NEW YORK ― Former Google engineer James Damore’s controversial memo that led to his firing earlier this week cited evolutionary differences between men’s and women’s brains to criticize Google’s gender diversity efforts and posit that perhaps women are too naturally neurotic and people-oriented to seek out and thrive in tech jobs.
Damore’s memo was well-researched ― and he’s right that science suggests that men’s and women’s brains are different and have different strengths. But while the latest scientific research on the subject supports some of his claims, it doesn’t support his conclusion.
Scientists have found no difference in intelligence between men and women, but there appear to be some average personality differences that begin early in childhood, persist across many cultures and are, surprisingly, more pronounced in more gender-egalitarian nations.
One of the scientists Damore cites, prominent personality psychologist David Schmitt, found in a 2008 cross-cultural study that women report slightly higher levels of “neuroticism,” meaning they have less tolerance for stressful situations, and they tend to be more agreeable and less assertive than men on average. (Schmitt describes the differences as “‘small’ to ‘moderate’ ... accounting for perhaps 10% of the variance.”)
Damore uses Schmitt’s research to conclude that these personality differences explain “the lower number of women in high stress jobs,” the “higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist,” the company’s internal survey, and the fact that women earn less money ― because they have “a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading.”
He ignores the possibility that high levels of sexism and sexual harassment in the tech industry contribute to women’s anxiety and stress levels, rather than a simple biological inclination toward neuroticism.
Damore misunderstands Schmitt’s research, the scientist wrote on Psychology Today’s website on Tuesday. It’s a leap of logic, Schmitt argued, to conclude that minor differences in brain chemistry make women less apt for tech jobs than men, or to assume that those differences reasonably explain why 70 percent of Google’s employees are male.
Using someone’s sex to draw conclusions about their aptitude for a job is like “surgically operating with an axe,” Schmitt added. Although women make up only 4 percent of the workforce in natural resources, construction and maintenance, according to the Department of Labor ― and earn only one-third of degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics ― cultural factors contribute to that gap.
Per Schmitt’s article for Psychology Today:
There have been (and likely will continue to be) many socio-structural barriers to women working in technological jobs. These include culturally-embedded gender stereotypes, biased socialization practices, in some cultures explicit employment discrimination, and a certain degree of masculinization of technological workplaces. Within this sea of gender bias, should Google use various practices (affirmative action is not just one thing) to especially encourage capable women of joining (and enjoying) the Google workplace? I vote yes.
Indeed, women seeking work as pipe-fitters and plumbers have reported a long list of barriers to entry in those jobs, from inadequate bathrooms to a ”misguided chivalry” that discourages men from training women to handle heavy drills. Women in the tech industry report hostile, sexist environments in which men constantly question their abilities.
Studies have also shown that young girls are less interested in studying male-dominated fields like math and science due to negative stereotypes about their abilities and a lack of female role models in those areas.
But even if Damore is right that innate sex differences account for the gender gap in tech jobs, or that women are too people-oriented, cooperative, sensitive and empathetic to pursue and thrive in a field dominated by men, then that builds an even stronger case for promoting gender inclusion efforts across tech companies and for championing women’s leadership in general.
“Understanding people, and the ways in which they will interact with your system, is fundamental to every step of building a system,” Yonatan Zunger, a senior Google employee who recently left the company, wrote in a rebuttal to Damore’s memo.
The bulk of engineering jobs at Google do not involve sitting in a cave alone writing code, and in fact require “coordinating and cooperating” with groups of people, Zunger wrote:
If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to ... All of these traits which the manifesto described as “female” are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering. Anyone can learn how to write code; hell, by the time someone reaches level seven or so, it’s expected that they have an essentially complete mastery of technique.
Evolutionary science has long been used to justify racism and sexism. But even scientists Damore might have looked to as allies disagree with his conclusion.
Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who used his research on women’s brains to write a book about seducing them with famed misogynist Tucker Max, argues that the sex differences Damore describes are “one of the best reasons to promote sexual diversity in the workplace.”
“In my opinion,” Miller writes in a response to Damore in Quillette Magazine, “given that sex differences are so well-established, and the sexes have such intricately complementary quirks, it may often be sensible, in purely practical business terms, to aim for more equal sex ratios in many corporate teams, projects, and divisions.”