While the day-to-day subtle and less-than-subtle sexism in the tech industry is something that usually doesn’t get national press, this month a Google employee’s manifesto — “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” — about the supposed biological differences between men and women — had everyone talking about Silicon Valley and gender bias. Even Fox News got in on the action, will all the hubbub making manifesto author James Damore an insta-star of conservatives everywhere.
If you’ve been living under a rock, or think that companies don’t care about corporate liability after an employee writes a literal manifesto about why men are better than woman at certain things, you may not know that (or understand why) Damore was fired from Google. He was. And he isn’t going down without a fight…
Damore went on to state that being a conservative at Google is, and I quote, like “being gay in the 50’s.”
“I was simply trying to fix the culture in many ways,” he said. “And really help a lot of people who are currently marginalized at Google by pointing out these huge biases that we have in this monolithic culture where anyone with a dissenting view can’t even express themselves. Really, it’s like being gay in the 1950s. These conservatives have to stay in the closet and have to mask who they really are. And that’s a huge problem because there’s open discrimination against anyone who comes out of the closet as a conservative.” — James Damore
Damore is clearly not alone in his feelings, with the acceptance of liberal rhetoric required in most intellectual communities, even if the rhetoric has not yet fixed the problem which it is trying to solve – in this case, sexism within tech companies and why companies like Google struggle to increase their percentage of female employees despite what some would consider substantial diversity efforts. Google shares its diversity data publicly, and shares that just 20% of technical roles in the company are held by women (compared to 48% in non-tech roles.) Even with diversity efforts, just 1 in 4 women are in leadership roles at Google. That’s a little better than Silicon Valley as a whole, where women hold just 14.1 percent of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies, according to a report from the law firm Fenwick & West.
Working in tech in non-tech roles, biases exist, but they aren’t nearly as bad as the ones for women on the technical side of the house. I always admire by far the few women who are on a technical team at any startup I’m working at — often, especially early on, there’s the lone woman working with a team of men. These men, much like Damore, are often a certain type of psyche – clearly intelligent, often more conservative / libertarian than the general population in Silicon Valley, and far more willing to accept a limited set of data along with biased observation as fact than the average person.
Conservatives mostly called around Damore and others who share his ideas on gender — after all, if women were so good at tech, would they naturally be in these roles as often as men? And, is it fair that Damore was fired for, in a very insensitive way, nothing that men may just be better suited for certain roles, and focus on diversity training should be less on women can do anything men can do and more on how women can be expected to behave in a male environment given these supposed biological differences.
To Damore’s credit, in his manifesto, he did briefly note that “[not all] men different from all women in the following ways” and added “I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.”
In short, he’s saying that any one female engineer at Google may not actually be like this, but all female engineers should be considered to be likely to be like this in order to accept that maybe females shouldn’t be in leadership roles, etc.
The problem is that his data is limited and, as many have noted since the publishing of the document, has been disproven in many cases by further studies on the subject. Social science is only as good as its data, and any Harvard graduate knows how to pull data serving his position.
He notes, matter-of-factly, that woman (on average) have more “openness directed towards feelings rather than ideas” and a stronger interest in “people rather than things relative to men.” He uses this to explain why more women prefer jobs in social or artistic areas, while men like coding because it requires systemizing. Women, he explains, are more likely to work on front end where they can deal with people and aesthetics.
Other traits that women supposedly have different from men include “extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness” and “higher agreeableness.” This, he notes, is why women have a “harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading.” Here, he makes a case that this leads to “exclusory programs like Stretch and swaths of men without support.” Women are also “more neurotic.” He concludes this section by highlighting that nations with more gender equality have more psychological dissimilarity in men’s and women’s personality traits. He briefly touches on “men’s higher drive for status,” stating that men are more likely to want to work “long, stressful hours that many not be worth it for a balanced and fulfilling life.” He continues, “status is the primary metric that men are judged on, pushing many men into these higher paying, less satisfying jobs for the status they entail.”
Damore writes as a bit of a martyr for his cause, a lone white male engineer able to say what he implies many of his fellow white male engineers at Google have thought (or said out loud behind closed doors or in private Slack rooms) – and that’s possibly true. And that’s the real problem – not that one engineer thinks this data to be the be-all, end-all fact of why Google still has just 20% of technical employees that are women and only 14.1% of leadership roles in Silicon Valley are held by women. But is that really what’s happening?
Female engineers stood up for themselves, noting that this philosophy requires them to have to constantly stand up for themselves. @Aprilwensel tweets “assumed incompetent until proven otherwise. Over and over. It’s exhausting.” Kelly Ellis @justkelly_ok writes “there are many people at Google who share this guy’s views. They do peer performance reviews and interview people. They discriminate.”
So is the lack of women in these tech roles because women are less suited for them than men, genetically? Or, is it because men think this (even in some cases subconsciously), causing them to hire and promote men over women even if the woman is equally qualified, thus keeping the proportions set and making the “a few research studies findings” of biological bias only seem like the real issue?
HuffingtonPost writer Laura Bassett explains that “even the scientist James Damore cited in his memo disagrees with its conclusion.” It continues, “Damore misunderstands Schmitt’s research, the scientist wrote on Psychology Today’s website on Tuesday. It’s a leap of logic, Schmitt argued, to conclude that minor differences in brain chemistry make women less apt for tech jobs than men, or to assume that those differences reasonably explain why 70 percent of Google’s employees are male.”
He continues, “There have been (and likely will continue to be) many socio-structural barriers to women working in technological jobs. These include culturally-embedded gender stereotypes, biased socialization practices, in some cultures explicit employment discrimination, and a certain degree of masculinization of technological workplaces. Within this sea of gender bias, should Google use various practices (affirmative action is not just one thing) to especially encourage capable women of joining (and enjoying) the Google workplace? I vote yes.”
Although I’m not an engineer, I’ve seen (and heard) plenty male engineers have fighting matches over coding matters. Even if the gender differences are substantial, men have just as many “bad” ones as women, and they do just fine in being the majority in technical and leadership roles. The memo could have easily been written about why men shouldn’t be in leadership roles:
Stanford Medicine’s article “Two Minds: The cognitive differences between men and women” dives into whether men and women’s minds are indeed different. It notes “the long list of behavioral tendencies in which male-female ratios are unbalanced extends to cognitive and neuropsychiatric disorders. Women are twice as likely as men to experience clinical depression in their lifetimes; likewise for post-traumatic stress disorder. Men are twice as likely to become alcoholic or drug-dependent, and 40 percent more likely to develop schizophrenia. Boys’ dyslexia rate is perhaps 10 times that of girls, and they’re four or five times as likely to get a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.”
It’s fair (I think) to state that men and women are different biologically, at least in terms of certain parts of our bodies. Men, for instance, do not have to deal with bleeding for a week straight once a month. But do these differences actually change the way we think? And even if it does, do these differences make men “better leaders?”
A 2017 study in JAMA Psychiatry imaged the brains of 98 individuals aged 8 to 22 with autism spectrum disorder and 98 control subjects. The study found that female with ASD had brains similar to males, “possibly explaining ASD’s four- to fivefold preponderance among boys compared with girls.”
One could easily argue that men are less suited for leadership roles because they are more likely to have Autism Spectrum Disorders such as Asperger’s, where they do not pick up on social cue and make lack inborn social skills, such as being able to read other’s body language, start or maintain a conversation, and take turns talking. They dislike any changes in routine, appear to lack empathy, and are unable to recognize subtle differences in speech, tone, pitch, and accent that alter the meaning of other’s speech.
Research by Cambridge University found that scientists and engineers are more likely to have Autistic traits. In a research survey taken by more than 450,000 people from around the UK, the average AQ score was 21.6 for males compared to 19.0 for females. People who worked in science, technology, engineering or mathematics jobs scored an average of 21.9 compared to non-stem workers who scored an 18.9 on average.
Damore’s ideal technical employee sounds less like a “male” and more like a person with Asperger’s (which males are more likely to have, especially if they are engineers) — one of his key points, buried in the memo, is that Google should “de-emphasize empathy” as “being emotionally engaged helps us better reason about the facts.”
He tries to provide suggestions for how to “reduce the gender gap” in “non-discriminatory ways” (i.e. ways that do not discriminate against men.) He offers that Google should make software engineering more people-oriented “with more pair programming and more collaboration,” although “there are limits to how people-oriented certain roles can be and we shouldn’t deceive ourselves or students into thinking otherwise.” He also offers that roles should be made more collaborative vs competitive, and tech and leadership should be made less stressful via stress reduction courses.
He then makes the case that these programs, which supposedly help women in tech roles, should only be offered if they help Google as a whole, and money shouldn’t be spent on programs that aren’t helping.
In 2013, the Harvard Business Review published an article titled “Why do so many incompetent men become leaders?” Author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic shares that the lack of women in leadership roles is “our inability to discern between confidence and competence.” He adds, “when it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women is the fact that manifestations of hubris, often masked as charisma or charm, are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.”
“The truth of the matter is that pretty much anywhere in the world men tend to think that they that are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent — the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group. Indeed, whether in sports, politics or business, the best leaders are usually humble — and whether through nature or nurture, humility is a much more common feature in women than men. For example, women outperform men on emotional intelligence, which is a strong driver of modest behaviors.
An even clearer picture emerges when one examines the dark side of personality: for instance, our normative data, which includes thousands of managers from across all industry sectors and 40 countries, shows that men are consistently more arrogant, manipulative and risk-prone than women.”
If Damore wants to play by the game of research and data to explain the differences between men and women, and why men are better suited for technical and leadership roles, perhaps he should look at all the data. He fails to see that the same method of rhetoric can highlight why men are actually poorly suited to their roles and that if women were allowed to be in charge results may even be better. Perhaps empathy is not such a bad trait after all.
A study on gender diversity by Marcus Noland, Tyler Moran, and Barbara Kotschwar for the Peterson Institute of International Economics found a positive correlation between the presence of women in corporate leadership and performance ‘in a magnitude that is not small.’ Companies in the MSCI World Index with strong female leadership generated a Return on Equity of 10.1% per year versus 7.4% for those without,” the study says.
Meanwhile, if we are to even agree that a certain type of persona is better suited for engineering roles specifically, and that type is non empathetic, focused more on things versus people, prefers stress and status over an easier job with work-life balance, would rather work independently than collaboratively, and who are driven by competition, we should put the effort into finding girls who fit this description and encouraging them to explore engineering. However, it’s questionable whether this persona is really the best type of engineer, and certainly proven that this type of persona does not make the best type of leader.
Should Damore have been fired from his job for writing the piece that has been considered “sexist” and horrible by pretty much all liberals and many moderates? As noted earlier, I think Google had no choice since it was a liability to their business and as a junior-level engineer he did not hold enough value to the company to fight to keep him employed. But firing one employee who writes a manifesto does not solve the underlying problem that there are these ideas of what makes a good engineer or leader – which goes far beyond gender to the problem that both men and women who are more confident and narcissistic are far more likely to move ahead in business than their empathetic counterparts. Is this really a good thing for any company?