The fiasco of James Damore

Here is a topic that has plagued me and rubbed me the wrong way entirely since I first heard of it. It’s the topic of James Damore, the Google employee who was essentially fired for wrongthink. A man who advocated diversity and inclusion, but was fired for perpetuating gender stereotypes.

The background of this topic is as follows. In July 2017, Damore wrote a document titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” after a meeting on diversity invited feedback(1). There appear to be three main topics he wanted to address:

  1. “[Google] has created an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed.”

  2. One such blacklisted opinion is: “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.”

  3. “Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”

Two days after the document leaked from an internal discussion forum and having endured a torrent of abuse by his co-workers, he was fired.

One response by CEO Sundair Pichai read “to suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK”(2).

And he is not the only person to make this observation. Vice President of Diversity, Integrity & Governance Danielle Brown observed that “many of you have read an internal document shared by someone in our engineering organization, expressing views on the natural abilities and characteristics of different genders”(3).

Gizmodo, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Huffinton Post, BBC, ABC News, CNBC, and USA Today call the document an “anti-diversity memo” or “anti-diversity screed”. Vox and CNN both said something along the lines of Damore arguing that “women are biologically unsuited for engineering”.

And it just astounds me, because it is such a wild misrepresentation and mischaracterisation of what the document actually says. The foremost claim, that Damore is anti-diversity, is so hilariously easy to disprove that it makes me wonder whether the authors of those articles even read the document. Both in the middle and at the end of the document, Damore puts forward several reasonable suggestions for increasing diversity within the company that do not involve (positive) discrimination.

The idea that Damore argues that women are biologically lesser is a deliberately bad reading of the second summary point. Damore even included a nice graph that emphasises that averages are not representative of individuals.

Damore's graph

This proposed idea is best described with a metaphor. Men are, on average, taller than women, and height is (approximately) normally distributed. This means that if you were to pick 100 random adults taller than 2,00m, most of them will probably be male. It is still perfectly possible for women to be tall. As a matter of fact, the tallest person from those 100 individuals could be a woman.

Similarly, given a trait that has different normally distributed averages for the sexes, and given that a high (or low) value for this trait makes it more likely that a person will want to become an engineer, then you can expect that one sex is more prevalent among engineers. In this case, men. This says absolutely nothing about individual women, who can still be as fantastically competent as their male colleagues.(4)

I like this hypothesis in principle, because it is a very clean explanation of the gender disparity in certain fields. And it intuitively makes sense if you understand how normal distributions work. If we assume that women—on average—have a higher disposition towards people-oriented things than men(5), then that might explain why there are more female nurses than male nurses.

Damore took this one step further, and said that “we can make software engineering more people-oriented with pair programming and more collaboration”, thereby “[increasing] women’s representation in tech without resorting to discrimination”. The idea is that more women who are people-oriented will want to become programmers, because programming would be a people-oriented job.

But it’s just a hypothesis, and it does not paint the whole picture in a world where discrimination and other social factors do exist. At best, it is a part of the picture. At worst, the differences in distributions of traits are too small to affect career choices. And this is where Damore’s document potentially falls short. The Guardian expresses this better than I possibly could(1):

Despite authoring two acclaimed books on gender, [Cordelia] Fine, a leading feminist science writer, feels “torn in many different directions” by Damore. She believes his memo made many dubious assumptions and ignored vast swaths of research that show pervasive discrimination against women. But his summary of the differences between the sexes, she says, was “more accurate and nuanced than what you sometimes find in the popular literature”.

Some of Damore’s ideas, she adds, are “very familiar to me as part of my day-to-day research, and are not seen as especially controversial. So there was something quite extraordinary about someone losing their job for putting forward a view that is part of the scientific debate. And then to be so publicly shamed as well. I felt pretty sorry for him.”

Whether or not the hypothesis is true, however, I do not understand the hostility towards it. The idea that men and women on average have psychological differences due to biology does not infer the superiority of one sex, nor does it encourage discrimination. In fact, Damore reads in his document: “I’m not saying that all men differ from all women […], or that these differences are just”. We can be equal in spite of biology, rather than because of it. And certainly, if we accept that each individual is wholly unique anyway, we can still be equal in spite of our differences. In varietate concordia.

If we assume that the hypothesis is indeed incorrect, then I am still uncertain why it elicited such a strong reaction. Damore had obviously done sufficient research into the topic and found studies that support his claims. He could be accused of cherry-picking sources, but surely the correct response would be to assume good faith and engage in debate. Ideally, people can be wrong and corrected.

Instead, the responses were “I intend to silence these views; they are violently offensive”, “You’re a misogynist and a terrible human”, “I will keep hounding you until one of us is fired. Fuck you”(1, 6). And he was fired, slandered by dozens of respectable news outlets, and effectively blacklisted from any major tech company. By people advocating diversity and tolerance.

In effect, he proved his point, that there is an echo chamber that holds some ideas too sacred to be discussed. But the strangest thing is that these people failed to correctly assess Damore as being on their side: Advocating for inclusion, diversity, non-discrimination and tolerance. He just went about it differently.

(1): https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/16/james-damore-google-memo-interview-autism-regrets

(2): https://www.blog.google/outreach-initiatives/diversity/note-employees-ceo-sundar-pichai/

(3): https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/vbv54d/google-on-anti-diversity-manifesto-employees-must-feel-safe-sharing-their-opinions

(4): In Damore’s words: “I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.”

(5): From (1): “[Richard] Lippa argues there is compelling evidence that women on average tend to be more “people-oriented”, whereas men are more “things-oriented”, a difference he believes could be highly relevant to career decisions.”

(6): https://www.wired.com/story/free-speech-issue-censorship/