Politics & Policy

Biology Isn’t Destiny

(Photo: Dmitriy Shironosov/Dreamstime)
What that controversial Google memo gets wrong about men and women in the workplace

Google shouldn’t have fired James Damore. The company claims to encourage internal dissent and debate, and that is what Damore provided. But the contents of his memo are nothing to celebrate: He said nothing that hasn’t already been said, in tiresome fashion, for decades.

Moreover, the people defending the content of Damore’s memo, rather than his right to write it, ignore an important subtlety: Google has a practical job to do — manage the people who make up its business — and Damore’s memo made that job harder.

On the page, Damore comes across not as iconoclastic, but as naïve. His memo reads like something a diligent and earnest high-school freshman might write. “On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways,” is hardly shocking news. As for the rest, we have heard it all before. Women like to stay home making babies and cuddling kittens, while men like to go to war and drive red sports cars fast.

It only echoes Damore’s naïveté to acknowledge that there is some truth to this, but that it is hardly the whole story. Biological determinism is a simplistic worldview. Biology likely plays a role in discouraging men from becoming nurses despite the relatively high pay, and in discouraging women from writing letters to the editor. But nurture, culture, and the natural environment play roles, too. It is prudent to assume that we don’t know much about how these factors work together. It is imprudent, by contrast, to assert that differences stemming from “biological causes . . . may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”

Likewise, Damore’s suggestions for how Google can support women are hardly novel. He wants Google to encourage more collaborative programming work to reward cooperation and “agreeableness” and, somewhat vaguely, to “make tech and leadership less stressful.” He also dislikes affirmative action, and here, too, offers a well-rehearsed argument.

Damore, like any novice rhetorician, relies on straw men. He is concerned that in aiming for perfect equality of the sexes, Google will deplete its financial resources and become less competitive. Google’s tech workers, however, are 80 percent male, and its leadership is 75 percent male. If the company is indeed striving for numerical equality, it is a long way from the danger zone.

Likewise, Google’s parent company has $95 billion in cash on hand. This amount is not infinite, as Damore conscientiously points out. It is, however, enough for the company to take a chance on specifically encouraging a few black, lesbian, transgender programmers or offer a yoga class or two for new mothers. Such experiments do not endanger the livelihoods of its 53 percent white and 39 percent Asian-American domestic tech workforce.

From Google’s cost-benefit perspective, then, Damore’s memo offered little that was interesting — but guaranteed a huge headache in managing a large organization.

In the purest sense, such policies are indeed unfair, as Damore notes; in the real world where, statistically speaking, a female Google employee may not interact with another woman on an equal footing all week, a drinks session exclusively for fellow women in the same situation might be a good way to unwind at the end of that week.

From Google’s cost-benefit perspective, then, Damore’s memo offered little that was interesting — but guaranteed a huge headache in managing a large organization. Google cannot manage its employees if it does not institutionally challenge the notion, disseminated by one individual, that girls just think math is hard, and that they are too “neurotic” for leadership positions. Any time she disputed such assertions to Damore or another, similarly minded male co-worker — or any time she was passed over for a raise or a promotion — a female candidate or employee could assert, with this evidence, that Google tolerates discrimination.

Damore tries to head this possibility off, saying admirably that he wants to “treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group.” But with the exception of jobs that computers could do, hiring, promotion, and salary decisions are always partly subjective and arbitrary, particularly at the top of the income scale.

The top of the business world is opaque and insular. A manager can’t perfectly predict the future paths of two applicants or employees. That’s especially true in an idiosyncratic industry that often depends not on a person’s well-groomed appearance, grades in school, punctuality, attendance, and past work history but on the quirks of individual creativity and potential in an ever-changing tech landscape.

Under Damore’s reasoning, though, on average a manager may with much justification predict that a female candidate for employment or promotion will stop working after a few years to care for her children, and that a comparable male candidate won’t mind working 80 hours a week for 20 years because he wants to impress beautiful women. These heuristics are natural. They are also, indeed, harmful discrimination. As Damore points out, the average is accurate only on average.

Damore is right that companies shouldn’t engage in reverse discrimination, either. But his ill-thought-out memo only unwittingly demonstrates why they do.

READ MORE:

NR Editorial: The Mountain View Inquisition

Identity Politics Are Incoherent and Vicious

The ‘Anti-Diversity Screed’ That Wasn’t

— Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

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