Google is a pretty big deal. They hire cool people, they make cool stuff, and they’re arguably the world’s most valuable company. I’ve been studying Google closely for over a decade and one of their most impressive assets has always been their organizational culture.
Recently, a Google engineer wrote a 10 page memo outlining his thoughts on diversity in tech. Coverage of this memo made it to the front page of just about every major news feed and the loudest commentary has been pretty one-sided… something to the effect of ‘how dare he?’
After I read the first article referencing the memo, I got the gist of what was going on. A male employee said some things which suggested that men are better suited to work in tech than women. Then I read a few of the comments after the article and got the gist of what was going on there too… men and women are equal in every way and to suggest otherwise is offensive, immoral, and shows a lack of empathy and understanding for the systematic oppression that white men have put on all other minorities since forever.
Recently, a well-known tennis legend suggested that Serena Williams was the greatest female player of all time. Then he was asked why not the greatest of all time instead of the greatest female player of all time? To which he responded by saying that she wouldn’t do nearly as well on the men’s circuit. I thought that was a fair and accurate understanding of the situation and by no means diminished Serena’s legacy. I think it’s also fair and reasonable that in order to claim the title of greatest tennis player ever, you’d have to be willing to compete against the best tennis players – regardless of their gender.
This all seemed pretty straight forward to me. Men and women have evolved differently over the millennia and while women became better equipped to care for the family, men became better equipped for the role of hunting and gathering. The evolutionary advantages which men have acquired tend to make us better athletes thus providing an inherent advantage when competing in sports. If that’s true, is possible that other evolutionary differences exist between men and women?
One of my biggest struggles with romantic relationships when I was younger was that I expected the other person in the relationships to see and understand the world like I did. Eventually I was given that book about women being from Venus and men being from Mars. While I didn’t read it, hearing a few passages was enough to help me understand that men and women are wired differently and that it was important to keep those differences in mind. While I think the most significant differences come down to the people themselves, the most consistent pattern I’ve seen in the difference between men and women is that men tend to lean towards logic while women tend to lean towards emotion. If that’s true, wouldn’t men – on average – be better suited towards jobs that relied heavily on logic skills?
In the pursuit of understanding, I asked two of the most intelligent feminists I know about evolutionary adaptation giving men the abilities to do certain tasks better than women. One said that she didn’t want to get into it because it was too much emotional labor. The other was offended by the idea and then said that she was too reactive to have the conversation. Ironically, in the second instance a nearby cardiologist chimed in saying that she agreed with the evolutionary perspective but pointed out that there were always exceptions (like women being better open-water long-distance swimmers because of their fat distribution).
Back to the Google memo. If you were just going to read headlines and comments, you’d think that this kid was a contributor at Breitbart and that his ‘anti-diversity manifesto’ was right-wing propaganda that was designed to prop up white privilege and repress visible minorities in tech. None of material referenced in this articles actually showed that perspective and knowing that Google typically doesn’t hire right-wing nut jobs, I sensed a disconnect. So I tracked down the original memo and read the whole thing.
It’s not that bad. In fact, it’s kinda good. The opening line is, “I value diversity and inclusion, I am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes.” There are several more points throughout the memo that provide the necessary context to understand that James Damore values diversity, and wants to see diversity in the workplace, but thinks that a diversity of the mind is more important than a diversity of the body.
In the pursuit of that point, he suggests that there are several reasons why we’re likely to see lower numbers of women in tech. He acknowledges that there is a systematic oppression of women in tech, but says that this might only be part of the issue and that part of it might be evolutionary. He goes on to reference several studies which compare personality traits between men and women, suggesting – on average – women have higher levels of anxiety and don’t cope with stress as well as their male counterparts. Ironically, I had actually reviewed many of these studies a couple weeks prior as I was exploring evolutionary differences as a result of the Serena Williams conversation.
Science itself is an evolutionary process and from what I’ve read so far, the scientific community has a consensus that men and women are wired differently. Where it becomes more grey is in how that develops into aptitude. I suspect that with the ground that women have covered in the last 100 years and recognizing that the female population in post secondary education now eclipses men, the next 50 years will look much different than the last 50 years. If we do it right, both men and women will have the opportunity to choose the profession that they’re best equipped for – but I don’t think that means that every job will have a equal representation of men and women.
I think that equality is a core concept to any prosperous society but I do think that the populist understanding of equality needs to evolve. Equality is about equal opportunity, not equal outcome. In the world of equal outcome, everyone receives a PB&J sandwich for lunch. In the world of equal opportunity, everyone is given an opportunity to make the sandwich they want to eat.
Everyone is born a little different and it is a life built on that deviation which truly makes us unique to the world. Because we are unique, each of us has the ability to provide something to the world that no one else can and it is the delivery of this gift to the world which I think makes us truly happy. I know that’s a bit abstract and maybe even a bit fluffy so on a more grounded level, we’re all a little different, we all have a unique aptitude, and deploying that aptitude in a manner that helps us get closer to our maximum utility is likely what will make us happy and fulfilled. If that’s true, isn’t true equality giving everyone the opportunity to reach their own, unique maximum utility? If tech is biologically better suited for men, reaching a 50/50 quota of men/women will mean women who would otherwise be better suited and happier doing other activities will work in tech and men who would be best suited for tech will have to work in another field because those spots have been taken.
As hard as it can be to make this connection for some, it always comes down to an equation of efficiency. The most efficient course of action is to encourage people to pursue careers in fields which will help them reach their maximum utility. That’s a career which would see them happiest, most fulfilled, and creating their greatest contributions to society. A perfect society is one in which everyone operates at their maximum utility and I think that’s the ideal of equality that people are pursuing – many just haven’t figured out how to get there yet.
The last thing I’ll touch on here which may be the most important part of this conversation is the lack of conversation. I think that what I’ve written here would suggest that I agree with James Damore’s assessment of women in tech. I don’t. I think that he references some valid information, I think that he makes some coherent points, and I think that he’s legitimately looking to advocate for an ideological diversity over a visible diversity because at the end of the day, it’s what’s on the inside that matters. I also think that there are too many unknown variables to draw direct conclusions between evolutionary biology and aptitude for jobs that didn’t exist 25 years ago. The social, cultural, academic, and systemic variables are key in understanding this dynamic and they’re changing faster than we’re currently able to understand them.
If understanding them is a priority for us, we need to invest in the discussions that will flush out the real questions and invest in the sciences that will give us that data to answer those real questions. I don’t agree with James Damore, but I absolutely agree with how he presented his thoughts and it is a remarkable failure when our ability to challenge these ideas devolves into comments like ‘this doesn’t even warrant a response’, or ‘how dare he?’. It shows a lack of understanding of the topic at hand, a fear of opposing ideologies, and reluctance to engage with someone who doesn’t agree with your perspective. James Damore was fired from one of the most important companies in the world because he intelligently argued a perspective not shared by the majority of his peers. In the pursuit of diversity, Google just took a major step towards preventing the diversity of ideas.