View from Brussels: Google sidesteps gender preference debate

James Damore was an engineer at the internet search giant who challenged the company's shibboleths about diversity and was sacked for so doing. But did he have a point? asks Pelle Neroth

James Damore is a former Google engineer who really put the cat among the pigeons when he wrote a memo about male-female differences are that sought to explain the failure of Google’s expensive diversity programme to raise the proportion of female employees beyond 20 per cent.

The young Harvard graduate’s paper was criticised as a rant and a screed and brought down a Twitter storm of loathing, and not only from Google employees – some of whom reportedly took the day off after the paper was circulated internally to nurse their sensitive souls, presumably because he failed to include a “trigger warning”.

In the UK, the slow season news coverage picked up on the issue, with the Guardian critically observing how the sacked engineer had  refused to talk to the paper beyond a brief email exchange (wonder why) and then chose to give his views to some right-wing YouTube personalities instead.

Further, the British liberal newspaper’s star young columnist Owen Jones called Damore’s “assertions about gender frankly guff dressed up with pseudoscientific jargon and not just belittling women but reducing men to the status of emotional individualistic robots.” Owen Jones has a history degree, from Oxford admittedly, but is not clear what qualification that gives him to discern good from bad science: for neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists asked to comment on the much-criticised paper praised it as a good effort in the genre.

Geoffrey Miller, evolutionary psychology professor at the University of New Mexico, wrote on a science blog that: “For what it’s worth, I think that almost all of the Google memo’s empirical claims are scientifically accurate. Moreover, they are stated quite carefully and dispassionately. Its key claims about sex differences are especially well-supported by large volumes of research across species, cultures, and history. I know a little about sex differences research. On the topic of evolution and human sexuality, I’ve taught for 28 years, written 4 books and over 100 academic publications, given 190 talks, reviewed papers for over 50 journals, and mentored 11 PhD students. Whoever the memo’s author is, he has obviously read a fair amount about these topics. Graded fairly, his memo would get at least an A- in any masters’ level psychology course. It is consistent with the scientific state of the art on sex differences.”

So what did the paper, provocatively entitled “Google’s ideological echo chamber”, claim?

It said that the gender gap in the distribution of jobs at Google was not caused by discrimination but because of  differences in average career preferences between men and women. Rather than deal with the claims, the newly appointed Google vice president for diversity, Danielle Brown, accused the young engineer of stating incorrect assumptions about gender. And for perpetuating gender stereotypes. And then handed him whatever the American equivalent of the P45 is.

It’s a shame that Google’s management did not engage with Damore’s arguments – surely if it was so clear he was wrong he could have been defeated through detailed rational counterarguments rather than bossy comments that skated over the thrust of the argument. (A confidential poll revealed that a majority of Google employees disagreed with his sacking.)  It’s a really interesting question.  

While no one would question that there was extreme prejudice against women entering the professions a hundred years ago, there are now few barriers to entry, with women dominating in numbers in journalism, law and in many parts of the medical profession, at least in the United States. (Pay may be a different matter – some if it related to hours put in. We will take that another time.)

But a closer examination shows that they tend to dominate numbers especially in areas that involve interacting with people whereas men still dominate in areas that favour preference for working with abstract systems and mechanically interesting things.  So just looking at medicine, while, in the US, at least, women dominate the fields of paediatric medicine, psychology, family medicine and veterinary medicine, men had much higher proportions of medical residency positions in anaesthesiology and radiology which are almost entirely technology- rather than patient-focused. It’s not necessarily about pay either – psychiatry is better paid than radiology; computer programming when men dominate there has much lower starting pay than veterinarians where women dominate.

Britain’s own expert in the area, Professor  Simon Baron Cohen, has for many years researched the biological basis of gender differences, while not denying that environment and conditioning do play some part. This professor of developmental psychopathology of Cambridge argues that that young boys’ preference for Lego is an example of systematising thinking – the drive to build and analyse systems, whereas girls develop social skills more quickly, manifested by even newborn girls’ preferences for faces over things. Newborn male and female rhesus monkeys display the same differences.

Male foetuses produce 10 times as much testosterone – or more. When a needle is introduced into the fluid that surround the baby during pregnancy, and the fluid is analysed, Cohen and his team found a correlation between the level of testosterone in the fluid and a stronger later interest in systems and things over people when the child was born and started to express an interest in the environment.

In other words, biology matters. We are not blank slates on to which social roles are written.

It’s not a completely closed argument of course but her further support this is given by a paper by Professor Richard Lippa, who looked at many thousands of tests of personality and career choice in 53 nations and found female and male personality differences remarkably constant regardless of prosperity or ranking on the UN gender development index.

Women, on average, were consistently more neurotic, slightly more agreeable, slightly more extrovert – as well as less favourable to traditional male occupations the men were. The graph of average career preferences for men and women in each country across the 53 nations and 200,000 individuals – between Norway at the gender-equal one end and Pakistan on the other – is almost flat: an interesting rebuttal, incidentally, of theories about national character or religion, let alone gender freedom, as collective personality predictors.  Actually there were small differences: in Norway where women are very free there is even a slightly greater preference for people-facing, traditionally female occupations such as nursing than in the less prosperous, less gender-equal countries like Pakistan.

Social engineering and “enlightened education” matters not one whit, it would seem; instead freedom in countries like prosperous Norway seems to mean the freedom to choose according to one’s biological inclinations - talking averages of course. To restate, talking of averages: Women prefer working with people; men prefer things.

Wrote Lippa, in his peer-reviewed paper for the Archives of Sexual Behaviour (2010: 39;619-636): “When sex differences were assessed at the level of individuals, sex differences in extraversion were small, sex differences in agreeableness and neuroticism were moderate and sex differences in male-versus-female typical occupational preferences were very large and about the same magnitude as sex differences in height.”

That is what Damore was saying and even if he was not right in all the particulars it is a big shame he was sacked for making an argument that ought to have been debated on its merits.

We have to pursue the truth and where it leads us even if it does not accord with our ideology. 

Of course women should be completely free to become programmers or engineers are just as men should be free to become nurses and they should be encouraged to do so.  But if the numbers don’t add up to 50/50 why make a fuss if it’s in accordance with people’s preferences, taken over a biologically influenced average? It could be that indeed there are some factors that discourage women from entering predominantly male environments, which can be very competitive, but if you were to able to absent that and you still got the difference should you force that difference? Biology might say not. Maybe diversity should lie in acceptance of the fact that you don’t need a 50/50 divide in all professions.


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