Individual sexist views don’t hurt gender equality nearly as much as the failure of tech companies to make a stand against them.
What’s most depressing about the Google anti-diversity memo saga is not James Damore’s pathetic attempt to justify his ideologically-based sexist views with flimsy scraps of pseudo-science. Nor is it the hordes of right-wing trolls tripping over their feet to proclaim him a hero in the white man’s struggle against oppression.
Unfortunately, there’s so much of that sort of thing around that frankly it barely registers on the scale any more. Women routinely have to deal with such fuckwits– be it in the workplace, social media or the White House – so we don’t tend to notice unless – like in this instance – it finds a bigger platform and goes “viral.”
Which is clearly what Damore was aiming for. He wanted the attention and the chance to sue Google, both of which he got in spades. Well done, little boy, your mom must be so proud.
Full disclosure: I’m really not a technically gifted person. But while there are many possible factors that influenced the fact that I ended up a writer rather than a coder, I’m confident that me having a vagina isn’t one of them. I also know many people in full possession of a penis who are as inept in STEM subjects as I am – just as I have met countless freakishly talented engineers, data scientists and other various technologists of both genders over the years.
It really does make one tired that we should have to argue that our genitals are not the determining factor in what career path we happen to choose. That this is due, rather, to a complex mixture of socioeconomic background and upbringing, education, availability of opportunities, timing, some dumb luck, and yes, natural ability which (as per above) does vary from person to person, whatever appendage they have dangling (or not) between their legs.
It’s an old saying – recently used in Game of Thrones which is where I plucked this opportune quote from – that everything someone says before the word “but” is absolute bullshit. And such is the case with the first paragraphs of Damore’s steaming pile of chauvinist manure, where he claims to value diversity and inclusion, and not to deny the existence of sexism – before proceeding to lay out how he doesn’t believe the gender pay gap is real (it is) and how women are biologically less suited for certain roles. Particularly if they involve stress.
To those who have not read Damore’s infamous 10-page memo (I have subjected myself to the ordeal, but wouldn’t really wish it upon anybody) the crux of the offensive argument runs thus:
On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because:
- They’re universal across human cultures
- They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone
- Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males
- The underlying traits are highly heritable
- They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective
Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.
The best example of his fundamental misinterpretation of historical legacy and societal pressures as imprinted and inherited biological traits is expressed in the paragraph where he argues that a key female characteristic is “extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness. This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading.”
Yet as any woman who’s ever tried to negotiate the line between being assertive and likeable in the workplace will tell you, that is not really something that comes naturally or comfortably to us, it’s a survival tactic we have to employ because assertive women are generally perceived in a negative light, prompting the need to protect fragile egos by not appearing to be a threat.
He then goes on to list in a tone of undisguised outrage Google’s discriminatory practices, which include (shock horror!) mentoring classes for people of a certain gender of race, and special treatment for “diversity” (his quotation marks) candidates.
Humans, in Damore’s alternative facts universe, are generally biased towards protecting females, and we have “extensive government and Google programs, fields of study, and legal and social norms to protect women”. How that tallies with the female experience of over the past few centuries of rape, murder, exploitation, lack of voting rights and being paid much less than men for the same (or more) work isn’t exactly clear.
Gender differences are often, he helpfully mansplains, a perception of the “grass being greener on the other side” but when a man complains about a gender issue he is wrongfully labelled a whiny misogynist. Imagine that!
His helpful suggestion is that we shouldn’t get so hung up on what he terms “unintentional transgressions” as the focus on microagressions increases our tendency to take offence and self censor. In other words, the “authoritarian policies” that force people to worry about whether their behaviour makes women uncomfortable are putting too much stress onto the already downtrodden white male class. Luckily for them, however, men turn out to be much better suited to biologically deal with such stresses.
We always ask why we don’t see women in top leadership positions, but we never ask why we see so many men in these jobs. These positions often require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.
Women, it seems, suffer from Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance) which “may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.”
You really do have to laugh at this point. I mean, look at the poor little lamb. Not only is it highly unlikely that he has much direct knowledge of women’s biology, but if that’s a guy who knows leadership and stress, then I’m Lord Buckethead.
For starters, take a look at his LinkedIn profile (from which he hastily removed mention of a PhD from Harvard that as it turns out he had not completed). While I cannot speak to any personal struggles that might justify his prejudice against women and persecution complex, his professional trajectory tells a story of someone from a privileged background who went from an Ivy League education to his job at Google via a brief stint at MIT.
Would he ever have had the gumption to cope with the stress Katherine Johnson was subjected to at NASA? A widow raising her children while being subjected to the daily humiliation of not even having a toilet she was allowed to use? Coping with the very real discrimination of being a black female in the segregation era, she still managed to deliver all her ground-breaking scientific work in the most highly pressured environment imaginable. And many – many - women do cope with stress, and juggle careers and family/caring commitments every day, thank you very much.
To say that women are unsuited for coping with stress is an utterly ridiculous notion, but the final nail on the coffin of Damore’s argument, is his offhand belief that technical jobs are inherently better suited to males, (at one point he argues that more men may like coding because it requires systemizing) overlooking the historical fact that for many years computing was seen as a traditionally female role. Not only that, but women have pioneered computer science throughout the ages, from Ada Lovelace to Grace Hopper, Betty Holberton, Lois Haibt, Margaret Hamilton and so many others. Look them up. Their stories are well worth a Google.
Is it any wonder that this young white privileged male feels a complete disconnect with the reality of anybody who has actually had to struggle against bias, or that he advocates a lack of empathy as a virtue?
I’ve heard several calls for increased empathy on diversity issues. While I strongly support trying to understand how and why people think the way they do, relying on affective empathy—feeling another’s pain—causes us to focus on anecdotes, favor individuals similar to us, and harbor other irrational and dangerous biases. Being emotionally unengaged helps us better reason about the facts.
While it is rather sad to see such man-children stubbornly clinging to the notion that their little winkle makes them special, what depresses me the most is actually the fact that Google has been so utterly spineless in dealing with this latest crisis.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s response to all of this was to say that this was “not OK”, which even by Silicon Valley standards (and here I mean the hit HBO spoof series) doesn’t come close to cutting it. Tut-ting at this sort of thing is simply not a proportionate response when one of your employees regurgitates such offensive tripe. Delaying disciplinary action until the public outrage leaves you with no alternative is not cool, and it’s definitely not OK to act like this is an aberration in a company that has been found guilty of perpetuating that gender pay gap. You know, the one Damore assures us doesn’t exist:
Yes, in a national aggregate, women have lower salaries than men for a variety of reasons. For the same work though, women get paid just as much as men. Considering women spend more money than men and that salary represents how much the employees sacrifices (e.g. more hours, stress, and danger), we really need to rethink our stereotypes around power.
It’s also not acceptable for Google’s new Vice President of Diversity, Integrity & Governance, Danielle Brown, to imply in her initial response to Damore’s memo that this was a political view, which he was supposedly entitled to express. Your right to express an opinion stops where it actively makes the work environment for your co-workers a hostile one. Your right to self-expression does not trump their right to be respected by their co-workers.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Google and recognize the huge contributions it has made to society. But – to quote from Spider-Man – “With great power comes great responsibility.” For a company with Google’s reach and influence, neutrality is just not an option.
Girls growing up and considering their “choices” for education and their future careers will be aware of what Damore says, but they will look to Google’s reaction - and what they do next – for their cue as to whether going into tech is something they can, and should do, or whether it will still require the sort of heroic struggle those early pioneers of computing underwent.
If Google prioritizes making a safe space for people like Damore rather than actually tackling those real and enduring problems head on, they will inflict more damage than a legion of angry white misogynist trolls could ever hope to. They urgently need to take decisive action and send an unequivocal message that this sort of thing is really not OK. If they need someone to show them how to be assertive, I’m sure there are many brilliant women in tech such as Cindy Gallop that would happily show them how to grow a pair.