Biological differences? Deal with it, Damore

By Anna Sexton

Two things happened this week that once again stirred my passion for diversity in the workplace and the importance of championing women in technology professions.

Number one: I completed the mobile game Lumino City. I’ll come back to that later.

Number two: that now-infamous internal memo sent round Google towers by a male employee and leaked to the wonderweb.

Called ‘Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber’ and written by software engineer James Damore, his manifesto in short went like this:
• 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.

I’m disappointed by Google’s alleged decision to give Mr Damore the boot. I don’t know the chap – nor do any of the media outlets bashing him – but his apparent sacking says one thing to me: Google doesn’t tolerate different views. And even though I don’t agree with Damore, I don’t agree with Google’s decision either – a decision I might add that amounts to PR damage control first, diversity progress second. Not good, Google. I’ll be watching you closely. As you do me, right?

Onto the Damore diatribe itself: I just can’t agree with him and his seemingly well-researched claims. If you haven’t the time to read his 10-pager, the above bullets are his own summary. Two of his tenets are particularly provocative, getting the goat of many a diversity commentator. Here they are interpreted by me:

• Women are biologically different to men – differences that may in part account for women’s apparent lack of achievement in technology professions – see the section in Damore’s piece called ‘Possible non-bias causes of the gender gap in tech’
• Women have less tolerance for stress, which in turn means they are generally unsuitable for the stress of senior leadership positions – see ‘Personality differences’ and ‘Men’s higher drive for status’

I’m not about to repeat the words of other critics – they can say it far more eloquently than me. For instance, Helen Lewis for the New Statesman does an especially fine job. And I’m not about to regurgitate the endless research that disputes Damore’s claims. To do that I’d need a bit more time, and specialist experience in the field. I don’t have that, so I’ll just say this in response to Damore’s two main points:

• Any two men are biologically different, as are any two women – biological differences that are arguably manifested in their personality, their skills, their aims. Does it make one man, or one woman less capable of one particular job if it comes down to a head-to-head for a single opening? Yes. Does it make one gender less capable of an entire, extremely diverse, field of work, like technology? No, of course it doesn’t. Does it mean one gender should be subconsciously written off from a profession? Absolutely not. Should efforts be made to challenge this conditioned way of thinking? Emphatically yes.

One other point about the ‘biological differences’: I kind of want to say ‘so what?’ Is that flippant of me? Probably – and so is this: everybody is biologically different. Deal with it, Damore.

• Women and their apparent propensity towards neuroticism. Now here’s something I know a lot about, because I’ve fought depression for most of my adult life. I’m not going to like myself for saying this, because I don’t appreciate the way Damore has made sweeping gender generalisations in his piece, but I agree with other commentators who point to a general trend in men: their higher suicide rate, which is often attributed to men’s inability to seek help.

Fortunately, I can’t say I know anything about this first-hand, but I can categorically state that in every place I’ve worked, the female colleagues I have had are more likely to be open about their emotional state. And that often includes disclosing experiences of anxiety, depression, paranoia, anger. Experiences that still entail a certain guilt, and a criminal, shame-racked confessional quality when one admits to them, despite them all being part and parcel of being a human. The truth is it still takes bravery and determination to make these declarations as the first step to addressing them – bravery and determination that are ideal qualities for leadership roles, along with a willingness to be flexible and transform. Now what company isn’t seeking leaders like that? Sorry Damore, you can call me neurotic but I worry how someone of your intelligence can overlook all of this.

Still, I’m glad Damore’s memo made it out in the world. It’s pushed the debate about workplace equality and diversity where it deserves to be: right in the forefront of the technology industry, and the wider business world. For me, what would really take this forward now is if we could stop singling out the gender debate as a separate issue to the wider diversity discussion. And I’m not talking about diversity as a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise, because I’ve seen firms taken that approach – they’ve championed diversity on the surface, but in reality employ an endless batch of clones and it only leads to one thing: stagnation. It’s why I don’t think Google’s apparent firing of Damore was right.

Real diversity oils the wheels of business – it brings fresh ideas and wide experiences and new thinking for old challenges. And these qualities are essential for any business – from a tiny upstart, to a titan of tech.

I mentioned one other thing that sparked my women-in-tech passions this week: the mobile game, Lumino City. I’ll spare you the spoilers – just go and get it. You’ll find something enchanting, a digital creation made using delightfully non-digital techniques, and a story that rings true with so much I’ve written here. And I even found a new women-in-tech hero.

One more insider tip before I sign off, as is something of cliché with blogs: a plug. If anything I’ve written here chimes with you – even just my video game recommendation – you must look at our Empowering Women in a Digital World course. It’s right on the money when it comes to women working in digital and tech in the public sector. It’s also perfect for any profession that involves modern leadership – and let’s not forget leadership isn’t the preserve of those with leader in their title. Most of all, only good stories come out of this course – something I’ll save for writing about another day…

Biological differences? Deal with it, Damore

2 thoughts on “Biological differences? Deal with it, Damore

  1. What a well balanced commentary Anna! I think the other key point to your one: ‘we are all biologically different’ is that we can all choose to change our habits and behaviours. As we say on the Empowering Women in a Digital World course, life is 10% stuff that happens and 90% how we deal with it. Therein lies our freedom to choose, which everybody has, regardless of gender.

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