Gender Differences, Silicon Valley and that Controversial Google Memo

Google software engineer James Damore set off a firestorm with the publication of a company memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” The essay criticized Google’s policies for promoting a more diverse and inclusive workplace, alleging that they instead fostered a company culture of fear and conformity which runs contrary to the company’s stated ethos–and likely its economic interests as well.

Upon being leaked to the press, the blowback against his memo was swift and fierce. A widely-circulated response from former Google employee Yonatan Zunger is emblematic of the prevailing consensus, reading in part:

“(1) Despite speaking very authoritatively, the author does not appear to understand gender.  (2) Perhaps more interestingly, the author does not appear to understand engineering.  (3) And most seriously, the author does not appear to understand the consequences of what he wrote, either for others or himself.​ I’m not going to spend any length of time on (1); if anyone wishes to provide details as to how nearly every statement about gender in that entire document is actively incorrect, and flies directly in the face of all research done in the field for decades, they should go for it. But I am neither a biologist, a psychologist, nor a sociologist, so I’ll leave that to someone else.”

Well, I am a sociologist—and one who happens to specialize in social psychology and cognition. And I’d be happy to take up Mr. Zunger’s challenge and discuss the scientific evidence related to cognitive differences between men and women. But first, it is important to highlight a troubling aspect of his rejoinder, which was echoed in many other articles criticizing Mr. Damore and his claims

Scientific fundamentalism

Progressives often see themselves as the champions of science—and hold that scientific inquiry, rather than religious or other commitments, provides the most reliable source for knowledge and sound policy. Importantly, however, this does not imply that progressives are actually more knowledgeable about, or deferent to, scientific research in practice. Consider Mr. Zunger’s rejoinder: Despite acknowledging that he was not a specialist in psychology, biology or sociology, and was not himself fluent in the scientific literature on gender differences, etc.–the author was supremely confident that “all research done in the field for decades” would affirm his moral understanding of the world.

This mindset is not far removed from that of certain religious fundamentalists who lack a strong grounding in the scriptures—let alone the linguistic, historical and cultural backgrounds of their sacred texts and the broader religious tradition they hail from—yet nonetheless feel deeply certain that their moral vision of the world, as well as their lifestyle and actions, would be approved of by God, their ultimate arbiter of truth. They have faith.

And much like their brethren within religious communities, were these “scientific fundamentalists” to more rigorously engage with the relevant authoritative texts surrounding their pet causes, many of their most dearly-held commitments would be challenged, some would be disconfirmed and others would simply fail to find validation. For instance:

Differences in cognitive styles

Google’s diversity efforts implicitly concede that there tend to be important cognitive differences between men and women. If women didn’t generally solve problems, execute tasks or manage organizations any differently from men, there wouldn’t be much benefit to diversifying: it is primarily cognitive and ideological diversity which render other forms of diversity valuable to a company like Google.

Perhaps the most authoritative and accessible survey exploring how cognition tends to vary between men and women is from Diane Halpern, the former president of the American Psychological Association, entitled Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities—now in its 4th edition. This work, and most other research in the field, suggests that, men and women on average seem to have different cognitive styles. These cognitive styles are the product of a rich interplay between one’s inherent capabilities and dispositions, one’s particular life experiences, and how particular capabilities are valued and utilized in a given social context—all of which influence if and how particular capacities are developed.

One cognitive style is not intrinsically “better” or “worse” than others in any blanket sense. However, it may be the case that in any particular environment, or for some particular task, one cognitive style may on average outperform another. This is what researchers are referring to when they describe average differences in “abilities” between men and women–although in many cases performance disparities can be mitigated by simply tweaking the format of the task at hand.

In the case of jobs like engineering, the differences in average ability between men and women are more-or-less negligible. Mr. Damore could be faulted for overemphasizing these differences while underemphasizing differences in average preferences and dispositions across genders. These tend to be far more substantial, begin very early in life, and cut across cultures. In fact, perhaps contrary to many Western-liberal assumptions, it turns out that the freer and more equitable a society is, the more pronounced these differences become. That is, in societies where people have more options, they often carve out employment spaces where they work disproportionately with others who share their gender identity.

Of course, to recognize the role female agency likely plays in their over or under representation in particular fields does not require denying the prevalence or severity of sexual discrimination, harassment or exploitation in Silicon Valley, which render many tech firms hostile work environments for women, likely discouraging many who would otherwise apply. Similarly, we can acknowledge apparent psychological and cognitive trends among men vs. women while remaining sensitive to the reality that stereotyping is often pernicious, particularly for those whose interests and abilities deviate from the group average. In some cases stereotypes can even help reify or maintain performance disparities between men and women in professional settings.

However, by recognizing that underrepresentation is not exclusively, or perhaps even primarily, a function of unjust discrimination–but that these trends are also the product of differences in preferences and dispositions–then it becomes clear that a more ambitious set of policy interventions would likely be required to approach a goal of gender parity in Silicon Valley.

Achieving a diverse, inclusive workforce

For many, the most controversial aspect of Mr. Damore’s memo seemed to be his criticism of Google’s efforts at increasing gender diversity. While the author took great pains to assure readers that he staunchly supported diversity efforts in principle, he argued that his company’s particular approach was unlikely to be successful:

Given the radical disparities in the current applicant pool, attempting to have the makeup of Google’s workforce mirror gender distributions of the broader U.S. society would likely require the company to pass over otherwise more qualified men in favor of female candidates with more eclectic backgrounds and less direct experience or expertise. Mr. Damore suggests that this approach would be unjustly discriminatory, and would likely be suboptimal for the company’s productivity and profits over the long term.

He goes on to argue that if tech companies really view it as a priority to become more appealing and hospitable for women, the literature suggests they should be making far more dramatic reforms of their structure, policies and culture: increasing direct collaboration, emphasizing cooperation over competition, adjusting rules, regulations and expectations to allow for easier work/life balance, etc. However, while some of these changes would make organizations more attractive to women, they would often bring their own costs and tradeoffs for a company like Google. This may explain why some more commonsense reforms have not been implemented already. In any case, he asserts, the kind of marginal tinkering companies like Google have committed to so far are unlikely to meaningfully address the problem.

In fact, feminists have long articulated many of these same points: to the extent activism is centered on narrow questions of wage parity or proportional representation, the prevailing system of exploitation is not undermined, but instead, reinforced. They’ve argued that if women truly want to flourish in male dominated industries, they must demand much more than preference in hiring or promotion, or other marginal concessions of the sort—indeed, a fundamental rethink of the current capitalist system may instead be in order.

That is, while one can certainly dispute the merits of Mr. Damore’s particular suggestions for addressing gender inequality–or object to his uncharitable portrayal of tech companies’ efforts in this regard—there are elements of his argument that are worthy of being seriously reflected upon.

What did we learn from all this?

Mr. Damore’s manifesto does not fly “directly in the face of all research done in the field for decades” as his detractors have accused. While some claims were overstated, some nuances overlooked, some inferences ill-founded—and the whole thing delivered in a strikingly tone-deaf fashion–on balance, his claims were more-or-less in keeping with the preponderance of evidence on these questions to date: men and women do tend to have different cognitive styles—and this likely plays a significant role in driving gender imbalances in certain fields of employment.

Undoubtedly, this verdict will be jarring to many readers: Journalists overwhelmingly lean left, as do “hard scientists” and social scientists. None of these parties are particularly interested in trumpeting findings, however well-established, which would undermine their moral commitments or provide fodder for their ideological rivals. As a result, research which defies progressives’ preferred narratives tends to be treated as taboo in mainstream culture—as Mr. Damore found out the hard way. He was ultimately fired for his blasphemous line of questioning.

To be sure, from a public relations standpoint it was likely necessary for Google to fire Damore. But the reality is that after this particular story fades from the public view, the workforce disparities between men and women in Silicon Valley will remain roughly unchanged. What will clearly change is that from now on, all across the valley, indeed all across the country, employees will be far less likely to question, challenge, or even discuss diversity policies–even when those policies fail to produce the desired results.

Notwithstanding Mr. Damore’s ill-fated memo, if companies like Google truly want to become more attractive and hospitable to women, they would be well-served by more soberly and comprehensively accounting for the causes of gender imbalances in their industry–and by formulating more grounded and substantial approaches for reversing these trends.

And for the rest of us—especially pundits and those who claim to FL science—it would be good to consult actual scientific literature relevant to discussions before making grand pronouncements about what “science says” on a matter. Science being science, it will often fail to confirm our priors—even for progressives—but that’s supposed to be its charm, right?


Published 8/25/2017 on the Huffington Post.
Syndicated 8/31/2017 by Observer.

Progressives, Vulnerable Groups Most in Need of Campus Free Speech Protections

Harvard President Drew Faust gave a ringing endorsement of free speech in her recent 2017 commencement address. There was, however, one passage where Faust chose to focus on the price of Harvard’s commitment to free speech, arguing that it “is paid disproportionately by” those students who don’t fit the traditional profile of being “white, male, Protestant, and upper class.” That point has been illustrated by a few recent controversies over speakers whose words were deemed offensive by some members of those non-traditional groups of students. But focusing solely on those controversies, and on a handful of elite campuses, risks obscuring a larger point: Disadvantaged groups are also among the primary beneficiaries of vigorous free speech protections.

Universities have often served as springboards for progressive social movements and helped to consolidate their gains. They have been able to fulfill these functions largely by serving as spaces where ideas—including radical and contrarian ideas—could be voiced and engaged with.

Today, many universities seem to be faltering in their commitment to this ideal, and it is the vulnerable and disenfranchised who stand to lose the most as a result. This becomes particularly clear when we leave the world of elite private universities and consider the kinds of academic institutions most students attend, particularly students of color. Continue reading “Progressives, Vulnerable Groups Most in Need of Campus Free Speech Protections”

The “Emerging Democratic Majority” and the “Wrong Side of History”

What is at stake in the conflict over representations of the future is nothing other than the attitude of the declining classes to their decline—either demoralization, which leads to a rout….or mobilization, which leads to the collective search for a collective solution to the crisis.
What can make the difference is, fundamentally, the possession of the symbolic instruments enabling the group to take control of the crisis and to organize themselves with a view to a collective response, rather than fleeing from real or feared degradation in a reactionary resentment and the representation of history as a conspiracy. Pierre Bourdieu, The Bachelor's Ball (p. 189)
We’ll let you guys prophesy/ We gon’ see the future first. Frank Ocean, 'Nikes' (Blonde)

In 2008, Democratic Presidential Nominee Barack Obama outperformed his predecessors John Kerry and Al Gore with virtually every single demographic group, handily defeating his Republican rival John McCain. This success spread to down-ballot races as well: Democrats expanded control over the House and the Senate; they controlled most governorships and state legislatures nationwide.

Many progressives came to believe that these results were not a fluke, that Obama’s coalition represented the future: an Emerging Democratic Majority that stood to reshape politics as we know it. The logic was simple: most of those who are young, college-educated, women or minorities lean left. Older white men lean right, but whites were declining as a portion of the electorate due to immigration and interracial unions. Therefore, as the older generation passes away and a younger, more diverse, and more educated cohort steps into the fore, America will become more progressive in an enduring way.

Right now, these predictions are not looking so good. In a virtual inversion of 2008 (only worse), Republicans comfortably control both chambers of Congress. They also dominate state legislatures and governorships nationwide—bodies which arguably matter more to people’s everyday lives than the federal government. Meanwhile, Democrats lost perhaps their best chance in a generation to fundamentally reshape the Supreme Court. And the new Republican Administration seems committed to rolling back many of the signature accomplishments of the most charismatic and successful Democratic President since LBJ.

In the midst of such a bleak reality, it may be tempting to hold onto the faith that the Emerging Demographic Majority thesis remains essentially sound: Trump is an anomaly, certain to self-destruct, ushered into power as a final, desperate act of defiance by a segment of the population that knows its time is up. However, such optimism would be ill-advised–the electoral trend actually seems to be going the opposite direction. Continue reading “The “Emerging Democratic Majority” and the “Wrong Side of History””

Who Cares About Bernie Sanders’ Historic Candidacy?

In March 2016, the Green Party nominated Dr. Jill Stein as their candidate for President of the United States. They have had female vice-presidential nominees on every single ticket since 1996, and ran all-female tickets in 2008 and 2012. But unfortunately, the highest the Green Party has ever performed in a general election was in 2000, when they garnered nearly 3% of the popular vote. The party was relegated to obscurity thereafter—decried as spoilers who bear responsibility for the election of George W. Bush and everything that followed.

And while both the Democratic and Republican parties have previously nominated a woman to be their vice-presidential nominees (Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin, respectively), Hillary Clinton is the first woman to appear at the top of one of the major party tickets—making her the first viable female presidential candidate in U.S. history. The U.S. has lagged far behind many other countries in achieving this milestone. For perspective, there have been 11 women from Muslim-majority nations that have served as PM or President, and about 1 out of every 10 contemporary governments has a female head of government or head of state.

The significance of Clinton’s achievement transcends mere symbolism: As a black man, the presidency of Barack Obama has impacted me in ways that are hard to describe, despite frequent political differences. Similarly, while adamantly opposed to Hillary’s nomination, I appreciate how meaningful it could be for a generation to grow up experiencing a woman as the “leader of the free world”—even more so at this moment, when women seem poised to simultaneously head up Britain, France and Germany as well (the implications of the fact that most of these are center-to-far right leaning politicians is a matter for a different essay). However, throughout this political season I have also found myself both perplexed and outraged by how little discussion there has been about the historic nature of Ms. Clinton’s principal Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders.

Now, with the Democratic primary officially concluded, following Sanders’ concession to Hillary Clinton and his full-throated convention endorsement—it is worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on just how significant his campaign has been, and what Sanders’ supporters can take from it going forward.

Continue reading “Who Cares About Bernie Sanders’ Historic Candidacy?”

Epistemological Pluralism, Cognitive Liberalism & Authentic Choice

Originally published in Comparative Philosophy, Vol. VII, No. 2 (Fall 2016)

Print version available here.


In “Perfectionist Liberalism and Political Liberalism,” Martha Nussbaum (2011) persuasively argues that political liberalism is superior to its perfectionist cousin. However, her critique of perfectionism also problematizes Rawls’ account of political liberalism—particularly as it relates to his account of “reasonableness” vis a vis comprehensive doctrines (CDs) and life plans (LPs). In response, Nussbaum attempts to refine Rawls’ account to make it more inclusive—however, her alternative conception of political liberalism may actually be more parochial than that of Rawls, and seems to rest uneasily atop a series of profound contradictions. Yet, if we render her position more consistent, while the inclusivity problem is largely addressed, the normative force of political liberalism seems to be severely undermined—especially in contexts which are not already predisposed towards liberal ideologies, systems and institutions.

This dilemma arises out of the brute reality that, in many instances, there is not a clean correspondence between promoting the will (or even the interests) of a given population and advancing liberal practices and institutions therein. In the event of such a conflict, the internal logic of political liberalism seems to not only allow, but to mandate, deference to the former—even if the resultant society exceeds the bounds of liberalism, per se.

Continue reading “Epistemological Pluralism, Cognitive Liberalism & Authentic Choice”

What Was Accomplished in Afghanistan?

The U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan was justified in large part by highlighting the plight of women under Taliban governance. Within the first weeks of the campaign, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Cherie Blair helped spearhead a highly-effective propaganda effort to convince the public that the U.S. and the U.K. were engaged in a moral war—one which was fundamentally about human rights rather than merely advancing geopolitical or security interests—thereby necessitating a massive ground invasion and state-building enterprise to transform Afghan society, rather than a more limited venture to  dislodge and degrade the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Of course, the U.S. bore significant moral responsibility for the plight of Afghan women, given the central role that the CIA played in sponsoring mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Cold War—before, during, and after the Russian occupation. Leaders trained in these programs would go on to found the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda—groups which were not only responsible for the widespread oppression of the Afghan people, but also for planning and executing the suicide bombings of September 11, 2001.

And so, the moral implications of the war were extraordinary: had Operation Enduring Freedom been successful, it would have not only liberated Afghan women, but avenged 9/11—and in the process, helped to rectify a particularly dark chapter in U.S. foreign policy. And this, it was held, would go a long way towards winning the “hearts and minds” of people around the world.

Unfortunately, the mission was not a success, and most of the promises made at the outset of the conflict, particularly with regards to women’s empowerment, have failed to materialize. In response, insofar as they talk about Afghanistan at all, policymakers have attempted to claim that the primary U.S. interest in the country is, and always has been, about denying a foothold to the Taliban and other extremist groups—although even by this measure, the campaign has been a failure.

Nonetheless, this revisionism cannot be allowed to stand. We must evaluate America’s longest war according to the terms by which the occupation was justified–improving the status of Afghan women. And by this standard, the war must be condemned in the strongest terms: according to the U.S. Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), it is impossible to verify whether any of the U.S. investments in Afghanistan have benefitted women at all.


Continue reading “What Was Accomplished in Afghanistan?”

Forget the Islamic State, Focus on the United States

America’s War on Sexual Violence, Mass Atrocities & Religious Persecution Should Begin at Home

Without question, the so-called “Islamic State” is an abomination that should be wiped from the face of the earth. However, it is unclear whether America is the right agent to see this through. Part of the trouble relates to the Obama Administration’s strategy, which seems likely to empower ISIS even as it undermines the security and interests of America and its allies—but there is an ethical dimension as well:

While ISIS poses a serious (although likely overstated) threat to the governments of Iraq and Syria, over the last two Administrations, the U.S. has itself forcibly overthrown the governments of Iraq and Libya—both in defiance of international law. And along with ISIS, the U.S. has spent the last three years seeking to undermine the Syrian government. Additionally, they have sheltered Israel from meaningful accountability to the international community, allowing the crisis in Palestine to fester. As a result of these policies, it would not be a stretch to say that the United States is actually a greater threat to peace and stability in the region than ISIS—not least because U.S. actions in Iraq, Libya and Syria have largely paved the way for ISIS’s emergence as a major regional actor.

But perhaps more disturbingly, many of the same behaviors condemned by the Obama Administration and used to justify its most recent campaign into Iraq and Syria are commonly perpetrated by U.S. troops and are ubiquitous in the broader American society. Until these problems are better addressed, the United States’ efforts to undermine ISIS will be akin to using a dirty rag to clean an infected wound.

Continue reading “Forget the Islamic State, Focus on the United States”

Universal Values v. Universal Laws

The liberal notion of universal law derives its supposed normative force from an ill-defined notion of universal values. This notion of universality is tied conceptually and historically to Western imperialism—and many of the values taken to be “universal” are not.

But even if, for the sake of argument, we presupposed the existence of some set of universal values—this would neither entail nor imply that they could be realized through any universal law; and there is certainly no reason to think that liberalism would be the only, or even the best, way of realizing these values. Take, for instance, the value of respecting women: according to liberalism, the best way to show respect for women is to treat them exactly the same as men. However, this is not the only understanding of justice.

The classical conception is not “to treat everyone the same” but instead “to treat equally those who are the same”—according to which there are two forms of injustice:

  1. Treating people different when they are in fact the same, or
  2. Treating people the same when they are importantly different

In this spirit, traditionalists argue that the liberal conception fails to respect women qua women. Under the liberal conception, women are only valued in those aspects in which they can easily be interchanged with men (i.e. as a worker, a voter, a consumer, etc.).  It is rarely considered just how much is built into this discourse.

For instance, it is presupposed that the only (or in any case, best) ways of empowering women, and people in general, is to give them prolific professional titles, higher salaries, etc. That there are alternative, perhaps more contextually relevant, forms of power or significance is completely overlooked in favor of blind submission to capitalist interpretations of value (the truth of which is also presumed as universal and incontrovertible).

In defiance of this paradigm, a traditionalist would argue that the best way to respect women is to respect the differences between the sexes and to honor gender roles. This neither entails nor implies treating women as 2nd class citizens—instead, that women and men have reciprocal and complimentary (rather than identical) rights and duties. In fact, a more careful examination of social dynamics in traditional societies would reveal that women have a good deal more power than is traditionally assumed–much of which is lost in transition to “modern” paradigms of gender relations.

To this, the liberal would retort that recognizing any difference between the sexes is necessarily discriminatory: non-identical is synonymous with unequal.

While there are significant merits to either of these positions, there is no way to formulate universal policies which simultaneously treat men and women differently but also exactly the same. So, if there is a single body of laws to which all must submit, one of these conceptions has to be chosen. And whichever one is chosen, there will be a group of people who legitimately feels as though the law disrespects women. And in the case of societies in which most people, to include most women, reject liberalism–to impose upon them the liberal interpretation of what it means to respect women would alienate the bulk of society, including most of the women the liberals ostensibly wish to “honor and protect.” Accordingly, in these societies, if one conception of “respecting women,” had to be chosen, it would seem most just to adopt the traditional interpretation which the liberals would also have to be subject to (as opposed to subjecting the overwhelming majority to the will of an extreme minority). This does not entail a disregard for women’s rights (e.g. political participation, education, legal protection from violence/ exploitation)—but rather changes the nature of feminism.

Continue reading “Universal Values v. Universal Laws”