The most tired argument of all

Lauren Hallden
Aug 8, 2017 · 3 min read

I’ll make this quick, because I don’t want to devote my whole day to thinking about the argument recently made by a Google engineer — that biological differences between men and women account for the lack of women in tech. You’ve heard the claims before: that women are neurotic while men are rational, women are passive while men are assertive. You’ve heard them before because they are literally thousands of years old, dating back to Artistotle’s 350BC writings on biology and political philosophy.

In the rich history of tired arguments, this one may empirically be the most played-out.

A fun side note about Aristotle, though: his biological explanation for what makes men physically, mentally and morally superior? That semen is some kind of purified menstrual blood, which women cannot produce because their bodies are not warm enough. “For the female is, as it were, a mutilated male,” he argues, and her fluids are something like semen, “only not pure; for there is only one thing they have not in them, the principle of soul.”

You can borrow that bit of trivia for your next date night.

So the Googler is relying on ancient stereotypes and “evolutionary psychology,” or the idea that natural selection is responsible for our behavioral traits. And I am not a psychologist or a biologist, but let me just say this: I am instantly skeptical of the validity of someone’s argument when it’s based in evo psych. It’s fun to point to the cavemen and claim “men act like this because we came from that,” sure, but you can’t test it. There’s no way to validate it. It’s a series of seductive yet unverifiable hypotheses made by people who grew up in a culture, that support stereotypes found within that culture. It’s all a little…facile. Convenient.

Anyway, this is not what I intended to write about at all. Instead, I wanted to give you some insights into why the women at your tech company had a bad day, and how you might talk to them about it.


The reaction that I’ve heard most frequently today is this: it’s just one guy. It’s just a junior engineer. We all think he’s nuts. If you ignore it, it’ll go away.

If that’s the boat you’re in, I get it. You want us to feel better so it makes sense to argue that this isn’t a big deal. But here are a few thoughts that I’ve been struggling to express:

  1. It’s not one guy. Go open this in an incognito window and see what the top tweets are. Go find the quotes from internal Google chats in response to this. Don’t just assume everything is fine — do the work. Seek more context.
  2. It may seem easy to take this one thing and tune it out, but for the women you work with, it probably doesn’t feel like an isolated incident. Theoretically, I can overlook any one guy who yells something awful on the street, or one engineer who pens a letter about how I’m biologically destined for mediocrity, or one senator who’s trying to regulate away my reproductive care, or one date who doesn’t care about my career, or one president who…let’s not even climb aboard that Access Hollywood bus. But pretending there isn’t a pattern doesn’t do me, or any of the other women I know and care about, any good. Dismissing the symptoms doesn’t address the root cause.
  3. What does make me feel supported is this: when you’re aware of the situation (you’re here so you are, yay!), you’re doing your own reading, and you’re willing to let me say “this is painful” and really hear it. And then you go tell other people about it. You have the ear of people I don’t, and you can help.

I’ve spent entirely too much energy on this, and I know I’ll have to do it again tomorrow, so I’m going to catch some sleep. For more tips, here’s a solid post on managing people through difficult times. Let’s all work towards a future where we’re not having this same stupid Aristotle debate in another two thousand years. Okay?

Lauren Hallden

Written by

Lead Product Designer at @stitch_data, creator of Online Dating Ipsum, @alonelyproject & @phillydayhiker. Everything else is at http://laurenhallden.com

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