What the Google Memo Gets Wrong About Female Leaders

08/28/2017 12:51 pm ET

There’s a reason former Google engineer James Damore’s internal memo on gender diversity went viral. For one, it resonated with a lot of people — largely men in the tech industry — who have been rubbed the wrong way by diversity initiatives in increasingly progressive workplaces. And while some quietly agreed, others have vocally called the memo out for what it is: a one-sided attempt to undercut Google’s efforts to hire, motivate, and promote more women in its ranks.

Among the memo’s most egregious offenses was the implication that women are both less suitable and less inclined to become software engineers and leaders. Since I’m not a software engineer, I won’t speak to this argument (others have articulated the issue far better than I). But as a female entrepreneur, I feel it’s my duty to condemn the type of thinking that only further serves to alienate talented women in male-dominated fields.

It may be a promising time for female leaders, but frustrating misconceptions are never far behind. Here are several of Damore’s claims in regard to female leadership that I think should be reconsidered, or at least interpreted much differently.

Overstating biology, downplaying sexism

While Damore cites some legitimate science (with a too-heavy reliance on evolutionary biology) his conclusions fail to take into account known and proven research on sexism in the workforce. And while he admits that there may indeed be sexism at play, his attempts to conflate “biological” personality differences with differences in ability are dubious at best.

There is no shortage of women qualified to lead, yet the leadership gap is undeniable. Most Americans believe men and women are equally capable of leadership — which research supports, often edging in women’s favor. What women lack is opportunity, and according to Pew research, double standards and high expectations are cited far more often than any biological factors as obstacles to power.

That’s because biology simply isn’t a factor. While men and women have their differences, male and female brains are virtually indistinguishable, and even personality traits differ far more by individual than any group. On the other hand, we have concrete proof of the glass ceiling. That anyone would emphasize biology as a cause of the gender gap is quite strange.

On work-life balance and neuroticism

Damore has a point on work-life balance — it’s hard for anyone to lead if 100+ hours a week are a requirement, but I’m not so sure men are more suitable for this, or that they even desire it. In reality, most men want work-life balance too, and would stay home or work fewer hours if given the choice. That men feel less comfortable taking on traditionally female roles is a fault of society, not biology.

Then there’s the whole “women are neurotic” stereotype. According to the author, "Women, on average, have more: Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance). This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress [sic] jobs."

This may be true on some levels, but again, the argument is fairly easy to poke holes in. What about the high-stress jobs in which women are overrepresented? Nursing, teaching, social work, and service jobs, which are majority-female, are also notoriously high-stress. When it comes to leadership, are we expected to buy into the notion that all CEOs necessarily are under more stress, or work harder than inner-city teachers or cancer ward nurses? Or that given the choice, women wouldn’t opt for the former?

On people-mindedness vs system-mindedness

Damore argues that women choose not to code because they prefer to focus on people, and men on things. This ignores a long history of women in computing, but is also baffling because even if this dichotomy were truer on average, it would lower women’s competence at coding — especially at Google, which draws from elite universities where women are represented more evenly in CS programs.

More importantly, being system-minded in no way lends itself better to leadership than being people-minded. In fact, if we were to buy this law of averages, women would be overrepresented in positions of power, since managing and communicating with people are essential leadership skills.

Further, hormones, which actually are biological, tell another story: too much testosterone leads to excessive risk-taking, and the ideal traits for leadership have been found embodied best by women over 55.

On discrimination and de-moralization

Lastly, even if some good science is used in Damore’s memo, his conclusions are, in a word, absurd. Even if women and men have different tendencies, choose different career paths, due to nature or nurture or anything else, that doesn’t mean that diversity and empathy should be de-emphasized in business, as the author claims. Given Damore’s contradictions, however, it’s hard to take his suggestions at face value — he’s quick to denounce the ideological echo chamber of Google, but in the same breath advocate for the preservation of a male-dominated echo chamber. What gives?

Providing opportunities for women does not amount to discrimination against men, plain and simple. Despite the author’s protests, such initiatives not only benefit businesses, but also prevent harmful groupthink so that products are developed to serve the entire population, not just half.

No one — none the least Google — is attempting to oust men to create an authoritarian version of equality, as Damore claims. This accusation accounts to fear-mongering, and while it’s sad to give the notion airtime, it’s also proof of a path toward progress.

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