Column: What we can learn from a Google employee’s epic failure to understand gender differences

A pedestrian walks past the Google offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., June 27, 2017. This logo has been updated and is no longer in use. REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RTS18WDQ

A male software engineer’s 10-page manifesto argues that women are underrepresented in tech because inherent psychological sex differences render women unsuitable for tech-oriented jobs. Research psychologist Denise Cummins breaks down what he gets wrong. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

A male software engineer’s 10-page manifesto against Google’s diversity initiatives reportedly has gone viral inside the company.

News of the memo, entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” was reported by Motherboard, and the entire document has been made public by Gizmodo.

In the memo, software engineer James Damore argues that women are not underrepresented in tech because they face bias and discrimination in the workplace, but because inherent psychological sex differences render women unsuitable for tech-oriented jobs. “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism,” he writes.

In response, Google fired Damore for “perpetuating gender stereotypes.” (Google is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor for routinely paying women less than men holding the same positions.) Damore is “currently exploring all possible legal remedies,” and in the meantime, he has already received a job offer from Julian Assange of WikiLeaks.

To support his views on women in tech, Damore makes reference to the psychological science literature on sex differences:

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

These claims are indeed supported by substantial research on sex differences. But he goes on to make the following claims, which prove more problematic:

Women, on average, have more:

  • Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).
  • These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing and even within SWEs, comparatively more women work on front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.

As I’ve pointed out in a previous NewsHour article, women, on average, do indeed have more interest in living things than objects, which is why we tend to pursue scientific careers in the biological, social and life sciences. We are perfectly capable of systemizing as well as men. But, on average, we tend to choose to apply that cognitive skill to studying living cells, organisms and systems rather than to objects.

READ MORE: Column: Why the STEM gender gap is overblown

He goes on to claim that the challenges women face in the workplace in general — not just in tech — are a direct outcome of other “innate” personality differences, namely:

  • 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. Note that these are just average differences and there’s overlap between men and women, but this is seen solely as a women’s issue. This leads to exclusory programs like Stretch and swaths of men without support.
  • 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 jobs.

But substantial data support an alternative view, namely that people are more accurate at assessing the performance of workers of their own gender, and men continue to dominate managerial and executive positions. A 2015 study led by Luca Flabbi, a professor of economics at Georgetown University, found that female workers with high skill are paid lower wages when employed by male CEOs, in large part because they are assigned jobs that are below their skill set. The opposite happens at the bottom of the distribution: Male CEOs often assign some low productivity female workers to higher paid tasks. This means that women at the bottom of the wage spectrum benefited from male CEOs, because they are lumped in with other women and assigned an average woman’s wage, which is higher than the wage they should receive. Female CEOs are more likely to assess the productively of their female workers more objectively and as a result are promoted or demoted based on their actual productivity.

The study also found that companies also benefit from female leadership in other important ways. Overall, female CEOs neither improve nor worsen firm performance, but firms with female leadership perform better the higher the fraction of women in the workforce. This effect is large and highly statistically significant as measured in terms of sales per worker, value added per worker and total factor productivity. Sales per worker were found to be 6 percent higher for every 10 percent increase in the share of women in the workforce, and value added per worker increased by approximately 8 percent.

Damore also decries the emphasis on empathy in the workplace:

De-emphasize empathy.

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.

But the objective facts indicate that empathy in the workplace actually benefits workers and their companies. In another paper, David A. Matsa of the National Bureau of Economic Research and Amalia R. Miller of the University of Virginia Department of Economics compared women-owned American businesses with men-owned businesses. They found that women-owned businesses were less likely to use contract employees and temp workers than male-owned companies and were less likely to have workforce reductions during the recent economic downturn. Not only does this keep the company’s productivity high, it benefits the economy at large: Contract jobs frequently mean lower wages than full-time work, and lower wages mean less purchasing power and personal consumption. Decreased consumption, in turn, discourages companies from hiring and slows economic growth.

These scientists attribute the differences in part to greater empathy and pro-social values on the part of female business owners. In contrast, they point out that male senior executives are driven more by personal reward factors, such as career development and compensation, characteristics also noted by the author of the Google memo:

Men’s higher drive for status

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.

Status is the primary metric that men are judged on[4], pushing many men into these higher paying, less satisfying jobs for the status that they entail. 

Whether the trait of status-striving benefits innovation and productivity is debatable, as Damore himself admits:

  • Women on average look for more work-life balance while men have a higher drive for status on average
  • Unfortunately, as long as tech and leadership remain high status, lucrative careers, men may disproportionately want to be in them. Allowing and truly endorsing (as part of our culture) part time work though can keep more women in tech.
  • The male gender role is currently inflexible
  • Feminism has made great progress in freeing women from the female gender role, but men are still very much tied to the male gender role. If we, as a society, allow men to be more “feminine,” then the gender gap will shrink, although probably because men will leave tech and leadership for traditionally feminine roles.

In contrast to his other claims, this is one with which I and many others agree: The root cause of inflexibility of the workplace with respect to work-life balance is the emphasis we place on rewarding status-striving, often at the expense of more objective measures of productivity and contribution. As I’ve pointed out in a previous NewsHour article, workers’ career trajectories are often flattened or cut short entirely if they take time off or make a lateral move in order to meet the demands of childrearing; when they do so, they are shunted into a career track that precludes authority and decision-making power. Only full-time workers are allowed to hold positions that confer authority and decision-making. In the long run, this means that work done early in one’s career is valued greater than work done later. Damore is correct when he states that it is time to rethink our priorities in this regard, because the unfortunate and (so far) inevitable outcome of valorizing status striving is the driving of women from the workplace.

READ MORE: Column: Working parents have two jobs — and both are important to the economy

But the fact still remains that Damore’s central claim is without merit, namely, the claim that women are not suited for jobs in software or hardware design, because we are, as a class, too empathetic and more interested in interacting with people. Without the contribution of women, tech as we know it would not exist. Here are just a few of the women who have shaped the world of technology from its inception:

  • Eighty women worked at the University of Pennsylvania during World War II calculating ballistics trajectories on the ENIAC computer.
  • In 1949, Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Hopper served as a senior mathematician in the team that developed the UNIVAC computer. In 1952, she developed the first operational compiler, an intermediate program that translates English language instructions into computer code. Her development of the first compiler helped revolutionize the world of computers.
  • Radia Perlman, an Intel Fellow, is the inventor of the Spanning-Tree Algorithm for network switches. Her thesis on routing in the presence of malicious failures remains the most important work in routing security.
  • Margaret Heafield Hamilton is a former Director of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which developed on-board flight software for the Apollo space program for which she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1986, she became the founder and CEO of Hamilton Technologies, Inc., in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The company was developed around the Universal Systems Language based on her paradigm of Development Before the Fact for systems and software design.

More landmark contributions to computer science that were made by women can be found here.

There are two takeaway messages from the Google memo debacle: First, gender stereotypes are still alive and thriving in the workplace, and they continue to distort assessment of women’s potential and performance. The second is how wrongly psychological science is often interpreted by those with social and political agendas.