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Some thoughts on the ‘Google Memo’

The ‘google memo’ has prompted much debate on social media.  In case you have missed the controversy, here’s the story so far.  James Damore, a software engineer working for Google, published this document in which he takes issue with some of his company’s diversity initiatives.  This led to an immediate backlash, and it’s now reported that Damore has been fired.

Damore’s main contention is that there are innate differences between men and women which mean that, on average, women may be less suited to working in tech. Having read a few responses before reading the memo itself, I was surprised by its comparatively temperate tone.

One of Damore’s arguments is that a concern for equality may drive a company in an illiberal and authoritarian direction. He asserts that bias is not a major factor in the tech gender gap, arguing instead for biological difference.  (Personally, I don’t think he says enough about socialisation as a possible cause).

However he emphasises that these are only trends, not reasons to stereotype individuals.  He also believes some of the barriers to women working in tech relate to tastes, rather than skills.

There’s quite a bit in the memo I don’t agree with, or don’t much care for. I am not inclined to agree with Damore’s opposition to diversity programmes – here’s a nice example of someone who was helped by an informal version – but their design and implementation should be open to discussion. And I don’t think the gender wage gap and social constructionism are simply myths (p. 7), although clearly there’s a spectrum of views on both issues, not a binary.

The science on gender difference is hotly contested, with proponents on both sides claiming the other is flawed, and more than a suspicion of confirmation bias in play. Personally, I’d like to believe that any apparent differences between the sexes are largely socially constructed. The gender disparity in tech is significant, but, given that women have caught up with, and overtaken, men in so many careers and fields of study, why shouldn’t the same eventually happen in this area as well?

On the other hand, the fact that women have succeeded so well in careers such as medicine and law just might suggest that Damore has a point.  (Christina Sommer discusses the issue here.)  And even if the gap isn’t innate but due to some particularly hardwired socialisation, it’s probably not going to be fixed overnight.

Like Christina Sommers, I’m inclined to think that maybe it’s not the end of the world if the tastes and aptitudes of men and women aren’t absolutely identical.  I support initiatives to promote and support women in STEM, but think the subjects to which women (purportedly) naturally incline are equally interesting and valuable.  I also think there’s an asymmetry in how this subject is treated. Apparently it’s just fine to invoke sex differences in order to make a case for more women being needed in a high status job.

Here’s Christine Lagarde on women in finance, an article suggesting women make better doctors, another stating they ‘bring more to the table’ as family lawyers, a piece praising women’s business acumen over ‘male traits of goal-driven short-termism’ and finally a piece suggesting that women might make better politicians (though with the useful caveat that female success may be down to the greater barriers facing women – i.e. only the toughest and most capable are likely to attain political office.)

And note that Damore was not saying that more men were needed in tech because they perform better – in fact he suggested some positive ways of accommodating female working patterns and tastes.

Another asymmetry (noted by Damore) is a tendency to focus on the positives of male work patterns (higher pay) and overlook the negatives (long hours, far greater likelihood of death from work related injury).

Whatever you think of the memo – and my own response was mixed – some of the responses – this for example – have been over the top, and mischaracterise  its tone and content.

Update: This, by Slate Star Codex, is well worth a look.