Sexism in the tech sector has been a long-standing problem. The latest manifestation of an industry in which machismo reigns and women are grossly underrepresented came as an internal memo written by James Damore – an engineer employed by Google (Google has since fired Damore).
The essay, which has been described as an “anti-diversity manifesto”, is titled Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber. It comprises 10 pages of bad science and biological determinism.
Damore outlines research that he says supports his view that women are intrinsically different to men, broadly less likely (and capable) of working in the same careers and industries. “Women, on average, have more:” he begins, before listing various attributes as innate to women: openness, interest in people over things, preference for social and artistic work, neuroticism and anxiety, extraversion expressed as gregariousness and a harder time negotiating salaries.
“Philosophically,” he reasons, “I don’t think we should do arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women.”
Schools of thought
Some of the science Damore uses to prop up his argument, as Angela Saini points out in The Guardian, is valid; but only insofar as there is a school of neuroscientific thought venturing theories of anatomical differences in men and women’s brains. Equally, there is a school of thought dismissing this idea. “There are published scientific papers out there to support every possible opinion,” Saini states. “Science is a slow process, not a growing string of truths.”
One truth though is that biological determinism has a history of being trotted out to justify sexism and it is problematic for a number of reasons. Damore’s manifesto portrays women as a product of inherited traits; understanding womanhood as an expressly anatomical concept without social and cultural influence. He needs to heed French intellectual and feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s famous line, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”.
Feminist identity politics are, broadly speaking, concerned with the ways female identity and prescriptive modes of femininity are shaped and constructed. Damore’s assertions presume gender identity happens in a cultural vacuum.
“We ask why we don’t see women in top leadership positions, but we never ask why we see so many men in these jobs,” Damore states. “These positions often require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.”
But we absolutely do ask. Men do not have biological predisposition towards stressful hours any more than women do; likewise, a “balanced and fulfilling life” comes with different expectations if it is likely you are the half of a partnership required to pick up the majority of the domestic labour and child-rearing duties. The structural differences that create inequality are more nuanced than genitals and genetics.
Damore outlines Google’s diversity strategies, such as mentoring and classes for marginalised candidates, as harmful, stating they actually “increase race and gender tensions”. Such strategies increase tensions only for those with a sense of privilege and entitlement, threatened by the usurping of a status quo they benefit from.
What he does not address is the widely discussed prevalence of an aggressively masculine “bro-culture”, making those long office hours even less palatable for women. A 2016 survey found that 60 per cent of female employees in tech roles reported unwanted sexual advances and 87 per cent reported demeaning comments from male colleagues.
Damore will no doubt, however, be heartened to know Google presently has a 69 per cent male employee majority – and so the damaging culture of gender parity he evidently fears is still a long way off. Phew.