This may be a pretty unpopular opinion, (especially for a female scientist who speaks on women’s leadership and diversity) but I’ll put my neck out there and say it anyway.
The most offensive thing about the recent memo that circulated around Google was not the content. It was the fact that Google apparently thinks that women are too delicate to handle some well-supportive scientific facts.
Men and women are different.
Culturally, we have a lot of work to do to ensure equal opportunities, respect and access (just read last week's blog for a sample!). HOWEVER, the struggle that diversity initiatives have faced in making the genders equal is real ... and the wrong fight to be fighting. Equality is not what we should be striving for.
We are fundamentally, biologically wired differently. Males in general have brains that are more concerned with systems and mechanics while females, in general, have brains that are better with relationships and connectedness (these are typically measured along a Systemizing-Empathizing scale).
That doesn't mean that assumptions can be made about individuals. Shoot I'm a female scientist. My brain is balanced further toward the male/systemizing end of the spectrum. But it doesn't stop me from using this scientifically backed difference in male/female brains to help me communicate with women that I assume always to be closer to the empathizing side than I am, (at least until I get to know them as individuals).
Personally, I think Google software engineer James Damore got a lot right in his highly publicized memo pointing out flaws in Google’s diversity initiatives. What was initially an internal memo entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” Damore’s screed picked up a lot of scathing press – most of which refers to this memo as “the anti-diversity memo.”
Let’s pause right there a second. Give the anti-diversity hype in the title of these articles, I was thinking, man this stuff must be juicy!
Before I’d even read the first sentence of this memo I had already been biased to think of James as some privileged male who just didn’t “get it.” How can you not see the value of diversity James?! What do you have against women James?!
Then I began reading:
I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes.
Hmm, interesting strategy. Starting out this “anti-diversity manifesto” with some sugar to sweeten us all up huh, James? Sounds like the classic racist opening up a tasteless joke, “You know I’m not a racist, but…”
People generally have good intentions, but we all have biases which are invisible to us. Thankfully, open and honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow!
Reading the previous two sentences I began to get a little nervous. This is my material. This is what I speak about! Having open and honest discussions, even when they are uncomfortable, is the only way we move past our blind spots. This “anti-diversity” memo sure wasn’t reading as I expected. So far so good James, I’m with ya!
Possible non-bias causes of the gender gap in tech:
Of course, men and women experience bias, tech, and the workplace differently and we should be cognizant of this, but it’s far from the whole story. On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways…
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. I’m  not saying that we should restrict people to certain gender roles; I’m advocating for quite the opposite: treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group (tribalism).
James’ assessment here is more than fair and he’s careful to note the one footnote I add to all of my biological gender talks - *every individual is different.* When we talk averages we will inevitably miss some shining outliers (*ahem* did I mention I'm a female scientist with a systemizing brain?) but that’s exactly why our brains formed stereotypes to begin with. We are incapable of processing 7 billion people as individuals and so we form groups. Associations. Stereotypes that hold true for the majority of the population. Again, it’s important here that these averages aren’t true for any given individual and James does an excellent job in noting just that. The memo continues by highlighting personality difference between the genders – differences which have strong scientific support.
Women on average have more:
Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men.
Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness. This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading. Note that these are just average differences and there’s overlap between men and women, but this is seen solely as a women’s issue.
His point in the last bullet was to recognize that while Google provided specific programs to target women who wanted coaching in these areas, Google had not given those same opportunities to men who might also struggle with negotiating salary or speaking up.
Women on average have more “Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).
This is was the first place you lost me James. Now as a stress biologist I know that there is a lot of mixed information out there and I want to give James the benefit of the doubt here. There are a few credible sources out there that show incidence of neuroticism as being higher in females. Then again, plenty of other studies show that women are far superior at handling stress than their male counterparts.
But here’s the thing.
To James's point, we’re different. Males and females are not inherently the same. We process very differently. His statement on neuroticism might not sit well with me but I'll take my own advice here, which is, that while discussing difficult matters we all must first assume positive intent.
Let's keep the conversation going.
Status is the primary metric that men are judged on, pushing many men into these higher paying, less satisfying jobs for the status that they entail.
This is classic evolutionary psychology. Men are judged as a potential mate by their status. Women for their beauty.
Look, I didn’t write the rules. I don’t like ‘em any more than you might, but blame millions of years of evolution, not the messenger (in this case James). Males have traditionally been providers in animal systems as women have had to bear the costly load of child birthing and rearing. As a result, women look for a partner who can provide. Men look for a partner of great beauty, as beauty is a proxy for health and fertility (long before we had medical records).
Still have a problem accepting that males are driven for status more than females (again remember we are talking averages here)? How about if I told you the average American woman will spend up to $300,000 on face products alone in her lifetime and 54% of men don't use a single beauty product in the mornings.
Biases swing both ways. Of the close to 700,000 preschool and kindergarten teachers in this country, only 3.2% are male.
Women hold 4% of the CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies.
I’ll be the first to argue that being a female CEO takes something special. A fight against stereotypes, societal norms, and biases. But is that not also true for the male kindergarten teacher?
I think the problem here is one of cultural value. If we paid kindergarten teachers the salaries they deserved and placed higher value on careers which aligned more with the stereotypical female brain (empathizing > systemizing) we would see females rise to power.
The bigger issue here is not that women don't have the opportunity for powerful positions - it's that the majority of the positions we deem culturally "valuable" are aligned to appeal more to stereotypical male/systemizing brains.
The memo continues with some suggestions on non-discriminatory ways to reduce the gender gap:
Women on average show a higher interest in people and men in things. We can make software engineering more people-oriented with pair programming and more collaboration.
Before any even remotely inflammatory statement James is careful to re-emphasize his goal:
"I strongly believe in gender and racial diversity, and I think we should strive for more."
And then the big HOWEVER…
We have extensive government and Google programs, fields of study, and legal and social norms to protect women, but when a man complains about a gender issue affecting men, he’s labelled as a misogynist and whiner.
This is an important point. It must be incredibly frustrating to be a male, supportive of female ability and right to work in tech, but with sincere and credible questions about the methods of implementation that his company is using to “level the playing field.” I like that James actually makes a point not only of calling these practices into question, but also makes specific, carefully considered suggestions to move forward in advancing diversity at Google.
Some of his suggestions include being open to the science of gender differences and having open and honest discussions about Google's own biases and “intolerance for ideas and evidence that don’t fit a certain ideology. If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem.”
Frankly James Damore, I agree and applaud you for pushing the conversation forward. Google only further proved your points by terminating you. What a missed opportunity for real growth.
Personally I think you nailed it James, but really, who cares if you didn’t get it “perfect.” Fear of imperfect communication is a big part of the problem. So many employees are tip toeing on broken eggshells around these issues because they are too scared to bring solutions to the table or even start discussions for fear that they will be judged, shunned or re-labeled EXACTLY as the memo that began as “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” and was contorted to become the “anti-diversity” memo.
These are exactly the kinds of memos I wish would float freely throughout corporations without the fear of retaliation and/or termination. Suppression of diversity of thought is the most anti-diversity move Google could have made. We all make mistakes Google, but let's open this discussion back up.