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The Truth about the Google Memo

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James Damore’s memo is far from what the mainstream media has made it out to be. That said, alternative media sources are not necessarily right about it either.

When Google software engineer James Damore circulated an internal memo criticizing Google’s pro-gender diversity hiring practices in July, he probably expected to start a conversation with fellow Googlers on the value of affirmative action. Unfortunately for Damore, however, the memo was leaked to the public on Saturday, August 5th, and by the end of the weekend, he did not have a job to return to. While Damore’s memo stands on shaky scientific ground and misses several key points about gender diversity, it is illustrative of a major misconception concerning affirmative action and warrants further examination and an objective response.

First of all, it should be noted that Damore’s memo is not, as it has been described by some, an angry, emotional rant or tirade. It is a calm, almost academic paper demonstrative of its author’s intellect and scientific background (Damore holds a master’s degree in biology from Harvard). In it, Damore enumerates psychological facts (though he exaggerates certain points by failing to highlight statistical subtleties) and builds seemingly rational arguments with the scientific coldness of a nineteenth-century phrenologist. Damore even manages to make a few good points, including his suggestion that society should work towards weakening the male gender role and “allow men to be more ‘feminine,’” though he doesn’t always make them for the best reasons.

At the same time, Damore’s firing has been portrayed in some right-leaning media outlets as an authoritarian and even illegal move by a corporation committed to crushing conservative viewpoints indiscriminately. This is equally unfair. Google, as a for-profit corporation, has a right to terminate employees who hold views which obstruct its pursuit of growth and financial success. If Google’s leaders determine that affirmative action in hiring will help them groom Google into a more successful company, then they have a right to dismiss employees who they perceive as working against that agenda.

Once one has cast aside the emotional reactions which make discussion of the memo difficult, it is worthwhile to examine the memo and consider where Damore goes astray, and how he does so. I would encourage anyone interested in this story to read the memo itself, as doing so and responding to it internally will allow the reader to better develop his understanding of gender diversity, affirmative action, and why these things are valuable.

The basic argument Damore makes in his memo is that while diversity may hold some intrinsic value, hiring practices and educational programs which favor women are unfair to men and are largely based on moral, rather than practical arguments. Further, Damore concludes that gender disparities in employment and achievement at Google may exist largely because of biological differences in the interests and abilities of men and women, and that efforts and reducing these disparities are to some extent a misguided attempt at fighting the tendencies of nature.

While Damore’s list of differences in the interests and abilities of men and women is essentially based on reputable psychological research, the way that he uses these differences to argue against affirmative action severely exaggerates their significance. For instance, while Damore correctly asserts that women “have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men,” he goes on to imply that this psychological difference accounts for the underrepresentation of women in coding jobs. In reality, researchers consistently find the difference in men and women’s mean level interest in systemizing (dealing with things, as opposed to empathizing, or dealing with people) to be that of a few percentage points at most. This means that the male and female distributions of interest in systemizing have enormous overlap (meaning that many women score higher than most men). If hiring practices were perfectly objective his difference may lead to a slightly higher proportion of men in coding jobs, but it would certainly not create the level of disparity which currently exists at Google (81% of technical employees were male as of July of last year).

This exaggeration of psychological factors is not the only error which Damore makes in constructing his argument. In his memo, he discusses affirmative action in hiring as a practice which discriminates against men and which is based on moral arguments about fairness, not on practical arguments about what is best for the company. This mistake highlights a misconception about affirmative action which is widespread among skeptical Americans. Many feel that affirmative action is a practice which leads to the selection of frequently less-qualified candidates in order to boost diversity.

In addressing this misconception, I will make a distinction between the affirmative action which is exercised in hiring programs at companies like Google, and the possibly more well-known version of the concept which is used in the admissions process at colleges. Because corporations are for-profit enterprises which, ultimately, seek almost singularly to enrich shareholders, I would argue that the motivation behind their affirmative action practices differs somewhat from that behind those in place in the college admissions process (affirmative action in college admissions is based on moral arguments in addition to the pragmatic arguments which justify the programs in place at corporations).

Google exercises affirmative action not because its leaders perceive the disproportionately high employment of men in technical positions to be morally wrong or unfair to women, but because the implicit bias which exists among those making hiring decisions leads to discrimination against women. When Google discriminates against women in its hiring practices, it fails to consistently hire the best candidates for the job, hurting the company’s bottom line. Affirmative action policies are not designed to discriminate against men or to be fair to women, but to correct for implicit bias towards men and ensure that Google hires the best employee for each job. While the process is imperfect, and, in some cases, a less qualified candidate may end up getting hired over a more qualified candidate, it is better for the company than simply allowing biases to run rampant. In the end, what Damore fails to understand is this: affirmative action does not fight nature, it fights unconscious bias.

To eliminate any ambiguity, I’d like to note that while I believe that Damore’s memo has been treated unfairly by the media, I am not offering a defense of his argument or of his character. Damore does make several objectionable side points in the memo which are sexist generalizations and seem to lack any statistical or scientific backing, such as his statements that “women spend more money than men,” and that “men are more strongly judged by status and women by beauty [for biological reasons].” Further, Damore’s entire argument is based on misconception and hyperbole, and should not be treated as logically sound.

Still, the memo should not simply be labeled as chauvinistic and swept under the rug. We have to acknowledge that many of Damore’s male colleagues probably think this way as well, and until we consider the points they have to make and construct a reasoned rebuttal, they will continue to hold their views in quiet, assuming that they are correct because no one ever bothered to challenge them.

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