The talk of Silicon Valley just now is a document critical of Google’s workplace diversity programs, written by a now-fired software engineer named James Damore and virally circulated online.
Entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” the memo accuses Google of political bias aimed at “shaming into silence” employees wishing to challenge “ideas … too sacred to be honestly discussed.” These “sacred” ideas include the notion that gender disparities in the Google workforce should be reduced, if not eradicated. Damore, 28, believes that these disparities may derive in part from innate differences between men and women, and ignoring that will be “unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”
Damore, who was fired on Monday “for perpetuating gender stereotypes,” has since given YouTube interviews to a pair of men’s-rights advocates, Stefan Molyneux and Jordan Peterson, defending the essay and published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journalin the same vein.
But what’s most important may be the memo’s argument that a male-centric engineering culture is being victimized in the name of political correctness, and its implication that this feeling is widespread at Google and throughout Silicon Valley. That’s a hint that combating the notion could be a years-long, if not decades-long, process. The industry’s image as a place hostile to even the most talented women will persist, to its enduring disadvantage.
There are no indications that Damore is an outlier in his viewpoint. The memo doesn’t read like something he kept bottled up for a long time, and then let loose in a rush. It reads like the reflection of lengthy conversations with like-minded colleagues sharing similar gripes about those accursed diversity seminars, as though from adjacent urinals. Indeed, Damore told Molyneux that he shared the document “multiple times” and got “a ton of positive messages of support … at Google before all of this leaked.”
The centerpiece — and certainly the focus of many of the critiques — is Damore’s assertion that the “biological differences” between men and women may amount to “non-bias” — that is, innocent — “causes of the gender gap” in software engineering. He contends that these differences are “universal across human cultures” and create “highly heritable” traits that conform to what “evolutionary psychology” would expect to find. “On average,” he writes, women have greater affinity for “feelings and aesthetics than ideas,” more interest in “people rather than things,” are more gregarious than assertive compared to men, more “anxious” and less tolerant of stress.
Damore’s critics say this is tantamount to a defense of the “bro-culture” in Silicon Valley, but that’s too narrow. What it is, actually, is the invocation of “biology” to defend a dominant culture. That it’s a facile and faulty reduction of biology into a melange of psychological traits is almost beside the point.
Nearly four decades ago the late Stephen Jay Gould, in his brilliant book “The Mismeasure of Man,” demolished this sort of argument (one would have hoped for all time, but no). “Biological determinism,” he wrote, is typically invoked to give “latent prejudices” an intellectual veneer.
Over the years, biology and its supposed intellectual or psychological manifestations have been used by antebellum plantation owners to justify their enslavement of an ostensibly inferior race. By white South Africans to justify keeping political power out of the hands of a black majority that “just wasn’t ready” for rule. By American political leaders to deny the vote to women. By Nazis to rationalize the extermination of Jews, homosexuals, and Romani, or Gypsies.
The Japanese have invoked biology to explain why Westerners have trouble understanding their language, digesting their food, and competing in Sumo. Biology was cited early in the last century to justify the sterilization of supposed “mental defectives” in America — and by the venerated Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, no less, in his 1927 ruling in Buck v. Bell, upholding forced sterilization in Virginia with the infamous phrase: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” And now Damore says it helps explain why women are underrepresented in software engineering.
None of these arguments bears close scrutiny, in part because the claims are ephemeral and political; biological determinism often experiences a resurgence, Gould explained, when a dominant culture fears it’s about to be thrown off its self-constructed pedestal.
Damore tries to skate over this truth by stating that biology may be just “part” of the reason for the gender gap in tech, and acknowledging that these gender “differences are small” and shouldn’t be applied to any “individual.” But he’s just exposing the bankruptcy of his argument, which is evident from the sheer size of the gender gap at Google. How much could biology possibly explain why Google’s overall workforce is 69% male, or its tech staff is 80% male, or its corporate leadership is 75% male. Do ya thinksome other factors might be relevant here?
What may be overlooked in the furor over Damore’s biological manifesto is how thoroughly it explodes Silicon Valley’s foundation myth and undermines its self-image as the last word in an innovative entrepreneurial culture. The region’s tech industry certainly lionizes innovation, but only in a very narrow sense. It’s decades behind American politics, general corporate culture, and even sports when it comes to integrating itself into the broader society.
The reasons may be that people in other fields haven’t seen themselves as world-changing geniuses, and some long ago came through the fire of shameful public scandal. Almost exactly 30 years ago, Dodger executive Al Campanis unburdened himself on national television of the view that black ballplayers “may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager” and that black people weren’t good swimmers because “they don’t have the buoyancy.”