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.