That leaked internal memo from James Damore at Google? The one that says one shouldn’t expect employees in all professions to reflect the demographics of the whole population? Well, that was a pretty dumb thing to write. But not because it’s wrong. Dumb is that Damore thought he could have a reasoned discussion about this. In the U.S.A., out of all places.
Damore’s memo strikes me as a pamphlet produced by a well-meaning, but also utterly clueless, young white man. He didn’t deserve to get fired for this. He deserved maybe a slap on the too-quickly typing fingers. But in his world, asking for discussion is apparently enough to get fired.
I don’t normally write about the underrepresentation of women in science. Reason is I don’t feel fit to represent the underrepresented. I just can’t seem to appropriately suffer in my male-dominated environment. To the extent that one can trust online personality tests, I’m an awkwardly untypical female. It’s probably unsurprising I ended up in theoretical physics.
There is also a more sinister reason I keep my mouth shut. It’s that I’m afraid of losing what little support I have among the women in science when I fall into their back.
I’ve lived in the U.S.A. for three years and for three more years in Canada. On several occasions during these years, I’ve been told that my views about women in science are “hardcore,” “controversial,” or “provocative.” Why? Because I stated the obvious: Women are different from men. On that account, I’m totally with Damore. A male-female ratio close to one is not what we should expect in all professions—and not what we should aim at either.
Women are different in ways that plausibly affect their choice of profession.
But the longer I keep my mouth shut, the more I think my silence is a mistake. Because it means leaving the discussion—and with it, power—to those who shout the loudest. Like CNBC. Which wants you to be “shocked” by Damore’s memo in a rather transparent attempt to produce outrage and draw clicks. Are you outraged yet?
Increasingly, media-storms like this make me worry about the impression scientists give to the coming generation—give to kids like Damore. I’m afraid they think we’re all idiots because the saner of us don’t speak up. And when the kids think they’re oh-so-smart, they’ll produce pamphlets to reinvent the wheel.
Fact is, though, much of the data in Damore’s memo is well backed-up by research. Women indeed are, on the average, more neurotic than men. It’s not an insult, it’s a common term in psychology. Women are also, on the average, more interested in people than in things. They do, on the average, value work-life balance more, react differently to stress, compete by other rules. And so on.
I’m neither a sociologist nor psychologist, but my understanding of the literature is that these are uncontroversial findings. And not new either. Women are different from men, both by nature and by nurture, though it remains controversial just what is nurture and what is nature. But the cause is beside the point for the question of occupation: Women are different in ways that plausibly affect their choice of profession.
No, the problem with Damore’s argument isn’t the starting point; the problem is the conclusions he jumps to.
To begin with, even I know most of Google’s work is people-centric. It’s either serving people directly, or analyzing people-data, or imagining the people-future. If you want to spend your life with things and ideas rather than people, then go into engineering or physics, but not into software-development.
That coding actually requires “female” skills was spelled out clearly by Yonatan Zunger, a former Google employee. But since I care more about physics than software-development, let me leave this aside.
There’s a price to pay for preferably recruiting the presently underrepresented.
The bigger mistake in Damore’s memo is one I see frequently: Assuming that job skills and performance can be deduced from differences among demographic groups. This just isn’t so. I believe for example if it wasn’t for biases and unequal opportunities, then the higher ranks in science and politics would be dominated by women. Hence, aiming at a 50-50 representation gives men an unfair advantage. I challenge you to provide any evidence to the contrary.
I’m not remotely surprised, however, that Damore naturally assumes the differences between typically female and male traits mean that men are more skilled. That’s the bias he thinks he doesn’t have. And, yeah, I’m likewise biased in favor of women. Guess that makes us even then.
The biggest problem with Damore’s memo, however, is that he doesn’t understand what makes a company successful. If a significant fraction of employees think that diversity is important, then it is important. No further justification is needed for this.
Yes, you can argue that increasing diversity may not improve productivity. The data situation on this is murky, to say the least. There’s some story about female C.E.O.s in Sweden that supposedly shows something—but I want to see better statistics before I buy that. And in any case, the U.S.A. isn’t Sweden. More importantly, productivity hinges on employees’ well-being. If a diverse workplace is something they value, then that’s something to strive for, period.
What Damore seems to have aimed at, however, was merely to discuss the best way to deal with the current lack of diversity. Biases and unequal opportunities are real. (If you doubt that, you are a problem and should do some reading.) This means that the current representation of women, underprivileged and disabled people, and other minorities, is smaller than it would be in that ideal world which we don’t live in. So what to do about it?
One also doesn’t solve a problem by yelling “harassment” each time someone asks to discuss whether a diversity effort is indeed effective.
One way to deal with the situation is to wait until the world catches up. Educate people about bias, work to remove obstacles to education, change societal gender images. This works—but it works very slowly.
Worse, one of the biggest obstacles that minorities face is a chicken-and-egg problem that time alone doesn’t cure. People avoid professions in which there are few people like them. This is a hurdle which affirmative action can remove, fast and efficiently.
But there’s a price to pay for preferably recruiting the presently underrepresented. Which is that people supported by diversity efforts face a new prejudice: They weren’t hired because they’re skilled. They were hired because of some diversity policy!
I used to think this backlash has to be avoided at all costs, hence was firmly against affirmative action. But during my years in Sweden, I saw that it does work—at least for women—and also why: It makes their presence unremarkable. In most of the European North, a woman in a leading position in politics or industry is now commonplace. It’s nothing to stare at and nothing to talk about. And once it’s commonplace, people stop paying attention to a candidate’s gender, which in return reduces bias.
I don’t know, though, if this would also work in science which requires an entirely different skill-set. And social science is messy—it’s hard to tell how much of the success in Northern Europe is due to national culture. Hence, my attitude towards affirmative action remains conflicted.
And let us be clear that, yes, such policies mean every once in a while you will not hire the most skilled person for a job. Therefore, a value judgement must be made here, not a logical deduction from data. Is diversity important enough for you to temporarily tolerate an increased risk of not hiring the most qualified person? That’s the trade-off nobody seems willing to spell out.
I also have to spell out that I am writing this as a European who now works in Europe again. For me, the most relevant contribution to equal opportunity is affordable higher education and health insurance, as well as governmentally paid parental leave. Without that, socially disadvantaged groups remain underrepresented, and companies continue to fear for revenue when hiring women in their fertile age. That, in all fairness, is an American problem not even Google can solve.
But one also doesn’t solve a problem by yelling “harassment” each time someone asks to discuss whether a diversity effort is indeed effective. I know from my own experience, and a poll conducted at Google confirms, that Damore’s skepticism about current practices is widespread. It’s something we should discuss. It’s something Google should discuss. Because, for better or worse, this case has attracted much attention. Google’s handling of the situation will set an example for others.
Damore was fired, basically, for making a well-meant, if amateurish, attempt at institutional design, based on woefully incomplete information he picked from published research studies. But however imperfect his attempt, he was fired, in short, for thinking on his own. And what example does that set?
Sabine Hossenfelder is a Research Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies where she works on physics beyond the standard model, phenomenological quantum gravity, and modifications of general relativity.
This post was originally published on BackRe(Action), Hossenfelder’s blog, and is reprinted with permission.
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