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Evaluating the Google Gender Diversity Memo on the Merits

The arguments, not the controversy

Google software engineer James Damore posted a memo to the company’s internal message boards about gender diversity, which leaked and went viral. The public reaction has been typical of this political era: angry, self-righteous, partisan, and full of projection and grievance.

Many critics have made the memo out to be more overtly bigoted than it is, preferring to frame it as an unrepentant sexist screed instead of something that repeatedly claims to “value diversity and inclusion.” Some have used the memo as a jumping off point to criticize sexism in the tech industry, or the country as a whole, rather than engage with Damore’s arguments. A lot of people upset about it clearly haven’t read it.

Similarly, many of Damore’s defenders have been arguing on behalf of their own related ideas, rather than what his memo says. They remind me of the What Trump Really Meant Brigade, taking to the airwaves after various presidential statements, insisting the president didn’t actually say what he just said.

To cut through all this, I read the memo with open eyes, treating it as a work of social science.

It was quickly apparent why critics and defenders have been able to cherry pick quotes. The memo is full of contradictions. It’s rambling and poorly reasoned, relying on stereotypes and unsubstantiated assertions.

Considering the argument on its own terms, Damore aimed to revamp Google’s hiring and HR practices, and prompt an industry-wide, perhaps national or even global rethink of diversity in the workplace. In both execution and presentation it fails, making some fundamental errors. However, the memo does prompt an interesting question regarding the desired end-goal of efforts to increase diversity.


Damore’s memo begins with the fallacy of begging the question. He assumes his ideas about gender haven’t gained traction at Google due to pervasive bias — of which the company is unaware — instead of supporting this claim with evidence. Theoretically, it could be bias. Or maybe his ideas have been considered and rejected on the merits.

Though Damore surely intended otherwise, the rest of his memo demonstrates why considered-but-rejected is more likely. Damore’s main argument — that biological differences between men and women significantly explain how many of them work in various professions — is not remotely new, and has received a lot of consideration.

However, according to Damore, the main reason Google fails to recognize the truth is political bias, which he classifies as follows:

Left Biases

  • Compassion for the weak
  • Disparities are due to injustices
  • Humans are inherently cooperative
  • Change is good (unstable)
  • Open
  • Idealist

Right Biases

  • Respect for the strong/authority
  • Disparities are natural and just
  • Humans are inherently competitive
  • Change is dangerous (stable)
  • Closed
  • Pragmatic

This is really shallow stuff. It may seem profound in a late night dorm conversation, or on Reddit, but it has minimal (if any) analytical value. Damore grossly oversimplifies the range of political ideologies, collapsing worldview into two alternatives that are simultaneously over- and under-determined.

And it’s especially weird to see an American assert this in 2017 — as received wisdom, without supporting arguments or evidence. We just saw the right rally around a candidate offering drastic change and pie-in-the-sky promises, who insists current disparities are not natural and just, but unfairly imposed by globalist, establishment forces. My point is not that Trump defines the right and Clinton the left, just that Damore’s classification doesn’t capture observed reality (or centuries of political theory).

Nevertheless, this is the backbone of his argument. Google’s “left biases” establish “extremist and authoritarian policies” that silence people with important ideas. Ideas like his.

According to Damore, this denies Google the most important diversity of all: a diversity of ideas.

Rigid ideology is problematic, but that doesn’t mean all ideas have equal merit. In fact, extreme relativism is a good example of an idea that’s been considered and rejected, for sound reasons.

Valuing ideological diversity does not require abandoning bedrock principles or devoting considerable time to ideas that violate those principles. The main problem with Damore’s idea is not that anyone who disagrees with him must be biased. The problem is the idea itself lacks merit.

How Not To Use Statistics

In one of many internal contradictions reflecting a lack of self-awareness, Damore clarifies he wants Google to “treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group” and then proceeds to treat women as members of their group.

He has a lot to say about personality traits inherent to men and women, and why these biologically-derived differences explain gender disparity in the tech industry, especially leadership roles, including:

  • Women are interested in people while men are interested in things. Therefore, women “prefer jobs in social or artistic areas” while men “like coding because it requires systemizing.”
  • Women have higher levels of “neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance),” which contributes to “the lower number of women in high stress jobs.”
  • Men “have a higher drive for status” and “as long as tech and leadership remain high status, lucrative careers, men may disproportionately want to be in them.”

Those lines, and others, are why critics claim the memo is sexist. Even with generous assumptions, it’s hard to interpret these parts as anything other than Damore claiming women are inferior, at least when it comes to the abilities needed for tech jobs.

Damore is careful to make these claims about women and men “on average,” rather than about all of them. But even if his evidence-free assertions are true, they’re still irrelevant.

The tech industry, especially Google, does not hire average men and women. With demanding, prestigious, high-paying jobs, their recruiting pool is the cream of the crop. They draw from the tail of the distribution, not the center. Factors observable at the mean have little-to-no value in describing people multiple standard deviations away.

This is basic statistics, and if he doesn’t understand it, he’s not in a good position to impugn others’ abilities.

But it’s possible Damore does understand it. At one point, he notes that “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.”

Then why devote multiple pages to outlining average characteristics? If it’s not sexist, it’s incoherent, with evidence unrelated to the conclusion.

A normal distribution. Tech companies recruit from the far right.

Weak Argumentation

The memo builds to suggestions as to how Google can “reduce the gender gap” in “non-discriminatory ways” (meaning ways that don’t discriminate against guys like Damore). Among them is an epic strawman:

Be open about the science of human nature.

Once we acknowledge that not all differences are socially constructed or due to discrimination, we open our eyes to a more accurate view of the human condition which is necessary if we actually want to solve problems.

Everyone acknowledges this. To name one obvious example, feminists aren’t arguing women and men should compete against each other in the Olympics.

However, acknowledging this does not lead to the conclusion that no differences are socially constructed or due to discrimination. Damore never presents evidence that these factors are small or unimportant. Nor does he present evidence that a company with more women — whether hired through diversity initiatives or not — is less capable of competing in the marketplace. He simply declares that anyone insisting men and women are 100% identical are incorrect, as if that proves his conclusion.

Also, note his use of “human nature” and “the human condition.” In this, and his claim the male-female differences he outlines are “universal across human cultures,” Damore commits another fundamental social science error: assuming that observed reality is natural, voluntary, and good. He’s like Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, declaring that ours is the best of all possible worlds. Or at least it was, until tech companies started trying to artificially increase the number of women in their industry.

The memo thus reads like one of Kipling’s Just So Stories. We don’t see many women in tech. There are some biological differences between men and women. Therefore, inherent differences lead fewer women to choose the tech industry.

Damore doesn’t consider the possibility that fewer women choose to pursue degrees or careers in tech because the environment — both educational and professional — is full of men insisting women are inherently unsuited to the work.

What’s The Goal Of Diversity?

In another strawman, Damore asserts that “discrimination to reach equal representation”—by which he means literally “50% representation of women in tech and leadership” — is “unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”

No one advocates exactly 50 percent (not least because gender is more complicated than the man-woman binary). Similarly, supporters of racial diversity do not insist every American company and industry have a racial distribution identical to the American population at any given moment. The argument, rather, is that more diversity would benefit both the companies and society.

Overall employment at Google is 69% male. In tech jobs, it’s 80%, and leadership is 75%. Over 90% of Google employees, and 95% of its leaders, are white or Asian. Other tech companies have similar distributions, though Google is a little more diverse than many of them.

(Google Diversity)

For a company marketing products to everyone, this is a weakness. Race and gender help shape individual experience, and Google is probably missing some perspectives that could help make its products more appealing to women, blacks, and Latinos.

Additionally, if discrimination helps explain why Google and other tech companies lack diversity — and I think Damore would agree with this, since his memo claims biology is part, not all of the explanation — then the talent pool is artificially restricted. That makes companies worse off, as well as individuals and society as a whole.

More diversity would be better than the status quo. (Preemptive anti-strawman counterargument: this doesn’t imply that every possible means of achieving greater diversity is justifiable). But more than the status quo doesn’t provide an end goal. If a 1:1 ratio of men-to-women — or a racial distribution identical to the country’s — is not the end goal, what is? At what hypothetical point could we declare the diversity problem solved?

That’s pretty easy to answer in the abstract — when individuals no longer face socially constructed obstacles—but that abstraction is hard to measure. People working to reduce those obstacles, including Google’s VP of Diversity, Integrity & Governance, cite figures such as Google’s 80–20 split in tech jobs as evidence of a problem. But what objective metrics will indicate the problem has been sufficiently addressed?

I don’t have a good answer. For now, “more than the status quo” is sufficient. But we should think about what a more concrete answer looks like.




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Nicholas Grossman

Nicholas Grossman

Senior Editor at Arc Digital. Poli Sci prof (IR) at U. Illinois. Author of “Drones and Terrorism.” Politics, national security, and occasional nerdery.

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