A response to that Google memo – Women in tech programmes are not a waste of money


Social conditioning is the cause of the gender imbalance, not biological differences. Madeline Bennett argues her case against the Google memo.

Google hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons this weekend, when an internal memo criticising the firm’s diversity initiatives and stance went viral.

The crux of the male Google engineer’s argument is that women are biologically different to men and therefore are not attracted to careers in technology; that people aren’t allowed to have an honest discussion about the topic as it’s “too sacred” an idea; and that programmes seeking to redress the gender balance are not only unfair to men, but are actually a big waste of money. As the unnamed engineer argues:

Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

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.

I’ve been covering the whole women in tech thing since 2000, and have seen the ratio of females in the industry fall over those years. I can certainly understand why from a certain perspective all the schemes and resources and money being thrown at the issue seem pointless. After all, if the industry has been trying for all these years to get more women into tech – one of the most exciting, buoyant and understaffed sectors around – and us females are still reluctant despite being offered so many ‘unfair’ advantages, we must be hard-wired against working with technology, right? As the Google engineer outlines:

On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from 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.

The memo contains lots of opinion supporting this argument, while avoiding any real facts to back up the points, which manage to pigeonhole both genders:

  • “Women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing.”
  • “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.”
  • “Women on average look for more work-life balance while men have a higher drive for status on average.”
  • “Unfortunately, as long as tech and leadership remain high status, lucrative careers, men may disproportionately want to be in them.”
  • “Women on average are more cooperative.”
  • “Women on average show a higher interest in people and men in things.”

There’s also a useful footnote about the issue of status for the different genders:

For heterosexual romantic relationships, men are more strongly judged by status and women by beauty. Again, this has biological origins and is culturally universal.

I’d have been more interested in the above statements if there was some evidence to back up the points. But let’s just assume that research actually did prove any of the points valid and true, I’d argue this is more down to socialisation, not biological differences – an opinion backed up by scientific studies.

Even before we’re born, girls and boys are put into their set gender pockets. We buy pink baby clothes for girls and blue for boys; girls get dolls and dress-up sets for Christmas, boys get robots and Lego kits. My five-year-old daughter has just finished her first year at school. She got invited to plenty of princess parties with just the girls from the class, while the boys threw football parties and the girls were left off the invite list.

It’s no wonder that by the time females are of an age to start considering which subjects to specialise in at school or university, and then which careers to focus on, few opt for technology or engineering, when all our lives we’ve been shaped a certain way by our parents and peers and society, and subconsciously taught that we’re more ‘emotional’ or ‘creative’ or ‘caring’.

There hasn’t been a huge amount of support for the memo and its viewpoint about these so-called biological differences. Yonatan Zunger, an ex-Google employee, gave a useful response to the argument for anyone drawn into believing that women really don’t suit IT jobs:

All of these traits which the manifesto described as “female” are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering.

Engineering is not the art of building devices; it’s the art of fixing problems. Devices are a means, not an end. Fixing problems means first of all understanding them  and since the whole purpose of the things we do is to fix problems in the outside world, problems involving people, that means that understanding people, and the ways in which they will interact with your system, is fundamental to every step of building a system.

Zunger also dismissed his former colleague’s insistence on a “need for discussion about ideas”.

You need to learn the difference between ‘I think we should adopt Go as our primary language’ and ‘I think one-third of my colleagues are either biologically unsuited to do their jobs, or if not are exceptions and should be suspected of such until they can prove otherwise to each and every person’s satisfaction.’ Not all ideas are the same, and not all conversations about ideas even have basic legitimacy.

This is the dangerous thing about these types of memos: while Google was quick to release an official response distancing itself from the writer and reassure us that these certainly weren’t the company’s views on gender, and freedom of speech and an open arena for discussing ideas are all well and good, in this case I agree with Zunger.

There might be a discussion to be had about the cost of diversity programmes and the value to business; or how to include everyone in these schemes rather than making certain people feel excluded and unsupported. But claiming biological differences for the gender imbalance negates any valid points the writer may have made.

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    1. Sarah Lafferty says:

      If anything, we need more women and more diversity generally to create the kinds of computer systems for the modern world. Engineering isn’t just about writing code, it’s about architecture, governance, ethics, accessibility, sustainability and so many other factors. We can only hope that engineering teams have enough biological and social diversity to be able to create robust systems that are fit for purpose in the modern age.

    2. I tried to read the original memo with a clear mind, and initially, I had some sympathy for the author’s position, which seemed to be “I understand the need for diversity, but we’re doing it wrong”.

      Unfortunately, he then proceeded to demonstrate exactly why people like him shouldn’t be in charge of diversity programs 🙂 Not just the pseudo-science, but even the basic understanding about why we build things. We build them for people to use. If we don’t get a diverse range of opinions and ideas about what people want or need, we build the wrong thing. If we don’t communicate and empathise with a diverse range of people, we don’t get their opinions and ideas. If we don’t have diversity in the team of builders (whether it’s a car, or a piece of software), we end up building something that is only useful to people like us. Regardless of what demographic you fit into, that’s always going to limit the impact your product has !!

      At a more visceral (not sure if that’s the right term), the author seems to be having a hissy fit because he sees life as a zero sum game; He seems to think that time and effort giving different people (different to him) opportunities means he loses, which is demonstrably untrue.

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