“The Ideological Echo Chamber” — A Critical Commentary

Here is an extract from Damore’s memo, with my commentary. His words in blue, mine in black:

Possible non-bias causes of the gender gap in tech [3]

At Google, we’re regularly told that implicit (unconscious) and explicit biases are holding women back in tech and leadership. Of course, men and women experience bias, tech, and the workplace differently and we should be cognizant of this, but it’s far from the whole story. On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. [True.] These differences [but notice how vague he is] aren’t just socially constructed because:

  • They’re universal across human cultures [The male and female reproductive systems, yes, and certain secondary sex characteristics like height, size and upper body strength. So far so good.]

  • They often have clear biological causes [it seems a bit obvious to say that reproductive organs have “biological causes”; this is where it becomes apparent that he is not in fact talking about our bodies but perhaps our minds and behaviour] and links to prenatal testosterone [Well, “differences” like testicles ALWAYS have “links” to prenatal testosterone, in that they begin to make it, from about 8 weeks into gestation – the gestation of the male foetus, that is.

    But it’s perfectly clear by now that Damore isn’t talking about bodily differences. In fact, the phrase “prenatal testosterone” is generally a pretty good indicator that someone (probably Simon Baron-Cohen: we’ll come back to him) is about to start talking about the ways in which men and women think/behave differently. Google it, and most of the top results are about “gender-related behaviour”: high prenatal testosterone makes men more likely to take risks, abuse substances and be psychopaths in adult life (yes, I was right – a Simon Baron-Cohen reference!);1 high prenatal testosterone makes men more courteous to women but not to other men.2 Yes, there are a number of studies that have reported links between prenatal and testosterone and gendered behaviour. They tend to be published by psychologists, as is the case with the above-cited studies that came up when I googled ‘prenatal testosterone’. I’m going to be talking about such studies a lot in the course of this series, but for now let me just assure you that their findings are not universally accepted, and neither are the supposed differences “universal across cultures”, as Damore rather brashly suggests.]

  • Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males [Vague again, and innaccurate too. What he’s tapping into here is the discourse of a particular nature/nurture debate that raged for years between Milton Diamond and John Money; the case study in question (known as the John/Joan or Joan/John case) was of an individual whose penis was destroyed in a botched circumcision, who had sex reassignment surgery more than a year after birth, and who later reassumed a male identity under the name David Reimer. Still later he committed suicide. Milton Diamond and many others following him have concluded that gender identity is fixed before birth, but this is not unanimously agreed upon within the scientific community. Research goes on. Again, I will return to more such studies; for now, I’ll just throw in a complication or three:

    First, there are a great many reasons that a child who has undegone sex reassignment may not be well-adjusted: surgery is traumatic, as may be the frequent examinations by medical professionals and the sessions with psychiatrists. And just because parents have decided (sometimes under duress from medical professionals) they are going to raise their child as a girl, it does not follow that they will treat that child in the way that the majority of girls are treated.

    Second, in order to decide whether sex reassignment to female has been successful, we must first agree on what it means for children “to identify and act like males” or females – and that, apparently, isn’t easy. For many, including Milton Diamond in the 1960s, if the reassigned-female individual later had female sexual partners, or even just fantasised about other females, the reassignment had not been successful. But is attraction to females inherently male? If so, a great many women must really be men, and even more individuals must have the wonderful ability to be sometimes male, sometimes female – like fish! These days, sexual orientation is less likely to be considered a good marker of gender identity, but we still rely upon case studies that were assessed by medical professionals who used this standard.

    Third, the high profile studies have tended to focus on genetic and gonadal males reassigned female. Considering that we live in a gender hierarchy (no, come on, there’s no denying it: quite apart from the pay gap and the fact that men are still more likely to be leaders, “tomboy”, though sometimes used disapprovingly, has never been as insulting as “sissy”), a child’s desire to assume a male rather than a female identity cannot entirely be ascribed to prenatal testosterone.]

  • The underlying traits are highly heritable [Vague again. Sounds a bit like he’s suggesting that sex is heritable – which in a sense is true, given that we get our X and Y chromosomes from our parents – but I don’t think that’s what he means. But if, let’s imagine, he’s referring to the “traits” that make one a good Google engineer, then the jury is still out on whether these are passed from parent to child in the genes or in the time the child spent together.]

  • They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective [I love this point; it’s just so explicit about its own assumptions. The fact that one would predict something from an evolutionary psychology perspective doesn’t mean it must be true, a) because it’s just that, one perspective among many others; b) because it’s exactly this kind of “prediction” – founded on a previously held belief – that causes someone to feel certain that what they see before them confirms their suspicion. Someone who believes that they already know the answer can easily, and perhaps unconsciously, lower their standards of scientific rigour and accept “findings” that are not really empirically proven. All researchers are prone to this pitfall; it’s known as confirmation bias, and good research must take steps both to reduce and to acknowledge it.]

Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” 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 very much the same structure of defence as used by Simon Baron-Cohen: “When I talk about sex differences in the mind, I am dealing only with statistical averages. And if there is one point to get across at the outset, it is this: looking for sex differences is not the same as stereotyping. The search for sex differences enables us to discover how social and biological influences act on the two sexes in different ways, but it does not tell us about individuals.”3 But such disclaimers are mere lip service paid to political correctness, using the language of science and science to veil stereoptypes in respectability. Later, when we look at the methods Baron-Cohen uses to arrive at his “statistical averages,” this will become clear.]

Personality differences

Women, on average, have more:

  • Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).

    [This is a direct, though unacknowledged, reference to Baron-Cohen’s empathizing-systemizing theory that “the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy” while “the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”4 Damore drops in this reference as though it were indisputable fact, but that is very far from being the case. Baron-Cohen being my nemesis I will return to an assessment of his theories at some length…]

  • These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing and even within SWEs, comparatively more women work on front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics. [Still Baron-Cohen. And this suggestion that women are underrepresented in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and maths) because they just don’t like all those unpleasantly “thing”-centred jobs on account of their brains being hard-wired for childcare, is nothing more than the latest way of saying that women are constitutionally unsuited to masculine pursuits and would become hysterical if they were allowed to do them.]

  • Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness. [Another way of saying that women are chatters, men are leaders. The unacknowledged source here is Wikipedia; visit the page on ‘neuroticism’ and you may see the affinities with Damore’s piece, although an editing war rages over the content so I can’t be sure the phrases lifted by Damore will still be there by the time you follow my suggestion… In any case, Wikipedia is hardly the bastion of empiricism. I will be returning to these ideas in the course of the series.]

  • This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading. Note that these are just average differences and there’s overlap between men and women, but this is seen solely as a women’s issue. This leads to exclusory programs like Stretch and swaths of men without support. [I think it’s true that women may have a harder time negotiating salaries etc etc., but there is as yet no conclusive evidence that ability to negotiate a salary is determined by prenatal testosterone. I’ll come back to this.]

  • Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs. [See “Extraversion” point above.]

    Note that contrary to what a social constructionist would argue, research suggests [note how he sneakily constructs a dichotomy between “social constructionists” and the implied “researchers” – as though researchers cannot be social constructionists] that “greater nation-level gender equality leads to psychological dissimilarity in men’s and women’s personality traits.” Because as “society becomes more prosperous and more egalitarian, innate dispositional differences between men and women have more space to develop and the gap that exists between men and women in their personality becomes wider.” [An unacknowledged quotation: how very academically rigorous. I traced it down to a 2008 paper published by a group of psychologists in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology5 (but I suspect Damore actually lifted the quotation from a blog post entitled ‘Time to stop first world “gender gap” hysteria: Men and women make different vocational choices’, which has more in common with his memo than the original study does). The lead author of the study, David P. Schmitt, has responded this week, speaking to Wired (‘Even the guy behind the research thinks that Googler is wrong’; here Professor Gina Rippon also highlights for Wired readers the ways in which Damore has misunderstood or misrepresented research) and publishing a blog post rejecting Damore’s position.

    He points out that the sex differences found by studies like his are not large enough to account for the employment and pay gaps between the sexes and “ unlikely to be all that relevant to the Google workplace.”6 While he thinks that sex differences in personality may “play some role”, he also argues that “there have been (and likely will continue to be) many socio-structural barriers to women working in technological jobs. These include culturally-embedded gender stereotypes, biased socialization practices, in some cultures explicit employment discrimination, and a certain degree of masculinization of technological workplaces. Within this sea of gender bias, should Google use various practices (affirmative action is not just one thing) to especially encourage capable women of joining (and enjoying) the Google workplace? I vote yes.”

    So, while Schmitt does think that certain sex-differences are “culturally universal and biologically-linked,” and that some of these may constitute some of the reason for gender employment and pay gaps, and that we should be able to discuss all this openly, even he does not support Damore’s position. Meanwhile, others in the scientific community do not find that sex differences in personality are so great, nor agree that they are culturally universal or innate. Keep in mind that Schmitt takes an evolutionary psychological approach, which other members of the scientific community reject or criticise. (Just for instance, Dorothy Einon and Cordelia Fine have criticised the mathematics and logic behind the evolutionary psychological assumption that promiscuos men would have fathered more children and so passed on their genes.7 Their arguments are both brilliant and amusing, and I will return to them in another post.) But back to Damore:]
    We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism. [Note that he poses as the radical thinker offering brand new criticisms, whereas in actual fact there have always been voices denying that gender gaps implied sexism – even when women weren’t allowed to vote. “Different but equal” was the Victorian approach to gender roles.]

Men’s higher drive for status

We always ask why we don’t see women in top leadership positions, but we never ask why we see so many men in these jobs. These positions often require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.

Status is the primary metric that men are judged on[4], pushing many men into these higher paying, less satisfying jobs for the status that they entail. Note, the same forces that lead men into high pay/high stress jobs in tech and leadership cause men to take undesirable and dangerous jobs like coal mining, garbage collection, and firefighting, and suffer 93% of work-related deaths. [I’m inclined to agree that men are often “pushed” into roles they don’t really benefit from, and that a jolly good smashing of the patriarchy would be good for them, too. Damore’s reasoning is meandering and inconsistent, however: he is simultaneously protesting that these high-status jobs should be taken from men by women, and complaining that men are the real victims because they are “pushed” into these stressful and dangerous jobs. The first part of his argument is, once again, the old-fashioned idea that men are specially adapted for competition, risk-taking and leadership, while women are not suited to leadership roles and will become unwell if they attempt them. The second part of his argument looks like sheer distraction and a familiar Men’s Rights Activism strategy: trying to convince everyone that men actually have it harder than women.]

Here I omit a portion of the memo, as it doesn’t pertain to the “science” of the matter. But towards the end of the document, in the ‘Suggestions’ section, Damore recommends that Google

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.[Again, he makes it sound as though his theory of innate sex differences is a radical new criticism, rather than a dominant ideology that goes all the way back to Aristotle. He also makes it sounds as though science only offers one possible picture of human nature, which is not the case. There is no scientific consensus on human nature, not even on sex differences. The real problem with Damore’s memo, in fact, is that it just isn’t scientific enough.]

 

1 Elsevier, ‘Prenatal testosterone levels influence later response to reward,’ ScienceDaily, 5 November 2012, <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121105081625.htm> [accessed 10 August 2017];

‘Fetal Testosterone May Program Boys’ Behaviour’, Live Science, 5 November 2012, <https://www.livescience.com/24540-fetal-testosterone-boys-impulsivity.html> [accessed 10 August 2017].

2 David Hayward, ‘Prenatal testosterone influences adult men’s behaviour toward women’, PsyPost, 1 May 2016, <http://www.psypost.org/2016/05/study-prenatal-testosterone-exposure-mens-agreeableness-toward-women-42504> [accessed 10 August 2017]

3 Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth about Autism (New York, 2003), pp.18-19.

4 Simon Baron-Cohen, ‘The Extreme Male Brain Theory of Autism,’ TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, Vol. 6, No. 6, June 2002. <http://cogsci.bme.hu/~ivady/bscs/read/bc.pdf>.

5 Schmitt et al., ‘Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman? Sex Differences in Big Five Personality Traits Across 55 Cultures’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2008, Vol. 94, No. 1, 168–182, <http://www.bradley.edu/dotAsset/165918.pdf>.

6 David P. Schmitt, ‘On that Google Memo about Sex Differences,’ Psychology Today, 7 August 2017, <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sexual-personalities/201708/google-memo-about-sex-differences> [accessed 12 August 2017].

7 Dorothy Einon, ‘How many children can one man have?; Evolution and Human Behavior, 1998, 19 (6), 413–426; Cordelia Fine, Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds (London, 2017).

2 thoughts on ““The Ideological Echo Chamber” — A Critical Commentary

  1. This is a great, systematic take/break down of his misguided ideology. I’d like to add a few thoughts (though they’re not as well-researched as yours):

    1. Even if women are less likely to want to work in tech, what about the pay difference between those who do and their male counterparts? You can’t even use the argument that they’re just inherently worse at their job, because the pay difference can be found in comparable levels and roles. I myself have received equalising pay adjustments because my employers realised they were paying me less than all my male peers. Good on them for acknowledging it, but there was nothing other than sexist bias to justify the difference up to that point.

    2. Women don’t find it hard to negotiate for salary because of biology. They find it hard because society tells them it’s impolite to ask for things, especially from men.

    3. If he believes in all this scientific justification for inequality, where is his “research” that black people are just worse at tech than white people? Even if we disregard the misinterpretation of his evidence, the nature of its cherry picking relative to the breadth of his claim is highly suspicious.

    Liked by 1 person

    • All excellent points. Your 2. also occurred to me when I read Damore’s memo: he makes a common but unfounded leap to a conclusion about causation — which isn’t very scientific.
      And your point 3. is going to be the subject of a future post, as Simon Baron-Cohen also makes claims about women that have similarly suspicious implications for people of colour.

      Like

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