Up until now I have chosen not to weigh in on the memo by former Google employee James Damore purporting to explain why there aren’t more women in the field of software engineering because I thought it deserved to be addressed by those who are more well-versed in the science. One of the best I’ve seen so far comes from Suzanne Sadedin, who holds a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology. Let’s take a look at what she has to say.
First of all, here is Damore’s main point:
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.
Sadedin has this to say about the science. She starts by pointing out that Damore focuses in on personality traits rather than abilities.
Sex differences in cognitive abilities have been well-studied, so it’s intriguing that Damore chooses to ignore this vast literature to focus on personality. The reason, however, quickly becomes clear when we look at the evidence: namely, there’s zero evidence that suggests women should make worse programmers. On average, women score slightly worse on certain spatial reasoning problems and better on verbal tests. Their overall problem-solving abilities are equal. Women used to score worse on math, but inclusive environments negate that difference. Even the (relatively robust) difference in spatial reasoning can vanish when women are asked to picture themselves as male. The only published study of coding competency by sex found that women were more likely than men to have their GitHub contributions accepted — but if they were project outsiders, this was true only if their gender was hidden.
As Yonatan Zunger explained, empathy and collaboration are also central to competency, especially at senior levels. Published results confirm this: in a study that attempted to identify the factors that influence software engineers’ success, the most important attribute was being “team oriented”. Neuroticism might hold women back from promotions, but there’s no evidence it makes them worse at their jobs.
Thus, to say there’s “significant overlap” in male/female abilities is a massive understatement. There’s no evidence that any known sex differences make women worse at software engineering.
But it appears that Damore makes an even more serious error in how he views the science.
His implicit model is that cognitive traits must be either biological (i.e. innate, natural, and unchangeable) or non-biological (i.e., learned by a blank slate). This nature versus nurture dichotomy is completely outdated and nobody in the field takes it seriously. Rather, modern research is based on the much more biologically reasonable view that neurological traits develop over time under the simultaneous influence of epigenetic, genetic andenvironmental influences. Everything about humans involves both nature and nurture.
What I have found whenever people attempt to discuss gender differences is that, first of all, they assume that gender exists on a completely binary scale. Hence, everyone is presumed to be either 100 percent male or 100 percent female. Science is beginning to point to the fact that gender is a lot more complex than that.
While most bodies have one of two forms of genitalia, which are classified as “female” or “male,” there are naturally occurring Intersex conditions that demonstrate that sex exists across a continuum of possibilities. This biological spectrum by itself should be enough to dispel the simplistic notion of the “Gender binary”- there are not just two sexes.
The second assumption that is also prevalent is that, when/if differences exist, the “male” version is superior. That is a mistake that a lot of early feminists made when they promoted the idea that, to be successful, women needed to be allowed to be more like men. The corollary to all of that is that feminism is all about how patriarchy has affected women. Sadedin takes that on in response to this from Damore:
We always ask why we don’t see women in top leadership positions, but we never ask why we see so many men in these jobs. These positions often require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.
Status is the primary metric that men are judged on, pushing many men into these higher paying, less satisfying jobs for the status that they entail. Note, the same forces that lead men into high pay/high stress jobs in tech and leadership cause men to take undesirable and dangerous jobs like coal mining, garbage collection, and firefighting, and suffer 93% of work-related deaths.
Here is her response:
I quite agree. Sexist double standards like that are horrible. If only there were a movement dedicated to fighting them, and creating humane working conditions that allow a healthy work-life balance for both sexes.
To be fair, this is something feminism has, I think, got wrong. We’ve focused too much on the ways in which patriarchy is bad for women, while neglecting the ways in which it’s even worse for men.
To the extent that many women are more empathetic or cooperative, I say “Hooray for them!” I also say FU to systems that don’t reward those characteristics. On the other hand it saddens me deeply when I see little boys being told that they have to prove their manhood by not being vulnerable and/or empathetic. Patriarchy has hurt us all in ways that we sometimes can’t even see.
Eventually Damore descends into sounding like a whiny victim.
We have extensive government and Google programs, fields of study, and legal and social norms to protect women, but when a man complains about a gender issue issue [sic] affecting men, he’s labelled as a misogynist and whiner. Nearly every difference between men and women is interpreted as a form of women’s oppression. As with many things in life, gender differences are often a case of “grass being greener on the other side”; unfortunately, taxpayer and Google money is spent to water only one side of the lawn.
Sadedin knocks that one out of the park.
So, when men do better than women (as they do at Google), it’s despite suffering from gender-specific oppression, whilst when women do badly (as they do at Google) it’s because they’re innately bad (even though we can’t find any evidence for that). Got it.
You might want to read the whole article by Sadedin. Those are just the pertinent parts that stood out to me.
I’d also like to include one note from Cynthia Lee, a lecturer in computer science at Stanford. She provides further insight into why I have avoided writing about this topic until now. It’s also a powerful response to David Brooks, who uses words like “mob,” “moral crazes,” “absolutism,” and “sacred taboos” to describe those who responded negatively to what Damore wrote.
To be a woman in tech is to know the thrill of participating in one of the most transformative revolutions humankind has known, to experience the crystalline satisfaction of finding an elegant solution to an algorithmic challenge, to want to throw the monitor out the window in frustration with a bug and, later, to do a happy dance in a chair while finally fixing it. To be a woman in tech is also to always and forever be faced with skepticism that I do and feel all those things authentically enough to truly belong. There is always a jury, and it’s always still out.
When men in tech listen to the experiences of women in tech, they can come to understand how this manifesto was throwing a match into dry brush in fire season.
There is a certain fatigue that comes with always having to explain yourself to a ubiquitous jury that is constantly judging whether or not you truly belong. At times, we decide to simply ignore it and get on with life, regardless of what the jury thinks. When it gets too close to home, it can explode from years of being bottled up.
I’m going to try not to judge Brooks too harshly. I’m sorry he had his white male sensibilities disturbed by the “mob” reaction to the match Damon threw into dry brush in fire season. As we say in Texas, “Bless his heart.”
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