That guy at Google was right about women in tech

As a woman who worked in the male-cen­tric IT field, I learned these bros were not my peo­ple.

Star Tribune - - OPINION EXCHANGE - By ME­GAN McAR­DLE • Bloomberg View

Have you heard about the Google memo? Have you heard noth­ing but “Google memo” all week? James Damore, an en­gi­neer at Google, wrote a memo sug­gest­ing that maybe there weren’t so many women at Google be­cause women are less in­ter­ested in sit­ting around and star­ing at code all day. The in­ter­net erupted. James Damore is no longer work­ing at Google.

As a woman work­ing in the bro­tas­tic at­mos­phere of IT, I ul­ti­mately came to a con­clu­sion sim­i­lar to his. So I sym­pa­thize with him. Let me ex­plain.

Un­til the age of 26, I was em­ployed as a tech­nol­ogy con­sul­tant by a small firm that served the fi­nan­cial in­dus­try. I built servers and work­sta­tions, mostly for banks, and in a happy fore­shad­ow­ing of my fu­ture writ­ing for Bloomberg View, I in­stalled some of the first PCbased Bloomberg ter­mi­nals for a Ja­panese firm’s of­fice in New York.

Fi­nance back then was heav­ily male, as it is now. And tech­nol­ogy, the same. At the in­ter­sec­tion of the two, well, I can count on one hand all the women I worked with di­rectly dur­ing al­most four years of con­sult­ing. It was very male-cen­tric. I heard about client out­ings, in­volv­ing strip­pers, to which I was ob­vi­ously not in­vited. And the sex­ual ha­rass­ment (en­tirely from clients, not col­leagues) could be spec­tac­u­lar.

Which has noth­ing to do with why I left. At the time, it never oc­curred to me that be­ing a fe­male in this bro ecosys­tem might impinge my ul­ti­mate ca­reer prospects. Nor did I miss hav­ing women in the room. I liked work­ing with the bros just fine. And the sex­ual ha­rass­ment, while an­noy­ing, was just that: an­noy­ing. I can­not re­call that it ever af­fected my work, nor that I lost any sleep over it.

No, the rea­son I left is that I came into work one Mon­day and joined the guys at our work ta­ble, and one of them said: “What did you do this weekend?”

I was in the throes of a brief, doomed ro­mance. I had at­tended a con­cert that Satur­day night. I an­swered the ques­tion with an ac­count of both. The guys stared blankly. Then si­lence. Then one said, “I built a fiber-channel net­work in my base­ment,” and our co-work­ers fell all over them­selves ask­ing him to de­scribe ev­ery step in lov­ing de­tail.

At that mo­ment I re­al­ized that fun­da­men­tally, these are not my peo­ple. I liked the work. But I was never go­ing to like it enough to blow a weekend do­ing more of it for free. Which meant that I was never go­ing to be as good at that job as the guys around me.

So I went to busi­ness school, and even­tu­ally I landed my­self in the kind of ca­reer that I was happy to do on week­ends, and nights, and most of my other time — a ca­reer that I did, in fact, do for free for five years be­fore any­one of­fered to pay me for it. My field, pol­icy jour­nal­ism, is also pre­dom­i­nantly male. But it’s less male, and it suits me bet­ter.

Those facts may be re­lated. Think­ing back to those women I knew in IT, I can’t imag­ine any of them would have spent a weekend build­ing a fiber-channel net­work in her base­ment.

I’m not say­ing such women don’t ex­ist; I know they do. I’m just say­ing that if they ex­ist in equal numbers to the men, it’s odd that I met so very many men like that, and not even one woman like that, in a job where all the women around me were ob­vi­ously pretty com­fort­able with com­put­ers. We can’t blame it on resid­ual sex­ism that pre­vented women from ever get­ting into the field; the num­ber of women work­ing with com­put­ers has ac­tu­ally gone down over time. And I find it hard to blame it on cur­rent sex­ism. No one told that guy to go home and build a fiber­chan­nel net­work in his base­ment; no one told me I couldn’t. It’s just that I would never in a mil­lion years have cho­sen to waste a weekend that way.

The higher you get up the lad­der, the more im­por­tant those pref­er­ences be­come. Any­one of rea­son­able in­tel­li­gence can be coached to sit at a help desk and talk users through ba­sic prob­lems. Most smart peo­ple can be taught to build a ba­sic work­sta­tion and hook it up to a server. But the more com­pli­cated the prob­lems get, the more knowl­edge and skill they re­quire. And the peo­ple who ac­quire that sort of ex­per­tise are the ones who are most pas­sion­ately in­ter­ested in those sorts of prob­lems. A com­pany like Google is go­ing to se­lect heav­ily for that sort of pas­sion. If more men have it than women, the work­force will be mostly men.

Per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence is a poor sub­sti­tute for data, but as tech ex­pert Scott Alexan­der writes, the data in this case bol­ster the ex­pe­ri­ence. Women seem to have less affin­ity for me­chan­i­cal things than men, a pref­er­ence that shows up even in ex­tremely young chil­dren. These pref­er­ences show up across cul­tures, and in­deed, the less sex­ist a so­ci­ety is over­all, the more you seem to see women split­ting off into fields that em­pha­size peo­ple, words and car­ing. These are just av­er­ages, but they are what you have to look at when you’re ask­ing a ques­tion like “Why doesn’t Google have more fe­male en­gi­neers?”

Damore should prob­a­bly have used fewer words with high neg­a­tive emo­tional in­dices when more neu­tral ones were avail­able. But he was ba­si­cally mak­ing the same point that I am: that women seem to have less in­ter­est in work­ing with inan­i­mate ob­jects and that ig­nor­ing this is go­ing to lead to a lot of use­less or even coun­ter­pro­duc­tive di­ver­sity ini­tia­tives.

So why did the in­ter­net re­act as if he’d im­pe­ri­ously told women to get back in the kitchen where they be­long? Why did his com­pany fire him?

Well, for one thing, the next time the com­pany gets sued for sex­ism, that memo is go­ing to be Ex­hibit A. Fir­ing him makes that less of a prob­lem for the com­pany’s lawyers. You can also ar­gue that it will be im­pos­si­ble for him to work with the fe­male col­leagues whom he has richly an­gered. But, of course, these are prob­lems mostly be­cause peo­ple de­cided that these sorts of ar­gu­ments are be­yond the pale. And given that his em­pir­i­cal claims seem to be the con­sen­sus of most of the sci­en­tists who study the mat­ter, you have to ask why peo­ple de­cided that.

Well, Damore’s anal­y­sis leans very heav­ily on the bi­o­log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tions, and as per­sua­sive as I find them, I also know that the story is more com­pli­cated than that. Sex­ism is a process, not a level. I think it’s prob­a­bly true that my firm was mostly male be­cause mostly men were in­ter­ested in do­ing that kind of work at that level. But as my story also sug­gests, when a field is mostly guys, it’s go­ing to feel less than per­fectly com­fort­able for women un­less some pretty heroic ef­forts are made to coun­ter­act all that free-float­ing testos­terone. That may re­tard both women’s ca­reer prospects and their in­ter­est in join­ing that field in the first place.

So even if the dis­par­i­ties don’t start as dis­crim­i­na­tion, you can still end up with an en­vi­ron­ment in which women who could be great en­gi­neers de­cide they’d rather do some­thing else. A “nat­u­ral” split of, say, 65-35 could evolve into a much more lop­sided en­vi­ron­ment that feels down­right un­friendly to a lot of women. And the women who have stuck around are apt to get very mad in­deed when they hear some­thing that seems to sug­gest they’re not ex­pe­ri­enc­ing what they quite ob­vi­ously are.

And yet, you still have to ask whether shamestorm­ing Damore and get­ting him sacked was re­ally the best way to con­vince him — or any­one else — that he’s mis­taken. Did any­one’s un­der­stand­ing of the com­plex quan­daries of gen­der di­ver­sity ad­vance? If there were guys at Google won­der­ing whether the women around them re­ally de­served their jobs, did any­one wake up with the rev­e­la­tion: “Good God, how could I have been so blind?” No, I sus­pect those guys are now think­ing: “You see? Women can’t han­dle math or logic.”

The mob re­ac­tion did prove that women in­deed have some power in tech. But the power to fire peo­ple is not why most peo­ple get into engi­neer­ing. Good en­gi­neers want to make things. The con­ver­sa­tion around Damore’s memo hasn’t made the world a bet­ter place, as they say in Sil­i­con Val­ley. It has just made a lot of peo­ple an­gry.

MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ • As­so­ci­ated Press file

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