In August 2017, Google fired engineer James Damore after he wrote a widely publicized letter critiquing diversity initiatives at Google. The controversial firing came amidst an ongoing investigation of Google by the Department of Labor for gender discrimination regarding their wages.
In his letter, Damore argued that:
- A hostile, liberal biased work environment makes it difficult for conservatives to express their views without fear or repercussion.
- At least part of the gender gap in technology fields is due to women’s innate weaknesses, because: biology.
- Women are too neurotic in general to hold leadership positions, because: biology.
- Women have more inclination to people than things and lack a competitive nature, because: biology (thus, women are just not natural leaders).
- Men are naturally more interested in status and that is why they are more successful than women in tech fields, because: biology.
- Politically correct diversity initiatives are damaging to the well-being of the company and are themselves discriminatory.
The response from many leaders in STEM fields has been swift and critical of Damore. Many journalists, academics and industry insiders have agreed that the letter was sufficient in and of itself to create a hostile work environment for female employees.
In this article I will examine some of the arguments made by Damore in his letter and why they are both misguided and damaging.
There are two victims that Damore constructs in his letter. The first is white men in general. Echoing discourse that has taken root alongside the rise of White Nationalism in America, Damore claims that since women are just not cut out for STEM fields (because: biology), any attempt to make technology companies more hospitable to them is tantamount to hurting men. However, who’s really hurting? Over 80% of the higher tier technology positions at Google are held by men, despite the fact that women make up 31% of the total workforce at Google. Further, the wage gap at the higher level is around 6% with men earning an average of $11,000 more than their female counterparts.
The second victim constructed in Damore’s letter are conservatives. He argues that because conservatives make up a minority at Google, the overall progressive work environment is hostile to them. Unfortunately for the strength of his case, Damore does not offer evidence for this part of his argument.
Here is what we do know: Damore has made clear that he believes women’s biological deficiencies can account for much of the reason for the gender gaps in tech fields. Damore argues this is just another viewpoint, and that it represents a “diversity of viewpoints.” Rather, I will argue that it represents a misrepresentation of the research on the subject, is misleading, and the expression of this idea is itself damaging. Thus, why the swift reaction by Google’s upper management was justified.
Let’s look at some of the bold claims made by Damore and why they are not harmless.
Gender Is Stable and Biologically Driven
A great deal of Damore’s arguments rely on a few studies referenced from the field of Evolutionary Psychology (itself a field few philosophers of science take seriously since even the most cursory historical review will show how this discipline was also used to justify rape, racism and sexism of various sorts).
Instead of representing the actual broad and complex research on gender from the last 20 years, Damore chose a few studies that confirm his bias. Had he looked at the entire body of research on gender differences he would have found that most modern researchers on gender have converged on the idea that the brain, behavior and culture are all deeply intertwined and impossible to separate.
In fact, what we do know is that gender is incredibly variable across both time and culture. Common sense demonstrates that the way women act now in America versus 100 years ago is very different. Our genes did not change, our culture did. We behave differently now precisely because gender is largely driven by cultural forces. Many studies have demonstrated this. Damore cites none of them.
Even the hard sciences are showing evidence that our brains and indeed our very hormonal systems are not preprogrammed from DNA, but are instead shaped by our experiences in a cultural world that has different expectations on girls and boys from birth.
To decide that patterned differences between men and women need to be explained by biology is to miss the point that, in fact, clearly society also creates gendered patterns and, along with the complex interactions between individuals and groups of people, is likely the strong force in determining gender expression.
Gender: Status and Competition
Another major theme in Damore’s letter concerns a persistent obsession with women’s apparent lack of drive for status and distaste for competition because they are biologically just more timid, agreeable, and people oriented.
Damore has made the fatal logical flaw that correlation equals causation. Yes, there are patterns to support the idea that women are less inclined (on average) than men to choose tech fields, to engage in aggressive competition at work, and to seek self-advancement at the cost of being perceived as cold or “bitchy.”
However, to jump to the conclusion that these patterns must represent biological facts is problematic, particularly when we have mountains of sociological research that demonstrate precisely how cultural values shape and create these patterns.
Moreover, again, common sense dictates that we have to see how these gender patterns have changed so dramatically since the second wave of feminism. Women today are much more inclined to hold leadership positions, play sports, have career ambitions and seek technological fields than they were then.
It borders on nonsense to claim that such changes correspond to changes in DNA over a 50-year time span. And yet, still Damore clings to the outdated and debunked biological deterministic view that only a scant minority of researchers today would support.
What Is the Problem? The Limits of “Viewpoint Diversity”
The subtext of Damore’s letter promotes the idea of biological determinism: “Women are less competent than men because of biological factors out of our control so any attempt to address social and cultural causes of any pay or career advancement gaps is worthless at best, harmful to men at worst.”
This exacerbates what the vast majority of research already demonstrates about women in technology fields and the barriers that have been documented over and over by countless research studies:
- Stereotypes about women and their biological inferiority at math and sciences start to discourage women from STEM fields as soon as they enter the school system.
- Gender stereotypes in the hyper-masculine world of high tech create hostile work environments for women, in many cases resulting in women leaving those careers to find more friendly work environments.
- The “Double Bind” means that women are judged more harshly for their behavior as “gendered” whether they are passive or assertive while men’s actions are often perceived as “genderless.”
- Implicit Gender Bias is a thing, and it is fueled by social constructions of gender, themselves made and circulated through discourse, such as Damore’s letter.
Taken as a whole, we cannot perceive Damore’s letter as an innocent “opposing viewpoint.” Instead, we have to understand it as the perpetuation of a falsehood that actually contributes to the hurdles women in technology are already facing, as the folks at Google made clear when they rightly fired him.
Damore is not a victim of some conspiracy to root out conservatives from the ranks of Google. He was not fired for arguing the merits of free markets or second amendment rights. He is just a guy that thought he had the right to perpetuate false and misleading ideas normalizing misogyny in the workplace. He didn’t have that right, as it turns out.
Echoing the larger political debates of our time, the Damore episode highlights that there are limits to the kinds of ideas that should be validated in our culture, our places of work and our universities. Ideas that justify and laud inequality, even when they are said with grossly misrepresented “science,” are simply not tolerable regardless of how much false victimhood they are couched in.
by Sharon Elber