Di­ver­sity memo has its flaws on gen­der, but over­re­ac­tion is likely to do far more harm

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Cathy Young Cathy Young, a colum­nist at News­day and Real Clear Pol­i­tics, is a con­tribut­ing editor at Rea­son.

An in­ter­nal memo by a Google soft­ware en­gi­neer cri­tiquing the com­pany’s di­ver­sity ef­forts pro­voked some strong re­ac­tions. The on­line me­dia called the doc­u­ment a “screed against di­ver­sity” and blasted it as “anti- woman.” Many, in­clud­ing fem­i­nist soft­ware en­gi­neer and con­gres­sional can­di­date Bri­anna Wu, clam­ored for his fir­ing.

In­deed, the memo au­thor, un­masked as James Damore, was fired Mon­day evening for per­pet­u­at­ing “harm­ful gen­der stereo­types” — an ironic con­clu­sion, con­sid­er­ing that a cen­tral topic of his memo was ide­o­log­i­cal con­form­ity at Google.

But what did the memo ac­tu­ally say about di­ver­sity in tech?


The most in­cen­di­ary part of the 10- page doc­u­ment was the as­ser­tion that gen­der dis­par­i­ties at tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Google ( where women hold 20% of tech jobs and 25% of lead­er­ship po­si­tions), are due at least in part to bi­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences. Damore has been as­sailed for sup­pos­edly say­ing that “women are un­suited to tech jobs.” But the memo says noth­ing of the kind.

At most, Damore ar­gues that be­cause of in­nate cog­ni­tive and per­son­al­ity dif­fer­ences, a 50/ 50 gen­der bal­ance in the tech sec­tor might be un­re­al­is­tic.

The memo also ar­gues that ex­pand­ing di­ver­sity is good, but that Google is go­ing about it all wrong — for in­stance, by of­fer­ing gen­der- and race- ex­clu­sion­ary sup­port pro­grams, fa­vor­ing “di­ver­sity” hires, and pro­mot­ing hy­per­sen­si­tiv­ity to “un­con­scious bias” and un­in­ten­tional of­fenses. And it sug­gests al­ter­na­tive strate­gies, such as draw­ing more women to soft­ware engi­neer­ing by mak­ing some of those jobs more peo­ple- ori­ented, more col­lab­o­ra­tive and less stress­ful.

Is Damore right about sex dif­fer­ences? It’s com­pli­cated.

Of the four sci­en­tists who com­mented at Quil­lette, a lib­er­tar­i­an­lean­ing on­line mag­a­zine, three — in­clud­ing neu­ro­sci­en­tist and sci­ence writer Deb­o­rah Soh — said the memo was al­most en­tirely cor­rect. Univer­sity of Michi­gan psy­chol­o­gist David Sch­mitt, whose re­search was cited in the memo, thought it over­stated some mod­est sex dif­fer­ences ( in am­bi­tion and vul­ner­a­bil­ity to stress, for ex­am­ple) and was too neg­a­tive about ef­forts to rem­edy so­ci­etal dis­ad­van­tage.

Yet Sch­mitt also em­pha­sized that bi­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ence as a con­trib­u­tor to oc­cu­pa­tional gen­der gaps should not be off- lim­its to dis­cus­sion.

Just how dif­fer­ent male and fe­male brains re­ally are re­mains a topic of heated polemics. But even stud­ies that em­pha­size sim­i­lar­ity, such as a 2005 sur­vey of the re­search by Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin psy­chol­o­gist Janet Shi­b­ley Hyde, note that some of the largest men­tal dif­fer­ences are in me­chan­i­cal rea­son­ing, where males on av­er­age score higher.

There is also ev­i­dence that girls with high math­e­mat­i­cal abil­ity are likely to have strong ver­bal skills as well, while boys tend to be less ver­sa­tile. In­ter­est­ingly, youths with strong skills in both ar­eas are likely to choose non­tech pro­fes­sions re­gard­less of gen­der. Fi­nally, in nu­mer­ous stud­ies, women and girls tend to pre­fer work­ing with peo­ple and other liv­ing things, while men and boys show more in­ter­est in me­chan­i­cal ob­jects.

The Google memo mostly avoids such over­gen­er­al­iza­tions. It re­peat­edly ac­knowl­edges that sex dif­fer­ences are a mat­ter of ten­den­cies, not ab­so­lutes, and do not pre­dict any­thing about any spe­cific per­son. Far from em­brac­ing tra­di­tional sex roles, it sug­gests that work­ing to change in­flex­i­ble male roles and free more men to choose lower- pay- ing, lower- sta­tus oc­cu­pa­tions could help nar­row the gen­der gap in the tech sec­tor. Damore urges Google to “treat peo­ple as in­di­vid­u­als, not as just an­other mem­ber of their group.”

The memo has its flaws. It prob­a­bly over­states the uni­ver­sal­ity of some gen­der dif­fer­ences. It ig­nores the pos­si­bil­ity that some dif­fer­ences in teens and adults are shaped by child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences, which can af­fect the hu­man brain. But some of its sug­ges­tions — for in­stance, to un­cou­ple di­ver­sity ini­tia­tives from em­pa­thy and moral­ism — are ex­cel­lent and val­i­dated by the re­ac­tions to the memo it­self. One Twit­ter user wrote that Damore was “com­mit­ting vi­o­lence” by writ­ing it, and that “peo­ple feared for their safety” as a re­sult.

Could the memo con­trib­ute to neg­a­tive stereo­types of women in tech work­places? Per­haps. But the over­re­ac­tion, in­clud­ing Damore’s fir­ing, is likely to do far more harm. It will make any­one who ques­tions the “di­ver­sity” party line — who be­lieves, for in­stance, that un­equal numbers may not au­to­mat­i­cally prove dis­crim­i­na­tion — feel that he or she is in a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment. And it will lend cre­dence to com­plaints that men are the be­lea­guered sex.


Google head­quar­ters in Moun­tain View, Calif.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.