A Point-by-Point Response to the Memo “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”

At times, it’s worthwhile to take a statement at face value, regardless of whether there are reasons to do otherwise. I don’t know James Damore, the Google employee who has started a controversy with an internal memo about (among other topics) gender disparities at Google, so I’m going to assume, as a working theory, that I can take him at his word that he wants to start an open and genuine discussion around this issue.

Not being a Google employee, I’m not going to touch the points he made about the culture at Google. Yonatan Zunger, among others, has addressed this issue, and I trust you can search for more if you’re that kind of curious.

What I am is a research psychologist and organizational consultant with a background in cognitive science and neuroscience (more about me here). I am not the most knowledgeable or authoritative on any topic relating to gender and cognition, so I’m not here to lay down the law of science. My goal here is to address Damore’s memo and synthesize the sides of the argument (citations and all) into a workable conclusion.

Here’s the final conclusion if you’re impatient: Research shows significant biological and neurological differences between men and women. Socialization along “gender role” lines can both shape these differences and instantiate additional differences that can lead to gender disparities in STEM. But, research does not show that the cognitive differences between men and women are attributable to biological differences, which means that biology currently cannot explain the gender disparities in STEM. Alternately, even if these biological differences do exist and indeed manifest themselves as cognitive differences, gender-related biology plays far too small of a role in intellectual development to be a useful demographic in STEM hiring.

Some Working Definitions and a Note about my Biases

Why I put “gender role” in quotation marks above, and a word about gender:

The discussion of what gender is and whether it is binary is well beyond the scope of this essay, so I would like to establish some working definitions for terms that I find convenient (note, however, that Damore may have different meanings for these words). In this essay, references to “males,” “men,” and pronouns associated with those two terms refer to people with the XY chromosome pairing and have brains and bodies that are typical of people with XY, and is about a person’s “sex” (again, a term I use for convenience, and my use is not meant to imply that I am using the fully correct definition). References to “females,” “women,” and pronouns associated with those two terms refer to people with the XX chromosome pairing and have brains and bodies that are typical of people with XX, and is about a person’s “sex.” As such, I am not covering the full gamut of humanity, if only because exceptional cases are outliers and generalizations do not necessarily apply to them (and I honestly just don’t know enough to discuss it at the appropriate level). When I refer to “gender roles,” I am referring to social constructs that have developed for any number of reasons (too numerous and varied to discuss here), but all of my references to them stem from the notion that gender roles are inherently malleable because they are social constructs. I use the terms “ladies” for the female gender role, and “gents” for the male gender role.

A note about my inherent biases:

Everyone has biases, and agendas, and as much as we would like to be objective (and I’m going to do my best here!), we fail to some degree or other. The most I can hope for is that you will consider my biases and weigh them against the arguments I make. For one thing, I am trained in positive psychology, which is essentially humanistic psychology, and has a fundamental philosophy of humankind being inherently driven towards self-actualization in the absence of any blocks. The corollary is that those motivated to overcome their blocks can generally do so (laws of physics and such notwithstanding). Thus, I naturally approach the question of gender differences in cognition with the notion that a person can reach a reasonable and workable level of competence in any cognitive area unless someone can provide evidence to the contrary (capable until proven clueless).

The second bias I have is growing up with a mom in tech — she finished a graduate degree in computer science in 1981 (before I was born), so to me the idea of women in tech is as mundane as a hammer.

The third bias comes from studying cognitive neuroscience in college. I never saw any clear evidence of a 1-to-1 correspondence between a biological brain state and a cognitive mental state, if only because both are extremely complex and contain a lot of features that can be represented in any number of ways that may or may not be measurable with current instruments. There is currently no way to prove or disprove the precise extent to which biology affects cognition, save to say that the relationship exists to a significant extent. I also learned, however, that the brain is malleable, and that cognitive exercises and processes can train the brain to rewire itself in astounding ways (even co-authored some preliminary case-study research on that). This suggests that those who are motivated to train their brains in a given area are likely to be able to do so within certain [as-yet-undetermined] limits.

A Review of the Memo

(Damore’s comments in italics, mine in regular type)

Possible non-bias causes of the gender gap in tech [memo p.3]

On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because:

● They’re universal across human cultures

Not sure what Damore means by “universal” here. Men and women, as I defined them above, definitely have anatomical/neurological differences that relate to baby-producing processes. As my definitions were not all-inclusive, one must then take into account the fact that there are people with XY chromosome pairings with bodies consistent with XY and brains that are typical of people with XX (an example of being transgender). Damore’s supposed “universal” differences is already gone with the presence of this exception, and scholars in this field can no doubt find plenty of other exceptions. (But, for those who want sources, try this and this.)

● They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone

I think we can agree that prenatal hormones definitely play a role in how bodies and brains develop, especially as this pertains to anatomical/neurological features that relate to procreation. (But, see Sapolsky’s discussion and sources here.)

● Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males

And this is where we run into the first real problem. The concepts of “raised as females” and “act like males” are both social constructs and not biological ones. The biological concepts of “raised as [fe]male” and “act like [fe]male” involve knowing how to get a tab into a slot, how to ensure that gametes get into the slot, how to push a baby out of the slot, and getting baby-specific nutrients out of the body so that the baby can consume them. All other tasks do not depend upon biological details, and can thus be assigned to men or women. (Also, Damore does not seem to have a source for this…)

● The underlying traits are highly heritable

Given my statements above, I have absolutely no clue what this means. I do grant, however, that because genes are what result in the anatomical characteristics that specify which roles are played in baby production, and genes are inherited, I guess I can agree that the “male” part of procreation and “female” part of procreation are indeed highly heritable. Given, however, that one can have an XX brain and an XY body, and one can have an XX brain and be attracted to an XX body (an example of being homosexual and not having a de facto desire to engage in common XY-XX procreation processes), heritability of procreation roles isn’t 100%. Personality is heritable (e.g.), but that actually weakens the argument that personality is a function of gender and points to personality being a function of parents.

● They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective

Makes sense to me. After all, if one person could single-handedly decide to procreate we could have serious population control issues! Thus, as the expression goes, it takes two to tango. (Those who want a more serious critique of that argument can find it here.)

Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from all women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.

I certainly agree that heterosexual human beings who have tabs are more likely to want the “tab insertion” role, and that heterosexual human beings who have slots are likely to prefer to have something put into the slot. Homosexual human beings, however, may have different ideas about what to do with their tabs and slots. I do suppose that there are a few short periods in the life of a woman where she might not want to do certain types of work (if any) because of her role in the procreation process. These periods are few and relatively short, however, and those in the male procreation role would do the species a favor by picking up the slack. (This actually leads me to wonder why “helpfulness” is stereotypically associated with females. From a biological and evolutionary perspective, I would think that it is males who would need to be “helpful” while women are occupied with producing offspring.) These temporary bouts of female inactivity do not necessarily have any bearing on work or cognitive functions performed outside of the reproduction periods/processes.

Damore is indeed correct in his latter sentence that group differences based on averages have zero applicability to a single individual. This is an extremely important detail in general. For better and worse, expediency sometimes incites people to forget this detail and start making assumptions about people. Given the senescence built into humankind, we have only so much time to act and thus sometimes make poor assumptions that hurt others to greater or lesser degrees/scales (and which we sometimes regret beyond our power to express).

(The discussion of leadership is below.)

Personality differences [memo p.4]

Here we run into a critical question: is personality a manifestation of biology? My take is that personality is defined as being a function of patterns of behaviors (Hogan et al., 1996, provide some discussion of that here [NB: I do not agree with all of their conclusions, but they do cover some useful definitions of personality]). Some basic behavioral patterns are biologically-derived instinct (like withdrawing a hand from a hot flame), but complex behaviors are not (leastways, I haven’t seen any evidence of this). Since work (including engineering and coding) is based on complex behaviors, and complex behaviors are learned, biology would play a minimal role, if any, in inherent differences in the ability to do a particular type of [complex] behaviorally-based work (certainly true for knowledge work). Insofar as personality is based on behavioral patterns, and complex ones at that, personality is based on learned behaviors, which in turn are a function of socialization (not biology). As such, even if certain personalities leave one more inclined towards high performance in certain job functions (as Hogan noted, and with which I disagree, but that’s not relevant here), one’s biologically-determined gender does not necessarily yield a set of personality traits and consequently does not necessarily yield an inclination towards particular job roles or functions.

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).

Here, Damore cites Lippa’s 2010 paper analyzing gender differences, and notes Lippa’s conclusions without really covering all of the important points that Lippa actually makes in the paper (go read it!). The major error that Damore makes here is conflating a “what” and a “why,” and this is one of the most important and common errors in citing scientific findings. All of the studies Lippa cites, and all of the analyses as well, are a retrospective analysis of what males and females are currently and recently like in terms of their personalities. But, let us assume that Lippa and predecessors have done their homework perfectly — it would mean only that they have taken a complete and accurate inventory of the existing state of affairs without explaining why that state of affairs exists. To assume that this state of affairs reflects the biological nature of men and women is putting the cart before the horse. Sure, biology exists before personality, but one cannot be sure that biology directly leads to personality without actually observing and tracking that process, which Lippa et al. have not done. Further, if biology is not the only determinant of personality, then one would need to rule out all of the other determinants of personality before concluding that biology leads to personality (or would at least need to show how much each determinant affects personality [i.e., variance explained]). That is, Lippa and colleagues are tracking personality and gender after both have already been established, but that tells us nothing about how both were established and whether personality and gender interact with each other separate from the influence of sociocultural processes.

○ 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.

The challenge here is what is meant by “women.” It’s relatively easy to conflate “women” defined relative to biology (see my working definition) and “women” defined by the gender role (i.e., a social construct, for which I use the term “ladies”). As noted in the paragraph above, some research has shown that human beings who have been socialized to the gender role we call “women” and who match the sex definition for “women” that I provided above may tend to exhibit certain personality traits more than the gender role and sex we have termed “men.” Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the cited research is entirely accurate (for the record, it isn’t, but getting into that discussion requires a more serious background in psychology, methods, and statistics). If it is, that means ladies tend to focus on interpersonal processes, and gents tend to focus on objects, but neither of these have to do with coding. Coding, last I checked, falls on the data/ideas axis, for which no major gender differences were found (see the paragraph just under Figure 1 in the Lippa paper)! Problem-solving, which is a lot of what people do in engineering, is also on the data/ideas axis (and can also involve working with people in teams). In other words, Damore’s chosen research papers undermine his arguments. At best, he can contend that those socialized to the female gender role are less likely to want to tinker with hardware.

Since we’re allowing Damore to make his points for the sake of argument, let’s go there. Let’s assume that ladies tend to be less likely to want to tinker with hardware. This makes it likely that a smaller percentage of ladies will want to tinker compared with gents (let’s say that gents are twice as likely to want to tinker). It does mean that, for every tinkering-related job, we’re likely to see two gent applicants for every lady applicant. So, if we were to hire at random, we would see disparities that reflect tinkering preferences. But, we don’t hire at random, and the relative preferences do not translate into ability levels. There might be more gent tinkerers than lady tinkerers, but there’s no reason provided thus far to suggest that the average gent tinkerer is any better or worse than the average lady tinkerer (insofar as those motivated to tinker will likely pursue their talents to the fullest). Assuming a normal bell curve of talent distribution for both gents and ladies, the most you can say is that you are twice as likely to pull a gent at a given talent level than you are to pull a lady if you sample at random. As noted, however, hiring is not random sampling; hiring is an intentional, strategic process from recruitment to onboarding. As such, the strategic needs of the company can and will change who ends up applying, interviewing, and getting the job in ways that have nothing to do with the relative prevalence of gents in the tinkering space (for some technical discussion on this, go here). And, once someone opens the Pandora’s box of gender role differences, there is a possibility of strategy requiring personalities consistent only with ladies who tinker!

● 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.

Again, let’s just assume that the stated differences between ladies and gents in the paragraph above are all true (even if they aren’t). A person should be paid for the value (s)he produces (else [s]he is subject to being poached), and if ladies aren’t as effective as gents at ensuring that they are getting paid what they’re worth, then it behooves the company to create programs to help them. True, such programs should be available to anyone who wants it, but the emphasis should be on ladies because that’s where the lady-gent differences endanger the company. Similarly, if people are not speaking up, then good ideas are being hidden, and to the company’s detriment. Here, again, coaching should be available, but with a focus on ladies, as the disparity is a danger to the company.

One might contend that, if ladies don’t do this as well as gents, it is cheaper just to eschew the coaching and hire only gents. In isolation, this would be a solid argument. But, once the argument is accepted for lady-gent differences, it behooves the company to shore up any weaknesses inherent in a given gender role in order to ensure that the talent pool maximally reflects the strategies and priorities of the company. That necessarily implies giving different gender roles preferential treatment on different constructs. As such, the “exclusory” programs about which Damore complains are actually a necessary consequence of the tenets he is arguing as true. I will note, however, that leaving gents without support when they need is also to the detriment of the company, but a utilitarian will note that, with limited resources, the company will be forced to focus on shoring up weaknesses in ways that promote maximal returns, and this could mean focusing on ladies to the exclusion of gents as a suboptimal-but-necessary solution.

It is difficult, however, to understand what Damore means when he says that “women generally having a harder time…leading.” There are many forms of leadership (e.g., inspirational, transformational, servant, etc.), and Damore doesn’t specify which form he means. He also doesn’t provide a working definition of good leadership, so it’s hard to confirm or deny that ladies do not lead as well as gents. For a hint, the research is mixed, too, as discussed in Hannah et al.’s (2008) review. But, suffice it that research shows (ibid.) that ladies can be very effective leaders, and at least as well as gents.

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.

I obviously can’t speak to what happens on Googlegeist, but ladies reporting higher levels of anxiety in any forum may be selection bias. But, let’s just suppose that ladies do tend to experience higher anxiety than gents on average. So what? The issue isn’t the amount of anxiety experienced, but rather one’s ability to cope with it (for example, see the discussion by Pyszczynski et al., 2015; see also work by M. Pilar Matud). If ladies do not cope with anxiety and stress as well as gents, then, as above, it may be that providing coaching may be the most effective way to ensure that the composition and performance of the company’s talent pool is consistent with its strategic objectives.

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 traits becomes wider.” We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.

The line of logic Damore is citing is a social constructionist argument, if only because the nature and definition of “egalitarian” is a social construct. As noted in the article Damore cited (p.179, where the authors are quoting Ridley, 2003):

Ironically, the more egalitarian a society is, the more innate factors will matter. In a world where everybody gets the same food, the heritability of height and weight will be high; in a world where some live in luxury and others starve, the heritability of weight will be low. Likewise, in a world where everybody gets the same education, the best jobs will go to those with the most native talent. That’s what the word meritocracy means. (Ridley, 2003, p. 262)

The notion of “a world where everybody gets the same education” doesn’t make sense unless you are ensuring that every single student takes the exact same program spoken in exactly the same way with the exact same time taken for the exact same tasks (etc.). The whole point of education (and teachers!) is that different people have different needs, motivations, interests, et cetera. Which resources are allocated to which learning endeavors is socially determined, and not objectively determined.

Ironically, in an egalitarian society, there wouldn’t be any such concept as a gender role. Men and women would be socialized differently only as it pertains directly to reproductive processes, and would otherwise be socialized in accordance with their individual preferences. Even more ironically, it is only when we have such a society that we would even be able to determine whether the differing biology of men and women actually yields differences in personality and cognitive abilities. Without such a world, all we’re doing is keeping a pulse on how we socialize genders according to what we think they “should” be (another social construct).

I must also note that the citation in the last sentence is not a research-based assertion. But, Damore is certainly correct that there are any number of reasons for gender gaps, and some of them may not be sexism, but I note that it’s pretty hard to have a gender gap in an egalitarian world. I would guess that what Damore was going for is that we should not assume that gender gaps stem from deliberate and malicious sexism. If so, he does have a point. Approaching gender gaps as if they are deliberate and malicious can be counterproductive, if only because accusations of that sort make people defensive and less willing to listen and reason. Along those lines, sexism has become a loaded word, and using it can further incite defensiveness and willful ignorance of logic and facts. (This is to say nothing of how often sexism is or isn’t malicious/deliberate, but rather to say that assuming such nefariousness ab initio is probably less effective for promoting egalitarianism.) In this, I am a fan of Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

[Insofar as the rest of the memo is Damore’s personal opinion and has naught to do with research, I’m stopping the point-by-point here.]

Conclusion

The research is pretty conclusive that men and women have biological and anatomical differences, and that these differences do appear to lead to some gender differences in preferences (Soh covers this quite well in her articles [example], and people have been passing this overview around, along with this one). What is not clear, however, is that preferences have actual effects on talent or abilities. As Adam Grant noted, research suggests that there aren’t gender differences in cognitive ability (more here and here), and Scott Barry Kaufman has posited a crucial motivational component to intelligence/talent/ability. Granted, those without a preference may be less motivated to pursue a particular line of work, and biological dispositions may explain the gender composition of the pool of applicants in a particular field (but, notably, we have not even conclusively determined the relative percentages of males and females with particular preferences). But, even given a preference to work in a field, there is no reason whatsoever to assume that a specific person of either gender would outperform the other. Moreover, since hiring is a deliberate, non-random process, there are any number of complex reasons for hiring any given candidate over another once a certain talent threshold has been reached. Thus, since we lack any clear reason to assume that men and women are innately predisposed to different levels of ability in STEM, we are left to conclude that gender disparities in STEM are a man-made problem (all pun intended).

(And if Mr. Damore disagrees, he’s welcome to debate me on this publicly or privately. I welcome any additional research that furthers or refutes my points and RESPECTFUL discussion and analysis. This being my little corner of the blogosphere, I moderate the comments at my sole discretion and reserve the option to delete or block post[er]s for any reason or no reason.)

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Orin Davis

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.