About That Allegedly Devastating Response to the Google Memo

by Robert VerBruggen

A number of people have pointed me to this response to the memo I wrote about over the weekend. (The response is written by a former Google engineer, the original memo by a current one.) So let’s go through its three major points one-by-one.

The most striking thing about the piece is that while (a) the most offensive thing about the original memo was apparently its claims about sex differences and (b) the Left is treating this response as the definitive takedown of the original memo, the post says . . . nothing . . . about sex differences. The author just blows right past that point:

If anyone wishes to provide details as to how nearly every statement about gender in that entire document is actively incorrect, and flies directly in the face of all research done in the field for decades, they should go for it. But I am neither a biologist, a psychologist, nor a sociologist, so I’ll leave that to someone else.

(By the way, if you’d like to read a bit about the science, I recommend this Stanford Medicine profile of researchers working in the area, as well as this from-2005-but-still-great debate between Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke, both of Harvard.)

The author then argues that the original memo-writer misunderstands the skill mix that a software engineer needs. I won’t wade into a debate between two software engineers about what a software engineer does, but it’s worth quoting this point at length and seeing to what extent it undermines the original memo:

People who haven’t done engineering, or people who have done just the basics, sometimes think that what engineering looks like is sitting at your computer and hyper-optimizing an inner loop, or cleaning up a class API. We’ve all done this kind of thing, and for many of us (including me) it’s tremendous fun. And when you’re at the novice stages of engineering, this is the large bulk of your work: something straightforward and bounded which can be done right or wrong, and where you can hone your basic skills.

But it’s not a coincidence that job titles at Google switch from numbers to words at a certain point. That’s precisely the point at which you have, in a way, completed your first apprenticeship: you can operate independently without close supervision. And this is the point where you start doing real engineering.

Engineering is not the art of building devices; it’s the art of fixing problems. Devices are a means, not an end. Fixing problems means first of all understanding them — and since the whole purpose of the things we do is to fix problems in the outside world, problems involving people, that means that understanding people, and the ways in which they will interact with your system, is fundamental to every step of building a system.

 . . . 

Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers.

Again, I won’t try to mediate a software-engineering debate between this guy and the original writer. I’m not a software engineer. But even this guy sure seems to think that to become a software engineer, you have to spend a lot of time in the early stages learning how to program a computer. If there are sex differences in the ability or desire to do that, as the original memo claimed, those differences will still create a gender disparity. So even if we accept the above view of what a software engineer does, the original memo’s broader points still stand.

Finally, the author of the new piece claims the memo created an HR problem:

You just put out a manifesto inside the company arguing that some large fraction of your colleagues are at root not good enough to do their jobs, and that they’re only being kept in their jobs because of some political ideas. . . . 

Do you understand that at this point, I could not in good conscience assign anyone to work with you? I certainly couldn’t assign any women to deal with this, a good number of the people you might have to work with may simply punch you in the face, and even if there were a group of like-minded individuals I could put you with, nobody would be able to collaborate with them. You have just created a textbook hostile workplace environment.

First, the memo didn’t claim that “some large fraction” of employees at Google shouldn’t be there. (It certainly didn’t say that women in general shouldn’t be, if that’s what’s implied by “some large fraction of your colleagues.”) It did mention the existence of hiring preferences and argue against them, but it also offered an entire section of “Non-discriminatory ways to reduce the gender gap” as alternatives.

More broadly, though: You could have a company culture in which people outside the HR department aren’t supposed to spend their work time debating politically charged HR issues. But that doesn’t seem to be the culture that Google has or wants. And if you’re going to have a discussion about the gender gap in tech, it doesn’t really work if you then censor all but one explanation for said gap.

You especially can’t say it creates a “hostile workplace environment” for a man (or conservative of either sex) to talk about gender differences but not for a woman (or liberal) to say that her coworkers are biased and that’s why there’s a gap. If the latter can still be assigned to work with men without fear that she’ll apply her statistical generalizations to them personally, or that they’ll be so beside themselves with rage they can’t function, the former can still be assigned to work with women.

It’s entirely possible to work with someone you disagree with about politics or human nature. Heck, some of us even marry such people.

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