Why Google was wrong to fire James Damore

James Damore, author of the Google Memo

James Damore, a software engineer at Google, wrote a memo in which he argued that there are differences between men and women that may explain, in part, why there are fewer women than men in his field of work. For this, Google fired him.

Google's CEO, Sundar Pichai, sent Google employees a memo saying that "much of what was in that memo is fair to debate," but that portions of it cross a line by advancing "harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace."

Pichai did not specify which sections of the memo discussed issues that are fair to debate, and which portions cross the line. That would have been difficult to do, because the entire memo is about whether certain gender stereotypes have a basis in reality. Damore argues that there is evidence to show that women, when compared to men, tend to:

-be more interested in people

-be less interested in analyzing or constructing systems

-have higher anxiety and lower tolerance of stress

-have a lower drive for status

-be more interested in balancing life and work

Damore is careful to point out that the evidence for these claims does not show that all women have these characteristics to a higher degree than men. He says that many of these differences are small, that there is significant overlap between men and women, and that "you can't say anything about an individual given these population level distributions." He shows this with a graph, too. He says that to reduce people to their group identity is bad.

There is scientific research supporting the views Damore expresses. There are also grounds for questioning some of this research. In assessing Google's action in firing Damore, it isn't necessary to decide which side is right, but only whether Damore's view is one that a Google employee should be permitted to express.

I think it is. First, as I've said, it is not some twisted, crazy view. There are serious articles, published in leading peer-reviewed scientific journals, supporting it.

Second, it addresses an important issue. Google is rightly troubled by the fact that its workforce is largely male. Sexism in many areas of employment is well-documented. Employers should be alert to the possibility that they are discriminating against women, and should take steps to prevent such discrimination. Some orchestras now conduct blind auditions - the musician plays from behind a screen, so that those making the appointment do not know if they are listening to a man or a woman. That has led to a dramatic increase in the number of women in orchestras. More businesses should look at the possibilities of similarly blinding themselves, when hiring, to the gender of applicants.

But once such anti-discrimination measures have been taken, to the greatest extent feasible, does the fact that a workforce in a particular industry is predominantly male prove that there has been discrimination? Not if the kind of work on offer is likely to be attractive to more men than to women.

If the view Damore defends is right, that will be true of software engineering. If it is, then moving beyond the avoidance of discrimination in hiring and promotion to a policy of giving preference to women over men would be questionable.

That is not to say that it would be impossible to justify. For example, In some professions, having female role models is important, and a valid reason for giving preference to women, when there are otherwise equally qualified candidates. There may also be other reasons, specific to different industries and professions, for thinking it desirable to have a more even balance of men and women. But the case would need to be made for this in the particular area of employment in which such a policy was suggested.

So on an issue that matters, Damore put forward a view that has reasonable scientific support, and on which it is important to know what the facts are. Why then was he fired?

Pichai, Google's CEO, says that "To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK." But Damore explicitly, and more than once, made it clear that he was not reducing individuals to a group, and so was not saying that all - or even, necessarily, any - women employed by Google as software engineers are less biologically suited to their work than men. Google is a very selective employer, and so it is highly probable that Google's selection processes have led to Google employing women who are, in specific traits, uncharacteristic of women as a whole. The target of Damore's memo was the idea that we should expect women to make up half the software engineering workforce, and that Google should take measures directed towards achieving that outcome.

Pichai also quotes Google's Code of Conduct, which expects "each Googler to do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination." Damore's memo did not harass or intimidate anyone, and in a society that protects freedom of expression, there was nothing unlawful about it. Was it biased? To show that it was, it would need to be demonstrated that Damore was biased in selecting certain scientific studies that supported his view while disregarding others that went against it. Perhaps that case could - and should - be made, but to do so would take some time and research. In any case, Pichai does not attempt, in even the most cursory way, to make it.

Ironically, what Pichai has done, in firing Damore, is precisely contrary to the passage that he quotes. He has created a workplace culture in which those with opinions like Damore's will be intimidated into remaining silent.

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