It's Culture, Not Biology

The blind spot in James Damore’s Google manifesto

A recently-fired Google engineer James Damore penned a 10-page manifestoabout the problems he sees with diversity and inclusion efforts at Google. I doubt seeing the document go viral was his objective, but the toothpaste is now out of the tube so let’s push it around the sink.

Damore makes a claim, based on “social science” that women are interested in people while men are interested in things. This claim, among others, suggests to him that it’s a reason why women aren’t represented in higher numbers within engineering. In fact, close to 40 percent of women with engineering degrees either leave the profession or never enter the field after graduation. But it’s not as simple as, “Hey, chicks just don’t dig working with things.” It has to do with (surprise, surprise) culture.

A survey of 5,300 women conducted at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee found that a lack of female role models, extremely limited opportunities for upward advancement, and career-focused expectations all played a role in women leaving the field. This is culture, not biology at work.

The male-dominant culture within engineering both isolates women and blames their “biology” for the isolation. Damore used biology to explain the underrepresentation of women in tech by saying, “the abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes.” But when we expand to include other industries, we see that culture, not biology, is having the biggest negative impact on the retention of women.

In a survey of 1,700 students at the University of Washington, male biology undergraduates underestimated their female counterparts and overestimated lower performing men. Even in 2016 politics, “outside groups of both liberal and conservative persuasions spent more, on average, attacking women.”

And even more disturbingly, women penned their own Open Letter on Feminism in Tech revealing they are dealing with being “called ‘whore’/‘cunt’ without any action being taken against aggressors” and getting “asked about our relationships at interviews, and we each have tales of being groped at public events. We’ve been put in the uncomfortable situation of having men attempt to turn business meetings into dates.”

Damore states that men prefer to systematize while women prefer to empathize and suggests that companies need to de-emphasize empathy. But women’s tendency toward empathy has major positive social advantage. A study of 700 engineering students across four schools — MIT, UMass, Olin College of Engineering, and Picker Engineering Program at Smith College found that women are more likely to combine social consciousness with an interest in engineering, meaning they wanted to apply their knowledge to improving the world for other people. But between the unwelcoming masculine culture and lack of openness to addressing social issues they opt in large numbers to leave the industry. What social problems aren’t being solved because the group most likely to focus on them is bumping up against a hostile work environment?

It’s not just about empathy, systemizing or preferring people over things, it’s about a stubborn culture that sees men’s strengths as a positive and women’s strengths as a negative. Damore speaks for other men, mostly white, who feel that diversity and inclusion is flawed and a waste of time. Sure, diversity and inclusion efforts might be imperfect, but isn’t that how we humans move forward? Iterate, iterate.