EX- GOOGLE WORKER HAD VALID POINTS HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT
Diversity memo has its flaws on gender, but overreaction is likely to do far more harm
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.