I’m saying, sir, that a lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.
— Terry Pratchett, The Truth
So there’s this memo that’s been bouncing around the internet from a Mr. James Damore over at Google, in which he outlines his manifesto against diversity interventions. This gentleman apparently chose to post this piece, which is insulting on a variety of levels and framed in the language of biology and behavior, to the company-wide listserv, where it predictably incited inflamed and angry responses. Many folks much more eloquent and succinct have already explained why Mr. Damore’s action was not acceptable, and I suggest you go and read them all. But I want to go into a little more detail about an aspect of his piece that hasn’t yet been covered in great depth: the actual biology he references so enthusiastically and confidently.
Well. It hasn’t been covered in depth with respect to this memo, anyway, at the time at which I am beginning to write this. We’ll get to that.
Unfortunately gender is, as with many things in life, more complicated than it seems at first blush. Since Mr. Damore has enthusiastically co-opted biology and science generally to make his claims, I wanted to see how they stand up in the context of the actual evidence. Let’s take a moment to introduce myself and lay out some explanation for the tacks I intend to take. After all, you’re not my colleagues. If you don’t care about that, though, feel free to skip it entirely and get straight to the biological analysis. If this is all looking too wordy for you, you should feel free to skip down here to the bit where I just list a lot of other good but considerably shorter think pieces which cover other aspects of this memo in solid detail.
If you’re looking for a specific piece of the whole, there is a helpful Table of Contents right here. (And an editor’s note: I’ve fixed the linking on the footnotes so that clicking on any citation should now pull you right down to the footnote in question, and clicking on the number next to it should bring you right back.)
Who I am
Hi. My name’s Erin Giglio. Like Mr. Damore, I don’t yet have my PhD; in my case, that’s because I’m still in the midst of my PhD candidacy. My degree will be in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior here at the University of Texas at Austin, and I currently hold BSc degrees in Psychology and Genetics.
You can probably tell by that background that I do a grab-bag of different things, but it’s probably easiest to explain my background by introducing myself as a behavioral ecologist. That in and of itself is a fairly interdisciplinary term, and my background and work includes genetics, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience.
Currently, I’m working on context-dependent resource allocation in singing mice. That is, I want to know how the social context and resource levels of a given singing mouse affect its decision about whether or not to sing, which is something males do to advertise their position to interested females and potential male rivals. (Well. There’s also a minority of female mice which sing. We don’t yet know why, but it adds an interesting wrinkle.) I also want to know how they actually integrate this information to make decisions about their social behavior, which gets more into the brain side of things.
It’s worth noting that my work comes out of my long-standing interest in sexual selection and social behavior, and that what I’m really interested in doing is taking a look at condition dependence in sexually selected traits and understanding why that might evolve. These are topics that are often of great interest to evolutionary psychologists, but I should point out that I am not an evolutionary psychologist despite similar interests. More on that later, too.
Because I’m queer and gender non-conforming, I’m low-key fascinated with and very fluent in the literature on the evolution of sex determination, gender formation in humans, some of the work on intersex conditions, the history of how scientists have treated gender and “gender deviants” in psychology particularly, and so on and so forth. This is something of a hobby for me, and so I have a fairly unusual skill set related to it.
Judging from the timelines of his career points that I have seen, I would guess that I am significantly farther along in my own program than Mr. Damore was when he mastered out of his Systemic Biology program at Harvard. I’m about his age — I’ll be turning 27 in about a month — so I’m coming from a perspective that is slightly irritated with the claims that I have seen that Mr. Damore had no way of knowing that his manifesto could be seriously dangerous to his job or harmful to his colleagues. I think that you can expect more out of people at my age and career stage.
Why am I writing this?
…I mean, I do have a day job, right?
I’m a woman working in STEM — and I’m gender-non-conforming and queer at that, which means that I have a slightly different set of concerns to navigate compared to most heterosexual cis women. I have extensive programming experience and some unusual technical skill sets, including de novo genome assembly. I may yet transition into a career in software development, depending on job opportunities when I graduate. So these ideas directly affect me and my future career, and I feel pretty strongly that the things Mr. Damore is saying are both a) a personal insult and b) an excellent summary of the things that keep me up at night as I embark on that career. That career is still fledging and establishing itself in an uncertain academic context, and I am acutely aware that I am in a precarious and vulnerable position. I would like to not have my work devalued in the stereotyped framings he is helping to popularize. I also admit I am rather personally affronted that he is doing so by claiming to use my own discipline to justify his arguments.
Most importantly, I am offended as a biologist and a scientist precisely because Mr. Damore’s arguments are bad logic and bad science. I am in a scientific and technical line of work because I am very good at analysis and amalgamating many small lines of evidence into larger ideas. I am a scientist, specifically, because I feel strongly about trying to understand the world the way it is, not the way I think it should be, and because it is important to me to understand the truth as closely as we can approximate it.
Hence this piece. I have written it over the past week, with as much attention to detail and the existing evidence as I could quickly summon while Mr. Damore has been drawing attention to his “biological expertise.” I am not in any way the only biologist to criticize his conclusions by the time of this writing — see that “further reading” section below — but I am probably the person who has wasted the most time and effort in engaging with his poorly-justified arguments.
Why should you trust anything I have to say about science?
Relevant professional background
Well, for a start, all of this is a lot closer to my field of technical expertise than Mr. Damore’s. As far as I can tell, he has a Master’s in systems biology,¹ which he would have earned after leaving a terminal PhD program for systems biology before completing his degree. There are any numbers of reasons why he might have done this, and I’m not really prepared to speculate about why he did so (although I do find the fact that he apparently lied on his LinkedIn profile² about the nature of that degree to be eyebrow-raising). He also has a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology, and spent a year working as a lab tech with Dr. Jeff Gore’s physics lab³ before he started his PhD program in 2011.
(As an aside, he apparently refused outright to perform any of the usual lab chores that are associated with laboratory technician, graduate student, and undergraduate research assistant positions.³ Unsurprisingly, he says he had some trouble landing a job — as well he should have. When I supervise undergraduate assistants, I explicitly demand they take a turn handling these tasks for a number of reasons. This is not least because someone who cannot be trusted to perform tedious tasks because he believes himself too good for them can certainly not be trusted to be careful and thorough in the often-tedious and carefully managed environment of a working laboratory! It’s maybe worth noting that the position he did eventually manage to secure was at a newly-established fledgling lab with very few existing staff⁴ at the time he was hired.)
More importantly, we should probably speak for a moment about what systems biology actually is, because it’s a fairly specialized term and, like many departmental concentration names, it can be a little bit idiosyncratic. Harvard’s own department site characterizes their program as (emphasis mine):
Systems biology is the study of systems of biological components, which may be molecules, cells, organisms or entire species. Living systems are dynamic and complex, and their behavior may be hard to predict from the properties of individual parts. To study them, we use quantitative measurements of the behavior of groups of interacting components, systematic measurement technologies such as genomics, bioinformatics and proteomics, and mathematical and computational models to describe and predict dynamical behavior. Systems problems are emerging as central to all areas of biology and medicine.
What this means is that Mr. Damore’s training will have been computational and mathematical in nature. His advisor seems to have been Dr. L. Mahadevan,⁵ meaning his PhD training would have been primarily coursework and potentially working on research projects in a lab that does primarily applied mathematical theory.⁶ It’s difficult to tell what projects he might have worked on with Dr. Mahadevan, but it is worth noting that Dr. Mahadevan himself describes his lab’s biological interests as “recent and, as a consequence, somewhat desultory.⁷” The most involved behavioral focus that Mr. Damore has ever had in his career, as far as I can tell, might have been working on mathematical modeling of locomotor behavior in C. elegans worms. Particular expertise in gender, behavior, and biology simply are not features of his professional background.
By contrast, I’ve introduced my own credentials above: not only have I spent considerably more time working in academia on biology than Mr. Damore has — I’ve been doing laboratory research work in evolutionary ecology since 2011 — but my own actual areas of expertise are much more suited to an in-depth analysis of behavior, neuroscience, and evolution than his. I have simply spent more time studying these things than he will have had time to do, and I have been doing so for much longer than he has. But that isn’t actually the main reason you should trust what I have to say about the science of sex and gender differences more than you should trust him.
Why citations matter
The reason you should trust me is that I intend to cite evidence for my assertions with links to either primary or secondary peer reviewed literature, ideally pieces I can link here or books that anyone can check out from their local library. (I may cite paywalled pieces as well, for which I do apologize if you don’t have a subscription to a university system; if you desperately want to read a specific cited piece and can’t find it, I encourage you to check out twitter’s #icanhazpdf tag.)
That means I am not going to be writing this and citing Wikipedia, which can be (and frequently is) edited by just about anyone. There’s actually a pretty solid case study on that further in this analysis. My standards for a trustworthy source are pretty similar to your standards from high school, except that where possible I like to read the actual results of the data and the methods used to collect it and draw my own conclusions. After all, I personally don’t always agree with an author’s conclusions about their own material! I want to be able to make up my mind for myself, and where I can I’d like you to be able to make up your mind too.
This is not academic one-upmanship. Despite my discussion of Mr. Damore’s relative credentials compared to mine above, I don’t actually believe that credentials make an argument in science. I have strong disagreements with other, more senior scientists in my field all the time, and I’m not always wrong when I do so. In fact, sometimes people with less formal training than me ask me a question or tell me something about biology, and I don’t always know the answer off the top of my head. I’m not even citing here because I want to give credit to the people who put in the hard work necessary to produce the pieces I will be citing, although I do want to credit them; this work would not be possible without the years of research it took them to generate the data I use.
I am citing my sources so that if you disagree with me, you can go track down the sources yourself and evaluate the data to come to your own evidence-based conclusion. The thing that makes a good argument is being able to back your assertions up with evidence, and that takes time and effort. (That would be why it has taken me some time to write this, in fact.) If you want to argue with me, I expect you to know the data and literature you’re arguing from first, but I otherwise don’t care much about your credentials. Know where the ‘facts’ you are arguing come from. Ask how we know them, and find out where that data comes from. The truth is often much more complicated than the glib would prefer.
Citations are a major missing factor in Mr. Damore’s memo and again, this upsets me specifically because I value good analysis and thoughtful discussion of the evidence. Mr. Damore notably cites very few pieces directly from peer-reviewed literature in his original manifesto, all of them Internet-based in origin. Now, I am fairly sure I have an advantage on him because I am a working research biologist and I have university access to more journal subscriptions, but the advent of sites like ResearchGate and the #icanhazpdf tag on twitter make this a less relevant argument to me. Nevertheless, I will also be backing up my assertions by citing books and other secondary sources, in part because I only have so much spare time to devote to this thing — and Mr. Damore certainly has access to those works at his local library. Whether he has bothered to read them, when they might undermine his very unemotional and logical confidence in his own cursory knowledge — well, that I cannot say.
It is worth noting that criticisms of bioessentialist theories of gender often receive emotional responses from (frequently but not always) men who appear to feel that in doing so, writers are threatening, criticizing, or dismissing science itself.⁸ This is not so. My criticism arises, as always, from a demand to understand truth: if we are to accept any scientific theory or framework as reflective of reality, that theory must be robust to alternative frameworks. It should not fall down when it is given a logical nudge, even if it conforms with the sorts of beliefs about the world that reinforce our naturally comfortable predisposed expectations. Fear of the unknown is no reason not to question our scientific principles; in fact, for many scientists, delight in the unknown is the big draw.
Here’s the most frustrating thing about the lack of Mr. Damore’s citations: it makes it very difficult to actually argue with his assertions, because the lack of citations allow him to be extremely vague about his claims. It means that it’s hard to know exactly what he is trying to say and imply, because his arguments are poorly formatted and often reference nothing but his own appeals to authority or a popular (rather than scholarly) argument. This makes it difficult to work out precisely what he means in places, and it certainly makes it difficult to work out where he and I might agree and where we disagree, because everything is couched in an air of vague (and entirely unmerited) confidence that obscures the reality of what he is saying and advocating.
I will endeavor to be clearer here.
Laying out Mr. Damore’s arguments
I will preface this by saying that at the time of this writing, I am moving through the edition of Mr. Damore’s writing which was saved in PDF form by Motherboard⁹ as I respond to him, largely because there’s enough to address in that one without dealing with a moving target. I am aware he has posted a new version, not hosted on Google Docs, at https://diversitymemo.com/. But I’m not referring to this version because researching responses takes time, effort, and thought, and the documents seem principally the same in overall content. I am focusing on the document that was actually circulating through Google at the time that Mr. Damore was fired and the citations inside.
What is a biological difference, anyway?
For a memo which is so concerned with biologically originating differences between [cisgender] men and women, Mr. Damore actually presents a very vague definition of what “biological differences” actually are. He lays out a list of reasons that gender differences must be biological, but these appear to be less discussions of why specific consistent gender differences must be biological and more general reasons why some or all gender differences must inherently be biological. Let’s step through each of them briefly here, and then we will relay those which can be applied to specific traits back as we discuss each of these traits.
Universal across all cultures… are we sure?
The most likely reason that Mr. Damore says that gender differences are “universal across all cultures” is that many people with socially constructed views of gender ascribe gender differences to culturally-specific social constructs against which individual people may be compared. However, without relating a specific type of difference and then studying it across many cultures, it’s difficult to take this claim seriously.
One reason that cultural universality is such a big deal is that human culture worldwide (and history-wide!) can be tremendously flexible, and cultural context has been known to influence surprisingly “hard-coded” traits. For example, susceptibility to visual illusions is strongly influenced by cultural upbringing, as are spatial cognition, response to social punishment and cooperation, and the basic reasoning pattern preferred by individuals as well as a number of other cognitive traits.¹⁰
Unfortunately, doing truly cross-cultural studies is both difficult and expensive.¹⁰ Most psychological studies are still conducted on (often American) undergraduate students, usually undergraduate students taking Introduction to Psychology.¹⁰ This is because this population of potential study subjects is accessible — they’re already in the same place as the would-be researcher and have large supplies of free time! — and cheap, in that undergraduate students can often be induced to participate in psychological studies for nothing more than a bit of course credit. And many, many Introduction to Psychology courses either require or strongly encourage a certain amount of research subject participation from students to pass the class.¹¹
By contrast, doing a properly cross-cultural study requires having contacts and access to populations of people who can be persuaded (and potentially paid!) to do your study task worldwide, including in countries and even continents where the aspiring researcher may know no one at all when conceiving of the project. Cross-cultural comparisons inflate the necessary sample size, complicate design by often requiring translation into the native language of study subjects, and may require more careful choice of study administrators. Even attempts to increase participant diversity by recruiting non-undergraduate local American study subjects make studies exponentially more difficult and expensive, because adults with jobs and life experience past college tend to have sharply limited free time. They generally require financial incentives to participate in a study, and they may be harder to even reach and recruit.
This is a problem because human cultures across evolutionary and biological context have been and continue to be very variable indeed. For example, the famous WEIRD review paper I have cited earlier in this piece¹⁰ breaks down this population of “WEIRD”¹² undergraduates as being distinct from most populations of humans in a number of ways. First, industrialized peoples are unusual compared to many small-scale cultures. Small-scale cultures surviving in traditional forms today have generally had much longer to develop distinctions, and less contact with each other than modern industrialized societies. So we should not expect small-scale cultures to share similarities merely because they are not industrial: because they have had longer to develop independently, they might be expected to be more different than comparable industrial cultures.
Secondly, within industrialized cultures, Western cultures are particularly unusual and tend to measure on the extremes in cognitive tests when contrasted with a variety of industrialized nations, most often East Asian nations but also including studies of cultures as diverse as Russian, Middle Eastern, Malaysian, and South African.¹⁰ ¹³
So Mr. Damore’s claim that “men and women differ biologically in many ways [and] these differences aren’t just socially constructed” is a trickier one than I believe he would like to think. Cultural upbringing clearly is capable of having very strong effects on differences between people, regardless of genetic distance, indicating that it truly is experiential rather than genetic differences mediating these changes.
Let’s talk about gender and social construction for a moment. When we talk about socially constructed models of gender, we mean that the ideas that people have about how a person of a particular gender behaves — the mental model of what being a man or being a woman looks like — influences their behavior as they attempt to conform to or reject those social models. The question of social construction of gender is, essentially: how many of the gender differences we do observe are down to innate differences, and how much is down to different cultural expectations on us?
Many people confidently assume that because they do not notice gender-related socialization, it must be innate. However, sociocultural theories of gender are powerful precisely because unconscious bias in how we treat and describe boys and girls starts early: usually shortly after birth if not before. For a concise summary of relevant studies, I’ll just quote Dr. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, although I have altered her citations to point directly to articles you can easily read:
One study, for example, found that mothers conversed and interacted more with girl babies and young toddlers, even when they were as young as six months old.¹⁴ This was despite the fact that boys were no less responsive to their mother’s speech and were no more likely to leave their mother’s side. As the authors suggest, this may help girls learn the higher level of social interaction expected of them, and boys the greater independence. Mothers are also more sensitive to changes in facial expressions of happiness when an unfamiliar six-month-old baby is labelled as a girl rather than a boy, suggesting that their gendered expectations affect their perception of babies’ emotions.¹⁵ Gendered expectations also seem to bias mothers’ perception of their infants’ physical abilities. Mothers were shown an adjustable sloping walkway, and asked to estimate the steepness of slope their crawling eleven-month-old child could manage and would attempt. Girls and boys differed in neither crawling ability nor risk taking when it came to testing them on the walkway. But mothers underestimated girls and overestimated boys — both in crawling ability and crawling attempts — meaning that in the real world they might often wrongly think their daughters incapable of performing or attempting some motor feats, and equally erroneously think their sons capable of others.¹⁶ As infants reach the toddler and preschool years, researchers find that mothers talk more to girls than to boys, and that they talk about emotions differently to the two sexes — and in a way that’s consistent with (and sometimes helps to create the truth of) the stereotyped belief that females are the emotion experts.¹⁷
For their part, babies and children begin learning the moment they enter the world, and they develop preferences based on what they learn very quickly. Indeed, one researcher found that by the age of three or four months, the babies he studied evinced a strong preference for female faces.¹⁸ It would be easy to conclude that this is because babies are biologically adapted to prefer moms, who have historically been the ones most likely to be their primary caretakers (and often, food sources). However, when the same researcher checked to see what faces babies being reared by male primary caretakers preferred, the preference was reversed: these children preferred male faces over female ones.¹⁸ Toddlers can associate toys with gender stereotypes and prefer them by the age of eighteen months,¹⁹ and in fact by eighteen months can also associate metaphorical gendered items such as bears and cats.²⁰ That’s pretty quick learning.
So a part of what we ‘know’ about how different genders act and behave is absorbed from very early childhood, and as we learn and grow, we learn in relation to our self knowledge of what that gender is. It is worth remembering that the brain does not only shape behavior; behavior shapes the brain right back. Experience is known to change the actual structure of the brain over time,²¹ meaning that not only can behavioral differences be influenced by what “everyone knows” about how men and women act, but so can actual physical differences in the brain itself.²² In a very real way, the sociologists teach us, we can reify gender itself without necessarily meaning to.
Clear biological origins turning muddy: let’s talk about prenatal testosterone
So! Let’s talk about testosterone, hormones, and prenatal effects. Oooh, goody, this one’s my favorite. I like T, and I like hormonal research, and it’s just such a shame I don’t get to be nerdy about endocrines more often.
I’m going to first challenge Mr. Damore on his use of the word “often”, because in fact as I’ve demonstrated a little already and will go on to repeatedly point out throughout this piece, many of the differences in behavior between men and women do not have clearly defined, uncontroversial origins.
I’m also going to talk a little bit about what we know about the effects of prenatal testosterone on behavior and how we know it. But first, let me bring up a few crucial points about hormones. The first is that absolute quantity of circulating hormone actually doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the way that the body is responding to that hormone. That’s because hormones must bind to cell receptors to have any effect on gene regulation or other behaviors of the cell. For example, XY children who do not naturally produce any androgen receptor develop with high circulating testosterone… and an otherwise externally female-typical body.²³ Testosterone alone is not enough to change the brain; the brain must be willing to listen for it. And, as with all hormone-receptor systems, receptor production patterns may themselves be regulated in response to cues from either chronically high circulating levels of hormone or from other contextual signals happening throughout the endocrine system.
While there has been relatively little work done in humans on natural variation in distributions of androgen and other hormone receptors in the brain, this is known from animal work to underlie normal within- and between-species variation in a number of interesting behaviors. One particularly close-to-home example for me comes from the monogamous behavior of prairie voles. Because they are monogamous, after mating the male vole sticks close by the female, shares her territory, and helps to look after the young. Other closely related voles such as meadow voles are not monogamous, however, and in these cases males do not stick near females after mating.²⁴
As it happens, these behavioral differences are mediated by differences in vasopressin (a hormone related to testosterone) receptor in a few specific parts of the brain: the ventral tegmental area, the nucleus accumbens, and the lateral septum.²⁵ Prairie voles in which these regions of the brain have been injected with a protein that binds to and blocks vasopressin receptor from binding to vasopressin do not pair bond normally.²⁶ Excitingly, house mice who have been transgenically altered to express vasopressin receptor in these brain regions do exhibit a form of pair-bonding behavior, despite being both very distantly related to prairie voles and also a generally promiscuous species.²⁷
But, crucially, not all prairie vole males behave identically. Some males exhibit a pattern of space use that involves sticking very close to their mates, not wandering off, and having a tightly constrained territory; others stay in looser contact and occasionally wander into the territories of other mated pairs, seeking matings outside their pair-bond.²⁸ If unmated, males retain these approximate patterns of behavior. As it turns out, those patterns correspond neatly to vasopressin receptor distribution in a different section of the brain, the retrosplenial cortex.²⁸
Hormones are sensitive, is my point, and the brain is modular enough that it uses them to kick off many different processes. Testosterone and other steroid hormones are sort of like blunt instruments because they don’t need to rely on the bloodstream to get around — they can slide effortlessly through cell walls and straight into the nucleus, where their receptors typically live.²⁹ You can think of testosterone and other androgens working like a real loud “HEY WE’RE DOING A MALE THING NOW” signal throughout the body, with receptors in different tissues listening to different degrees and setting off different responses to that signal depending on what they’re hooked up to.
So okay, I just told you that we actually don’t know that much about normal human variation in testosterone receptor levels in the brain. What on earth do we know?
Well, there are two main sources for that information. One is the case of children who are genotypically XX but have something called congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), which means that one or more of the genes that produce enzymes to turn cholesterol into other steroid hormones isn’t functioning. This usually causes unusual surges in sex hormones before birth, and in XX children may result in what’s called “ambiguous genitalia”: that is, genitals that are sort of midway between the configurations we usually think of as ‘male’ or ‘female.’
Ah — if you didn’t know, we all start with exactly the same structures, and all our genitalia have pieces that correspond to one another. The penis is really just a very large clitoris with a urethra in it; the scrotum is a modified set of labia, etc. The receptors in the genital tissues during development do listen for the presence or absence of androgens, and if you inject the developing tissues with testosterone where they wouldn’t ordinarily be producing it (or you block the testosterone or the tissues’ ability to listen partially where the tissues are producing it) they sometimes become confused and develop in a way that’s somewhere between the two common organizations.³⁰
There’s not really much reason to change the receptor distributions there, anyway; to be honest with you, genitalia within a species are relatively standardized in size compared to an awful lot of variation in other body part sizes.³¹ They have to be. If you can’t fit your genitals together with someone else’s in a compatible lock-and-key style formation, you’re not likely to do much reproducing. The brain is a slightly different matter. Humans got where we are because our brains are flexible when it comes to different situations.
So the idea with studies of XX CAH patients — and I’m saying that because some identify as female and some as male, and there’s a lot of individual variation there — is that they provide a case where you have an effect of a lot of testosterone prenatally (because the body is producing a bunch!) but otherwise the child is being reared as a girl, and what effects does that have on the child’s behavior? And here’s where things get hairy.
First off, I’m about to get into a lot of stuff about gender identity, gender development, and the really shitty invasive ways that medical practitioners have historically treated children with these conditions in the next section. For now, note that XX children with CAH diagnosed at birth often experience a childhood involving often-traumatic quarterly or monthly doctors’ visits involving having to display their bodies to strangers and intrusive, gender-stereotyped questioning about their development.³² These studies are often described as if “experimental” and “control” patient groups are identical except for the presence of neonatal testosterone, and that is simply not the case. Even attempts to control for some upbringing effects by using XX children without CAH in the same families as XX children with it as controls³³ cannot control for these without accounting for the lived experience of intersex children, and it should go without saying that inflicting this treatment on non-intersex children would not pass an Institutional Review Board and might well be deemed a form of medicalized sexual abuse. Whether or not it should be inflicted on intersex children is an open question,³⁴ but it is worth noting that historically the opinions of adult intersex people have not been taken into account.
Remember all that information about the way that parents and other adults interpret children’s behavior and treat them differently depending on perceived gender I was talking about in the cultural section? As it happens, the label adults ascribe to a child also influences how adults interpret the behavior of young children, and this includes labels like ‘intersex.’ In one study, adults asked to interpret the behavior of a video of the same child scored the child’s behaviors as significantly more masculine when told the child was male, significantly more feminine when told the child was female, and (crucially for the discussion of parental treatment of children with CAH) intermediately when told the child was intersex.³⁵ In addition, extensive literature exists on priming and on the ways in which reminding people of identity labels can change their behavior in accordance with stereotypes associated with that label.³⁶ It is therefore a little problematic to assume that the only experience that distinguishes XX children with CAH from XX children without it is the presence or absence of prenatal testosterone.
Okay, so we need sources of people known to have variation in prenatal testosterone who don’t know that they have it until adulthood. Tall order. Well, the other usual source of information about developmental testosterone is people with unusual forefinger to digit ratios.³⁷ On average, the ratio of forefinger to ring finger is smaller in men than in women (although these differences vary substantially by population³⁸) and is very easy and cheap to measure, so the measurement is a popular way to study the effects of prenatal testosterone on the theory that it is a measure of developmental testosterone levels in humans. That being said, reports that digit ratio influences aggression have not been well replicated.³⁹ A 2011 meta-analysis has in fact concluded that significant associations between gendered measures of personality and digit ratio exist only in males on the left hand (!) and even in that case have effect sizes on the order of a Cohen’s d of 0.14 (see section on statistics for more on this in a minute). In addition, studies that rely on self measured digit ratios are prone to the same priming effects and issues with inter-observer reliability mentioned earlier.⁴⁰
Castrated boys raised as girls identify as boys: how did life turn out for David Reimer, anyway?
If you aren’t aware, David Reimer is almost certainly the most well-known case study to whom Mr. Damore is referring, although he is not the only one.
Nevertheless, David Reimer was in many ways the start of this story, and his story has had an outsized impact on the way we think about and conceptualize gender.⁴¹ David was born Bruce Reimer on August 22, 1965 along with his twin brother Brian. Both twins had some urinary trouble related to not being able to retract their foreskins, and so at seven months both were scheduled for circumcision. The doctor at hand chose to use cauterization to remove the foreskin on Bruce, which went poorly — so poorly it wound up significantly damaging the penis. The doctor elected not to operate on Brian at that point, so the Reimer family was left with two twins: one with badly mutilated genitalia, and one intact.⁴²
Dr. John Money, then a very prominent sexuality and gender researcher working out of Johns Hopkins, saw a scientific opportunity in the situation and convinced the parents that Bruce would be much happier if he could be reassigned as female and undergo surgical vaginoplasty. At the time, Money was a strong proponent of the idea that gender identity was entirely caused by parental treatment of children, and he saw the case as a golden opportunity to test this hypothesis. The Reimer family agreed, and the first of the sex reassignment surgeries was performed in January of 1967.
One thing that is often not widely understood by people who discuss the impact of hormones by studying cases of intersex children (and in this case, children with injuries that effectively place them in the same category) is that sex reassignment surgery is not a one-and-done procedure. David Reimer, for example, was required to visit Dr. Money for yearly evaluations after the first surgeries. Dr. Money was also apparently very heavy-handed in his attempts to encourage Reimer to develop a female gender identity, requiring Reimer to adhere to an aggressively stereotyped feminine gender socialization regardless of signals from the child himself. David apparently found these visits to Dr. Money’s clinic traumatic for understandable reasons: the evaluations were blunt, invasive both emotionally and sometimes physically, and as he aged included an actual incident in which Dr. Money required him and his twin Brian to simulate penetrative sex with one another.⁴²
(It has always reminded me, personally, of the way that straight people of my acquaintance seem to think that coming out is a binary, one-and-done process. It is not. Coming out is a process that must be repeated with varying levels of bluntness depending on how perceptive the people you’re talking to are. It’s just that storytellers like the binary transitions, and so those are what appears in media shorthand.)
In the same way, Reimer’s first surgery did not magically gift him with a normally functioning and normally developing set of female genitalia. The surgeons had crafted an artificial vulva for him, but not an artificial vagina, because there simply was not room within the body of a two-year-old child; he was intended to receive a full vagina later at adolescence. By pubescence David had become increasingly aggressive in his outspoken desire to not undergo this surgery, continue the estrogen replacement therapy begun during his adolescence, or indeed ever speak to or see Dr. Money again.⁴²
One thing I want to point out here, is that he therefore did not have a particularly standard gender socialization pattern, because his parents were aware of his “natural” gender and were in fact routinely reminded of this fact.⁴³ In fact, let me step aside and quote Dr. Rebecca Jordan-Watson as she provides a possible explanation for Reimer’s strong rejection of this imposed female gender identity⁴⁴:
No one actually believed that the child “was” a girl — they believed (or rather, hoped) that he might be made into a girl. In fact, they believed that, as unlikely as it might be, it was his only chance of survival. In Colapinto’s fuller account (2001), it is obvious that parents, the broader family, clinicians, and teachers — among whom the child’s original male sex was an open secret — colluded in the heavy-handed enforcement of femininity. The fact that Money recruited transsexual women to try to convince the child to have vaginal construction may well have underscored for Reimer that what was under way was, in fact, a reconstruction of gender, a replacement rather than “the original.⁴⁵”
Briefly: It matters what the developing child thinks their gender is, too, just as much as it matters which traits the child associates from their culture with that gender. And children are very hard to hide things from for long, particularly aspects of their own identity and history.
There is one study of gender identity in individuals with XY genotypes who were surgically assigned female in childhood that I am aware of — including 7 children who were not intersex, but lost their penises to circumcision or other accidents. One of these was Reimer. Another was lost to study. Of the five remaining, three matured to identify as boys/men, and only two were reported to be living as women without noted objection. So: 5 in 7 or about 70% of the children who were assigned female after loss of their penises to accident actually grew up to identify as men. Which leaves a good thirty percent who didn’t.⁴⁶ This is not a good track record at all, and hardly supports Damore’s claim about “castrated boys raised as girls growing up to act and identify like men.” Not all of them do!
I would say that muddies the water, personally. Wouldn’t you?
I don’t mean to say that I necessarily think that gender identity is purely socialization or purely biological; I tend to agree with Dr. Jordan-Young that the formation of gender identity is closer to an interaction or dialogue between cultural socialization and small predispositions on the part of an individual child that eventually forms into a mental theory of how individuals fit into the world. If that isn’t particularly sensible, well, Dr. Jordan-Young says it better than I do, and I have enclosed another block quote from her down here if you would like to hear a more thorough articulation.
A brief definition of heritability: are gender differences in traits heritable?
The idea of trying to assign a heritability value to sex or gender honestly breaks my brain quite a bit. The reason for that is that heritability has a specific mathematical definition that applies primarily to population-level analyses… and it’s one that doesn’t really apply well to the question of sex differences.
If you’re not familiar, heritability refers to the amount of variance in a trait that can be explained by genotypic variance alone: that is, approximately how much of the variation in a population’s trait is down to genetic variation underlying that trait? It is usually calculated by taking paired measurements of parents and offspring, averaging each along some scale, and plotting them in a scatter plot and finding the best-fitting line to that data; the slope of the line is the heritability measure.⁴⁷ Sometimes people use fraternal twins vs identical twins to calculate something similar but not identical.⁴⁸ Calculating that in the context of human sex and gender differences is so odd that I suspect Damore has mistaken “heritability” as meaning something closer to “how much of the trait is controlled by genetics?” which is… not the same thing.
For example, the number of noses on the human face is a trait with extremely low heritability. There isn’t a lot of variation in the trait — almost all human faces have only one nose — but there is some, in the form of people who have suffered tragic accidents via plastic surgeon or nose-eating platypus attacks. A few extremely severe cases of cleft palates might also inflate the variability, but even then that is going to produce a cloud of most people without noses (or having two noses!) having one-nosed parents and/or one-nosed children. That will result in almost zero heritability for the trait.
However, the number of noses on the human face is strongly controlled by genetics. Without going in there and cutting off a nose or adding one on, almost every time you gestate a human from human DNA, there’s that nose popping up like clockwork. There are very few developmental environments that cause humans to develop with anything other than one nose. So it is not only possible but very likely for a trait with high genetic control to have extremely low heritability, if there is minimal genetic and phenotypic variation in the population around to select on in the first place.
What this means for Mr. Damore is that it is honestly impossible to measure the heritability of between-group differences, because heritability is a measure of a single trait. The fact that he chooses to use this specialized term in his memo is a glaring sign to any trained evolutionary biologist or population geneticist that he is well out of his depth on population genetics. This is literally a term taught to undergraduates, and I should know, because I’ve taught it to hundreds! And this is not a mistake I would have excused from any of them.
Fitting predictions from evolutionary psychology perspective exactly
To me, this is a very strange assertion, because evolutionary psychology is sort of notorious within my scientific community for being more than slightly fond of post-hoc reasoning: that is, starting with the conclusions and fitting the predictions to them. So that being said, Mr. Damore’s assertion here feels incredibly tautological to me.
Let me explain a little more about my own personal training and the ways that scientists in my field, which is again broadly the evolution of animal behavior, tend to feel about evolutionary psychology. And let’s talk for a minute about how the intersection of the study of behavior and the study of evolution and genetics has developed over time, and the reason that it’s a little difficult for me to give a one-word summary of what kind of biologist I am, as opposed to Mr. Damore’s label of “systems biologist.”
It’s important first to point out that the intersection of evolution and behavior is studied by a number of disciplines and traditions, not only evolutionary psychology. In addition to my own field of behavioral ecology, these topics are often touched on by population geneticists, behavior geneticists, anthropologists (in fact, this is where where anthropology originated), animal cognition specialists, and so on and so forth. (I’m not even naming older disciplinary names like sociobiologists and ethologists that I rarely see in use today.)
All of these names refer to distinct traditions of work⁴⁹ which usually have historical frames in which a topic is approached and discussed, with varying levels of cross-talk among them, sort of like a long ongoing conversation. For example, behavioral ecology largely derives from the study of animal behavior in a naturalistic context first pioneered by Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz,⁵⁰ whereas animal cognition — also focusing on the study of animal behavior — tends to owe more to studies of cognitive biology that attempt to compare cognitive capabilities between species with an eye towards using them as models to understand human cognition. Evolutionary psychology itself is a distinct tradition of work with its own history and major players, largely rising out of a vogue for applying sociobiology ideas to humans.⁵¹
It’s why my home department is “integrative biology” rather than its old name, which was “zoology”. As techniques in molecular biology have become more accessible and more cost effective, biologists have branched out into different techniques and increased standards of evidence. That means that someone like me, whose theoretical background has a very strong foundation in evolutionary biology, might pick up techniques from neuroscientists, molecular biologists, geneticists, and cell biologists to delve into the mechanisms that lie under the topic I’m interested in. There’s overlap, but the names we choose for ourselves say something about the way we approach our topics of research.
Many of us read widely in multiple traditions, and it’s common in my department for students to cross-train with at least one course hosted by another department. My own lab contains students who work on brain immunohistochemistry, field biology, geotracking, pure behavioral work, epigenetics, and so on and so forth. In order to properly understand behavior, it helps to be able to approach it from multiple angles and multiple points and frames of view. This spirit of cross-disciplinary work is generally reflected throughout the department; I often see and work with students from the cell and molecular biology and neuroscience departments at my university in particular, and I have worked alongside, taken classes with, or discussed seminars alongside plenty of palaeontology students (from the geology department) and psychology students from a number of subdisciplines.
Curiously, however, these disciplines do not include evolutionary psychologists: I have never met an evolutionary psychology student taking any course, presenting at any evolutionary biology seminar, or interacting in any way with the evolutionary biology students in my own department, and I have never seen a behavior-focused Ecology, Evolution and Behavior student from my own department mention spending time learning from evolutionary psychologists. This is particularly odd because my university, which is the University of Texas at Austin, happens to host an extremely prominent evolutionary psychologist in the form of Dr. David Buss…and also several prominent and well respected behavioral ecologists in my department, most of whom are specifically prominent in the field of sexual selection and courtship behavior itself. This is also a topic that evolutionary psychologists have a well documented and particularly strong interest in, and this includes Dr. Buss. So why the lack of collaboration?
The answer boils down to the fact that evolutionary biologists and behavioral ecologists — which is, again, the term usually used to describe people studying the evolution of animal behavior in a naturalistic context — are typically some of the most vocal critics of evolutionary psychology.⁵⁰ ⁵² Indeed, several prominent behavioral ecologists have written popular science books that criticize evolutionary psychology openly.⁵³ ⁵⁴
Why might this be the case?
One huge issue is the question of adaptationist hypotheses. Evolutionary biology had a large intradisciplinary discussion back in the late 1970s and early 1980s about adaptationist thinking, largely kicked off by Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin’s classic paper The Spandrels of San Marcos. The central argument of this paper is that evolutionary biologists should not assume that the null expectation for any observable biological trait is that the trait is in some way an adaptation for survival. Indeed, some traits arise as accidents of pleiotropy — genes with multiple effects — and some merely develop over time by chance. Gould and Lewontin argued that in order to describe a trait as a known evolutionary adaptation, evolutionary biologists first needed to identify some evidence that the trait was both adaptive to survival and also that it had sufficient heritability for selection to be capable of acting on it.⁵⁵
While this paper was controversial at the time it was published, it has largely become accepted among evolutionary biologists that it is generally correct. In fact, I have most often seen evolutionary biologists use the term ‘adaptationist thinking’ amongst themselves as a slur, implying that another scientist’s research paradigm is insufficiently critically rigorous; it’s a term right up there with ‘telling Just-So stories’ within the field. It doesn’t mean that you can’t hypothesize that a trait evolved because of positive selection — it just means that adaptationist hypotheses must be tested against a null, neutral hypothesis.
By contrast, evolutionary psychologists openly argue that adaptationist assumptions are essential to the field and are simply good science, and that starting with adaptationist hypotheses just makes sense.⁵⁶ This is further confounded by the methodology generally chosen in the field of evolutionary psychology (see below), which is typically limited to surveys confirming that the behavior in question does in fact exist — something even acknowledged by defenders of the field’s capabilities of falsification.⁵⁷ Occasionally fMRI studies are also used.
Unfortunately, these techniques do not directly confirm the underlying reasons or development of the behavior at hand, and so their use is often viewed as dubious by evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists⁵⁸ used to being able to rely on heritability, candidate genes which can be tested for genetic markers of selection, or between-species phylogenetic analyses in order to make inferences about evolution. In part, this is because it is difficult to use many of the methods available to a behavioral ecologist on humans for reasons of ethics and, often, feasibility.
For example, a popular technique to understand changes in the brain for behavioral ecologists is the immediate early gene study, which attempts to understand changes in gene regulation that happen as a response to a behavioral stimulus. In this technique, animals are exposed to one of two stimuli, given a set period of time for changes in genetic regulation to take place (typically on the order of 60 minutes) and then sacrificed. Brains are then sliced and stained for the proteins produced by so-called “house-keeping genes” which are known to herald large-scale changes in genetic regulation in the brain; large amounts of housekeeping proteins like egr-1 or c-fos imply that brains are responding to stimuli by reconfiguring their signaling systems in these places.⁵⁹
Once this has been done, further studies may compare gene expression differences between individuals in different treatments in the brain regions indicated by the immediate early gene study, which can then be studied for evidence of evolutionary changes. It does not take a large stretch of the imagination to understand why this is not a mechanistic technique available to the enterprising evolutionary psychologist. However, because evolutionary psychologists are frequently hampered by any ability to assay mechanisms of change or find genetic evidence of selection (or even hard evidence that traits are genetic), evolutionary biologists frequently criticize evolutionary psychology as proceeding post-hoc by observing behavioral variation without adequately determining causative mechanism and inventing potentially adaptive explanations for these behaviors. This is unacceptable methodology by the standards of any behavioral ecologist.
Evolutionary biologists and behavioral ecologists sometimes also raise eyebrows at the contention held by nearly all evolutionary psychologists that humans have not had time to evolve appreciably through the brain since the Paleocene.⁴⁴ ⁵³ In fact, evolutionary biologists know that evolution can happen quite quickly, and indeed have demonstrated several cases of human evolutionary adaptation since the advent of agriculture.⁶⁰ This is particularly true since behavioral change is likely to be mediated by selective changes in gene regulation rather than in coding regions themselves.⁶¹
(A quick note on fMRI, because not many people are particularly familiar with how to read fMRI studies. If you’ve ever seen a study that presents pictures of glowy heat maps superimposed on a human brain, that is an fMRI study. While fMRI studies are often described as “measuring brain activity,” what is actually being measured is the flow of blood to particular regions of the brain by measuring very subtle changes in the magnetic fields within the device. The implicit assumption is that brain regions which are requiring more blood flow are doing something different, but this is a much vaguer kind of statement to make than can be made after an immediate early gene study or a direct measurement of neuronal firing ability, also a technique used by behavioral ecologists. fMRI studies are also much more vulnerable to false positive errors in testing because each voxel of the brain is continuously being tested for changes in blood flow throughout the experiment, and with such a large sample size seemingly meaningful patterns can emerge by chance alone. In fact, a very well publicized incident in which a dead salmon was placed into an fMRI scanner and showed significant activity galvanized the fMRI community and resulted in better use of multiple comparisons correcting several years ago.⁶² ⁶³)
So in conclusion, it seems to me to be quite funny to argue that your concepts of human biological gender differences are correct because they fit all the predictions of evolutionary psychology, when evolutionary psychology is a discipline that notoriously fails to study the actual evolution part of the behaviors it discusses, instead using certain aspects of evolutionary theory to generate hypotheses. Evolutionary psychology’s predictions are post-hoc and derive from assuming the existence of “biological” differences between sexes to start with.
A note about figures, variation, and plots
Mr. Damore’s next move after he explains the reasoning for his biological list is to present this figure right here with a disclaimer.
Shortly before he produces this figure, he writes:
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.
This is a wise move on his part, given that the evidence repeatedly and substantially indicates that most differences between human men and women have wide variances and relatively close means, much more like the first graph on the list than the second. (I’ll get to several specific cases in a minute.) So why does he bring it up at all? Mr. Damore says he cares strongly about diversity and women’s ability to enter science if they have the aptitude, after all, and I imagine he is trying to drive that point home here.
The problem is that the rest of Mr. Damore’s writing does not reflect that he has internalized this idea. Let me explain. For a graph with two populations distributed along the lines of the upper graph, if you were to randomly sample a single person from each, knowing the gender of each person would be relatively unhelpful to helping you predict which person measured higher in the trait. Now, Mr. Damore’s distributions are theoretical, but let me show you a quick real world example using human height. Height is definitely a characteristic strongly influenced by biological sex but also is influenced by many other genetic and (yes) environmental factors, so it makes a particularly ideal example. Let’s take a quick look at it.
This figure is drawn using data from a CDC dataset taken from 2011 to 2014 on American adults from a variety of racial backgrounds⁶⁴; I’ve simply pulled the mean and standard errors for all adults over 20 years and used them to shape normal distributions of height.
Now, you’ll note that there’s considerable overlap between those lines, just as in Mr. Damore’s first figure. That means that there are some women out there who are taller than some men. Not a problematic point, right? I should probably note that if I run a quick linear regression of this data in Python with a sample size of 5000 (approximately the sample size underlying the real numbers from which these data were drawn, also reported by the CDC), the results are nice and strong: p < 0.0001; Cohen’s d (the statistic used by most of our psych papers) of -1.04. What do these numbers mean? I assume that Mr. Damore is well aware of this extremely basic bit of statistics, but if you aren’t, reader, that means two things.
The first number, the p-value, is the the chance that we just happened to get a whole bunch of shorter women and a whole bunch of taller men, and this data set is misleading us from the Real Truth that women and men are on average of equal height? Those odds are so small as to be infinitesimal — in this case, less than one in ten thousand, or roughly three times less likely than a lightning strike.
The second number, Cohen’s D (or the effect size), is the difference between the averages of the two groups compared to their standard deviation. Here, the sex of individuals has an effect size of 1.04, which is a large effect size, as these things go. Just to get an idea, you can play with this helpful tool to get a feel for what the different statistics mean; here, about 60% of the population will overlap (so fall into a height range that could belong to a man or a woman), and if you pull out a random man and a random woman, you have about a 77% chance the man will be taller. That means there’s definitely a pretty substantial difference there, and it means that you’re well within your rights to assume that if you pull one random woman and one random man, the woman will probably be shorter. Not in every case, of course. But it’s a reasonable assumption, and it’s true often enough that you can use it to drive policy without raising any eyebrows. People who are comfortable in tiny airplane seats, like myself, for example: very likely to be women.
It also means that if you know someone’s height, you have a pretty good shot at guessing whether they’re male or female, especially if they fall towards one extreme or the other. Not perfect — if you could tell perfectly from knowing their height what sex they were, you’d have a curve more like Mr. Damore’s second curve, the one he says is bad and wrong. That kind of curve would have a Cohen’s d of infinity. For additonal reference, anything over an effect size of 0.8 is generally considered to be ‘large’.
Mr. Damore is gracious indeed when he draws his curves: his populations have an even closer overlap than my figure for human height, implying more overlap between the populations than is the case for height. That’s good as well; if we look at the data, that’s the case for many traits in which men and women are indeed significantly different. And indeed, Mr. Damore’s argument sounds like he thinks that personality differences between men and women are distributions that look rather like our mocked-up one for height.
It’s worth noting that statistical significance (p values) and effect size (Cohen’s d) values are not necessarily correlated. For example, it is possible to have a very low p-value between two groups with extremely small effect size values, such that there is a difference there but it explains very little of the variation in the population of both groups in meaningful terms. These kinds of results often require sampling a lot of people in each group to even see. This is why it is always important to get a measure of the actual effect size or strength of effect when you evaluate a study that reports statistical significance.⁶⁵”
My point when I say that Mr. Damore has not internalized this idea is that his figure creates a straw-man: either there is no overlap, in which case he is being sexist, or…. Overlap and some female exceptions to his on-average rules exist, in which case we should… reduce investment in diversity programs?
What do those effects sizes actually look like? And which pattern do real-world gender differences fit?
Let’s look at whether or not men and women have different basic values, since that premise is such a fundamental assumption underlying Mr. Damore’s assertion later on that women value social status and career success less and family and social interactions more. One very thorough study even took the time to rule out cultural differences by testing the stated priorities that 77,528 people in 70 countries assigned to ten fundamental values: power, achievement, hedonism, stimulation/novelty, self-direction, universalism, benevolence, tradition, conformity, and security. When all the data is collated, p values came out very low between sexes — but effect sizes came out consistently very small, too, ranging from about a 75% overlap between our theoretical curves to a 90% overlap. For reference, the example graph I’ve placed above has an overlap of about 60%.
In the researchers’ own words, “Taken together, the four studies lead to the conclusion that men and women differ consistently in the importance they attribute to most basic values. However, the size of sex differences is small, both absolutely and compared with other sources of difference. And the effects of sex on value importance vary substantially across cultures.” What they mean by that point is that for every single value, there was a significant interaction effect between cultural and sex-specific effects. That means that while men and women might be consistently different, the culture in which they are raised has unpredictable effects on both the direction and the strength of the sex-specific acts.⁶⁶
For the record, the overall difference between the sexes, again while significant, resulted in Cohen’s d values of -0.36 between sexes on how much each prioritized power, -0.10 on self-direction. Most important for our purposes, since Mr. Damore makes some big claims about ambition in women, the effect size of sex on prioritization of achievement is a whopping -0.11. That means that if you took a random man and a random woman from a randomized culture (but both from the same one, of course) and you scored each of them on how much they valued personal achievement and status, you’d have about a 2% advantage over sheer random chance if you bet on the man to be more invested in achieving. Things look very slightly better on power, but you’re still looking at a whole 10% increase in likelihood for betting on the man to be more invested in personal power. 10%.
Turns out, rather unsurprisingly, that culture, class, and age both have much, much more powerful effect sizes on values. The study took looks at four subsamples of cultures which were all assayed at about the same time on these scales, using relatively comparable groups of people. Culture, education level, and age all consistently explain more variation in answers than sex does.
I strongly encourage you guys to go click that link and walk through what those distributions look like for yourselves, especially if your statistical training is relatively minimal. Think about what that means for your policy decisions, and consider that ambition and desire for power…well, they don’t alway square perfectly with actual talent.
Now that we’ve walked through Mr. Damore’s leadup, let’s talk about the actual ways in which he argues that men and women differ.
Sources cited by Mr. Damore
Mr. Damore argues that on average, men and women’s personality measures vary when both populations are assayed on the Big Five score. This is an assay that aims to accurately measure and draw conclusions about permanently or at least long-term reliable traits of an individual’s mind, which is as it turns out a little more difficult than it sounds. (This is particularly true in children and young adults, for whom personality trait reliability over time is notoriously difficult to measure.⁶⁷)
Studies in identical and fraternal twins seem to indicate four of the Big Five come in relatively high in terms of heritability (with the exception of Openness), although this estimate may be slightly inflated because the authors of this particular study only accepted twin pairs who had been raised together, meaning that environmental variation in the sample was minimized.⁶⁸ Environmental and sociocultural effects on Big Five averages are further supported by reports of changes in average results across cultures, meaning that these scales may need recalibrating in culture-specific ways.
But are men and women different across Big Five personality type axes, on average? Well, Mr. Damore cites a Wikipedia article when he claims that men and women have different personality types. I wanted to see the data, so I went and looked up the sources for the two sentences the Wikipedia section has on the traits Mr. Damore mentions.
The wikipedia article appends citation 75 for the sentence “Meta-analytic studies have also found males on average to be more assertive and having higher self-esteem. Females were on average higher than males in extraversion, anxiety, trust, and, especially, tender-mindedness (e.g., nurturance).” It’s a neat paper, because it actually contains not one but two meta-analyses of data collected in two separate time periods. It’s bit funny, but that paper actually has this to say about anxiety differences between men and women in the two time periods measured⁶⁹:
“The meta-analysis found that females scored higher than males, to a small degree, on measures of anxiety (median d = -.30, weighted mean d = -.29, CI = -.24 to -.34, k = 28, N = 5,789). Homogeneity of effect sizes was not rejected, x 2 (27) = 33.54, ns, indicating that variation in effect sizes across studies could be attributable entirely to sampling error. The effect size was about the same for children (weighted mean d = -.24, CI = -. 15 to -.33, k = 22, N = 1,901) as it was for adolescents and adults, n.s.”
The mean effect size for the gender difference in anxiety was -.15 (k = 18, N = 6,366; 40% male), indicating that females were slightly higher in anxiety than males. However, it was noted that effect sizes varied markedly by both type of anxiety measure (social vs. general) and nation. The mean effect size for the sex difference in general anxiety was -.26 (k = 11), and the mean effect size for the sex difference in social anxiety was .04 (k = 7). Thus, females scored higher than males in general anxiety to a small degree, but the sexes did not differ at all in social anxiety. When the effect sizes were averaged by nation, the means were -.04 for the United States (k = 12) and -.35 for other countries (k = 6), which suggests that males were higher than females in anxiety only outside of the United States. However, the overall mean effect size for the United States was misleading because of effect-size variations in U.S. samples with type of anxiety. Within the subset of U.S. studies, the mean effect sizes were — .18 for general anxiety (k = 7) and .14 for social anxiety (k = 5). Thus, in the United States, females were higher than males in general anxiety, but males were very slightly higher than females in social anxiety.
Of course, the meta-analysis does go on to conclude that women are higher in anxiety, but given that the author apparently believed that meta-analysis 1 reached a plausible conclusion for higher female anxiety despite reporting lack of mathematical significance for the finding casts some doubt on the quality of his discussion. I should note that the piece also calculates every finding in terms of Cohen’s d and only occasionally appears to bother to check for actual statistical significance with a chi square test, and that as we saw earlier, the measured effect sizes are not even particularly strong. It’s hardly a good piece of evidence for strong biological differences among sexes, particularly when even Feingold himself admits that his gender differences are quite small at every turn.
I could excerpt similar damning passages for assertiveness (“with both average effect sizes indicating no notable gender difference in assertiveness”), and the rest of the traits studied, but I honestly rather gave up in disgust upon noting that the anonymous Wikipedia author simply plagiarized the study’s (highly dubious) abstract for the sentence.
Okay. So that’s one reason that when it matters, as this memo without any doubt does matter to the careers of women in STEM fields, responsible scientists don’t leave a lazy link to Wikipedia and call it good. If I look at the other citation Mr. Damore chooses to include, it… honestly, to be frank, the Lippa 2010 review⁷⁰ he cites twice is a sort of hyperlight review of several meta-analytic studies, and the Feingold paper I just discussed thoroughly is linked glowingly throughout. (So is Dr. Lippa’s own meta-analysis, which he rather awkwardly refers to throughout as “Lippa’s paper.”) Aside from a table listing variations, the short review really just (inaccurately) sets up a contrast between environment-cultural theories of gender as based on blank slates and biopsychological theories of nature — honestly, as Dr. Lippa himself points out, these are not necessarily completely incompatible approaches.
It is not, to be frank, a paper I would use as a detailed citation to back up a controversial claim. I would probably use it to bring someone new to the field up to date on the recent literature, or maybe as an introduction to the psych literature for an undergraduate. It’s a summarizing kind of piece, and that means that when it comes to citing our work, it’s just a layer of fluff that an enterprising researcher has to dig through in order to get to the original data. The more twisty those tangled pathways get, in my experience, the more likely it is that the assertion being made is not nearly as well founded as it might seem.
So the hell with it. I’m tackling the rest of these personality trait issues using sources that sit a little closer to the original studies. I’m trying to get this thing out in a timely manner, and I can promise you that I’ve already spent much more time thinking about it and composing it than Mr. Damore did when he admitted he banged it all out while on a twelve-hour airplane ride.⁷¹ As of this writing, I have spent approximately six days and 60 hours devoted to this. That old saw about how it takes an order of magnitude more time and effort to refute bad science than it does to spout it is certainly holding true here.
Are women actually more interested in people and prettiness than things and systems?
I’m just going to say it outright: I don’t generally have a particularly high opinion of Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen’s work, and it is he who has most powerfully championed this idea in the past several decades. I think the idea of measuring a person’s cognitive or affective empathy⁷² by asking them how good they are at reading other people is silly. I can think of people gifted at reading other people’s subtle cues and offering aid and comfort who would assure me that they are just like everyone else. I can also think of several people who are fascinatingly awful at both noticing and accounting for the feelings of others, but who would confidently tell you that they are exquisitely sensitive and very caring upon request. In fact, a few of them might tell you so even if you request that they stop!
Fortunately, I am not the only person out there who has some doubts about the efficacy of Dr. Baron-Cohen’s Empathy Quotient as a measure of empathic inclination or ability: as it turns out, a 2006 study checked on this by comparing the self-reported measures of empathy presented by men and women to their ability to successfully identify empathetically compassionate responses to others in a number of scripted circumstances. There was no correlation between self-identified empathy quotient and skill at this test.⁷³
But okay, even if Dr. Baron-Cohen’s Emotional Quotient isn’t actually measuring empathic skill, that doesn’t mean his idea of opposing systemizing and empathizing abilities is necessarily wrong, does it? After all, he does include a few ability tests — and women do consistently score better on that. So isn’t it likely to be biological?
Er. Slight problem. If you pay men and women for their performance on realistic empathy tests, suddenly the gender difference vanishes completely even if it appears beforehand.⁷⁴ And in fact there is significant evidence that differences in empathic ability between men and women stem from differences in motivation, not from differences in ability.⁷⁵ On the average, men are just as good at working out what other people are thinking and doing something about it as women are — as long as they have a reason to bother paying attention.
Hm. Well, okay, that doesn’t really challenge Mr. Damore’s assertion that women are just less interested in things and more focused on people. What does the science say about that?
Turns out — and I should not even have to explicitly say this, but I do — it matters what you define as a thing. And it matters how you ask people what things they’re interested in. For example, if you ask people whether they’re interested in things like disassembling and reassembling a car but not disassembling and reassembling a dress, you will get wildly different forms of sex skew. This is, mindbogglingly, an actual recurring and common problem in this type of study design.⁷⁶
It’s worth noting that these alleged differences in interest don’t seem to matter much to actual career outcomes, either. For example, of the five most female-dominated occupations listed by the Department of Labor, registered nursing is second on the list. Yet nurses must memorize hundreds of drugs, interactions, techniques, and potential evidence of adverse reactions. Of the five most male-dominated occupations listed by the same site, the second profession is management. How much more people-oriented can you get?
Even assuming they are, do we know those differences are biological in nature?
Mr. Damore’s analysis frequently fails even when he is handed certain eminently contestable premises as a given. Here, let me talk about this particular one as an example. Even if I were concede that there is a gender difference in the interests of men and women — again; I’m not sure I do — the question of whether this difference is biological is more than slightly thorny.
One paper I often see used to cite this claim, for example, is a particular study evaluating the toy preferences of vervet monkeys. After all, if monkeys exhibit the same preferences as humans, surely the difference can’t be culturally mediated, right?⁷⁷ Monkeys haven’t been raised with those pernicious social influences I described earlier, so they seem at first blush to be excellent test subjects.
Well, let’s take a closer look at the study in question, in which researchers placed a set of six toys into large enclosures inhabited by vervet monkeys living in social groups. In most of these groups of monkeys, cages contained a mixture of adult males, adult females, and juveniles; in one, only adult males were present. The toys — two coded ‘masculine,’ two coded ‘feminine,’ and two coded ‘neutral’ — were placed in the enclosure. Male and female monkeys approached the toys at the same rates, but had significantly different contact times spent in contact with the differently gendered toys: males, said the researchers, were significantly more likely to play with the “masculine” toys, a plastic police car and an orange ball. Neither sex was significantly more likely to play with the “neutral” toys, either, which consisted of a picture book and a furry dog. But, triumphantly announced the researchers, females were significantly more likely to play with the two feminine toys! These were, of course, a soft doll and… huh. A small red metal cooking pan.⁷⁸ Well done, all, we’ve shown that toy preferences are biological, surely culture can’t have created this main and totally expected significant effect! Off to the bar for celebratory drinks!
Wait, hang on.
A cooking pan?
For that matter… what on earth is the significance of a picture book to a monkey? Presumably a species that is not known to frequently read can’t have been interested in the book for its literary significance. And as far as I am aware, no vervet monkey has expressed a desire or need for a home-cooked dinner from Mother.
The researchers themselves were perplexed that the approach latencies showed no difference between the sexes’ enthusiasm for the toys, I might add, and so they analyzed the data differently a second time, this time grouping the toys into animate objects (doll and the stuffed dog) versus object-like objects. They found no differences between the sexes that time.⁷⁸
This is why it’s always important to read the methods of the papers you cite, guys. I think I’ve covered quite a bit of the other unfortunate holes in the testosterone =\= systemizing thing earlier on, so I’ll let this rest for now: but rest assured, this is by no means the only example of shoddy study design propping up this field.
Why might female extraversion be more frequently expressed in terms of gregariousness than assertiveness?
As a woman who is notoriously assertive in my day to day life, golly gee I had a hard time thinking of explanations for this one. It’s not as if I have the ability to objectively compare the way I am, say, treated by colleagues for behaving similarly to men in my workplace or anything, or the way what’s spun as leadership in men I know is spun as “bossiness” in me. But I think it might have something to do with the way that assertive women are treated when they are too direct in their assertiveness. Maybe? Goodness, I’m not sure I can articulate it on my own, so it’s time to turn to the data about responses to assertiveness and open aggression in women.
Let’s all lean in real close and start with the fearfulness that underlies many women’s reluctance to be assertive (or, as we might less politely be described, aggressive) in their everyday lives. One study that actually looked at men and women negotiating for a good deal against a simulated opponent they believed to be real found that women pushed considerably harder when they were arguing for the benefit of someone else than they did when they were arguing for the benefit of themselves. It’s easy to chalk that up to that touchy-feely women being more interested in people than little things like paid money, sure, but this study was innovative in that it also asked the subjects being tested why they chose the strategies they did: it asked them to lay out how much they wanted to achieve from the negotiation, but also how much they feared being penalized for their argument style and how competitive they felt their negotiation style was.
Unsurprisingly, women advocating for themselves did indeed fear backlash and professional consequences significantly more strongly than women advocating for a friend or men in either category. In fact, these women feared that backlash if they asked for a salary number that sat a full $5,000 per year below that which inspired fear in participants in the other three categories. In order to avoid those social consequences to ask for too much, women negotiating their own mock salaries asked for nearly $8,000 less than the other three groups right off the bat. But if women could be assured that they would not face consequences for their negotiation by advocating for a friend who would then pick up the position (and salary!) which they would never interact with again, suddenly their demands, expectations, and assertiveness starts looking suspiciously similar to men in both categories.⁷⁹
So we’ve established that women certainly fear social consequences of self-advocacy more than men do. But are they right to do so? Certainly advice to just negotiate harder if you want that high-paying salary seems to assume that women are wrong about their risk assessments. But unfortunately for women like me, the data appears to confirm that impression: women who are viewed to be highly capable of leadership and particularly competent are also viewed as socially deficient and unlikable by both men and women. But hey, if you’ve got to choose between being an unlikable but well-paid bitch or a likable doormat, it can’t be that bad to be roundly disliked, right?
Except hey, being too assertive also diminishes your likelihood of being hired. Turns out that if women self-promote — which they need to do to be noticed — their likability drops⁸⁰, and as likability drops, so does their chance of being hired according to experimental “hiring managers.” Surprise! Being widely disliked means that no one wants to work with you, and no matter how competent you are, being viewed as the office bitch whether or not you are objectively more aggressive than the dude down the hall is going to hurt your career.
By the way, it’s not just hiring where women are documented to face actual effects of backlash for being too self-assertive; it’s also negotiating for salary, so the fears those women had are as it turns out 100% accurate. Male evaluators are more inclined to work with “nice” women who quietly take what they’re given rather than arguing, and if you’d like to be paid more, too bad. Women do in fact take on social and professional consequences at work as a consequence of attempting to negotiate, consequences that are not faced by men who similarly attempt to negotiate.⁸¹ Other places where women face backlash consequences for being too assertive at work include professional evaluations, likelihood of promotion and the specific forms of promotions women are likely to actually achieve and subordinates under their leadership undermining their authority.
(It’s perhaps instructive that Mr. Damore didn’t consider the potential social consequences of his actions before he submitted the memo to his company; no woman I know would have made this particular error. To be frank, as I write this I am considering the hit my career will no doubt take as I publish this piece, and the likelihood of direct harassment from Mr. Damore’s supporters. I have already incurred some professional consequences for being indelicate about my opinions, but I like to think the quality of my work is good enough to compensate. It has to be; relying on a well-paying husband to catch me if I fall is not exactly an option when you are the well-paid husband on your graduate salary.)
I’ve linked an extremely comprehensive review on this topic⁸² that cites and describes the direct effects of dozens of studies united in these findings here, and it’s not even the only place to look for this information I can think of. It’s almost as if ignoring the effects of sexism on the way that women behave and describe themselves leads to gaping holes in our theoretical attempts to approach human diversity. Fancy that.
Mr. Damore complains that the effort made to help women lead, speak up, and otherwise regain their assertiveness leaves shy men out in the dark. If shy men would like to partake of the initiatives to help women in leadership — which are generally organized for and by women — perhaps they should consider taking on some of the consequences women face, too.
Let’s talk about neuroticism
Specifically, let’s talk about Mr. Damore’s claim that women score higher on neuroticism scores in personality tests. I’ve already argued that those numbers look suspiciously inflated, but all right, like I said, it’s not as if Mr. Damore provides any shortage of targets here. Let’s ignore the question of Mr. Damore’s assertion that women are just that much more neurotic for a moment before my hands actually fall off my wrists. Let’s ask two things:
First, Mr. Damore, do you honestly expect me to believe that higher anxiety on the part of women in the workplace is down to some sort of highly evolved adaptationist reason that the women need to be fearful, and not down to an actual rational approach to a work environment loaded with double standards and potential pitfalls on either edge of a very thin tightrope? Because Occam’s razor applies, and no one has actually managed to demonstrate any evolutionary advantage to high anxiety for women rather than men without resorting to a “it could have happened like this” story or just… acknowledging the fact that women are at higher risk for violence as well as more subtle forms of censure because sexism exists.
No, arguing that women used to be at higher social and personal risk in the distant hunter-gatherer past does not work out here. I’ve just conclusively demonstrated that women must negotiate more harshly judged and narrower ‘safe zones’ in the workplace than men; that in and of itself is enough to explain higher stress levels. Astonishingly, negotiating stressful environments over which one has limited control is known to produce anxiety and depression all on its own; evolution is unnecessary here.⁸³
Men’s higher drive for status
Okay, even assuming that one does believe that evolutionary biology explains all, is there a reason to assume a priori that females of any species might have less drive for social status than males? Even assuming we’re not talking pipefish, or anything — females have more investment in fewer offspring, males aiming for quantity over quality?
Here’s the thing: if receptive females with ova for the fertilizing are a limited quantity, why on earth would any self-respecting behavioral ecologist just unwittingly assume that foraging resources and nesting territories are somehow in unlimited supply? And — hold on, why might females not just produce more eggs if they’re that easy to rear?
Right. Turns out that female-female competition in nature is every bit as aggressive and focused as male-male competition. Sure, in some species male-male competition is much nastier than female-female competition…. but in others, such as hyenas and meerkats, female-female status battles are much more aggressive and start even before females are reproductively mature. Hyena female pups, for example, are more likely to kill their own sisters in competition if food resources get too scarce than male pups are to kill their brothers or mixed-sex pairs of pups to kill each other.⁸⁴
Females also are known to compete for status and priority access to mates in social species, such as baboons, and they compete particularly fiercely for status in social species where only one breeding pair can afford to rear offspring at a time.⁸⁴ In these species, such as wolves and meerkats, dominant females will often harass subordinates to the point that subordinates do not even go into estrus. In species where females remain with their natal social groups, the status of one’s matriline is of primary importance in evaluating one’s access to resources and even the survival of the offspring one manages to produce. In several species (e.g. lions, hyenas, lemurs, many primates) competition between matrilineal groups of females is often the only way females can secure and maintain territories in which to raise offspring, and in others bands of related females are known to actually take over resources and territories from rival clans and matrilines (e.g., European badgers, macaques⁸⁵). Within social species, it is not unusual for coalitions of females to target less-related individuals for harassment. This is especially common in species (such as primates) where groups may be composed of multiple matrilines, such as many primate species.⁸⁵
But hey, that’s me talking about what I do for my work, which is evolutionary biology and its effects on animal behavior. We’re not talking about whether human behavior fits the predictions of evolutionary psychology, which mysteriously (according to Damore, anyway, assuming he intends to be logically consistent) erases all these consistent pressures on female humans to be competitive. We’re here to talk about humans, so let’s talk about social status in humans! Do human women actually care less about social status or jockey for it less aggressively than men?
Well, way back in the halcyon days of 1989, a researcher took the time to ask men and women how highly they valued a number of traits in prospective career fields. It turned out that, even in 1989, men and women did not significantly vary in the weighting they placed on occupational prestige. Nor did they significantly vary in their weighting of priority for salary, opportunity to use analytical thinking skills, or opportunity for advancement.⁸⁶ So it seems likely that caring about advancing is not the issue.
As for drive and straight up will to achieve — well, I’m not particularly interested in recapitulating the point about aggression. But I will point out that a thorough meta-analysis of assorted forms of aggression found that while men were significantly more likely to engage in physical and verbal aggression than women, the effect size of verbal aggression was not particularly large. (Physical aggression had an effect size of 0.59 after removing outliers; for verbal aggression, the effect size dropped to a Cohen’s d of 0.19. The first is generally considered a medium-sized effect size; the second is quite small.) There was no significant difference in the amount of subjective anger experienced by women. As it happens, well, in terms of indirect aggression — that is, aggression involving attacks on social reputation and ostracism — was significantly more likely to be engaged in by women, with a Cohen’s d of -0.45.⁸⁷
Of course, this should surprise no woman who has survived middle school. The lack of a significant difference in anger levels, combined with the strong social consequences women face for open aggression (discussed above), suggests that women are no less tempted to engage in aggressive behavior but need to be subtle about it when they do so. Even if this isn’t the case, well — no matter how aggressive your boss is to you, I’m going to bet he didn’t get there by punching everyone in his way to the top. So are there maybe differences in aggressive behavior in the workplace between men and women?
Well, based on self-report data from a study in which subjects were asked to keep diaries of their competitive interactions… maybe, in the sense that women reported more competitive interactions about workplace success than men.⁸⁸
A historical note on career status, gender, and pay
Mr. Damore also seems to believe that career tracks which are biased towards men receive higher status and pay because men are more motivated to seek out careers with high status and pay but which also require high work commitments. However, a cursory glance at the history of both Mr. Damore’s field and my own undermines this significantly.
For example, while women were integral to and in many ways founded the discipline of computer programming while status remained in the domain of hardware, when software began to increase in importance and prestige, women were actively driven out of the field and given dramatically less recognition than male counterparts.⁸⁹ Indeed, it is only recently that the contributions of these women to Mr. Damore’s own discipline are again being remembered.
By contrast, in biology, social status and prestige has actively declined in the profession as women have entered it in greater quantities. The same is true of teaching, veterinary medicine, psychology more generally, and a number of other professions. And of course, as social status and prestige have declined, so have average pay scales for these “pink collar” professions.⁹⁰ (The same is not, incidentally, true of the level of competitive ability or education required to achieve them.)⁹¹ This suggests that it is not so much that men prefer high status professions, but that professions with high concentrations of men are automatically accorded high status, and that professions strongly associated with women are automatically relegated to lower status and pay.
In fact, let me just respond to this contention that women are not interested in high paying careers and that men want us out of them for our own good with the unimpressed satirical poetry of Alice Duer Miller, published in 1915 in response to the dismissal of a female engineer under new rules about whether women could serve in that capacity by the Board of Education for which she worked. Miller takes care to point out that until this point, the woman’s work was acknowledged to be satisfactory and that she had held a license to perform it.⁹²
Lady, dangers lurk in boilers,
Risks I could not let you face.
Men were meant to be the toilers,
Home, you know, is woman’s place.
Have no home? Well, is that so?
Still, it’s not my fault, you know.
Charming lady, work no more;
Fair you are and sweet as honey;
Work might make your fingers sore,
And, besides, I need the money.
Prithee rest, — or starve or rob —
Only let me have your job!
It is often somewhat depressing how little has changed in this country since Ms. Miller was writing. And it is illustrative to contemplate the motivations held by men who innocently insist that women could not want the status and high pay held by their jobs. I’m not saying that Mr. Damore is personally afraid that increased friendliness for women in the workplace might result in increased competition for the high status and pay he himself enjoys, but I am saying that we know that computer-mediated misogynistic harassment by men does increase when men feel that their social identity is under threat.⁹³
Non-discriminatory ways to reduce the gender gap: curiously ineffective
I’m actually not going to spend as much time engaging with this, because frankly this is towards the end of my fourth day of fervent writing, fact-checking, and double-checking, and the old adage that it takes an order of magnitude more time, energy, and effort to debunk this nonsense than it does to vomit it out is entirely accurate.
I’m supposed to be on vacation as I write this, which, uh, is getting me a lot of pointed looks from my friends and family, who are familiar with my tendency to overdo my work. And honestly, I really resent Mr. Damore for making me do all this work in order to be able to stake out my claim to the space of science and technology, again, which saps my resources and makes it harder for me to do the work that I’ve been hired to do. His ignorance is sapping my energy, and this section is no different than the others I have chosen to detail attention to.
Suffice it to say that, as I said earlier, the people most likely to rate themselves as objective, benevolent observers of fellow humanity are also among the most likely to hold strong implicit biases,⁹⁴ and some of the most likely to actually discriminate against others.⁹⁵ Add that colorblindness (and presumably also genderblindness in the sense of pretending gender doesn’t exist)⁹⁶ actually increase racism, particularly when colorblindness is the only racial strategy available for children to use to interpret the world. Combine those notes with the fact that literally every single one of Mr. Damore’s suggestions boils down to “just do less, and things will be better!” and I confess to being cynical about both his competence in this field and, frankly, his much-vaunted good intentions about diversity and inclusion. Let me just address one more of his points here, though…
Are Google’s attempts to redress existing structural inequality harmful to men?
It’s funny, but despite being largely written by women interested in gender equality, many of the reviews I have linked include sections about ways in which these unequal expectations harm men. For example, the workplace backlash review I cited above includes a section pointing out that men who are more interested in focusing on communal coalition building in the workplace than competitive interaction are penalized, as are men who show proficiency in any skills that seem just a hair too feminine.⁸⁰ Scientists who work on gender from a feminist perspective are in no way hurting men by seeking to dismantle structural inequality, because the existing structural inequalities also hurt many men, as well as many people who identify as neither men nor women.⁹⁷
Indeed, many of the researchers I have cited here explaining sexism in the workplace in terms of actual concrete incentives and disincentives for women have also looked at gender inequalities that harm men. Dr. Laurie A. Rudman, whose work I have repeatedly cited in several places, has two new papers coming out according to her laboratory website at Rutgers⁹⁸: one about why men might face reprisals for actually attempting to take parental leave,⁹⁹ and a second study about stigma faced by gender egalitarian men in the workplace.¹⁰⁰
Why we have biases (Just not me; I’m magical)
I find it very interesting that Mr. Damore takes the time to acknowledge that biases in interpretation and belief cut both ways by citing a conservative bias that he is himself very unlikely to believe. I don’t just say that because he is citing it as something he personally identifies as a bias, either; I’m saying it because the type of conservative suggested by Mr. Damore’s age, background, and occupation are highly unlikely to be deniers of either climate change or evolutionary biology. Indeed, I find it interesting that Mr. Damore seems to treat liberal versus conservative as a simple two-group dichotomy, when in reality these are shorthand names for two very large tents of political, cultural, and social beliefs. I’m certainly not in agreement with all liberals, not even on broad-strokes ideas about national party priorities.
So it is telling when the only moment in the entire document in which Mr. Damore acknowledges his own “side’s” biases is a moment in which he brings up a conservative bias that is almost certainly not his own. That implies that Mr. Damore believes that he is wholly incapable of bias himself; that only his critics and the people with whom he disagrees with at Google are biased, and perhaps some other conservatives on his own side. But not Mr. Damore himself.
Of course, if Mr. Damore is indeed a climate change denier or a creationist, I withdraw this criticism. This would, however, cast even more doubt upon the expertise with which he confidently advances his claims, given the scientific illiteracy which he would then necessarily possess. He is welcome to clarify either point if he so chooses.
So let me just take a moment to talk about what it actually looks like to acknowledge biases in your own work. It looks like pausing to look at places where you have personally been wrong because of those biases in the past and admitting to them. It looks like mentioning arguments both from “sides” and ideas you disagree with and also from your own. It looks like being aware of what your own biases are so that you can watch out for them, and reading in more depth to be absolutely sure you are right before making a public statement. And it looks like being emotionally aware of when your biases are causing you to make claims that are not evidence-based.
Mr. Damore has catastrophically failed on all of these measures.
Lest you argue that you, o reader, are a hiring manager and would never discriminate or act sexist, and you, just like Mr. Damore, are perfectly unbiased… well, honestly, let me just quote this passage from Dr. Cordelia Fine, which she describes better than I can¹⁰¹ [emphasis mine]:
In a similar study conducted at Yale University, undergraduate participants were offered the opportunity to use the same kind of casuistry to maintain the occupational status quo. The students evaluated one of two applicants (Michael or Michelle) for the position of police chief. One applicant was streetwise, a tough risk-taker, popular with other officers, but poorly educated. By contrast, the educated applicant was well schooled, media savvy, and family oriented, but lacked street experience and was less popular with the other officers. The undergraduate participants judged the job applicant on various streetwise and education criteria, and then rated the importance of each criterion for success as a police chief. Participants who rated Michael inflated the importance of being an educated, media-savvy family man when these were qualities Michael possessed, but devalued these qualities when he happened to lack them. No such helpful shifting of criteria took place for Michelle. As a consequence, regardless of whether he was streetwise or educated, the demands of the social world were shaped to ensure that Michael had more of what it took to be a successful police chief. As the authors put it, participants may have ‘felt that they had chosen the right man for the job, when in fact they had chosen the right job criteria for the man.’¹⁰² Ironically, the people who were most convinced of their own objectivity discriminated the most. Although self-reported endorsement of sexist attitudes didn’t predict hiring bias, self-reported objectivity in decision making did.
This is unintended sex discrimination at work. Rather than unfairly stereotyping the candidates — assuming, for example, that Michael was tougher than Michelle — the raters instead ‘defined their notion of “what it takes” to do the job well in a manner tailored to the idiosyncratic credentials of the person they wanted to hire’.¹⁰³
We do not have to be intentionally biased to perpetuate bias in the workplace. And those of us who are most confident of being free of the blemish of this particular sin are the most likely to perpetuate it, not the least. This casts something of a pall over Mr. Damore’s claims of supporting equality and diversity, while being utterly unwilling to entertain the notion of bias on his own part. It certainly casts an unfortunate shadow over the efficacy of his suggestions for actually making those things happen by talking about diversity and gender less frequently.
Allow me to lay out my own biases. I am biased against people who tell me I am either less capable than equivalently trained men, or else a “credit to my gender” as an “exceptional” woman. (I am not particularly exceptional, as it happens; I know many women who are as analytical and as articulate as I am: about as many women, in fact, as I know men.) I am particularly emotionally defensive about people who advocate for removing the supports that I deal with in my everyday workplace, the support of other women who talk to me and each other and in doing so help us to articulate our everyday experiences.
I have these biases, Mr. Damore — allow me to address you directly, for once — because I have a particular set of lived experiences that affect and modify my worldview. So do you, Mr. Damore, and it would behoove both your analysis and your growth as a person to acknowledge the ways in which your experience is not an unmarked default. My biases and your biases might both lead us to make fundamental errors in our opinions, analyses, and estimations of the world around us.
The difference is, Mr. Damore, I know the viewpoint of your bias. I have seen the ideas you parade a thousand times, Mr. Damore, and I will see them thousands more before I die, waved by identical men who have never considered that their own biases might be a marked viewpoint, not an objectively neutral view of the world as it truly is. I have already grappled with them and looked deeply at the evidence for fatal flaws, but I expect to be explaining that women, liberals, the uneducated, and people of color have not cornered the market on uncritical biases for many years to come.
It would be nice if more of you people sought out my viewpoint, instead of spending so very much time explaining your own freedom from biases to me.
This piece would never have happened without the fine people of Metafilter, who not only encouraged me when I idly and irritably remarked that I had the knowledge level to explain and dismantle Mr. Damore’s assertions but also encouraged me to set up a Patreon and pay me for my time. Much thanks to you all, and I hope you enjoy the final result.
Thanks especially to Stacey Becker, Gautam Surya, Christopher Pound, and Cary Costello, whose comments on this piece as it was forming have been invaluable.
I owe much of the basic analysis and many of the arguments to both Cordelia Fine and Rebecca Jordan-Watson, whose books are more thorough than I am at synthesizing the primary literature — the list of experiments that actually yield the results we use to draw conclusions about human biology — and explaining each study in turn to create a thoughtful narrative about our accepted truths. Both of them are very clear about what studies are done, what the data and the methodology used in these studies means for the results, and honest about the outcomes of said studies. They are two of my scientific heroes, right up alongside Marlene Zuk, Alice Ball, and Mary Anning.
If you’ve really enjoyed this piece and you want to show the love, I would not object to a coffee.
8/20/17: Footnotes should now be linked, for ease of reading, and I have corrected a slight error in the name of one of my editors. I have also added several pieces to the ‘further reading’ section.
Please give me more articles online! I want more perspectives specifically on this memo!
All of these pieces are excellent, and I highly recommend them.
Pieces from other scientists, talking about the biology of Damore’s memo:
Quora creates a truly horrifying link-image, so I will link Dr. Suzette Sadedin’s response to this memo directly. Dr. Sadedin is one of the most talented scientific writers I have ever read — no, seriously, check out her piece from a few years ago about the placenta and the angry, loving, utterly selfish tug-of-war that happens through it if you don’t believe me. And she is much, much more concise than I am, while also being terribly thorough. If my piece is too long for you, go and read hers.
Actually, go read hers anyway. I’ll wait.
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Please give me more in-depth books that dig into more detail on this topic!
Fine, Cordelia. 2010. Delusions of gender: how our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference.
If you are interested in learning a little more about neurosexism, this is in fact the book that coined the term. Fine is sharp and witty and explains every damn study she references and why she uses them to draw the conclusions she does. This book will explain to you quite a bit about how behavior influences the brain just as surely as the brain influences behavior and about just how subtle the effects of environment can really be — and you’ll probably have a bit of a laugh while reading about it. This book will get into much more of the subtle ways that experience can shape your behavior than the other two I have listed so far.
Fine, Cordelia. 2017. Testosterone Rex: myths of sex, science, and society.
If you’re interested in either more of the behavioral ecology information or more information on how hormones work and what they do, this is another great choice. It focuses a little more tightly on the aspects of the literature I know well, so it’s a little harder for me to recommend what stands out about it because I knew most of it going in. But I’m a specialist, and I’m guessing you aren’t, and everything in it feels about right to me about applying behavioral ecology to humans more generally.
Jordan-Young, Rebecca. Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference.
This may actually be the most impressive academic work I’ve ever read. It is a little denser than the other two, but it goes through point by point to build its case and it will give you a lot of information and historical context on the field of sex differences in a painfully and scrupulously fair manner. It is excellent, and I particularly recommend it to anyone whose experience of gender or sexuality is non-standard and who wants to learn more about science and history.
I was really interested in that thing you were saying about gender as a dialogue! What did you mean you had a better block quote?
Here’s the quote I mentioned:
In this sense I agree with people like Steven Pinker who insist that people are not “blank slates” on whom the intentions of teachers, parents, and other caregivers can simply be written. If this were the case, there would be no rebellion and no social “deviance” — there would be no innovation, either. Where I part with Pinker is that I think he overemphasizes the “groupness” of human nature, and he overemphasizes the intentional aspects of socialization. In other words, I believe that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that people have predispositions of many sorts, and that who we end up becoming is not a simple reflection of what was poured into our empty heads by our parents and our cultures. But my hunch is that, contrary to the seemingly “obvious” evidence that we get from observing the world around us, gender is just not a very useful way to group people’s predispositions.
“Not useful,” though, shouldn’t be confused with “not real.” Gender is one of many possible ways to slice of the pie of human variation, and the natural attitude encourages us to see it as the most obvious and fundamental way to divide things. This, in turn, brings about more meaningful difference along the dimension of gender than would otherwise occur — including stimulating physical differences that possibly include average differences in the brain. To repeat Thomas’s dictum, “Things perceived as real are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928, 125). In my view, naturalized gender becomes embodied gender (a self-fulfilling, empirically demonstrable representation of gender on/in the physical body, including the brain) through the following process.6 Everyone begins with subtle predispositions in the form of perceptual biases and sensitivities, variations in motor skill, and so on. Predispositions are simply initial states from which all feedback and interaction proceeds. These predispositions may be (but aren’t necessarily) randomly distributed, but they are not, at least initially, firm personality “traits,” nor do they point inevitably or properly to one developmental pathway and one outcome (in other words, atypical gendered behavior or eroticism, insofar as it is present in any individual or group, most certainly is not either pathological or a diversion from some “developmental template”). Regardless of the initial distribution of predispositions, each infant is met from the moment of birth and possibly before that with a gender label that engages gender schemas and shapes every single subsequent interaction, as well as the process of self-recognition. Self-recognition as male or as female involves learning and incorporating aspects of the gender schema that operate in one’s culture — evolutionary ecologist Joan Roughgarden has beautifully referred to this as a person’s “reaching out to cultural norms” (2004, 27).
Meanwhile, “society [is] imposing its expectations on the individual” (27). While the process is almost never deliberate or even conscious, the gender of a person with whom we are interacting is salient. Recall that evidence suggests it is especially salient in ambiguous situations, where the intentions or mental state of another person are somewhat unclear — which is especially true of much interaction with infants. Even if we are aware of the gender schemas when interacting, and are consciously attempting to ignore or undermine them, the schema is still a cognitive resource that we cannot entirely escape using, especially in face-to-face interaction. Gender schemas mean that the feedback received by individual children is systematically bifurcated — it is not perfectly stereotyped by gender, but it is demonstrably and pervasively patterned, such that girls get more of certain types of interaction and boys get more of another. Recall the evidence that even parents with explicit commitments to disrupt sex-typing were found, in actuality, to sex-type their children. Thus, even if initial individual predispositions were randomly distributed among all newborn infants, the functional predispositions would still very quickly develop along lines that are gendered. Here, as with the CAH-affected girls, the amazing thing is not difference — this is utterly predictable by applying the variables we can already observe to some known developmental principles. The amazing thing is the outcome: an extraordinary degree of similarity across the sexes, and diversity within them.
As I said, it comes from Brain Storm. I happen to have a lot of friends who identify somewhere outside the gender binary, and have been hanging out with folks who hold various identities along the trans spectrum for some time. As a working biologist, then, and someone whose gender identity could probably be conceptualized as falling under ‘female’ or ‘nonbinary’ equally honestly… well, honestly, I about sat up and fell over when I encountered this, because it very much articulates the way I feel about gender development. As of this writing, I am far too damn tired to write much more about it, but I’m including the block quote attributed and cited for the reference.
 Kircher, M. M. (2017, August 9). Fired Google-Memo James Damore’s First Stop: Alt-Right YouTube. NY Mag, Select All. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/selectall/2017/08/who-is-james-damore-fired-googler-talks-to-stefan-molyneux.html
 Looking at news from the Gore lab at the time Mr. Damore was hired in June 2010, at the time he joined the lab it was made up of Dr. Gore, a shared postdoc, and a number of undergraduate students. A full-time postdoc also joined the lab at the same time as Mr. Damore. You may need to scroll.
 Information taken from the alumni directory of the Harvard Systematic Biology department; you will need to scroll down or run a standard ctrl+f search.
 Fine, C., & Jordan-Watson, R. (2017). We’ve been labelled “anti-sex difference” for demanding greater scientific rigour. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/06/anti-sex-difference-scientific-rigour-gender-research-feminism, August 15 2017.
 Matsakis, L., Koebler, J., & Emerson, S. (2017, August 7). Here are the citations for the anti-diversity manifesto circulating at Google. Motherboard (Vice). Retrieved from https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/evzjww/here-are-the-citations-for-the-anti-diversity-manifesto-circulating-at-google August 14, 2017.
Peterson, R. A., & Merunka, D. R. (2014). Convenience samples of college students and research reproducibility. Journal of Business Research, 67(5), 1035–1041. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2013.08.010
 WEIRD here standing for “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic.”
 Clearfield, M. W., & Nelson, N. M. (2006). Sex differences in mothers’ speech and play behavior with 6-, 9-, and 14-month-old infants. Sex Roles, 54(1–2), 127–137. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-005-8874-1
 Donovan, W., Taylor, N., & Leavitt, L. (2007). Maternal self-efficacy, knowledge of infant development, sensory sensitivity, and maternal response during interaction. Developmental Psychology, 43(4), 865–76. http://doi.org/10.1037/0012-16220.127.116.115
 Mondschein, E. R., Adolph, K. E., & Tamis-LeMonda, C. S. (2000). Gender bias in mothers’ expectations about infant crawling. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 77, 304–316. http://doi.org/10.1006/jecp.2000.2597
 Here Dr. Fine cites several papers at once:
Adams, S., Kuebli, J., Boyle, P. A., & Fivush, R. (1995). Gender differences in parent-child conversations about past emotions: A longitudinal investigation. Sex Roles, 33(5–6), 309–323. http://doi.org/10.1007/BF01954572
Dunn, J., Bretherton, I., & Munn, P. (1987). Conversations about feeling states between mothers and their young children. Developmental Psychology, 23(1), 132–139. http://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1618.104.22.168
Leaper, C., Anderson, K. J., & Sanders, P. (1998). Moderators of gender effects on parents’ talk to their children: A meta-analysis. Developmental Psychology, 34(1), 3–27. http://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1622.214.171.124
 Quinn, P. C., Yahr, J., Kuhn, A., Slater, A. M., & Pascalis, O. (2002). Representation of the gender of human faces by infants: A preference for female. Perception, 31(9), 1109–1121. http://doi.org/10.1068/p3331
 A. Serbin, Diane Poulin-Dubois, Kar, L. (2001). Gender stereotyping in infancy: Visual preferences for and knowledge of gender-stereotyped toys in the second year. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 25(1), 7–15. http://doi.org/10.1080/01650250042000078
 Eichstedt, J. A., Serbin, L. A., Poulin-Dubois, D., & Sen, M. G. (2002). Of bears and men: Infants’ knowledge of conventional and metaphorical gender stereotypes. Infant Behavior and Development, 25(3), 296–310. http://doi.org/10.1016/S0163-6383(02)00081-4
 Zatorre, R. J., Fields, R. D., & Johansen-Berg, H. (2012). Plasticity in gray and white: neuroimaging changes in brain structure during learning. Nature Neuroscience, 15(4), 528–536. http://doi.org/10.1038/nn.3045
 Als, H., Duffy, F. H., McAnulty, G. B., Rivkin, M. J., Vajapeyam, S., Mulkern, R. V, … Eichenwald, E. C. (2004). Early experience alters brain function and structure. Pediatrics, 113(4), 846–57. http://doi.org/10.1542/peds.113.4.846
 Insel, T. R., Wang, Z. X., & Ferris, C. F. (1994). Patterns of brain vasopressin receptor distribution associated with social organization in microtine rodents. The Journal of Neuroscience, 14(9), 5381–5392. Retrieved from http://www.jneurosci.org/content/14/9/5381.abstract
 Barrett, C. E., Keebaugh, A. C., Ahern, T. H., Bass, C. E., Terwilliger, E. F., & Young, L. J. (2013). Variation in vasopressin receptor (Avpr1a) expression creates diversity in behaviors related to monogamy in prairie voles. Hormones and Behavior, 63(3), 518–526. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.yhbeh.2013.01.005
 Young, L. J., Nilsen, R., Waymire, K. G., MacGregor, G. R., & Insel, T. R. (1999). Increased affiliative response to vasopressin in mice expressing the V1a receptor from a monogamous vole. Nature, 400(6746), 766–768. http://doi.org/10.1038/23475
 Ophir, A. G., Wolff, J. O., & Phelps, S. M. (2008). Variation in neural V1aR predicts sexual fidelity and space use among male prairie voles in semi-natural settings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105(4), 1249–54. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0709116105
 Tang, H. Y., Smith-Caldas, M. S. B., Driscoll, M. V., Salhadar, S., & Shingleton, A. W. (2011). FOXO regulates organ-specific phenotypic plasticity in Drosophila. PLoS Genetics, 7(11). http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1002373
 Jordan-Young, R. M. (2011). Brain storm : the flaws in the science of sex differences. Harvard University Press. Chapter Nine, Taking context seriously; Section heading “The self-fulfilling prophecy of masculinization.” (Cited this way because my paper copy of this book is currently not accessible to me, but this is page 686.4/1076 on my ebook version of the text.)
 Berenbaum, S. (1999). Effects of early androgens on sex-typed activities and interests in adolescents with congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Horm. Behav., 35(1), 102–110. http://doi.org/10.1006/hbeh.1998.1503
 Delk, J. L., Madden, R. B., Livingston, M., & Ryan, T. T. (1986). Adult perceptions of the infant as a function of gender labeling and observer gender. Sex Roles, 15(9–10), 527–534. http://doi.org/10.1007/BF00288229
 See here for a small and highly cited set of examples:
Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When White Men Can’t Do Math: Necessary and Sufficient Factors in Stereotype Threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(1), 29–46. http://doi.org/10.1006/jesp.1998.1371
Davies, P. G., Spencer, S. J., & Steele, C. M. (2005). Clearing the Air: Identity Safety Moderates the Effects of Stereotype Threat on Women’s Leadership Aspirations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(2), 276–287. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1996
Schmader, T., Johns, M., & Forbes, C. (2008). An integrated process model of stereotype threat effects on performance. Psychological Review, 115(2), 336–356. http://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.115.2.336.An
 Hönekopp, J., & Watson, S. (2010). Meta-analysis of digit ratio 2D:4D shows greater sex difference in the right hand. American Journal of Human Biology, 22(5), 619–630. http://doi.org/10.1002/ajhb.21054
 Loehlin, J. C., McFadden, D., Medland, S. E., & Martin, N. G. (2006). Population differences in finger-length ratios: Ethnicity or latitude? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35(6), 739–742. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-006-9039-1
 Voracek, M., Pietschnig, J., Nader, I. W., & Stieger, S. (2011). Digit ratio (2D:4D) and sex-role orientation: Further evidence and meta-analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 51(4), 417–422. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2010.06.009
 I will attempt to briefly synopsize it here, but if you want to know more details I highly suggest you check out John Colapinto’s well regarded biography As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl (2001).
 Hausman, B. L. (2000). Do Boys Have to Be Boys? Gender, Narrativity, and the John/Joan Case. National Women’s Studies Association Journal, 12(3), 114–138. http://doi.org/10.2979/NWS.2000.12.3.114
 Originally footnote 4, chapter 9: Taking Context Seriously
Judith Butler’s commentary on this case (2001) is similar in the sense that she, too, points to the “narrative of gender essentialism” (632) and to the extraordinary scrutiny under which Reimer developed a sense of self. I read Butler’s account of Reimer’s own subjective narrative as an exploration of how it is possible to “do justice” to him, to honor his account of himself, even as we pursue a critical stance toward gender as an institution, structure, and social process. My emphasis is different and involves a simpler point that Butler did not directly make: that relentless, overt scrutiny is itself a technology for destabilizing gender, for affirming that it is not “true” or “natural.”
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 Cognitive empathy can roughly be summed up as: do you know what other people are feeling? Affective empathy can be summed up as: do you care what other people are feeling, once you know?
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