I am going to address the Google controversy — and
I know what you’re thinking. “Just what the internet needs — another hot take on the
Google memo.” Well, I have to admit, when the story first broke, I started to write an incendiary
piece about how Silicon Valley is becoming a safe-space, Oberlin-esque, trigger warning
culture. But then I lost heart. Not because I think Google did the right thing—I’ve
just grown weary of culture war rhetoric. So I’m going to try a new approach. That’s coming
up next on the Factual Feminist. First a few facts: At Google, men hold 80
percent of the tech jobs and 75 percent of leadership positions. But the disparity isn’t unique
to Google. At U.S. colleges last year, men earned 82 percent of computer science degrees
and 80 percent of engineering degrees. Why are there so few women?
Well, in his now-notorious memo, James Damore tried to answer that question. And for doing so,
he was fired by Google for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes”
Let me explain why the memo caused so much anger and grief.
Clearly, it struck a nerve because of its claims of innate, biological sex differences.
As a rule, anybody who takes up this topic has to proceed with care. There are so many ways
to go wrong. And even if you do it responsibly, you are likely to upset a lot of people.
Now is that because those people are anti-science? Not necessarily. As a professor of philosophy
of 20 years, I am well aware of the long history of bogus claims about women’s essential
nature. Immanuel Kant deemed women ethically inferior. And according to Friedrich Nietzsche,
“when a woman has scholarly inclinations, there is generally something wrong with her
sexual nature.“ History is littered with reckless and damaging pronouncements about
women’s nature. So, I get the skepticism. In fairness to Damore, his claims were categorically
different from those of Kant and Nietzsche: Damore discussed population-level differences
in the distribution of personality traits and interests. He said that women, on average, show
a higher interest in people and men in things. He dutifully noted that population averages
tell you nothing about individuals. But his memo was a little awkwardly worded and easily misunderstood. The Factual Feminist would have left out references to women’s greater tendency of
neuroticism, and high anxiety, for example. Well of hundreds of blogs and op-eds on the Google
controversy, the one I like most is by Alice Eagly. She is a professor of social
psychology at Northwestern who has been doing research on the psychology of sex and gender
for nearly 50 years. “I agree,” she says, “that biological
differences between the sexes likely are part of the reason we see fewer women than men
in the ranks of Silicon Valley’s tech workers.” She points out that men tend to score higher
on spatial reasoning tests—and she explains that this may give them an edge in computer
science. Furthermore, she points to a large body of research showing that, in general
“women are more interested in people compared with men, who are more interested in things.
To the extent that tech occupations are concerned more with things than people, men would on
average be more attracted to them.” But she warns pundits on both sides of the
nature/nurture debate against rushing to conclusions: the precise connections between biology and
life choices are murky and not well understood. And even if biology is partly responsible
for the gender gap in tech, that does not rule out other explanations. It can simultaneously
be true that there are natural differences between men and women that explain
the gender gap AND that Silicon Valley is a difficult place for women.
Take Chloe Condon, a 5’ 2” female software engineer who recently wrote a funny piece
about what it’s like to be a woman in tech. “I don’t look like the classic stereotype–
mistakes happen,” she says. At conferences, people assume she is somebody’s daughter
who tagged along, or just a booth attendant who drifted in for a glass of wine.
The Factual Feminist herself served as president of the slide rule club in junior high school, so I know what she’s talking about. I also think that Chole Condon has the right instincts on how to address the
too-few-women-in-tech problem., “It’s important to approach this issue with passion
and enthusiasm, but also with a sense of humor and forgiveness.” In return, she promises
not to assume a guy is an engineer just because of his plaid shirt and Patagonia jacket. Now I promised no culture war rhetoric. But I can’t help but say this: The proper
response to Damore’s memo is not for Google to double down on its implicit bias or microaggression
training. Listen to sane scholars like Alice Eagly—and
bring in people like Chloe Condon. To quell the battle of the sexes, the goal should be
a friendly atmosphere, where people can speak freely and even joke around with one another.
By firing James Damore, Google has made that goal even harder to achieve.
Well let me know your thoughts in the comment section. And don’t forget to like the video, subscribe
to the series, follow me on Twitter and Facebook. And thank you for watching the Factual Feminist.