Vicky Spratt | Deputy Editor | Friday, 11 August 2017

What Does A Biologist Think About The Claims Made In The Google Memo?

What Does A Biologist Think About The Claims Made In The Google Memo?

The Debrief: What does an actual biologist think of the claims made in the infamous Google memo?

This summer will henceforth be known as the summer our (not so) secret gender pay gap shame went public. I say not so secret because, let’s face it, we all knew that there were people out there who held views like the sort expressed by James Damore, former Google employee and author of the (anti) diversity memo we’ve now all read or Sir Philip Hampton (they guy who said women don’t get pay raises because they don’t ask)

We knew it, but we had to carry on anyway. Every woman has met one of these men at some point in their working lives, whether she is biomedical scientist, engineer, journalist, banker, accountant, nurse, doctor, estate agent, academic or DJ’s the guy who repeats what you say in meetings, rephrasing it ever so slightly because he genuinely believes his version of your words is better. He’s the guy who speaks openly to you on a work trip about how he’s not actually that supportive of his breadwinner wife’s request for flexible working hours. And, worst of all, he’s the guy who casually says ‘women are just…’ insert unsupported generalisation about the fairer sex here: more emotional, less outgoing, more creative, better at admin.  

This final sub-genre of the sexist man category is the most galling and James Damore is, sadly, an archetypal character found in its stories. In the memo, which lost him his job, he made claims which, broadly, fall under what is known as biological essentialism. In a nutshell, this is the belief that a person’s personality or character is innate in them because of their sex and not a product of their upbringing. 

I’m going to list some of the claims Damore made about women in his note

  • ‘Women, on average, have more: Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance). This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high-stress jobs.’
  • ‘We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.’
  • ‘Women on average show a higher interest in people and men in things’
  • ‘Women on average look for more work-life balance while men have a higher drive for status on average. Unfortunately, as long as tech and leadership remain high status, lucrative careers, men may disproportionately want to be in them. Allowing and truly endorsing (as part of our culture) part time work though can keep more women in tech.’ 

Of course, he’s specifically referring to the tech industry but these views are held across the board by men in many fields of work. And, let’s not beat around the bush here, they are totally toxic. Why? Because this is junk science, fake news and pseudo fact masquerading as some sort of essential truth which can be used to justify sexism, undermining women as one giant homogenous mass and putting us all back in our ‘feminine’ box. It’s a very deep box with tall, slippery sides and if you try to climb out you get labelled ‘hysterical’. Women, eh?

Dr Anne Fautso-Sterling is a Professor of Biology and Gender Studies at Brown University. She is also the author of Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Women And Men. I asked her what she thinks about Damore’s claims. 

The Debrief: ‘Hi Dr Fausto-Sterling, why is James Damore, author of the Google memo, wrong about the biological differences between men and women?’ 

Dr Fausto-Sterling:  ‘First, I think some context is needed. This dispute about whether women are somehow biologically unsuited for certain jobs extends back decades. I have battled against the same argument, which raises its head whenever women push back against the status quo, for many decades. So my initial response is to say, "oh THIS again". Not worth my time when what I am doing is creating a new approach to understanding gender and difference as dynamic, developmental and only to be understood in cultural and historical context. That being said, here are a few thoughts on the current incarnation of the "women-don't-belong-here hydra".’

The Debrief: ‘James Damore uses ‘biology’ to shore up his argument, has he got any ground to stand on whatsoever?’ 

Dr Fausto-Sterling: ‘he presents no evidence about biology. He cites studies of adult preferences but without an understanding of how these might have developed. However, they developed it was in a context of constant feedback to infants, and children about what their proper adult roles should be, AND as my research is showing, the parenting of even infants differs depending on whether the infant is a boy or a girl. SO, if girls develop language earlier than boys, it is also the case that mothers talk more to girl infants than to boys.’

‘Also, a profound confusion results from posing the question as nature versus nurture. I assume that language develops, for example via biological skills that involve neural development, control of vocal cords and tongue to make sounds and cognitive links that lead to an understanding of words and syntax. So, that is biological. BUT it ONLY develops if there is adult linguistic input. So, language is neither caused by nature or nurture but by both together. I have started using the phrase Gender/Sex to indicate 100% biology and 100% culture-nurture.’

‘AND, Damore and those that are jumping on his bandwagon is completely uncritical of the literature he cites. A number of the studies he cites come from questionnaires; how were these administered? Were the questions set up as extreme Either/or, or were there a variety of intermediate choices that would have lessened that statistical power but given more realistic results. I don't have to time or interest to do a deep dive on these citations, but I will bet there are issues to be raised with many if not all of them.’

The Debrief: So it seems like using ‘biological differences between men and women’ to try and explain the lack of women in certain professions, like software engineering, or as a way of justifying the gender pay gap is pretty dodgy then?

Dr Fausto-Sterling: ‘It is pretty clear that the pay gap comes from (1) unequal pay for equal work and (2) failure to place women in top-paying jobs. I can't see how biological differences could be used to explain the gap.’

‘None of the studies of temperament in infants show any sex differences. We presume that personality traits develop as an interaction between a birth personality and the behaviours of the caregiving adults. So if boys and girls start to diverge at some point, then we need to understand how their development is being shaped. Also, the key studies of adults by Maccoby and Jacklin and the meta-analyses by Hyde suggest no personality differences between men and women.’

The Debrief: So, finally, let’s get this straight once and for all is there any evidence, whatsoever, that women are somehow less suited to being software engineers or other tech roles?

Dr Fausto-Sterling: ‘This idea is just silly. The history of women in the computer industry from before World War Two to the present reveals many women making breath through contributions, and often in the face of extreme hostility (see the movie and book "Hidden Figures"; or the BBC series on the women who cracked the Enigma code). The hostility has gotten worse with the onset of social media and the license given to extreme trolling.’ [see also GamerGate].

That’s the science and it’s clear as day. So, in practice, what does all of this mean for women in the workplace? The Debrief's editor Rebecca Holman’s book BETA addresses some of this, particularly in terms of how Damore’s comments imply that women just aren’t suited to top job because you cannot have work-life balance and or be empathetic and creative and in charge of stuff.

She says that the idea that women are naturally predisposed to be a certain way ‘limits us hugely because we believe that the only way to be a successful and effective leader is by behaving in an Alpha way, demonstrating traits that are traditionally viewed as masculine such as drive, dogmatism or forcefulness. This means that women are only able to succeed at the very top when they behave in a way that’s viewed as ‘masculine’ (inverted commas are intentional because of course, not all men are Alpha and all women are Beta, but that’s still the behaviour we expect or assume).’ 

More broadly, this is bad for men too. ‘When we assume that the only way to succeed in the workplace is to behave in a classically masculine, Alpha way, we also limit the type of people and the skill sets that we find that the top level in businesses, which is also problematic.’ Ultimately, Holman says, we need to completely recalibrate our ideas about what it takes to lead a business, ‘things like empathy, the ability to work in and with a team, bringing the best out of people and taking them along with you are all hugely important, and yet we discount all of these skills in favour of the charismatic, Alpha CEO who wants to push their own agenda above all else…’ 

Just as Sir Philip Hampton was talking total nonsense, because studies show that women are actually just as likely as men to ask for pay rises but less likely to get them when they do, Damore was what’s colloquially known as chatting breeze, study after study after study has found that men and women aren't all that different. 

So why do these sort of views persist? It’s understandable that you would want to believe that anyone would want to believe they have their job because of their incredible ability. If I were a powerful man, I think I’d probably worry that I only had that power because of my male privilege and, I imagine, that would make me feel very very insecure and unsettled. Indeed, as one privately educated white male manager once said to me in a conversation about diversity ‘what am I supposed to do…resign so someone else can have my job?’ 

If you’re in that position and, instead of thinking about how you can tackle inequality, resort to junk science or falsehoods to justify your position or the gender gap in any industry, then that’s probably the first sign that you’ve got a serious problem and you deserve to be confronted with the facts and nothing but the facts. 

Whether we are talking about software engineers, surgeons, journalists or data analysts, if young women are told that they are less likely to want to be any of these things because of their innate programming, that creates an environment where women are less likely to consider it. And, by the same token, if men are told that their place isn’t in the home, looking after children, then they’re less likely to choose to do that. 

And, the facts are that we know this happens. We know that negative stereotypes are damaging and we know that unconscious bias influence how people hire and promote workers.  In a way, it’s a good thing that archaic and inaccurate views about women in the workplace have gone viral this summer because now that they’re out in the open, they can be called out for what they are: total and utter crap. The truth is that there is no scientific basis for 'boys' jobs and girls' jobs'. This is just another example of the persistent configuring of important or high-status jobs as 'male' in order to justify the lack of women doing them. 

Of course, Damore is fast becoming an Alt-Right so-called 'free speech' hero. It doesn't matter how nonsensical his arguments are, nor does it matter how many reputable scientists refute them, by saying what he has, and being fired for it, he's likely to become a martyr for the anti-political correctness police the world over. 

Like this? You might also be interested in:

We Surfed Around 4Chan So You Don't Have To

The One Thing That Might Actually Close The Gender Pay Gap 

Why We Can't Afford To Stop Talking About The BBC Pay Gap 

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt 


Tags: gender, Working Girls