Whose shoes shall I wear to mull over James Damore’s memo?
By now you would know who James Damore is? An ex-Google employee who got fired as he tried to explain why there are so few women in Computer Science.
Should I be — a class topper who outperformed all boy students in mathematics and physics throughout school, the only female software engineer in a batch of sixty-nine boys, a writer who wants to bring balance into the world, a data-driven individual, a laid-off former employee of a well-known finance giant, a feminist in denial face, a woman who wants to be called intelligent rather than beautiful, an observer who has seen passionate women outperform men specifically in computer science and engineering or someone who acknowledges and accepts the differences between men and women?
None of the above.
I am going to be someone who has not been angered by James Damore’s memo and wants to lay out the facts and opinion in the open. Neither am I going to empathize with anybody as he has correctly said; empathy takes away pure rationalism.
I will be lying if I say his memo did not alarm me. But since then, I have read hundreds of articles, research papers, open letters, and comments that envelope this controversy. I am grateful to him for opening up this discussion; he was not the only one who had these thoughts simmering in the back of his mind.
During school and engineering coaching (preparation to get into engineering colleges), teachers, girls, and boys wondered how I could outperform boys in the male-dominated subjects, such as mathematics and physics. I did not understand what was wrong with a girl being better at the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).
The whole coaching center knew me because I was the girl who ranked first.
The social stereotypes concreted the beliefs of both, boys and girls that it was okay for the girls to be bad at the STEM and the boys had to be better. The bias, later on in the university, helped me when I decided that I did not like those subjects anymore. I instead wanted to write, travel, communicate, and cook.
I am the woman who could have made it to the top of the software engineering and leadership ladder but chose not to. The one whom these software giants are trying to lure. The one who has further skewed the diversity ratio. And as per James Damore, the reasons could be biological.
Do biological differences between men and women explain the lower number of women in computer science and engineering?
All the biological studies that he has referred to are incomplete and are small-scale tests conducted on a limited sample population. Even the scientists involved have said that they haven’t yet proved the hypotheses and they plan to research more.
He said in the memo that many of the biological differences are small but then goes onto writing a ten-page analysis on the foundation of these tenuous theories.
People rather than things are more critical to women hypothesis is a disputed and criticized research. The theory focused on people with high autism. If highly male characteristics are being associated with autism, then I wonder how all these men would become great leaders. Nothing seems to match up.
So, his point about why women relatively prefer jobs in social areas: close to people and men like coding: close to things falls out. The research is as debated as the survival on Mars. I do have faith in Elon Musk, but I would not vouch for it right now.
A hundred scientists from 56 nations conducted a comparison of the five behavioral traits of men vs. women, but the number of participants was a mere 18,000 out of the total world population of 7.5 billion. This theory about the higher drive for status in men was tested on forty males.
The graph on agreeableness is almost overlapping which nullifies his claims about women having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading.
This research says that the one facet of Neuroticism in which women do not always exhibit higher scores than men is anger — then why did he not talk about this? Shouldn’t that be a factor enough for diversity training, so that we hire more women in computer science to make the workplace more peaceful?
An unbiased coin has an output of fifty-fifty — heads and tails — when it is tossed enough number of times. If you throw it two times, no one can guarantee you a head and a tail. He has completely ignored this sample space problem. He did not refer to the biological theories which suggest the opposite of what he has proposed. As Faruk Ateş says in this medium article, he has pickpocketed to prove his point.
In his interview with James Damore, Stefan Molyneux said that none of the scientists had declined James Damore’s claims. I ask him — what will the scientists say? They know their research is not conclusive. They have not proven any hypothesis. Isn’t it the responsibility of the reader to not base other theories on these untested ones?
These researches have to be taken with a pinch of salt. And so should be the memo of James Damore. I do not understand why people got so angry. But yes, he had a more significant responsibility when he shared such an opinionated piece of writing. But maybe he expected a bare minimum tolerance from the educated adult world. Google CEO Pichai sounded right when he said, ”To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”
Goldiebox’s CEO said in her open letter to James Damore “that what he did wrong was to propagate gender stereotypes that are overblown.” She asked him to apologize. She said that she conducted many interviews to understand the biological factors, but she never presented any data. All she mentioned was Adam Grant’s points, making her job easy. Her letter could have been so much more, but it was just a disappointing emotional eruption.
Who is to blame here? James Damore or the angry crowd? I think both sides had a responsibility, and both failed severely.
I wish we had more conclusive reliable scientific theories, but in the absence of those, we have to solve the problem of few women in computer science, differently, if at all. Faruk Ateş has dusted off some history in his medium article.
The article says, “Women were the first software engineers until men actively pushed them out.”
It mentions that in the late 1960s, by the time women had taken the code in their own fingers, men realized that programming was really hard, and thus, prestigious. Some men didn’t want women enjoying all the benefits of programming.
The ad campaigns, smear marketing, gender stereotypes, workplace sexism, hostility and unfair treatment, society-wide labor practice changes — slowly threw out the women. The society stereotyped computing, programming, and video games as scientific niches — only meant for boys and men — therefore, decreasing the number of women in computer science and coding.
We can explain the lack of women, just by this.
In this Bloomberg article, Megan McArdle says, “Thinking back to those women I knew in IT, I can’t imagine any of them would have spent a weekend building a fiber-channel network in her basement.” Then how come Rear Admiral Grace Hopper created one of the world’s first compilers (in her spare time) in 1952.
Megan further says that women have less affinity for mechanical things than men, even as extremely young children. This preference could lead to an environment in which women who could be great engineers decide they’d instead do something else. Then how does she explain that in 2005, women earned 55% of the computer science bachelor degrees in India? Does biology follow borders?
Though, I know for a fact that in India children study significant fields such as computer science, medicine, engineering to get stable jobs. Passions come later. Could you even factor in all these options and priorities and choices that people have to make which would get reflected in the careers they pursue? I bet it does not seem simple now.
In university, I could see boys pursuing their passions outside classes and over weekends. Some of the hobbies such as building robots had skewed diversity. The ratio of men vs. women was also skewed. Maybe, we can conclude that women want a more fulfilling life as compared to men. But some women immersed in their studies (computer science, coding included) and passions even on weekends. Many of them went to the US to pursue MS and PhDs in Computer Science and are now pioneers in their fields as some of my male friends.
All I am trying to say is everyone is different and even though, I know many women who fall into the criteria that James Damore is trying to fit them into; I also know many who don’t. I have met many women who are intimidated by mathematics. But I have even met many men who are no different.
Adam Grant, the renown author, and psychologist says that the gender differences have been vastly exaggerated. He says that across 128 domains of the mind and behavior, “78% of gender differences are small or close to zero.” And in leadership, which Damore has said would be more stressful for women, they are rated as more competent.
Nearly 4,000 studies in the U.S have proven that boys aren’t better at math than girls. If they are not better than it means they are not more interested, given the mental differences are close to zero. Cultural biases profoundly influence math abilities. In India, people expect that the girls would not like mathematics. Many people have asked me over the years that why did I enjoy it and how could I possibly understand it. Girls were under the impression that mathematics was not their cup of tea. Everyone accepted when they did not perform well and were not encouraged to do so.
The data on professional interests reveal that men and women are equally interested in working with data.
So why are there so many more male than female engineers?
Because women have been systematically discouraged from working with computers historically.
His two statements pushed me to the edge as well. He highlighted that women on average are more cooperative as a negative factor, but I think it is a great team player quality. Secondly, he mentioned compromising on hiring standards which he linked to an inaccessible internal Google discussion. He sarcastically compared hiring discrimination to mandate an increase in women’s representation in the homeless, work-related and violent deaths, prisons, and school dropouts.
We all would like to know if Google compromised its hiring standards to adhere to diversity. Can Google afford to do that? If that is true, female colleagues of James Damore must have been underperformers. Were they?
Do companies hire women with lesser capabilities than a competing man for the same position? Having worked in technology and finance giants, clearing rounds of excruciating interviews and interviewing both male and female candidates, when no manager or director told me to go soft on the women, it does not look like that to me.
Do we need diversity?
Gender diversity and financial performance are positively correlated. Woman make half of the customer base: not including their ideas at the production stages could translate into lower sales. By ignoring women, you are rejecting half of your potential workforce and losing out on talent.
Diversity programs and training have been helpful.
I was the only women in a team of thirty men. Yes, I heard sexist and chauvinist comments that I did not deserve. Did I shout? No. Did the comments upset me and make it more difficult for me to work with such colleagues? Yes. So it was nice that the company was helping me with ways to deal with sexism.
One of these training sessions invoked James Damore to write the memo. I would attribute his frustration to the fact that nobody paid attention to his issues, while Google went on empowering women.
Let us focus on some of his grievances that he has voiced out in the memo.
He said that men need to be freed from the male gender role — I agree.
I am in India, and I would not say that females have been freed. But the male has not been liberated either. I know many men whose family, friends and society expect them to be strong. They cannot display their emotions or cry. They want to change but they cannot. I also do not understand why I go through the excruciating pain of waxing. The society has nurtured these so-called socially acceptable qualities in all of us.
He said that a man is considered a misogynist and a whiner when he complains about a gender issue affecting men. I hear you, James. Society should free men from the long-held strong role of being hard and tough.
He also advocated the society to treat people as individuals — I agree. But is he not doing the same? By framing women into these biological norms while completely ignoring individualism?
We have over exaggerated the seriousness of his memo.
He did not say that the people present in the offices are not appropriate for the job. He confirmed that by saying, “Many of these differences are small, and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual.”
James Damore was trying to provide the reasons for the missing percentages. So, first of all, no woman in computer science, working her ass off, should take offense. James Damore does not have the right to tell if you are a good fit in your office or not. It is you and your manager and your colleagues.
But practicality is not our strongest trait when someone points the finger at us. I think Google CEO Sundar Pichai has correctly summed up the problem; he said James Damore crossed the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in the workplace.
Though he talks so much about psychological safety — that the team members should feel accepted and respected, would his women teammates be assured now?
The more I research and read, the more I understand that the reasons for gender diversity imbalance are far from being biological. Though, I was doubtful before.
The question is — do women in computer science really need to find these reasons or just try to bring equality in the workforce?
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