The media and tech community lost their collective mind over the weekend in response to a 10-page document written by a (since fired) employee at Google criticizing their political culture and diversity programs.
(Before reading this article any further, please make sure you’ve read the original memo. You can read the unedited version here.)
Here are some words that major news and media outlets have used to describe it: “screed,” “anti-diversity,” “sexist,” “hate speech.” They’ve called the author out for bigotry and sexual harassment. They’ve lambasted him for encouraging the worst parts of tech culture. If you went into the document having only read the headlines and opinions on Twitter, you might assume it was watermarked with a Nazi flag and filled with racial slurs, overt sexism, and hate speech.
And, of course, Google fired him over it.
But if you truly read it, you’ll be surprised to find that it’s none of these things. It’s an unpopular, non-politically-correct opinion…but it’s far from aggressive, offensive, or sexist.
What media outlets and critics (and perhaps even Google) won’t admit is that the memo is well-reasoned, calmly written, and backed by research (which I’ve included below). This engineer isn’t calling for an end to diversity programs or an all-powerful white-male patriarchy, but rather a rethinking of how they approach diversity hiring.
But that’s not even the main point of the memo. What he is primarily saying is that huge numbers of people at Google feel like they can’t speak openly. That the culture stifles intellectual diversity in a company that claims to be open to any and all views. That opinions contrary to the vocal left have been silenced through shame and outrage.
Perhaps somewhat predictably, the response has proven his point. The emotional outrage we’ve seen, especially from media outlets, in response to the document’s mere existence shows how true its main thesis is. Viewpoints that make us uncomfortable have been vilified and punished, regardless of their scientific accuracy. Holders of those viewpoints have to silence themselves for fear of public humiliation or worse, so much so that this memo had to be published anonymously. And now that he’s been fired, you can imagine other Google employees will hesitate to share unpopular opinions.
We’ll come back to that main problem, but let’s dig into the memo’s arguments about gender differences first: Is there any weight to what the document had to say?
Are There Differences in Interests between Men and Women?
The author summarizes the main arguments of the memo as:
- “Google’s political bias has equated the freedom from offense with psychological safety, but shaming into silence is the antithesis of psychological safety.
- This silencing has created an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed.
- The lack of discussion fosters the most extreme and authoritarian elements of this ideology.
- Extreme: all disparities in representation are due to oppression
- Authoritarian: we should discriminate to correct for this oppression
- Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”
Let’s put their argument more simply: men and women are different; those differences might explain part of why we don’t have 50/50 representation of men and women in tech and leadership, just as we don’t have a 50/50 representation in oil drilling and primary education. But that opinion has been “shamed into silence” because Google is afraid that discussing differences between men and women may upset some people. Since employees can’t express opinions that might upset people out of fear of shame or firing, the most extreme and authoritarian elements of the ideology have taken hold and go unquestioned.
The author’s point, at least related to gender and diversity, is that if there’s truth to general differences of interests between men and women impacting career choice, then diversity programs that try to create a perfect 50/50 split will be discriminatory against whatever gender is more interested in the field. On top of that, they’ll be bad for business, since you’ll have to force in less-qualified candidates to check off the diversity box.
This is all that the document is arguing about gender differences. Nowhere does it suggest that women are unqualified for engineering work, or that there shouldn’t be diversity programs. Unfortunately, it’s been widely misrepresented this way (which, again, is why you have to read the memo for yourself).
About those differences in interests, though.
We can agree that, on average, men and women are physically different. Where people get uncomfortable and push back is when you suggest that men and women have mental differences. And since I know I need to keep harping on this throughout the article, different does not mean better or worse. If one person is more music oriented and one person is more writing oriented, the musician isn’t better, they’re just different. Pointing out differences is not offensive nor does the existence of difference imply superiority one way or the other.
Let’s look at the points made in the memo about the mental differences between men and women. They argue:
- Women on average have more openness towards feelings and aesthetics over ideas.
- Women on average show a higher interest in people while men show more interest in things.
- Women on average are more cooperative.
- Women on average are more neurotic.
- Women on average look for more work-life balance while men have a higher drive for status on average.
Because these are the arguments in the article that have attracted the most fury, it’s worth assessing each one more closely:
#1: Women on average have more openness towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas
This point is a tad confusing, but the author seems to be arguing that within the Big Five trait of Openness, women tend more towards feelings and aesthetics, and men tend more towards ideas.
There’s research to back up women having more empathetic ability and empathy towards fairness, but it’s unclear if that means that they have more interest in feelings and aesthetics. Women do fall, on average, more on the “empathizing” side of the Empathizing-Systematizing scale though.
The point, though, is perhaps better explained by the author’s next argument:
#2: Women on average show a higher interest in people while men show more interest in things
This is referencing Richard Lippa’s research on “Gender Differences in Personality and Interests.” Particularly, this part:
“Men tend to be much more thing-oriented and much less people-oriented than women (mean d = 1.18, a ‘very large’ difference, according to Hyde (2005) verbal designations). The Su et al. (2009) meta-analysis generated the smallest effect size (d = 0.86). However, as Su et al. note in their paper, a number of the interest inventories that fed into their meta-analysis used item selection strategies intentionally designed to reduce gender differences.”
Essentially, there is a very strong correlation between men and being interest in things, as well as between women and being interested in people, even when you try to use non-gender-specific things.
This research also covers the next two arguments:
#3: Women on average are more cooperative
It’s referred to as agreeableness in the same analysis. The association is d=0.40, so it’s not as strong as the people-things association, but still big.
#4: Women on average are more neurotic
To be clear, “neurotic” here means higher in the Neuroticism trait, and shows up in that same study with a d of 0.34. This point seems particularly inflammatory, but the data don’t lie. Across 37 nations women score higher than men on neuroticism:
“Women obtained higher means than men on neuroticism in all countries, and men obtained higher means than women on psychoticism in 34 countries and on extraversion in 30 countries.”
These data were also supported by a meta-analysis at the University of Illinois, where they concluded:
“Results showed that men prefer working with things and women prefer working with people, producing a large effect size (d⫽0.93) on the Things–People dimension. Men showed stronger Realistic (d⫽0.84) and Investigative (d⫽0.26) interests, and women showed stronger Artistic (d⫽⫺0.35), Social (d⫽⫺0.68), and Conventional (d⫽⫺0.33) interests. Sex differences favoring men were also found for more specific measures of engineering (d⫽1.11), science (d⫽0.36), and mathematics (d⫽0.34) interests.”
#5: Women on average look for more work-life balance while men have a higher drive for status on average
This one is not so easy to reinforce, and I wish the links had been left in the original memo. I can’t find anything directly supporting this argument, but here’s what I can find:
- Men tend to be sexually judged on status and potential (1,2). Therefore, through sexual selection, men should care more about status as a signaling mechanism, and may care more about achieving status (leadership) in the workplace.
- LinkedIn and Citi did a study that found men and women care fairly equally about work-life balance, however a survey by LinkedIn and Crosstab found that more women care about work-life balance than a big paycheck.
- The author of the memo cites this study which does back up his point.
This position is less defensible, but I’m also not sure it matters. All we need to do is establish that some psychological differences exist between men and women for the diversity discussion part of the memo to be relevant.
And it appears that those differences do exist. If you take one man and one woman off the street and expect them to exhibit these differences, there will obviously be divergences. But the literature consistently indicates that, on average, there are psychological differences between men and women. These differences appear across cultures, and across ages. These differences can emerge as early as 9 months and are seen in our primate relatives. They even occur, as the author pointed out, in at least one case when a male was castrated and raised as a female. Males and females, on average, have different interests and psychological tendencies.
Now, I feel like I need to pause here and point out that, again, interests are not the same as competency. The author of the Google memo is not saying that men are better at STEM related tasks, rather, that they might be more interested in them on average, a claim that, so far, the research supports, albeit a bit indirectly.
But the more important question we have to answer now is “does it matter?”
Why These Differences Matter
The author is arguing that because these differences exist, there may be differences in job interest at the population level as a result of these biological trends. Therefore, trying to create a perfect 50/50 split may be misguided compared to other more effective changes.
Assuming these differences do exist, as the research seems to indicate, it’s easy to see how they could affect job choice. At the most basic level: If men are more interested in things and women are more interested in people, more women will be interested in more social jobs, while more men will be interested in more mechanical jobs.
This is all the document has said about differences between the sexes. They seem to exist, and they probably influence job preference. Therefore, these differences in interests and base rates should be considered when designing effective diversity programs. Since, at least in the entry level, Google engineering is more mechanical and less social (according to the memo and confirmed by Yonatan Zunger’s response linked below), this may make fewer women interested in going into engineering at Google.
That’s roughly what the author is saying. And when you look at it next to the research, he’s not making an altogether backward argument. The author isn’t arguing that Google should ditch diversity programs and have an all white-male company, rather, that they need to think more pragmatically about how to approach diversity.
If you try to hire at a level of diversity different from the base rate, you’ll make sacrifices. When you have 80 women and 20 men applying for a role, taking 10 of each will necessarily lead to a weaker composition than taking 16 and 4. Hiring 16 women and 4 men is fair based on the rates of applications you’re getting. 20 and 0 isn’t fair, and neither is 10 and 10.
If men and women are, on average, interested in different things, we can’t force people to change their interests, nor should we force fit them into roles because of a commitment to a series of numbers. Diversity isn’t about math; it’s about culture, effectiveness, structures, and fairness.
There’s a great line from the document:
“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.”
Unfortunately, most reactions to the memo have been to do the opposite. To close our eyes, try to shield people who might be offended by it, and call for the author’s public hanging.
And that’s the bigger problem here: How everyone, particularly the media and Google, reacted to the memo.
The Bigger Problem
What struck me most about the document was how reasonable it was.
It was well written, well argued, objective. Its goal was more effective diversity and honest dialogue. They cited their sources. It wasn’t rude. The goal of the document was to push Google to work on more effective diversity programs and to point out how inflammatory of an environment Google had become towards viewpoints that didn’t conform with its left-leaning political culture.
The author opened the suggestions portion of the document by making this clear:
“…I’m not saying that diversity is bad, that Google or society is 100% fair, that we shouldn’t try to correct for existing biases, or that minorities have the same experience of those in the majority. My larger point is that we have an intolerance for ideas and evidence that don’t fit a certain ideology.” (emphasis mine).
In reacting so violently to the document’s existence, the media and Google have proven the article’s point. As a society, we’ve become so sensitive to potentially offensive topics that we discard and demonize them to the detriment of our own effectiveness.
To truly discredit a viewpoint, the solution is not to resort to ad-hominems, but to generously interpret the argument, lay out its premises, and show where it went wrong. But if you read through the articles criticizing the memo, they do not look at it holistically or give a reasoned counter-argument to the case made by the author. They resort to shame, claims of sexism, and the now-typical outrage we see against anyone who tries goes against what’s politically correct.
This is where the response from Yonatan Zunger (a former senior Googler) went wrong. His first paragraph suggests that the memo says “we should stop trying to make it possible for women to be engineers, it’s just not worth it.” And then later, he says the memo argues that “some large fraction of [the author’s] colleagues are at root not good enough to do their jobs.” Not only does the memo not make either of these points, but the memo goes directly against Zunger’s mischaracterization, since the whole point of the memo is to suggest a more effective approach towards diversity.
Characterizing the arguments in this way only makes the echo-chamber problem worse. By misrepresenting the arguments and not trying to effectively refute them, Zunger has provided evidence that Google executives truly are intolerant of views that they disagree with. If you can’t accurately interpret an argument before trying to refute it, and instead misinterpret it in the most offensive way possible, all you’ve done is provide rage-bait to people who already agree with you.
Danielle Brown, Google’s VP of Diversity, doesn’t do much better. She misrepresents the memo by suggesting it discusses “ability” instead of “interest,” and then slips in the line: “And like many of you, I found that it advanced incorrect assumptions about gender. I’m not going to link to it here as it’s not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes or encourages.” She dismissed the arguments without providing any refutation to them, even though an (admittedly small) internal survey showed that around 35% of employees agree with the document to some extent.
Even Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, has gotten this wrong, suggesting that the memo says “…a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to [engineering]…” It simply doesn’t say that.
Google employees are smart. If Zunger, Brown, and Pichai want to convince anyone internally, instead of just trying to look good for the media, they need to show where the document goes wrong while trying their best to fairly interpret the arguments. Anything less than that is propaganda, and confirms the underlying argument of the memo.
It’s worrisome that Google, one of the most powerful entities in the world, seems to be favoring feelings over objectivity when it was originally conceived as a tool to democratize access to information.
Though many of us were force-marched through Fahrenheit 451 in high school, it’s worth re-reading it now. Not only as a classic work of literature, but as a reasoned look at what happens when we choose fear of offense over truth. That’s precisely how the society depicted in the novel got to the point of burning books in the first place:
“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and
stirred…Coloured people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.”
Employees already fear voicing unpopular opinions because of what it might do to their private lives. Twitter is already shadow-banning accounts that they feel may be offensive. Is it such a stretch to imagine search results being censored because the information they contain might hurt someone’s feelings?
If that happens, it’ll be our fault. We won’t descend into a world of censorship because a totalitarian government mandated it, or an omnipotent company decided it, but because we became so afraid of views contrary to our own that we demanded it.