In the latest dust-up in the battle over sexism in the workplace, Google engineer James Damore claimed that there's a reason for women's lack of representation in the tech world, and it has nothing to do with sexism. Damore argues that there are “non-bias causes” of the lack of equal representation of women in tech fields. The tech gender gaps, he proposes, “aren’t just socially constructed,” listing five reasons to support his argument. These reasons can be boiled down to evolutionary psychology's version of the "anatomy is destiny" mantra of Freud. They become manifest, he further notes, from women's unique personalities, making them higher in openness to experience, more gregarious (part of extraversion), more agreeable, and—most important—more neurotic. These traits make them ill-suited for the upper echelons of the tech world. Men, by contrast, have a higher drive for status and so are better-equipped to rise to tech's upper echelons.
Although Damore’s fate was sealed almost as soon as the memo was published, as Google unceremoniously fired him in response, the fact that these beliefs are out there deserves attention from the standpoint of scientific psychology. A 2015 article by University College London psychologist Alexander Siegling and colleagues examined gender differences in personality across five samples of young adults in relationship to the quality of emotional intelligence. This paper provides the most recent and perhaps fullest examination of the question that Damore’s memo put into the limelight.
The Five Factor Model proposes that personality is best conceptualized as a structure of stable dispositions, and these are the traits on which the Damore memo is based. The traits include the relatively self-explanatory qualities of Neuroticism (or its opposite, emotional stability), Openness to Experience, Extraversion, Conscientiousness, and Agreeableness. The UCL authors were interested in learning whether these traits relate to Emotional Intelligence (EI) and, if so, whether such relationships differ by gender.
Siegling and his colleagues relied not on an evolutionary but on a socialization framework in their proposal that “many traits are socially desirable for one gender, but not for the other, at least in a traditional sense” (p. 59). In other words, women may score higher on measures of empathy and men on measures of assertiveness because they’ve learned that these are the qualities rewarded for their gender.
The five samples in the UCL study came from the UK and Canada, and all consisted of undergraduates, with sample sizes ranging from just over 300 to nearly 700. Although they selected from a college student population, the age ranges spanned the adult years, with the oldest participant being 79 years old. Their test of emotional intelligence, which you can take yourself, includes items such as “I can deal effectively with people,” “I’m normally able to ‘get into someone’s shoes’ and experience their emotions,” and “I would describe myself as a good negotiator.”
The pattern of findings across all five studies showed undeniably that the personalities of men and women related in very similar ways to EI. For both men and women, EI scores were negatively related to Neuroticism, and positively associated with the other four trait scales. Using all five trait measures in predictive models for EI that involved stringent statistical controls, there were also no gender differences. The authors concluded that “the linkages of Big Five [i.e. Five Factor] to trait EI are invariant between men and women” (p. 64). In other words, being highly neurotic is a negative predictor of EI, whether you’re male or female. The other traits related to a lesser extent and in different ways across samples, but again, gender played no role.
The main conclusion we can draw from the Siegling et al. study is that personality relates in similar ways to qualities that should help people succeed in the workplace regardless of their gender. These findings contrast with Damore’s dark view that “Nearly every difference between women and men is interpreted as a form of women’s oppression.”
There is also plenty of evidence to support the position that whatever differences there are in women’s ability to succeed in a male-dominated sector of the economy are more readily attributable to socialization than evolution. According to renowned Northwestern University psychologist Alice Eagly, gender biases permeate even the bastions of academia and the agencies in government that provide the grant support that scientists rely on to do their work.
As Eagly noted in a 2016 article in the prestigious Perspectives on Psychological Science, co-authored with David Miller, “In particular, nature and nurture interactively influence role occupancies so that men and women are differently distributed into social roles … Gender … stereotypes arise because people infer group members’ traits from observations of their behavior in their typical occupational and family roles.” These stereotypes, they go on to note, include “expectations for women to excel in communal qualities of warmth and concern for others and for men to excel in agentic qualities of assertiveness and mastery” (p. 902). In concluding that biology is the determinant rather than socialization, Damore committed the fatal flaw of discounting the social expectations associated with individuals who have learned what's "appropriate" for their gender.
If male and female personalities relate similarly to EI, a quality highly desirable in any workplace setting, then it would seem that if women are unable to rise to the top, it’s not because they lack the personality to get there. Indeed, in her response to the memo, You Tube CEO Susan Wojcicki provided ample documentation of the pervasive sexism in the tech industry. This latest episode in the gender gap saga should help women recognize the obstacles that they, unlike men, face in their search to fulfill their potential.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Eagly, A. H., & Miller, D. I. (2016). Scientific eminence: Where are the women?. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(6), 899-904. doi:10.1177/1745691616663918
Siegling, A. B., Furnham, A., & Petrides, K. V. (2015). Trait emotional intelligence and personality: Gender-invariant linkages across different measures of the Big Five. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 33(1), 57-67. doi:10.1177/0734282914550385