneux and Jor­dan Peter­son, de­fend­ing the es­say and pub­lished an op-ed in the Wall Street Jour­nal in the same vein.

But what’s most im­por­tant may be the memo’s ar­gu­ment that a male­cen­tric engi­neer­ing cul­ture is be­ing vic­tim­ized in the name of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, and its im­pli­ca­tion that this feel­ing is wide­spread at Google and through­out Sil­i­con Val­ley. That’s a hint that com­bat­ing the no­tion could be a years-long, if not decades­long, process. The in­dus­try’s im­age as a place hos­tile to even the most ta­lented women will per­sist, to its en­dur­ing dis­ad­van­tage.

There are no in­di­ca­tions that Damore is an out­lier in his viewpoint. The memo doesn’t read like some­thing he kept bot­tled up for a long time, and then let loose in a rush. It reads like the re­flec­tion of lengthy con­ver­sa­tions with like-minded col­leagues shar­ing sim­i­lar gripes about those ac­cursed di­ver­sity sem­i­nars, as though from ad­ja­cent uri­nals. In­deed, Damore told Molyneux that he shared the doc­u­ment “mul­ti­ple times” and got “a ton of pos­i­tive mes­sages of sup­port … at Google be­fore all of this leaked.”

The cen­ter­piece — and cer­tainly the fo­cus of many of the cri­tiques — is Damore’s as­ser­tion that the “bi­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences” be­tween men and women may amount to “non-bias” — that is, in­no­cent — “causes of the gen­der gap” in soft­ware engi­neer­ing. He con­tends that th­ese dif­fer­ences are “uni­ver­sal across hu­man cul­tures” and cre­ate “highly her­i­ta­ble” traits that con­form to what “evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy” would ex­pect to find. “On av­er­age,” he writes, women have greater affin­ity for “feel­ings and aes­thet­ics than ideas,” more in­ter­est in “peo­ple rather than things,” are more gre­gar­i­ous than as­sertive com­pared with men, more “anx­ious” and less tol­er­ant of stress.

Damore’s crit­ics say this is tan­ta­mount to a de­fense of the “bro-cul­ture” in Sil­i­con Val­ley, but that’s too nar­row. What it is, ac­tu­ally, is the in­vo­ca­tion of “bi­ol­ogy” to de­fend a dom­i­nant cul­ture. That it’s a facile and faulty re­duc­tion of bi­ol­ogy into a melange of psy­cho­log­i­cal traits is al­most be­side the point.

Nearly four decades ago the late Stephen Jay Gould, in his bril­liant book “The Mis­mea­sure of Man,” de­mol­ished this sort of ar­gu­ment (one would have hoped for all time, but no). “Bi­o­log­i­cal de­ter­min­ism,” he wrote, is typ­i­cally in­voked to give “la­tent prej­u­dices” an in­tel­lec­tual ve­neer.

Over the years, bi­ol­ogy and its sup­posed in­tel­lec­tual or psy­cho­log­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tions have been used by an­te­bel­lum plan­ta­tion own­ers to jus­tify their en­slave­ment of an os­ten­si­bly in­fe­rior race. By white South Africans to jus­tify keep­ing po­lit­i­cal power out of the hands of a black ma­jor­ity that “just wasn’t ready” for rule. By Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal lead­ers to deny the vote to women. By Nazis to ra­tio­nal­ize the ex­ter­mi­na­tion of Jews, ho­mo­sex­u­als, and Ro­mani, or Gyp­sies.

The Ja­panese have in­voked bi­ol­ogy to ex­plain why Western­ers have trou­ble un­der­stand­ing their lan­guage, di­gest­ing their food and com­pet­ing in Sumo. Bi­ol­ogy was cited early in the last cen­tury to jus­tify the ster­il­iza­tion of sup­posed “men­tal de­fec­tives” in Amer­ica — and by the ven­er­ated Supreme Court Jus­tice Oliver Wen­dell Holmes, no less, in his 1927 rul­ing in Buck v. Bell, up­hold­ing forced ster­il­iza­tion in Vir­ginia with the in­fa­mous phrase: “Three gen­er­a­tions of im­be­ciles are enough.” And now Damore says it helps ex­plain why women are un­der­rep­re­sented in soft­ware engi­neer­ing.

None of th­ese ar­gu­ments bears close scru­tiny, in part be­cause the claims are ephemeral and po­lit­i­cal; bi­o­log­i­cal de­ter­min­ism of­ten ex­pe­ri­ences a resur­gence, Gould ex­plained, when a dom­i­nant cul­ture fears it’s about to be thrown off its self-con­structed pedestal.

Damore tries to skate over this truth by stat­ing that bi­ol­ogy may be just “part” of the rea­son for the gen­der gap in tech, and ac­knowl­edg­ing that th­ese gen­der “dif­fer­ences are small” and shouldn’t be ap­plied to any “in­di­vid­ual.” But he’s just ex­pos­ing the bank­ruptcy of his ar­gu­ment, which is ev­i­dent from the sheer size of the gen­der gap at Google. How much could bi­ol­ogy pos­si­bly ex­plain why Google’s over­all work­force is 69% male, or its tech staff is 80% male, or its cor­po­rate lead­er­ship is 75% male? Do ya think some other fac­tors might be rel­e­vant here?

What may be over­looked in the furor over Damore’s bi­o­log­i­cal man­i­festo is how thor­oughly it ex­plodes Sil­i­con Val­ley’s foun­da­tion myth and un­der­mines its self-im­age as the last word in an in­no­va­tive en­tre­pre­neur­ial cul­ture. The re­gion’s tech in­dus­try cer­tainly li­on­izes in­no­va­tion, but only in a very nar­row sense. It’s decades be­hind Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, gen­eral cor­po­rate cul­ture and even sports when it comes to in­te­grat­ing it­self into the broader so­ci­ety.

The rea­sons may be that peo­ple in other fields haven’t seen them­selves as world-chang­ing ge­niuses, and some long ago came through the fire of shame­ful pub­lic scan­dal. Al­most ex­actly 30 years ago, Dodger ex­ec­u­tive Al Cam­pa­nis un­bur­dened him­self on na­tional tele­vi­sion of the view that black ballplay­ers “may not have some of the ne­ces­si­ties to be, let’s say, a field man­ager, or per­haps a gen­eral man­ager” and that black peo­ple weren’t good swim­mers be­cause “they don’t have the buoy­ancy.”

The ag­ing Cam­pa­nis promptly lost his job. And the episode demon­strated that ca­sual locker-room racism can be ac­cept­able in pub­lic right up to the point when sud­denly it isn’t. That mo­ment is a teach­ing mo­ment. Sports be­gan to learn its les­son just then.

Sil­i­con Val­ley has ex­pe­ri­enced a se­ries of such mo­ments over the last few months. The se­quence started in Fe­bru­ary with engi­neer Su­san Fowler’s shock­ing mem­oir of sex­ual ha­rass­ment at Uber, con­tin­ued with a num­ber of com­plaints by fe­male en­trepreneurs of be­ing propo­si­tioned by ven­ture cap­i­tal in­vestors on pain of be­ing de­nied fund­ing, and now comes Damore’s at­tempted ra­tio­nal­iza­tion of a man­i­festly dis­crim­i­na­tory hir­ing en­vi­ron­ment. But it was scarcely a se­cret; as long ago as 2012 Ellen Pao sued Kleiner Perkins, the ven­ture firm where she worked, for gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion. Pao lost her law­suit, but the con­di­tions that emerged in tes­ti­mony told a dis­turb­ing tale of gen­der im­bal­ance.

Sil­i­con Val­ley glided over this re­al­ity by claim­ing to be chang­ing the world for the bet­ter — wasn’t that more im­por­tant than the com­plaints of a few dis­ap­pointed mal­con­tents?

Yet the truth is that Sil­i­con Val­ley hasn’t played that role in nearly a half­cen­tury. One has to go back to the de­vel­op­ment of what be­came the In­ter­net and the in­ven­tion of the per­sonal com­puter to find in­no­va­tions that re­ally changed how we live our lives, and those hap­pened in the 1970s. To­day, the money is in in­cre­men­tal tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances that are vastly over­sold as in­no­va­tive, pitched at the wealthy and tout­ing “dis­rup­tion” for its own sake.

Un­der Travis Kalan­ick, Uber rev­eled in up­end­ing the trans­porta­tion in­dus­try, but the ben­e­fi­cia­ries thus far have been the com­pany’s in­sid­ers and pas­sen­gers whose rides are be­ing heav­ily sub­si­dized with ven­ture money — and at the ex­pense of taxi driv­ers; they’re just col­lat­eral dam­age in the quest for dis­rup­tion.

The de­gree to which this at­ti­tude that the lit­tle guy and so­ci­ety at large should get out of the in­no­va­tors’ way has fed upon a pos­i­tive feed­back loop within tech com­pany board­rooms. It un­der­scores the rot eat­ing away at the Sil­i­con Val­ley model.

A com­mu­nity that once wel­comed tal­ent, what­ever its source, now has be­come ex­clu­sion­ary and en­ti­tled. It’s hard to pin­point what drove the change. Among the en­gi­neers who in­vented the per­sonal com­puter at Xerox PARC were some out­stand­ing hu­man­ists with a deep un­der­stand­ing of hu­mankind’s var­i­ous­ness and a com­mit­ment to ed­u­ca­tion — as well as some dyed-in-the-wool con­ser­va­tives. But they seemed united in their de­ter­mi­na­tion to look out­ward with their in­ven­tions, to­ward serv­ing so­ci­ety, not in­ward, to­ward pre­serv­ing their po­si­tions in the so­cial hi­er­ar­chy.

Damore’s com­plaints that di­ver­sity pro­grams at Google over-em­pha­size “em­pa­thy,” aim to dis­crim­i­nate “just to in­crease the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in tech,” and “in­cen­tivize il­le­gal dis­crim­i­na­tion” are char­ac­ter­is­tic of a priv­i­leged class pan­ick­ing about los­ing its priv­i­lege. Molyneux, dur­ing his YouTube in­ter­view of Damore, mocked the idea that Damore was a mem­ber of such a class. Af­ter all, he got fired, didn’t he?

“I don’t see a lot of white male priv­i­lege ris­ing up around him like th­ese mag­i­cal shields to pro­tect him,” Molyneux said of Damore, as if this one ex­am­ple proved that the white male ma­jor­ity re­ally is the vic­tim­ized class in Sil­i­con Val­ley. If that truly is the feel­ing among the male rank-and­file at Google and else­where in tech, the in­dus­try has a long, long way to go to join the 21st cen­tury.

Justin Sul­li­van Getty Im­ages

HOW MUCH could bi­ol­ogy pos­si­bly ex­plain why Google’s over­all work­force is 69% male, or its tech staff is 80% male, or its cor­po­rate lead­er­ship is 75% male?

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