That Google Diversity Memo

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W.J. Astore

What does “diversity” mean in the workplace as well as American society?  Are women at a disadvantage in technical fields and, if so, is this due primarily to biology or gender or sociological/cultural factors?  These questions have grabbed headlines lately due to a memo written by James Damore, a young software specialist at Google.  Damore’s memo, which you can read here, accused Google of creating and sustaining an ideological echo chamber that favored liberal/left-leaning ideas to the detriment of conservative viewpoints.  He further suggested that biological differences are a key reason for the under-representation of women in technical career fields, and that diversity efforts are too focused on surface differences like sex and skin color.  The memo led to his firing, after which Damore became a martyr of sorts within conservative circles.

In his memo, Damore is careful to say he respects diversity, that he recognizes gender and racial discrimination, and that he’s committed to fostering discussion.  Rather than summarize his memo, I’d like to make a few comments on it and the general subject, drawn from my experience as an engineer in the U.S. Air Force and my time as a professor teaching lessons on gender and technology.

But first I’d like to recall my time in engineering school in the early 1980s. It was a mostly male environment. “Woman” was a term thrown about as a tepid form of insult. (I recall one male student telling another who lagged, “Hurry up, woman.”) Female students, I sensed, had to “prove” themselves more, or at least to explain why they wanted to be engineers (male students had nothing to explain, since engineering was supposedly “natural” to them).  To be a female engineering student was to be in the minority, and since almost all of the professors were male, role models for younger women were scarce.

In my experience in the military, I worked with female coders, engineers, and managers. All were well qualified, and indeed as an officer managing a project, I couldn’t have cared less about gender. I recall an effort at the MITRE Corporation to recruit and mentor female engineers by female managers, which made perfect sense to me.

Based on my experience, it was easier for men to be promoted in technical jobs simply because there were more male mentors around. I also think women in tech had and have it tougher (in part) because their roles were and are more constrained/restricted by society’s expectations. Put simply, in American society it’s easier for a man to be almost anything than for a woman to be almost anything. Society “tells” women what is appropriate for their gender far more than it dictates to men.

That said, let’s tackle “diversity,” a term that in American discourse is overloaded with baggage.  For some on the right, it’s equated with “reverse discrimination” against (mainly White) men.  For some on the left, it’s equated with gender, skin color, and similar biological as well as ethnic/physical differences.  For me, diversity ideally should focus on abilities, points of view, talent, creativity, and the like.  As an engineer or manager, I’d like a diverse team, with a range of talents and skills and viewpoints, able to work creatively to solve problems.  That should be the goal.

James Damore, in writing his memo, didn’t help himself by suggesting women are more neurotic and anxious than men (which echoes the old “hysteria” argument that women are biologically less stable and flightier than men).  If you start citing studies on neuroses and anxiety that are allegedly prevalent more in women than men, you must be aware of prior uses of hysteria and similar ideas to mark women as unstable and unreliable when compared to allegedly unhysterical men.

(An aside: I suppose I could construct an argument suggesting that men are too violent to be hired because statistics show they’re much more likely than women to commit a mass shooting in the workplace. Sorry, guys. It’s not discrimination — it’s “biology.” You have too much testosterone-driven anger to be reliable.)

Damore’s memo, I think, suffers from his own sense of outrage: the writer is fed up with Google diversity policies, which perhaps make him (and many others) feel like he needs to apologize for being male. This has led him to focus on alleged biological differences as the driver for his memo.

I do agree, however, with his point that too often diversity efforts are simplistic.  So many differences interact and combine to make us who we are as humans.  What about class differences, for example?  If a tech team consists entirely of college-educated members of the upper-middle class, and all American, and all in their twenties and thirties, is it diverse even if it’s 50-50 male/female?  Which qualities do we privilege in a push for diversity?  Gender?  Race?  Class?  Nationality?  Age?  (As an aside, it’s not easy for older engineers to get jobs; they’re often assumed to be both overqualified and out-of-touch.)

Damore could also pay more attention to history.  He suggests, for example, that women as women seek promotions and higher pay less often than men.  They don’t “lean in” as much as they should.  But it’s hardly that simple.  It used to be (and still is?) that men were promoted and paid more not necessarily because they “leaned in,” i.e. were more macho and demanding, but because it was assumed a man was the breadwinner for a family. Whereas if a woman worked at the same job, it was often assumed she wasn’t the primary breadwinner.

That is, it wasn’t that women were simply too “weak” (biology/psychology) to demand a raise; they didn’t ask because they knew they wouldn’t get it. Or, if they did ask, they weren’t too surprised when a man got it instead. It wasn’t always due to a conspiratorial old boys’ club (though those existed), but rather the societal/cultural bias that a man, as head of a family, needed the extra money more. Also, bosses tend to promote underlings like themselves. Men in charge tend to promote younger men who are mirror images, especially if the latter play their cards right (are properly deferential, let their boss win at golf, and so on).

When we look at why women are under-represented in technical fields, biology is arguably the least important factor to consider.  Historical, cultural, sociological, and gender factors all weigh heavily on efforts to increase women’s participation.  In short, Damore’s memo is perhaps most valuable not at pointing a way forward, but in revealing the persistence of certain attitudes and biases that still need to be addressed in the drive for a fair and equitable society.

4 thoughts on “That Google Diversity Memo

  1. As a person who is a Baby Boomer I grew up in the era when people were sliced and diced. At the High School (1962-66 for me) level males were were divided into the College Prep courses and then into the Shop Classes (Woodworking, Metal Working, Drafting, etc). There were no woman in the Shop Classes. I suspect the shop class types provided the draftee fodder as you could obtain a draft deferment for College.

    After the Army I went to College (1972-76). Math and Science were still white male dominated fields. My major was Business and was nearly as devoid of females and people of color as math and science was. I went into Commercial Insurance -Property-Casualty after College as an Underwriter. The Technical Jobs were higher paying and nearly exclusively White Male. The woman were expected to answer the incoming phone line (no voice mail back in the 1970’s) and clean up the kitchenette after work. Our first woman Underwriter in our office (a technical position) was told she would have to take “her” turn answering the phone. She exploded and called our Regional Office Human Resource Manager. That week the idea of “Woman’s ” work in the office was over.

    There are more stories I could tell, but I think you have a picture. I just wonder how many woman and people of color who could have been an Einstein or Bill Gates were left on the side of the road, because they did not belong to the White Male Club.

    Back in my younger days, it was called the old boy network, you needed a sponsor or a reference. Mr. Damore has no idea of the systematic exclusion that occurred in the past that laid out the paths you could follow. I guess one more thing it helped immensely to come from a wealthy or at least upper middle class family. The opportunity for a higher education and connections paved a smooth path.

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  2. I am definitely NOT the first person to point this out, but no-one advocating for “diversity” seems to care one iota about diversity OF THOUGHT. This is something that I first came across in one of my engineering classes: if you have two people who think identically, get rid of one of them. You do not need redundancies on your team. My favourite quote, “style prevails over substance only when there is no substance,” also applies here. The “diversity” that the tech industry (or, indeed, anyone from California) seems so obsessed with is indeed superficial.
    Oddly enough, diversity of thought is something that “the old boys’ club” did not welcome, either. I personally would like to see more women in engineering, not because there are not enough of them, but because women generally think differently from men. Having multiple methods of thinking on an engineering team increases the likelihood of someone coming up with a viable solution to a difficult problem that has most people scratching their heads. If you had a bunch of feminine men of the team, you would likely get the same result. Men and women think differently, this has been scientifically proven. However, female engineers (at least the ones I’ve met) tend to be just as pragmatic and thick-skinned as their male counterparts. Hysteria is disruptive, be it the dubious Victorian female variety or the very real modern SJW variety.
    This is a case of “what can you bring to this company?” If your answer is nothing more than “I am a [insert diversity-requirement-fulfilling minority here],” I would not hire you. If your answer is “I can bring a unique perspective to your engineering department,” I would say “welcome aboard.” It’s been over four years since my last job interview, but I assume employers still ask questions such as this. Now that I think about it, the corporate mindset is probably the real issue. You have to be a certain type of person to get into the club, and anyone who lacks the confidence to sell themselves in a job interview (a problem women have a lot more than men) doesn’t have a chance. Then again, that might just be my seething hatred of corporations rearing its ugly head again.

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    1. Yes. Diversity is not simply a Benetton ad, with all creeds and colors and genders equally represented.

      There’s a natural tendency to equate diversity to what is easily measurable or trackable. It’s not so easy to track or measure diversity of talent, viewpoints, backgrounds, skill-sets, and the like. But it’s relatively easy to track gender, ethnicity, age, nationality, race, and so forth. There’s also an assumption, not always warranted, that hiring more women or more minorities or younger people or older people (or whatever) will produce the desirable diversity of viewpoints and skill-sets that one is looking for.

      These are complex issues, because diversity efforts, by their nature, touch on issues of power and politics, which is not to say that they are wrong. Greater diversity is desirable; so too is greater fairness.

      Simply put, the specifics of how we encourage diversity and fairness will always generate debate.

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