It’s been six months since the world first lost its mind over James Damore’s Google memo, but you’d think the whole thing just unraveled yesterday. Branded by the media as an “anti-diversity” memo when it was leaked to the public, Damore, who was a senior software engineer working at Google at the time, called out PC culture and suggested that Google’s difficulties in attracting female employees may not be due to sexism or discrimination, but inherent differences in what men and women find interesting when it comes to occupational preference.
The Google memo hit a nerve for so many reasons—allegations of sexism in tech collided with hot-button issues like feminism, gender ideology and censorship, all at once. In an all too predictable way, the public’s condemnation of both Damore and his so-called “manifesto” was swift and incisive. Google’s VP for Diversity, Integrity and Governance accused it of “[advancing] incorrect assumptions about gender,” and Damore was promptly fired from his job.
Contrary to what’s been reported, however, Damore is not a far-right, alt-right misogynist intent of keeping women out of tech. When I had the opportunity to speak with him late last year, he voiced empathy for those who disagreed with his memo, and discussed wanting to reduce polarization between the left and right.
But as a refresher, let’s start with the facts. Damore’s memo wasn’t an anonymous email he sent to all employees at the company, or a Google doc that he shared with a few people that went viral; it was feedback invited by Google after he attended a “Diversity and Inclusion Summit” at their Mountain View campus a few months earlier.
In writing the memo, he advocated for viewpoint diversity in addition to diversity around gender and race. His goal was to help the tech giant implement useful strategies to close the gender gap, instead of ineffective policies based on the incorrect assumption that all differences we see between women and men are due to socialization or bias.
In January of this year, Damore filed a class action lawsuit against Google, in conjunction with another former Google engineer, David Gudeman. The suit cited discrimination against white, male and conservative employees, bringing Damore’s memo to the forefront of media attention once again. This was much to the disdain—and more likely, the delight—of those who bought into the nasty science denial rhetoric the first time around.
Since the lawsuit’s filing, the National Labor Relations Board released a guidance memo stating that Google did not violate federal labor law when it fired Damore. And another former Googler, Tim Chevalier, has also sued Google, after he was fired for denigrating white men. (Of note, the blog post Chevalier wrote and linked to on Google’s internal forum compared Damore to—of all people—Elliot Rodger and Marc Lépine, mass murderers who targeted female victims.)
The gender gap we currently see will only widen as occupational opportunities for women continue to expand in less equitable countries.
When you dig a little deeper though, looking past the drama and hype, it becomes clear that most people didn’t bother to read the memo before spouting their opinions. Going back to the version of the document that was leaked, it was stripped of all hyperlinks and figures referencing scientific material. (As of currently, these materials remain missing from the leaked version, but you can see the memo in full, here.)
As I’ve written previously, the science Damore cited is fair and factually accurate. Thousands of scientific studies have shown sex differences in the brain and corresponding differences in interests, personality and behaviour, resulting from exposure to prenatal testosterone.
Funnily enough, at a recent town hall hosted by MSNBC and Recode, titled “Revolution: Google and YouTube Changing the World,” Google’s own CEO, Sundar Pichai, said that in order to attract more women to tech companies, “we need to make the jobs more interesting.” YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki concurred that the paucity of women in tech is due to it being “a very geeky male industry.”
Indeed, an extensive body of research has also shown that cultures with greater gender equity—allowing women the freedom to pursue the jobs they truly want—have larger sex differences in job preferences; men gravitate toward mechanically-interesting occupations, like those in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and women prefer socially-interesting ones, like social work and nursing. As Damore’s memo suggested, seeking to fulfill a 50 percent quota of women in STEM is unrealistic. In fact, in 10 to 15 years from now, I predict the gender gap we currently see will only widen as occupational opportunities for women continue to expand in less equitable countries.
Somewhere along the way, science on biological sex differences became taboo, and in countering its existence, it’s become acceptable to resort to making up claims, like saying that the latest science shows something altogether different and that Damore was “cherry picking scientific evidence to support a preexisting point of view.” It also includes having the gall to put the words “prenatal testosterone” in air-quotes, as if the jury is still out on the legitimacy of its influence.
Speaking further to how threatening some find this research, Quillette Magazine suffered not one, but two, DDoS attacks after publishing commentary by three scientists and me, in response to the Google memo.
I’m not sure why it’s so difficult for these people to understand, even half a year later, that Damore was talking about differences in interest, not ability. Also, the statistical averages he was referring to don’t necessarily apply to every single woman and man, and they don’t preclude overlap between the sexes. If women aren’t going into STEM occupations because they’d prefer to pursue something else, this shouldn’t be seen as a problem. The reason it has been made into a significant societal issue is perfectly captured by this comic.
In order to mandate a 50:50 ratio, we will essentially be forcing women to do things they don’t want to, and what has gone unspoken in this debate, which I find particularly concerning, is the undervaluing of female-typical occupations. The belief that girls should be pushed toward male-typical jobs as the only acceptable option is where the real sexism lies, yet no one is talking about this.
What I also found terrifying is how the average person bought into the narrative that James Damore was a woman-hating tech bro who called upon “pseudoscience” to justify his “sexist” and “racist” views. Why did they buy into this story? Because they, perhaps reasonably, assumed that mainstream media outlets aren’t going to outright lie to you.
To illustrate my point, here’s a random sampling of some of the ways Damore’s outlook has been erroneously described: “men are naturally better at computers than women,” “women may be biologically inferior engineers” and “women may not be equally represented in tech because they are biologically less capable of engineering.”
Are these people reading the same memo that Damore wrote? If so, I don’t know how they came to these wildly inaccurate summaries as an interpretation of what it said. If we follow Hanlon’s razor, journalists promoting these specious ideas either don’t know anything about human biology and statistics, or they don’t know how to read.
It’s one thing to be working on a tight deadline and not have enough time to do your due diligence and actually fact-check what you’re reporting on, but the continued strawmanning of his argument, even now, is indicative of something more nefarious. In this journalist’s mind, it’s become clear that some media outlets, including those that purport to be about covering science and technology, are content on intentionally misrepresenting the memo’s contents and the scientific research to fit a particular narrative that’s been deemed acceptable by their readership.
I do understand where those who found the memo threatening are coming from and why they have fears that scientific research will be used to justify sexism and limiting women’s opportunities. But as a woman with a PhD in a STEM discipline, I truly believe that if a person wants to succeed in the field, there is nothing holding them back. Instead of investing time and energy in denying scientific facts, it would be more productive to combat true instances sexism.
In December last year, I interviewed Damore for Wrongspeak, a political podcast that Jonathan Kay and I will be launching in a few weeks. At that time, Damore was still in the process of filing his lawsuit, and I was curious to hear about what he had learned in the months following his mobbing.
From our conversation, I saw for myself just how earnest and well-reasoned he was. He said the experience had shifted him from being a libertarian toward the political center, and through engaging with people who disagreed with him, he was seeking ways to mend the current divide.
“Each side tries to only address their concerns, and in a way that will really annoy the other side,” he said. “That’s just counterproductive, I think.”
A recent survey of almost 400 tech employees in Silicon Valley demonstrated how libertarians and conservatives are “hesitant” to be themselves at work.
I asked Damore if he could understand why some women might feel sensitive to the issue of workplace sexism and harassment, especially in the context of what had unfolded with Harvey Weinstein only a few months earlier.
“I definitely understand that there is pain with these topics,” he said. “I feel like the solution to that, though, is more discussion and more acceptance of other people […] If you make the negative outcome that you’re fired and your life is ruined, people are just not going to talk to each other, and that’s worse.
“We see this a lot in the workplace, too, where if men are afraid of even interacting with women because that interaction might be seen as sexist, then they will stop interacting with women, and that hurts both of them.”
I also asked Damore what he thought could be done to improve our climate of censorship, and he pointed to his legal case, saying it was driven with the hope of “[empowering] other freethinkers to speak their mind.”
The lawsuit alleges that Google conducted reverse discrimination, openly denigrating white, male and conservative employees, using terms like “white male privilege,” and favoring “diverse” individuals, which included women and people who were not Caucasian or Asian. Additionally, employees were awarded bonuses for arguing against the political viewpoints Damore laid out in his memo.
What I want to know, among many things, is why Asians are being lumped in with white men in the name of advancing "diversity.” But then it occurred to me: it’s because we don’t fit into the victim-oppression narrative promoted by far-left ideology, especially when it comes to income and level of education. But instead of altering their hypothesis, people who subscribe to this warped way of thinking double down and change the rules of the game—the only plausible explanation must surely be that Asian Americans also possess “white privilege.”
Returning to memo’s initial point about viewpoint diversity, a recent survey of almost 400 tech employees in Silicon Valley between December 1, 2017 and January 6, 2018 demonstrated how libertarians and conservatives are “hesitant” to be themselves at work, particularly in the context of Google’s reaction to Damore’s memo. Right-leaning individuals also had higher rates of leaving the tech industry as a result.
Is this to say that Damore’s memo was all for nothing? I’d argue not. It, without question, opened up a larger discussion about politically correct culture, science denial and identity politics that had been bubbling beneath the surface for years. Without an honest discussion of these issues, it won’t be possible to find meaningful answers, and without an accurate understanding of human behavior and the world around us, we will continue implementing solutions that don’t actually work.
The Google memo, and Damore’s subsequent lawsuit, is a wake-up call, revealing how entrenched the brainwashing of these ideas has become in our society, and the extent to which individuals will go out of their way to preserve and promote a particular narrative. Take a lesson from James Damore—don’t back down against the mob, and don’t apologize for standing up.
Debra W. Soh holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience research from York University and writes about the science and politics of sex. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her and her writing: @DrDebraSoh.