To an evolutionary biologist, the idea that sex differences are purely socially constructed is simply implausible. And the necessity of facing up to this is something I’ve talked about as well.
That said, the argument in the document is, overall, despicable trash.
TL;DR: Yes, men and women are biologically different — which doesn’t mean what the author thinks it does. The article perniciously misrepresents the nature and significance of known sex differences to advance what appears to be a covert alt-right agenda. More specifically, it:
- argues for biologically determined sex differences in personality based on extremely weak evidence
- completely fails to understand the current state of research on sex differences, which is based in neuroscience, epigenetics and developmental biology
- argues that cognitive sex differences influence performance in software engineering, but presents no supporting evidence. Available evidence does not support the claim.
- fails to acknowledge ways in which sex differences violate the narrative of female inferiority; this shows intellectual dishonesty
- assumes effective meritocracy in its argument, ignoring both a mountain of conflicting scientific literature and its own caveats (which I can only assume were introduced to placate readers, since their incompatibility with the core thesis is never resolved)
- makes repugnant attacks on compassion and empathy
- distorts and misuses moral foundations theory for rhetorical purposes
- contains hints of racism
- paradoxically insists that authoritarianism be treated as a valid moral dimension, whilst firmly rejecting any > - - diversity-motivated strategy that might remotely approach it.
- ultimately advocates rejecting all morality insofar as it might compromise the interests of a group.
Sex differences in cognitive abilities have been well-studied, so it’s intriguing that Damore chooses to ignore this vast literature to focus on personality. The reason, however, quickly becomes clear when we look at the evidence: namely, there’s zero evidence that suggests women should make worse programmers. On average, women score slightly worse on certain spatial reasoning problems and better on verbal tests. Their overall problem-solving abilities are equal. Women used to score worse on math, but inclusive environments negate that difference. Even the (relatively robust) difference in spatial reasoning can vanish when women are asked to picture themselves as male. The only published study of coding competency by sex found that women were more likely than men to have their GitHub contributions accepted — but if they were project outsiders, this was true only if their gender was hidden.
As Yonatan Zunger explained, empathy and collaboration are also central to competency, especially at senior levels. Published results confirm this: in a study that attempted to identify the factors that influence software engineers’ success, the most important attribute was being “team oriented”. Neuroticism might hold women back from promotions, but there’s no evidence it makes them worse at their jobs.
Thus, to say there’s “significant overlap” in male/female abilities is a massive understatement. There’s no evidence that any known sex differences make women worse at software engineering.
How about preferences? It’s worth remembering that many of the first programmers were women, and that they made enormous contributions to developing the field of computer science. Female participation only declined when programming became a lucrative, gender-stereotyped career.
But suppose women were innately less likely to want to be software engineers. That would, in itself, tend to create a gender-biased environment in which women are unlikely to choose to become software engineers (no matter how innately suited they are individually). In other words, women’s lower average interest would act as an additional filter on both talent and motivation for the pool of available female software engineers. The result, all else being equal, would be that the average female software engineer, who powered through in defiance of gender norms, would be more innately motivated and/or talented than the average male engineer who faced no such barriers.
All in all, we have no reason to think female software engineers should perform worse at software engineering based on female trait distributions. And there’s a huge amount of evidence that promoting diversity improves the performance of teams and companies.
We know that negative stereotypes damage people’s performance. We know that unconscious bias influences our judgement of others’ competencies. Consequently, whenever there’s significant cultural prejudice against certain groups, as there is with female software engineers, we expect to see inequalities emerge. So it’s implausible to attribute these differences to biology alone. When we know that competent people are being held back by prejudice, it makes sense to compensate for that via strategies that enhance diversity.
Hinting at racism?
the Left tends to deny science concerning biological differences between people (e.g., IQ and sex differences).
The passing mention of IQ is interesting, since it has nothing to do with gender, which is the focus everywhere else. He’s presumably talking about race, but he doesn’t want to be branded a racist, so he keeps the reference subtle. So why risk doing it at all? It’s a dog-whistle to the alt-right.
While we’re here, let’s set the record straight. Racial differences in average IQ have been very widely discussed. Most researchers have concluded that these differences aren’t much attributable to any intrinsic characteristic of race, but are strongly related to differences in pre- and post- natal environment and nutrition. And we can alter racial differences in performance by manipulating the salience of stereotypes. So no, we don’t deny racial differences in IQ, we explain them in ways that upset racists because they want to believe there’s some sort of global conspiracy to hide their innate superiority. Nobody who isn’t racist has any reason to get huffy about this.
Talking about human males being biologically disposable is nonsense. The mean fitness of males and females is equal; every individual has a father and a mother, and fathers in most hunter-gatherer societies (which best represent the environment where we evolved) play a huge role in nurturing children.
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.
I’m a lecturer in computer science at Stanford. I’ve taught at least four different programming languages, including assembly. I’ve had a single-digit employee number in a startup. Yes, I’m a woman in tech.
I have known, worked for, and taught countless men who could have written the now-infamous Google “manifesto” — or who are on some level persuaded by it. Given these facts, I’d like to treat it — and them — with some degree of charity and try to explain why it generated so much outrage.
At the outset, it must be conceded that, despite what some of the commentary has implied, the manifesto is not an unhinged rant. Its quasi-professional tone is a big part of what makes it so beguiling (to some) and also so dangerous. Many defenders seem genuinely baffled that a document that works so hard to appear dispassionate and reasonable could provoke such an emotional response. (Of course, some see that apparent disconnect not as baffling, but as a reason to have contempt for women, who in their eyes are confirming the charge that they are more emotional and less quantitative in their thinking.)
2) Women’s resistance to the “divide and conquer” strategy
The manifesto’s sleight-of-hand delineation between “women, on average” and the actual living, breathing women who have had to work alongside this guy failed to reassure many of those women — and failed to reassure me. That’s because the manifesto’s author overestimated the extent to which women are willing to be turned against their own gender.
Speaking for myself, it doesn’t matter to me how soothingly a man coos that I’m not like most women, when those coos are accompanied by misogyny against most women. I am a woman. I do not stop being one during the parts of the day when I am practicing my craft. There can be no realistic chance of individual comfort for me in an environment where others in my demographic categories (or, really, any protected demographic categories) are subjected to skepticism and condescension.
In the end, focusing the conversation on the minutiae of the scientific claims in the manifesto is a red herring. Regardless of whether biological differences exist, there is no shortage of glaring evidence, in individual stories and in scientific studies, that women in tech experience bias and a general lack of a welcoming environment, as do underrepresented minorities. Until these problems are resolved, our focus should be on remedying that injustice. After that work is complete, we can reassess whether small effect size biological components have anything to do with lingering imbalances.
For today — given what women in tech have had to deal with over the past week — try pouring a cup of coffee for a female coder in your office, and asking her about the most interesting bug she’s seen lately.