Last week, the fact that a Google engineer now identified as James Damore published a memo critical of the company's approaches to diversity and what he called its "ideological echo chamber" to an internal discussion group came to light. A version of the memo was leaked by Gizmodo, but some claimed it left out critical citations and charts, and a fuller, ostensibly more representative version has been uploaded here.
Discussion of this memo and the various reactions to it has, predictably, been intense and fairly polarized. One of the rebuttal arguments I have heard repeatedly is that the claims are being mischaracterized, so I thought it might be valuable (but ultimately, likely, a complete waste of time) to examine as much of the document as I can, following its references and separating reasonable claims from unsubstantiated inferences.
The memo begins with about a page and a half of generally unobjectionable prose, as Mr. Damore states his commitment to the ultimate goal of diversity and some self-serious admonishment about the risk of careless statistical extrapolation. I pick up on page 3, under "Possible non bias causes of the gender gap in tech."
On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed…
We begin with an indication that what will follow will be biological in nature, hopefully controlling for variance in geographic, social, economic and cultural environment.
But we immediately pivot to personality, which is not biological in nature. Worse, the very first reference, hyperlinked under "Women, on average, have more" actually states:
Gender differences in personality traits are largest in prosperous, healthy, and egalitarian cultures in which women have more opportunities that are equal to those of men. Differences in the magnitude of sex differences between more or less developed world regions were due to differences between men, not women, in these respective regions. That is, men in highly developed world regions were less neurotic, extroverted, conscientious and agreeable compared to men in less developed world regions. Women, on the other hand tended not to differ in personality traits across regions. Researchers have speculated that resource poor environments (that is, countries with low levels of development) may inhibit the development of gender differences, whereas resource rich environments facilitate them. This may be because males require more resources than females in order to reach their full developmental potential.
Not a good start.
Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men…
This abstract reads:
Results show that gender differences in Big Five personality traits are ‘small’ to ‘moderate,’ with the largest differences occurring for agreeableness and neuroticism (respective ds = 0.40 and 0.34; women higher than men). In contrast, gender differences on the people–things dimension of interests are ‘very large’ (d = 1.18), with women more people-oriented and less thing-oriented than men. Gender differences in personality tend to be larger in gender-egalitarian societies than in gender-inegalitarian societies, a finding that contradicts social role theory but is consistent with evolutionary, attributional, and social comparison theories. In contrast, gender differences in interests appear to be consistent across cultures and over time, a finding that suggests possible biologic influences.
This says that the agreeable/neuroticism differences between men and women are moderate at best, though the people/things split is large (and only maybe bioligically influenced).
(I will merely note that the Empathizing/Systemizing wikipedia summary he links to has a fascinating criticism section. I wouldn't have incorporated it into a good faith discussion, but that's just me.)
"Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness" is a whole uncited claim. Ditto "higher agreeableness."
He then repeats "neuroticism," here just linking to a Wikipedia definition of the trait, even though the actual scholarly research he cited earlier indicated that the difference between men and women is, at best, modest.
This is the first page of textual claims, ignoring the charts.
We go back to the Big Five personality differences, here hyperlinked under "research suggests" (PDF), which abstract reads:
Previous research suggested that sex differences in personality traits are larger in prosperous, healthy, and egalitarian cultures in which women have more opportunities equal with those of men. In this article, the authors report cross-cultural findings in which this unintuitive result was replicated across samples from 55 nations (N = 17,637). On responses to the Big Five Inventory, women reported higher levels of neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness than did men across most nations. These findings converge with previous studies in which different Big Five measures and more limited samples of nations were used. Overall, higher levels of human development—including long and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education, and economic wealth—were the main nation-level predictors of larger sex differences in personality. Changes in men’s personality traits appeared to be the primary cause of sex difference variation across cultures. It is proposed that heightened levels of sexual dimorphism result from personality traits of men and women being less constrained and more able to naturally diverge in developed nations. In less fortunate social and economic conditions, innate personality differences between men and women may be attenuated.
While this does appear to corroborate the position that women are different from men—consistently across cultures in 55 nations!—it undermines the argument that it is inherently biological, given that men's traits changed in response to economic development. In simpler terms, this does not validate the claim that these personality traits are biological in nature; rather, it suggests that they are socio-economic. (It also raises the interesting question of whether socioeconomic development primarily benefits men, thus leading to a lessening of their neuroses, and if this isn't evidence of broad-based socioeconomic discrimination against women. But I digress.)
I'm barely half-way through and even the claims section isn't holding up. Let's skip ahead, but anyone else is free to examine the claims and the citations linked against them.
Women on average show a higher interest in people and men in things
- We can make software engineering more people-oriented with pair programming and more collaboration. Unfortunately, there may be limits to how people-oriented certain roles at Google can be and we shouldn't deceive ourselves or students into thinking otherwise (some of our programs to get female students into coding might be doing this).
Superficially, this is a perfectly fine bit of observation and proposed remedy, however it completely fails to show correlation, much less causation, between interest in people or things and software engineering performance. It implies that interest in people is limiting—"there may be limits to how people-oriented certain roles at Google can be"—but there is zero evidentiary basis for this notion.
- Women on average are more cooperative
- Allow those exhibiting cooperative behavior to thrive. Recent updates to Perf may be doing this to an extent, but maybe there's more we can do.
- This doesn't mean that we should remove all competitiveness from Google. Competitiveness and self reliance can be valuable traits and we shouldn't necessarily disadvantage those that have them, like what's been done in education.
Again, an implication that competitiveness is a good and cooperation is either an outright negative or a limiting trait, with no evidence for this claim.
But wait! There's a hyperlink! "…what's been done in education" carries an HREF to… this Atlantic article? Hmm, not exactly scholarly, but fine.
The research commonly cited to support claims of male privilege and male sinfulness is riddled with errors. Almost none of it has been published in peer-reviewed professional journals. Some of the data turn out to be mysteriously missing.
A review of the facts shows boys, not girls, on the weak side of an education gender gap. The typical boy is a year and a half behind the typical girl in reading and writing; he is less committed to school and less likely to go to college. In 1997 college full-time enrollments were 45 percent male and 55 percent female. The Department of Education predicts that the proportion of boys in college classes will continue to shrink.
B-b-but I thought women were less competitive and more neurotic and less wired to succeed?!
Data from the U.S. Department of Education and from several recent university studies show that far from being shy and demoralized, today's girls outshine boys. They get better grades. They have higher educational aspirations. They follow more-rigorous academic programs and participate in advanced-placement classes at higher rates. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, slightly more girls than boys enroll in high-level math and science courses. Girls, allegedly timorous and lacking in confidence, now outnumber boys in student government, in honor societies, on school newspapers, and in debating clubs. Only in sports are boys ahead, and women's groups are targeting the sports gap with a vengeance. Girls read more books. They outperform boys on tests for artistic and musical ability. More girls than boys study abroad. More join the Peace Corps.
Suppose we were to turn our attention away from the highly motivated, self-selected two fifths of high school students who take the SAT and consider instead a truly representative sample of American schoolchildren. How would girls and boys then compare? Well, we have the answer. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, started in 1969 and mandated by Congress, offers the best and most comprehensive measure of achievement among students at all levels of ability. Under the NAEP program 70,000 to 100,000 students, drawn from forty-four states, are tested in reading, writing, math, and science at ages nine, thirteen, and seventeen. In 1996, seventeen-year-old boys outperformed seventeen-year-old girls by five points in math and eight points in science, whereas the girls outperformed the boys by fourteen points in reading and seventeen points in writing. In the past few years girls have been catching up in math and science while boys have continued to lag far behind in reading and writing.
(I found this particularly interesting because so many of Damore's defendants on Twitter have been citing girls' lower SAT MATH—only math—scores as evidence of their lower suitability for STEM and specifically software engineering.)
I'm going to throw in a few citations of my own, because I think they're important. Colleges have been lowering admission standards for males, particularly at the post-graduate level, to preserve some semblance of "balance."
Teenage girls typically have better grades than their male counterparts, but college admissions officers say they can't stand idly by and watch the schools become mostly female bastions. So colleges are taking steps to reverse the trend by reaching out to high school boys through direct marketing and phone calls from recruiters and male professors.
Some universities are going even further. A few years ago, Wake Forest University in North Carolina began admitting more men to correct the gender imbalance, even though fewer males had applied. Among state universities, the University of Delaware says it sometimes lowers its expectations for promising boys who faltered in the 9th and 10th grades. And in a yet-to-be-released study, liberal arts colleges acknowledge admitting less-qualified boys to balance enrollment.
At the University of Delaware, where women constitute 58 percent of the student body, administrators say they haven't lowered standards for male applicants outright, but they may be more lenient with high school boys.
"We see ups and downs in their academic records," said Louis Hirsh, director of admissions for the University of Delaware. "We try to be more forgiving of their transcripts in 9th and 10th grades, when males are more likely to have problems."
…one of academia’s little-known secrets is that private college admissions are exempt from Title IX’s ban on sex discrimination—a shameful loophole that allows some of the most supposedly progressive campuses in the nation to discriminate against female applicants.
Colleges won’t say it, but this is happening because elite schools field applications from many more qualified women than men and thus are trying to hold the line against a 60:40 ratio of women to men. Were Brown to accept women and men at the same rate, its undergraduate population would be almost 60 percent women instead of 52 percent—three women for every two men.
(Spoiler: it's legal—or at least it was in 2006. Title IX exempts private institutions re undergraduate admissions.)
When admissions officers gather to create a freshman class, there is a large elephant in the room, wrote Jennifer Delahunty Britz, in The New York Times last week: the desire to minimize gender imbalance in their classes. Britz, the admissions dean at Kenyon College, wrote that her institution gets far more applications from women than from men and that, as a result, men are "more valued applicants." Britz discussed a female candidate who was considered borderline by the Kenyon team but who -- had she been a he -- would have been admitted without hesitation.
Why is it important to favor male applicants? "Beyond the availability of dance partners for the winter formal, gender balance matters in ways both large and small on a residential college campus. Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive," Britz wrote.
The gender gap in undergraduate enrollments is, of course, no secret in academe. Women are solidly in the majority (about 57 percent nationally) and their percentages are only expected to increase in the years ahead. The gender gap first started to show up -- more than a decade ago -- at liberal arts colleges, with educators guessing that men preferred larger institutions or the engineering and business programs more prevalent at universities. But recently, the gap has started to show up at flagship public universities, too: Some board members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were so stunned in May to learn that this year's freshman class would be 58 percent female that they asked if it was time to institute affirmative action for men.
I don't know how to tell you this, dudes, but you're already diversity admissions. (And note that these references are from 2005 and 2006; the trend has only gotten more pronounced since.)
This is getting long, and I'm tired and have code to write, and you're probably getting bored so I'll cut to the chase: James Damore's citations do not support the conclusions he is drawing from them. This makes his findings and proposals for remedies worthless. He has some good ideas, such as expanding the mentoring and coaching opportunities to everyone, regardless of gender identity or racial background, but his presentation among so many simply wrong claims means they won't be valued as they should.
I began this essay with the purpose of examining the verifiability of claims, and having determined (to my own satisfaction; publish your dissent on your own blog) that they are poor, I will stop here.