Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Dissenting Speech and Sexist Culture in the Tech Industry...

Last Friday, a Google software engineer named James Damore sent out a memo to other employees within the company where he argued that the gender gap exists in the tech industry, not because women face bias and discrimination in the workplace, but because of inherent psychological differences between men and women.

His 10-page missive titled "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber" makes a lot of contentious statements - that women are more neurotic and less stress-tolerant than men; that women are less likely to pursue status than men; that women are less interested in the “systematizing” work of programming; and more.

He was fired three days later.

At issue, though, is not only the extent to which sexism pervades in the culture of Google and Silicon Valley more generally, but also the company's decision to fire Mr. Damore.  Supporters of women in tech applauded the move (and several female employees at Google had threatened to quit if no action were taken), but others have criticized the firing as silencing an employee for speaking their mind.  As Nick Wingfield of the New York Times described it, to critics this has become "a potent symbol of the tech industry's intolerance of ideological diversity".

First of all, I strongly recommend that you actually read the memo for yourself.  Have an opinion that's actually an informed opinion.  That said, my own thoughts on reading it are that Damore makes an unbelievable amount of wrong-headed assumptions that are based on no facts whatsoever.  Take these whoppers as only a few examples...

  • 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.
  • These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas.
  • Women, on average, have more neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance). This may contribute to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.
  • Men are more motivated by status. Status is the primary metric that men are judged on, pushing many men into higher paying, less satisfying jobs for the status that they entail.

It's rather mind-blowing that such pearls of wisdom were conceived of by a college-educated man in 2017, and not for the purpose of an essay on 19th century Victorian England.  And arguing this is all the result of biology makes it that much more absurd.  The inference here is that women are not even capable of succeeding in tech.  How anyone can convincingly defend the content of Damore's message is beyond me.

Moving on, the issue over how Google handled the situation is more complicated.  Ideological diversity should indeed be valued, but it also has its limits.  In response to those who cite the First Amendment, let's remember that Damore's speech was not presented in a public space, but as an employee of a business in a private space, so the First Amendment doesn't legally apply.  Perhaps it would be constructive to think of alternative ways by which Google could have handled the situation differently.  Is there any middle ground between firing Damore versus keeping him on the payroll indefinitely?  Of course there is, not only in the form of required diversity training but with punitive or probationary measures as well.  They could have gotten creative, but they obviously didn't see the need.  To what extent that in itself is a problem, we can all have our own reasonable opinions.

However, I am reminded of the story of Al Campanis, who as general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1987, was interviewed on television by Ted Koppel on the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier.  The interview went like this...

KOPPEL:  Why is it that there are no black managers, no black general managers, no black owners?... Is there still that much prejudice in baseball today?

CAMPANIS: No, I don't believe it's prejudice. I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager.

KOPPEL: Do you really believe that?

CAMPANIS: Well, I don't say that all of them, but they certainly are short.  How many quarterbacks do you have? How many pitchers do you have that are black?

KOPPEL: Yeah, but I mean, I gotta tell you, that sounds like the same kind of garbage we were hearing 40 years ago about players...

CAMPANIS: No, it's not -- it's not garbage, Mr. Koppel, because I played on a college team, and the center fielder was black, and the backfield at NYU, with a fullback who was black, never knew the difference, whether he was black or white, we were teammates. So, it just might just be -- why are black men, or black people, not good swimmers? Because they don't have the buoyancy.

KOPPEL: Oh, I don't -- I don't -- it may just be that they don't have access to all the country clubs and the pools. But I'll tell you what, let's take a break, and we'll continue our discussion in a moment.

The Dodgers fired Campanis the next day.  But in perhaps an instructive twist, after the Dodgers responded by creating an assistant for minority affairs, that new assistant, Harry Edwards, hired Campanis back.  When asked why, he responded that we need the Al Campanis' of the world in order to know how those with prejudices were thinking.



At 9:40 PM, Anonymous beardutch said...

Disappointed with this post. Makes you sound like someone who has been living their entire life in academia and never worked for a private company or even worst, a biased journalist. His entire argument was explained it one paragraph: Note that contrary to what a social constructionist would argue, research suggests that “greater nation-level gender equality leads to psychological dissimilarity in men’s and women’s personality traits.” Because as “society becomes more prosperous and more egalitarian, innate dispositional differences between men and women have more space to develop and the gap that exists between men and women in their personality becomes wider.” We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism."

The rest of his memo is written to suport this argument. And to pull out four blurbs from a ten page memo is not right either in my opinion. However he deserves everything he gets coming his way because you are a moron if you speak your mind in any setting outside your home. We have been a shaming country for twenty years.


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