A Scientist Responds to Claims About Women, Diversity in Google Memo

Let’s talk about morals. Leon Neal/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on Quora: What do scientists think about the biological claims made in the document about diversity written by a Google employee in August 2017?

For many system shoppers it’s a good-for-nothing system
that classifies as opposites stupidity and wisdom.
because by logic-choppers it’s accepted with avidity:
stupidity’s true opposite’s the opposite stupidity.
—Piet Hein

This is an interesting document, one that has taken a lot of energy from a lot of people I know over the last few days. When I first read it, some parts seemed very reasonable. And some parts still do, like this conclusion:

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.

To an evolutionary biologist, the idea that sex differences are purely socially constructed is simply implausible. And the necessity of facing up to this is something I’ve talked about as well.

That said, the argument in the document is, overall, despicable trash.

TL;DR: Yes, men and women are biologically different — which doesn’t mean what the author thinks it does. The article perniciously misrepresents the nature and significance of known sex differences to advance what appears to be a covert alt-right agenda. More specifically, it:

  • argues for biologically determined sex differences in personality based on extremely weak evidence
  • completely fails to understand the current state of research on sex differences, which is based in neuroscience, epigenetics and developmental biology
  • argues that cognitive sex differences influence performance in software engineering, but presents no supporting evidence. Available evidence does not support the claim.
  • fails to acknowledge ways in which sex differences violate the narrative of female inferiority; this shows intellectual dishonesty
  • assumes effective meritocracy in its argument, ignoring both a mountain of conflicting scientific literature and its own caveats (which I can only assume were introduced to placate readers, since their incompatibility with the core thesis is never resolved)
  • makes repugnant attacks on compassion and empathy
  • distorts and misuses moral foundations theory for rhetorical purposes
  • contains hints of racism
  • paradoxically insists that authoritarianism be treated as a valid moral dimension, whilst firmly rejecting any diversity-motivated strategy that might remotely approach it.
  • ultimately advocates rejecting all morality insofar as it might compromise the interests of a group.

Biological sex differences

On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because:

  • They’re universal across human cultures
  • They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone
  • Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males
  • The underlying traits are highly heritable
  • They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective

We do have evidence for some of these to some extent for some gender differences in behavior. That, however, does not imply what the author thinks it does.

His implicit model is that cognitive traits must be either biological (i.e. innate, natural, and unchangeable) or non-biological (i.e., learned by a blank slate). This nature versus nurture dichotomy is completely outdated and nobody in the field takes it seriously. Rather, modern research is based on the much more biologically reasonable view that neurological traits develop over time under the simultaneous influence of epigenetic, genetic and environmental influences. Everything about humans involves both nature and nurture.

For an accessible introduction to sex differences in their developmental context, see: Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps—And What We Can Do About It

As an evolutionary biologist, the claim that these observations are “exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective” is especially painful to read. I would not dismiss the field completely, but many of its predictions have turned out to be wildly misguided. Early evolutionary psychologists, for example, classified our species as polygynous or promiscuous, contemptuously dismissing monogamy as a puritanical relic. We now know the human extra-pair paternity rateis 5 to 10 times smaller than that of the average monogamous bird. That implies that the fitness benefits of adultery have been vastly overstated — which casts the entire literature on short-term mating strategies in a much more dubious light.

Do women and men differ in personality traits?

It’s true that women and men, on average, have been found in some studies to differ in empathizing/agreeableness, systematizing, gregariousness versus assertiveness; and neuroticism. There are also conflicting results, as this article describes.

Are these trait differences biological?

The argument that these are biological traits (which, by the way, is not a term Damore ever defines) is expressed in one paragraph:

research suggests 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.”

The internal quotes are from this article.

At first glance, this seems compelling. Let’s look more closely at this paper. Specifically:

“these changes appear to result from men’s cross-cultural personality variation. In more traditional and less developed cultures a man is, indeed, more like a woman”

Hmm. That sounds a little different, now. In fact, Table 2 shows that, after controlling for human development index, the only gender equality-related factor that predicted gender differences was the ratio of female smokers. In other words, gender equality in general doesn’t change women’s personalities, or the difference between men and women. Rather, human development index changes men’s personalities much more than women’s.

That doesn’t support the claim that gender-liberal societies allow men and women to express innate differences more freely. If that interpretation were correct, women and men should diverge in gender-liberal societies independent of egalitarianism. Instead, men change personality in more egalitarian societies regardless of gender issues; women don’t.

How can we explain that? Maybe personality differences are mediated by power. It makes sense that relatively powerless individuals should be more agreeable and socially alert, less assertive, and more fearful/neurotic — that’s simply rational. How does it interplay with gender? In hierarchical societies, most men are (like most women) subordinate to a powerful minority, so the average man would act much like the average woman. In relatively egalitarian societies, men on average are less subject to oppression by other men, but women still remain low-powered on average relative to nearby men. We already know that social power mediates sex differences in infidelity .

That’s just one possible alternative interpretation. There are others. The point is, the study quoted by the author doesn’t come anywhere near demonstrating his claim.

Do sex differences make women less suited to be software engineers?

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.

At what point did we jump from talking about personalities to abilities? It’s a massive leap to conclude that a slight difference in average personality must undermine women’s professional abilities in software engineering.

Sex differences in cognitive abilities have been well-studied, so it’s intriguing that Damore chooses to ignore this vast literature to focus on personality. The reason, however, quickly becomes clear when we look at the evidence: namely, there’s zero evidence that suggests women should make worse programmers. On average, women score slightly worse on certain spatial reasoning problems and better on verbal tests. Their overall problem-solving abilities are equal. Women used to score worse on math, but inclusive environments negate that difference. Even the (relatively robust) difference in spatial reasoning can vanish when women are asked to picture themselves as male. The only published study of coding competency by sex found that women were more likely than men to have their GitHub contributions accepted — but if they were project outsiders, this was true only if their gender was hidden.

As Yonatan Zunger explained, empathy and collaboration are also central to competency, especially at senior levels. Published results confirm this: in a studythat attempted to identify the factors that influence software engineers’ success, the most important attribute was being “team oriented”. Neuroticism might hold women back from promotions, but there’s no evidence it makes them worse at their jobs.

Thus, to say there’s “significant overlap” in male/female abilities is a massive understatement. There’s no evidence that any known sex differences make women worse at software engineering.

How about preferences? It’s worth remembering that many of the first programmers were women, and that they made enormous contributions to developing the field of computer science. Female participation only declined when programming became a lucrative, gender-stereotyped career.

But suppose women were innately less likely to want to be software engineers. That would, in itself, tend to create a gender-biased environment in which women are unlikely to choose to become software engineers (no matter how innately suited they are individually). In other words, women’s lower average interest would act as an additional filter on both talent and motivation for the pool of available female software engineers. The result, all else being equal, would be that the average female software engineer, who powered through in defiance of gender norms, would be moreinnately motivated and/or talented than the average male engineer who faced no such barriers.

All in all, we have no reason to think female software engineers should perform worse at software engineering based on female trait distributions. And there’s a huge amount of evidence that promoting diversity improves the performance of teams and companies.

We know that negative stereotypes damage people’s performance. We know that unconscious bias influences our judgement of others’ competencies. Consequently, whenever there’s significant cultural prejudice against certain groups, as there is with female software engineers, we expect to see inequalities emerge. So it’s implausible to attribute these differences to biology alone. When we know that competent people are being held back by prejudice, it makes sense to compensate for that via strategies that enhance diversity.

We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.

True, gender gaps don’t always imply sexism. But sexism always implies sexism. We don’t need to infer the existence of sexism from the gender gap in software engineering, we can see it in the countless expressions of misogyny we hear from software engineers. Hiding sexism behind a mask of pseudo-rational argument doesn’t make you any less sexist — as Damore’s document illustrates.

How do conservative and liberal morals differ?

Let’s talk about morals, or, as Damore likes to call them, biases. The table describing left versus right biases seems to be loosely inspired by Jonathan Haidt’s work on cross-cultural morality, but it’s a dangerous misrepresentation — compare Damore’s claims with: Moral foundations theory – Wikipedia

In particular, note that conservatives do not typically discard compassion as a moral value. It’s fascists who do that. By polarizing the representation of values as if there’s no overlap, Damore creates a false equivalence: conservatives have one perspective, progressives have another, and neither is more valid than the other.

A closer examination of Haidt’s work reveals that the values espoused more by conservatives than by progressives (obedience, purity and loyalty) have a consistent and specific evolutionary role and function. They are termed the “binding values”, and serve to reinforce internal group bonds in the face of threats from other groups. By sharply delineating groups, they lay the groundwork for dehumanizing outsiders (see also Opinion | Who Blames the Victim?). In contrast, the individualizing values shared by conservatives and progressives alike are simply pro-social.

Whether the binding values are adaptive depends on your situation; claiming that “neither side is 100% correct and both viewpoints are necessary for a functioning society” is vacuous. In evolutionary timescales, there are scenarios when one side is useful, and scenarios when the other is, which is presumably why our neurological architecture predisposes us to both. But in general, Google has done magnificently well without resorting to the binding values — and let’s hope it continues to, because an authoritarian, fanatical and puritanical Google that dehumanizes outsiders would be very, very bad news.

Advocating moral disengagement

I would like to highlight several paragraphs that I find extremely repugnant.

Demoralize diversity. As soon as we start to moralize an issue, we stop thinking about it in terms of costs and benefits, dismiss anyone that disagrees as immoral, and harshly punish those we see as villains to protect the “victims.”

By that logic, we should give up on moral values altogether. It’s perfectly possible to have a civil, respectful discussion that includes morality; in fact, a mutual commitment to fairness and empathy usually makes for much more productive discussion.

I’ve heard several calls for increased empathy on diversity issues. While I strongly support trying to understand how and why people think the way they do, relying on affective empathy—feeling another’s pain—causes us to focus on anecdotes, favor individuals similar to us, and harbor other irrational and dangerous biases. Being emotionally unengaged helps us better reason about the facts.

Another pernicious false dichotomy. Being emotionally disengaged in fact leads to very bad decisions. Whereas self-awareness — which involves understanding and acknowledging your emotions — does help you make better decisions.

Philosophically, I don’t think we should do arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women. For each of these changes, we need principles reasons for why it helps Google; that is, we should be optimizing for Google—with Google’s diversity being a component of that. For example currently those trying to work extra hours or take extra stress will inevitably get ahead and if we try to change that too much, it may have disastrous consequences. Also, when considering the costs and benefits, we should keep in mind that Google’s funding is finite so its allocation is more zero-sum than is generally acknowledged.

What these paragraphs together are advocating is moral disengagement. For all its mild tone, this is textbook fascism:

The core principle — what Paxton defined as fascism’s only definition of morality — is to make the nation stronger, more powerful, larger and more successful. Since fascists see national strength as the only thing that makes a nation “good,” fascists will use any means necessary to achieve that goal.

(from: What Is Fascism?)

Philosophically, I don’t think Google’s leadership should give a rat’s ass about this guy’s noxious opinions. As far as I can see, Google has consistently been driven by a combination of strong pro-social values and willingness to learn from data, and that’s how it became the dominant global corporation it is. A junior employee telling Google it needs to change these things to be successful is an astonishing sight, to say the least.

Hinting at racism?

the Left tends to deny science concerning biological differences between people (e.g., IQ and sex differences).

The passing mention of IQ is interesting, since it has nothing to do with gender, which is the focus everywhere else. He’s presumably talking about race, but he doesn’t want to be branded a racist, so he keeps the reference subtle. So why risk doing it at all? It’s a dog-whistle to the alt-right.

While we’re here, let’s set the record straight. Racial differences in average IQ have been very widely discussed. Most researchers have concluded that these differences aren’t much attributable to any intrinsic characteristic of race, but are strongly related to differences in pre- and post-natal environment and nutrition. And we can alter racial differences in performance by manipulating the salience of stereotypes. So no, we don’t deny racial differences in IQ, we explain them in ways that upset racists because they want to believe there’s some sort of global conspiracy to hide their innate superiority. Nobody who isn’t racist has any reason to get huffy about this.

Other issues

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, 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 quite agree. Sexist double standards like that are horrible. If only there were a movement dedicated to fighting them, and creating humane working conditions that allow a healthy work-life balance for both sexes.

To be fair, this is something feminism has, I think, got wrong. We’ve focused too much on the ways in which patriarchy is bad for women, while neglecting the ways in which it’s even worse for men.

As mentioned before, this likely evolved because males are biologically disposable and because women are generally more cooperative and agreeable than men.

Talking about human males being biologically disposable is nonsense. The mean fitness of males and females is equal; every individual has a father and a mother, and fathers in most hunter-gatherer societies (which best represent the environment where we evolved) play a huge role in nurturing children.

What you might mean is that low-status men have historically been used for cannon fodder and other dangerous roles because powerful men regard them as disposable. That’s about sociopolitical structures, not evolution. There’s no reason to think we can’t correct it culturally. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors maintained egalitarian societies in most places for countless millennia, until technological innovations such as farming caused them to concentrate resources across generations and thus reinvent chimp-like hierarchies (which made life much worse for most people). In fact, this correction is a project I think feminism should adopt; I call it destroying the patriarchy.

We have extensive government and Google programs, fields of study, and legal and social norms to protect women, but when a man complains about a gender issue issue [sic] affecting men, he’s labelled as a misogynist and whiner. Nearly every difference between men and women is interpreted as a form of women’s oppression. As with many things in life, gender differences are often a case of “grass being greener on the other side”; unfortunately, taxpayer and Google money is spent to water only one side of the lawn.

So, when men do better than women (as they do at Google), it’s despite suffering from gender-specific oppression, whilst when women do badly (as they do at Google) it’s because they’re innately bad (even though we can’t find any evidence for that). Got it.

The same compassion for those seen as weak creates political correctness, which constrains discourse and is complacent to the extremely sensitive PC-authoritarians that use violence and shaming to advance their cause. While Google hasn’t harbored the violent leftists protests that we’re seeing at universities, the frequent shaming in TGIF and in our culture has created the same silence, psychologically unsafe environment.

Political correctness can be constraining to free speech. So can fear of the sort of poisonous, fact-free violent mob rhetoric routinely espoused by the alt-right. But it’s true that some people on the left are guilty of this as well, and that upsets me profoundly.

I think it would be immensely helpful to politics if every single one of us, left and right, agreed to commit to sincere, fact-based, non-violent dialogue. Anyone who’s not willing to commit to that is not on my side, whether they call themselves progressive or conservative. Unfortunately, Damore’s document is not fact-based, and many features (such as the above portrayal of violence as a solely left-wing phenomenon) suggest it’s insincere.

I’m also not saying that we should restrict people to certain gender roles; I’m advocating for quite the opposite: treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group (tribalism).

This is naive or disingenuous. Treating people as individuals involves acknowledging that different groups experience different conditions, which results in bias holding back members of some groups. Fairness requires us to compensate for such biases.

Besides which, advocating for the binding values is, quite precisely, advocating tribalism over individualism. That’s why we call them the binding values.

Related links:

Suzanne Sadedin is an evolutionary biologist and a Quora contributor.  You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+

A Scientist Responds to Claims About Women, Diversity in Google Memo