In response to ongoing diversity initiatives at Google, an employee has released a manifesto detailing why these initiatives are misguided and potentially harmful.  Since he seemed primarily concerned about women, and I am a woman in tech, I feel a need to respond.  

The author opens by saying that he’s pro-diversity, but then makes the following claims:

  1. Biology can account for differences in the representation of the sexes in STEM and more specifically, at Google, because:
    1. Women are simply not as interested in engineering
    2. Women are inferior to men at the skills needed to be survive in tech
    3. Women are unable to cope with stress and so don’t take stressful jobs
    4. Women value family and therefore don’t take on responsibilities at work
  2. Pro-diversity initiatives have created a silencing culture.
  3. Diversity is bad for Google’s bottom line
  4. Diversity initiatives that seek to help only members of particular groups are unfair.

Although I could go on for quite a while detailing what aspects of the document make me angry, I am going to comply with the author’s request and engage in good-faith intellectual debate. This request is somewhat ridiculous since he effectively dehumanized me and everyone like me, but I’m going to comply anyway. For another take on it, I suggest reading an ex-googler’s response.

While the author purports to concern himself with diversity more broadly, he quickly zeros in on sex differences. Since that is the only thing he provides any evidence for, I’ll also focus there. It’s worth noting that his framing of biological essentialism (i.e. that men and women are biologically a certain “way”)  falsely equates biological sex and gender identity, erases queerness from the discussion, and sidelines any other form of diversity (except race, which barely gets a mention).  It’s unfortunate, but unsurprising from someone who thinks women are innately less capable of handling stress than men are.

 

1. Can biology account for differences in the representation of the sexes in STEM and more specifically, at Google?

This question has actually been debated quite thoroughly by Pinker and Spelke. In fact, the author of the manifesto’s arguments can be seen as direct plagiarism from Pinker’s opening arguments. It’s a pity that he did not attempt to address any of Spelke’s counterpoints, which are quite compelling.

Regardless of whether biological sex differences exist, childhood socialization is by far the stronger correlate and can account for each of the biological claims made by the author (and by Pinker).

Claim 1: “Women like people and men like things”

One only has to look at the way toys are marketed to children to see why this first claim is due mostly to nurture as opposed to nature. There are many top-down factors that influence a child’s preferences (e.g. Barbie dolls vs Nerf guns).

Claim 2: “Men are better at spatially rotating objects than women are”

Unless you are familiar with developmental psychology, the relevance of this point may not be immediately obvious. The idea is that people who are better at mentally rotating objects have superior math capability. Therefore the fact that men, on average, do better at this task should make them superior at math than women.

The refutation for this again lies in children’s toys. Children’s toys are heavily gendered and toys targeted at boys are generally more mentally stimulating, which has serious developmental implications.  Of course you will be better at mentally rotating objects if you spent all of your childhood playing with toys that developed this skill.

Furthermore, there is evidence that other kinds of parental preference may lead male children to be more attracted to science than female children.

Claim 3: “Women are more neurotic and less able to handle stress than men”

It’s an established fact that women experience anxiety at a higher rate than men do. The question of this claim is whether women are innately more prone to anxiety or whether it can be attributed to how we live. (I’m curious as to what the author thinks about male suicide rates

Overall this claim is very strange to me and I have yet to see any convincing data that accounts for the following factors:

Women express emotions more easily than men do

Women often have many more responsibilities at home than their male counterparts (even in two earner households), adding to stress

Women are much less physically safe than men, even in so-called developed countries

Since women’s lives seem to involve more stress than men’s lives, I’m not sure how you can argue we’re less capable of handling it.

Claim 4: “Women value work/life balance and family more than men do”

This one I hear all the time. The idea is that because women have the capacity to create life, we are secretly governed by this instinct at the expense of all other rationality. Women, especially as they near their mid-30s, are under enormous pressure to have children. Women who do have children are under enormous pressure to be good mothers. While some strides have been made, home burden is far from equally shared between partners.

The author has failed to persuade me that I am underrepresented in tech because of my biology. Each one of his claims: that we like people not things, that we cannot mentally rotate as well, that we can’t cope with stress, and that we value work/life balance, can be met with an alternative cultural explanation. We are taught from childhood to value people and receive less practice at mental rotation due to gender bias in toys. We have many more kinds of stress to cope with and are more open to expressing emotions. Society places an enormous pressure on women to value work/life balance as the primary caregivers to children.

Whether innate biology has any influence at all is somewhat irrelevant – any data we would use to measure such a claim has been tainted by pre-existing gender bias in society, which affects children from a very young age.

 

2. Have pro-diversity initiatives created a silencing culture?

The author is a self-proclaimed conservative. He feels that he cannot express his opinions comfortably and cites “PC culture” as the reason why.

An integral component of many diversity trainings is to discuss microaggressions, which are the small insults that people in minority groups must endure daily. These are somewhat subtle comments that effectively say “You don’t belong here.” and have been shown to contribute over time to stress.

The manifesto author claims that microaggressions are not a big deal because perpetrators don’t intend them badly, and, that hypersensitivity to microaggressions has created a silencing culture in which conservatives like him cannot speak freely.

There is a special kind of cognitive dissonance at work when a self-proclaimed conservative complains about “PC culture” and being “silenced” simultaneously. I don’t want to get into the question of whether speech is the ultimate freedom in society (I think we all can agree that there are things a person shouldn’t say), so I’ll stick to refuting the specific points in the document:

  • Speech absolutely can be a form of violence, and it is ridiculous to assert otherwise
    (the law recognizes hate speech as legally actionable harm)
  • Microaggressions silence members of minority groups and prevent them from being themselves.

Let’s draw a parallel between how I as a woman in tech feel and how the author claims to feel:

Me (a woman in tech) Manifesto guy
Cannot discuss emotions because nobody will take you seriously. Cannot discuss political views because people will think you are a bigot.
Need to be perfect, because otherwise people will say that you don’t deserve your job – you were only chosen because you’re female. Need to have very well-researched viewpoints and arguments, so that people don’t lump you in with Rush Limbaugh.
Have to be nice no matter what, especially to men, even if they abuse you, lest you be labeled “difficult to work with.” Have to keep yourself from revealing all of the stereotypes you believe are true, lest you be labeled a racist/sexist.

I don’t know about you, but I see a lot of similarities in sentiment there. Unfortunately the ability for one group to speak freely can be at odds with the ability of one group to live freely.

 

3. Is diversity bad for Google’s bottom line?

No.

 

4. Are diversity initiatives that seek to help only members of particular groups unfair?

While I’m not acquainted with the specific programs Google offers its employees, I have been lucky enough to attend schools with a variety of diversity initiatives aimed at women in STEM.

Through these programs I was able to find the following:

  • Mentorship
  • Concrete advice on how to navigate a world in which I am a minority
  • A community that understood the unique issues faced by women in STEM

These things are hard to find without such programs. I would argue that without them, I am at a disadvantage and much more likely to leave. The other side of diversity is inclusion. You can hire as many women as you want, but if they don’t feel welcome, they won’t stay.

If you belong to the majority group, mentors are everywhere. Your circumstances are far from unique, and you don’t have to learn to navigate a world that was effectively built for you. If “swaths of men” at Google are without support, as the author claims, then maybe resources do need to be spent on general employee development. I am sure that a common ground exists here. Just because everyone needs support does not mean that marginalized groups don’t still need their own kind of support.

 

So, how should the community respond to this?

My two major takeaways from reading this document:

  1. The efforts of our community to educate people about privilege and unconscious bias seem ineffective.
  2. No matter how much scientific evidence says otherwise, old biases continue to persist, even among the scientifically-minded. Confirmation bias appears stronger than scientific evidence.

It seems that even with unconscious bias training, which Google has championed, smart, seemingly reasonable people are still having a really hard time learning to be sensitive to those who are different from them. To me, this is the real problem.  It is very bad that someone like the author has come away feeling like microaggressions are not harmful and that sensitivity training drives people away.

This makes me feel like those who steer diversity initiatives may need to change their approach. Too many people hold similar opinions to the author, and simultaneously consider themselves “allies,” just like how the author claims he is not “anti-diversity.” They are not allies – an ally is not focused on justifying the status quo, but rather changing it to promote inclusion.

This discussion also raises the question of whether diversity measures in the adult world are too little too late. Could diversity initiatives for adults trickle down and help shift our culture? I’d be very interested to see the answer.

For better or for worse, this has given me-and everyone else in tech-a lot to think about. We must learn how to effectively foster an inclusive workplace, otherwise diversity will never be anything but a lofty goal.