Does Women's Biology Hurt Them in Tech?
No. The infamous Google memo was based on bad science.
Posted Aug 31, 2017
A Google engineer who was fired for posting an online claim that women’s biology makes them less able than men to work in technology jobs has charged that he is being smeared and is a victim of political correctness.
James Damore, 28, questioned the company’s diversity policies and claimed that scientific data backed up his assertions. Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote that Damore’s 3,300-word manifesto crossed the line by “advancing harmful gender stereotypes” in the workplace. Pichai noted that “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”
Damore argued that many men in the company agreed with his sentiments. That’s not surprising, since the idea that women just can’t hack it in math and science has been around for a very long time. It has been argued that women’s lack of a “math gene,” their brain structures and their inherent psychological traits put most of them out of the game.
Some critics sided with Damore. For example, columnist Ross Douthat of the New York Times found his scientific arguments intriguing.
But are they? What are the real facts? We have been researching issues of gender and STEM (science, technology engineering and math) for more than 25 years. We can say flatly that there is no evidence that women’s biology makes them incapable of performing at the highest levels in any STEM fields.
Many reputable scientific authorities have weighed in on this question, including a major paper in the journal Science debunking the idea that the brains of males and females are so different that they should be educated in single-sex classrooms. The paper was written by eight prominent psychologists, headed by professor Diane Halpern of Claremont McKenna College, past president of the American Psychological Association. They argue that “There is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students’ academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.”
They add, “Neuroscientists have found few sex differences in children’s brains beyond the larger volume of boys’ brains and the earlier completion of girls’ brain growth, neither of which is known to relate to learning.”
Several major books have debunked the idea of important brain differences between the sexes. Lise Eliot, associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, did an exhaustive review of the scientific literature on human brains from birth to adolescence. She concluded, in her book “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” that there is “surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains.”
Rebecca Jordan-Young, a sociomedical scientist and professor at Barnard College, also rejects the notion that there are pink and blue brains, and that the differing organization of female and male brains is the key to behavior. In her book “Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences,” she says that this narrative misunderstands the complexities of biology and the dynamic nature of brain development.
And happily, the widely held belief that boys are naturally better than girls at math and science is unraveling among serious scientists. Evidence is mounting that girls are every bit as competent as boys in these areas. Psychology professor Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin–Madison has strong U.S. data showing no meaningful differences in math performance among more than seven million boys and girls in grades 2 through 12.
Also, several large-scale international testing programs find girls closing the gender gap in math, and in some cases outscoring the boys. Clearly, this huge improvement over a fairly short time period argues against biological explanations.
Much of the data that Damore provides in his memo is suspect, outdated or has other problems.
In his July memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber: How bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion,” Damore wrote that women on average have more “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas.” And he stated that women are more inclined to have an interest in “people rather than things, relative to men.”
Damore cites the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, who argues in his widely reviewed book “The Essential Difference” that boys are biologically programmed to focus on objects, predisposing them to math and understanding systems, while girls are programmed to focus on people and feelings. The British psychologist claims that the male brain is the “systematizing brain” while the female brain is the “empathizing” brain.
This idea was based on a study of day-old babies, which found that the boys looked at mobiles longer and the girls looked at faces longer. Male brains, Baron-Cohen says, are ideally suited for leadership and power. They are hardwired for mastery of hunting and tracking, trading, achieving and maintaining power, gaining expertise, tolerating solitude, using aggression and taking on leadership roles.
The female brain, on the other hand, is specialized for making friends, mothering, gossip and “reading” a partner. Girls and women are so focused on others, he says, that they have little interest in figuring out how the world works.
But Baron-Cohen’s study had major problems. It was an “outlier” study. No one else has replicated these findings, including Baron-Cohen himself. It is so flawed as to be almost meaningless. Why?
The experiment lacked crucial controls against experimenter bias and was badly designed. Female and male infants were propped up in a parent’s lap and shown, side by side, an active person or an inanimate object. Since newborns can’t hold their heads up independently, their visual preferences could well have been determined by the way their parents held them.
There is much literature that flat-out contradicts Baron-Cohen's study, providing evidence that male and female infants tend to respond equally to people and objects, notes Elizabeth Spelke, co-director of Harvard’s Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative. But media stories continue to promote the idea of very different brains on little evidence.
Damore also claims that women experience more stress and anxiety than men, and that “This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high-stress jobs.”
He implies that stress and anxiety are personality traits inherent in females, but more likely they are due to the pressures and discrimination women face on the job that men do not. For example, a 2008 report sponsored by major companies, “The Athena Factor,” found that women in high positions in male-dominated fields, such as tech, suffer harsher penalties than men when they slip up. Women don’t get second chances. Men do.
One of the report’s authors, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York, notes in the Harvard Business Review that in tech firms, “the way to get promoted is to do a diving catch. Some system is crashing in Bulgaria, so you get on the plane in the middle of the night and dash off and spend the weekend wrestling with routers and come back a hero.”
But what if you don’t make the catch? “Women have a hard time taking on those assignments because you can dive and fail to catch. If a man fails, his buddies dust him off and say, ‘It's not your fault; try again next time.’ A woman fails and is never seen again.”
Add to that conundrum the fact that just getting in the door is harder for a woman than it is for a man.
Her resume may look exactly like his, but because her name is Mary and not John, she may not get a second look. A review of studies of U.S. decision makers who have the power to hire candidates found that clearly competent men were rated higher than equally competent women. This bias is especially rampant in the high-tech industry. One study, conducted by professors at Columbia, Northwestern and the University of Chicago, found that two-thirds of managers selected male job candidates, even when the men did not perform as well as the women on math problems that were part of the application process.
Throw in the facts that, according to research, competent men are seen as likeable, while competent women are seen as bitchy, that women get less credit for their accomplishments than men do, that men are often promoted on promise while women get elevated only on the basis of performance, and that sexual harassment is a constant problem for women in tech.
All of these are issues that males simply do not have to face. The “anxiety gap” exists for a reason, and it is not about biology.
Many of Damore’s controversial conclusions rest heavily on one recent study and much older, now-discredited research, ignoring reams of data that tell a very different story. The argument that men, especially affluent men, are more focused on their “male” breadwinner role than on their more “female” family roles, does not reflect either research data or observational data.
Over the past two decades, men in the U.S. are spending more and more time on housework and childcare on both workdays and weekends. Indeed, their time spent on such tasks is close to that spent by their wives, according to the National Study of the Changing Workforce.
The psychological well-being of employed married fathers is as closely linked to their family as to their employee roles, according to a study directed by Dr. Barnett.
Today, companies are offering more and more paternity leave, because male employees are clamoring for it. Generous leave policies are seen as a recruitment tool, as companies are in an arms race with competitors to attract millennials and retain their best talent.
In 2016, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, caused banner headlines when his daughter was born and he took a two-month paternity leave. He set an example for his employees and those of other companies.
And they seem to have noticed. According to SmartAsset.com, “in just the past year ... at least 17 big employers have either introduced or expanded paid-leave options for new dads.” They include Hilton, Netflix, Spotify, Microsoft and Fidelity.
“The rate of expansion is unprecedented,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work.
But many men who would opt for paternity leave hesitate, not because of innate biological dispositions, but because of fear of retribution. Cultural stereotypes exert a powerful effect, punishing men for the caring, family-oriented behavior that they desire. Damore’s article may make it even harder for such men to take the paternity leave they so clearly crave.
The recent history of Sweden’s legislation on paternity leave highlights dramatically the overwhelming role of cultural stereotypes on male parental behavior. It’s not biology at work here, but laws mandating at least two months of the nation’s well-paid, 13-month parental leave exclusively for fathers that have created profound social change.
“In perhaps the most striking example of social engineering, a new definition of masculinity is emerging,” notes the New York Times. Birgitta Ohlsson, European affairs minister, put it this way: “Machos with dinosaur values don’t make the top-10 lists of attractive men in women’s magazines anymore. Now men can have it all — a successful career and being a responsible daddy. It’s a new kind of manly. It’s more wholesome.”
Damore, on the other hand, argues for downplaying empathy in American companies.
Creating more dinosaurs doesn’t seem like a healthy way to go.
This article ran earlier on the website ReCode
Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett are the authors of “The Age of Longevity: Re-Imagining Tomorrow for Our New Long Lives” (Rowman and Littlefield) and “The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men — and Our Economy” (Tarcher/Penguin). Barnett is a senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University and Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.