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.

4 thoughts on “Gender Differences, Silicon Valley and that Controversial Google Memo

  1. I looked up Damore’s essay. As a bystander, I found nothing objectionable or offensive in it, if one excludes the audacity of his transgression against political correctness. If I were a Google executive, however, I would feel compelled to do what Google did.

  2. The science definitely failed to confirm my priors this time! Thank you for this fascinating read. There were aspects of what happened to Damore that concerned me, especially the thought that a lot of people will be less likely to ask questions out of fear from now on, but I was generally predisposed to dismiss everything he said in his memo out of hand. Your piece has made me think again.

  3. Wait a minute. Do you recognize any distinction between gender and sex? It seems that you use them interchangeably, while they are not. You can just ask some of the female carpenters in my local union who identify as men and they will give you an ear-full. Thanks for your blog. Dan

    1. Hey Daniel, as a sociologist I am very attuned to the distinction between sex and gender, and used each term very deliberately (and non-interchangeably) here.

      In fact, one of the things I try to do in the essay is move the conversation away from strict biological differences (sex differences) and towards how the biology interacts with the socially-constructed elements of our sexual identities.

      I cite some literature (such as Halpern’s and others) that focus on sex differences, but then articulate that sex differences, while real, are marginal for performing a job like engineering. However, the kinds of differences in preferences and dispositions, which are more aptly described as trending along gender lines, are much more salient. This is also why I describe how cognitive styles (which are also socially mediated) trend along gender lines (rather than sex lines), etc.

      To help drive this emphasis home, I also emphasized gender rather than sex in the title. But I appreciate that you provided me an opportunity to more sharply draw the distinction here for other readers who may have similar concerns!

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