Women in Tech vs. Human Nature

According to CNN.com, “Major cities across the country are bracing for an unusual wave of far-right rallies in the coming days. The largest scheduled rally is the ‘March on Google,’ which will take place in nine major US cities Saturday. The aim is to protest the firing of Google employee James Damore over a controversial memo he wrote about the company’s diversity policies.”

I have had a hard time understanding why Google engineer James Damore’s memo has been taken seriously. But sadly, it appears that it is taken seriously because he is voicing the anger and fear felt by of thousands of white men (including David Brooks!) and white men count. Damore claims his 10-page memo was motivated by his desire to improve the Google work environment and contribute to the common good. He also claims his argument is grounded in sound logic and sweet reason. But it is clear from the text that his primary goal was to belittle women, to undermine their positions and limit their opportunities within tech — in short, to work against the common good. And, it is also clear, given that his argument has no basis in fact and that his view of women is so negative, that his memo was motivated by emotion, specifically anger, anger against women and anger against the emergence of a new worldview and value system that just might negatively impact him, and all white men, by taking away some of the perks of being… you know, white and male.

First, the premise of the memo is false: He claims that “On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways,” and suggests that these differences are genetically programmed “because…[t]hey’re universal across human cultures.” He also asks us to “Be open about the science of human nature…” going on to say that “ Once we acknowledge that not all differences are socially constructed or due to discrimination, we open our eyes to a more accurate view of the human condition….”

I agree wholeheartedly that men and women differ biologically. How could you not! Male and female bodies evolved to meet vastly different reproductive requirements. And, since brains don’t exist separately from bodies, and, as Damore points out, the brains of male and female fetuses are drenched in sex-specific hormones, I would assume that there are some universal differences between men and women in psychology as well as behavior. But, as of now, there is no proof of how these differences are manifested, certainly no proof that the female behaviors he finds so contemptible — agreeableness, cooperativeness, lack of competitive drive — are genetic, rather than cultural. And there is no proof that genetic differences between the sexes, if they exist, would in any way negatively impact women’s abilities to make significant contributions to technology or any other pursuit that has previously been the province of males.

Perhaps Damore failed to get the memo, but, although it was the stated goal of anthropologists in the 19th and 20th centuries to find and describe a universal human nature, no one has yet been able to define what it means to be human, much less what it means to be male… or female. In fact, the more cultures anthropologists encountered, the more diversity they found. Not that universals don’t exist, they do, but they exist within cultures, not across cultures: other than behaviors specifically associated with reproductive roles, no one has ever identified any behavioral or psychological traits associated specifically with men or women that are species-wide, species-specific, and universal across human cultures. Although all humans share the same basic needs, how they meet these needs varies from culture to culture, which means that collective behaviors are not genetically programmed.

Defining what it means to be human has long been the goal of philosophers as well as anthropologists. Unfortunately, given that Western culture is both patriarchal and white, many philosophical pronouncements on human nature were based on a white male standard. However, exposure to different cultures with different standards has made it clear that the classic philosophical definitions of human nature were culturally biased. Yet, the legacy of that old, ethnocentric standard continues to have such power that it continues to privilege those who conform to it and continues to punish those who deviate from it.

It was this growing awareness that the standard for human nature was culturally biased plus the failure to find universals that gave birth to the post-modern age and the realization that much of what we had assumed about human nature was only true of our own Western “natures,” which meant that many characteristics that we had believed to be and honored as artifacts of nature, are in fact artifacts of culture.

The personality differences that Damore offers up as proof that women, by and large, are genetically unfit to work in or succeed in tech are clearly cultural — frequently more a matter of his own culturally-constructed negative perception of female behavior than anything else. And although, many of the traits he lists are popularly associated with women and even observable in the behaviors of some females, there is no evidence from any existing discipline that I know of to the effect that any are universal to all women, while there is a mountain of literature, plus plain common sense, that supports the argument that they are cultural. Which means that the female behaviors that Damore singles out for criticism have developed in women’s attempts to deal with the white male standard. To facilitate changes in women’s behavior, we must change the standard.

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