Unless you’ve been mountain climbing in the Himalayas this past week, you’ve heard about, if not read in its entirety, James Damore’s memo criticizing Google’s gender diversity policies. Damore, 26, worked in Silicon Valley for Google as a software engineer until he was fired on August 7th. In, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” Damore argues that “left bias has created a politically correct monoculture [at Google with respect to diversity and inclusion] that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence.”
Damore distributed the memo internally, where It circulated for several weeks without public comment, but on Saturday August 5th it was posted on the web and later that day, Google’s Vice President of Diversity, Integrity and Governance emailed company employees stating that the memo “advanced incorrect assumptions about gender.”
Damore was fired on Monday, and on Tuesday, Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, notified employees that Damore had crossed the line of an employee’s right to express himself by advancing “harmful gender stereotypes …. To suggest a group of our colleagues, have traits that make them less biologically suited to [the] work [of building great products for our customers] is offensive and not O.K.”
Since the public release of the memo, there has been a media fire storm. Commentators from the alt-right to the and many in between have waded in to extoll or pillage Damore.
To make sense of this brouhaha, let’s step back and look carefully at exactly what Damore wrote and the principal arguments that have been made in criticizing or praising his views. After doing so, it becomes clear that little if anything, in what might be called the “affair Damore,” touches on the real reason women are not advancing in tech on terms comparable to men.
Damore’s Not a Sexist
The first thing to notice is that Damore writes. “I value diversity and inclusiveness, [and I] am not denying that sexism exists.…” “[O]pen and honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow….” “Only facts and reason can shed light on [our] biases.”
Damore Argues Women and Men Are Fundamentally Different
Second, Damore says almost nothing about the individual and institutional biases that obstruct women’s career advancement. What he does talk about are the average or population level differences in women’s and men’s “preferences and abilities” that “often have clear biological causes.” Among these differences, according to Damore, are that “women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. Men [prefer] systemizing.” Women have “higher anxiety [and] lower stress tolerance.” And, “Women on average show a higher interest in people and men in things.” Because of these differences, Damore argues, “we need to stop assuming that gender gaps [in career achievement] imply sexism.”
Much of the Media Missed the Point of Damore’s Memo
Third, the media, by and large, have radically mischaracterized Damore’s memo. The frequent references to it as the “sexist Google manifesto” and “anti-diversity screed” are not only inaccurate but tend to confirm Damore’s allegation of a pervasive “left bias” with respect to gender issues. As Connor Friedersdorf wrote in The Atlantic, “I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.” Indeed, rather than being “sexist” or “anti-diversity,” Damore makes clear he “strongly believe[s] in gender and racial diversity, and I think we should strive for more.” Rather than diversity per se, what Damore is objecting to is the ideological way it is being pursued at Google.
Biological Determinism Versus Social Construction
Fourth, Damore’s primary argument is that Google stifles conservative perspectives on gender, particularly the view that the gap in women’s and men’s career achievements is due, at least in part, to biological differences, so-called biological determinism. Needless to say, biological determinism is highly controversial. Adam Grant, the well-known author and psychologist, was quick to respond to Damore’s biological claim by arguing, “When it comes to abilities, attitudes, and actions, sex differences are few and small.” Keith A. Spencer, an editor at Salon, went farther by characterizing Damore’s “biological deterministic manifesto [as] the latest in a long lineage of pseudoscience.”
On the other side, Lee Jussim, a distinguished professor of psychology at Rutgers University, wrote that Damore “gets nearly all of the science and its implications exactly right.” And New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that in “the long and continuing debate about genes and behavior … the evolutionary psychologists have been winning [against those that argue humans are entirely formed by social structures].”
Real Gender Bias Is Being Ignored
Fifth, wherever you come out on the biology versus social construction debate, it is important to recognize, as Damore points out, that whatever the cause of the population level differences in women’s and men’s preferences and abilities, “[m]any of these differences are small and there is a significant overlap between women and men, so you can’t say anything about an individual….” In other words, this debate is essentially irrelevant to Google’s, or anyone else’s, quest for gender diversity. If a bias-free workplace is morally right – which it is – and if gender-diverse companies are more profitable than their peers – which they are – then Google’s, and everyone else’s, focus needs to be not on possible population-level gender differences, but on the elimination of all sources of hostility and bias toward women’s participation, advancement, and success in traditionally male workplaces. As Cynthia Lee, a lecturer in computer science at Stanford writes, “Regardless of whether biological differences exist, there is no shortage of glaring evidence, in individual stories and in scientific studies, that women in tech experience bias and a general lack of a welcoming environment … Until these problems are resolved, our focus should be on remedying that injustice.”
Anti-Bias Policies that Work and Don’t Work
Sixth, and most important, Damore criticizes Google’s current efforts to increase gender diversity as largely ineffective and prone to “actually increase race and gender tensions.” His criticism appears largely justified, for Google’s existing approach to increasing gender diversity is focused almost exclusively on eliminating implicit gender bias: an approach research reveals to be highly ineffective in increasing gender diversity. Yet Damore’s own recommendations for reforming Google’s diversity policies are either impractical – “de-emphasize empathy” – or fundamentally misguided – “de-moralize diversity.”
While we may not yet have the silver bullet for ending discriminatory gender bias, we do know that achieving meaningful diversity depends on three things: (1) a credible and consistently visible demand for diversity from the highest levels of senior management; (2) a relentless drive to assure the procedures used in making assignments, providing feedback, doing evaluations, and deciding on compensation and promotions are stripped as much as possible of all elements of subjectivity; and (3) clear and meaningful financial incentives for increasing gender diversity.
After his firing, Damore wrote, “It saddens me to leave Google and to see the company silence open and honest discussions.” But while discussion within Google may still be stifled, given the extraordinary amount of attention now being paid to Damore’s memorandum and the vigorous discussion it has prompted, Damore has done more than he could ever have imagined to foster an open and honest discussion of gender differences, biases, and diversity. Not bad for a 26-year-old.