The James Damore Google manifesto is a toxic exercise in generalization

Photo: James Damore via Heavy.com

James Damore, a Google engineer, published an internal manifesto about gender and discrimination at the company. He’s either a sexist tech bro or a First Amendment hero bravely proclaiming forbidden truths, depending on your perspective. His generalizations about how women think are the problem here — they’re what got him fired.

A fresh look at the Googler’s manifesto

Damore’s post is called “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.”  In this analysis, I’ve put jargon in bold and unsupported generalizations in italic and added my own commentary and translation. I’ve chosen the most revealing excerpts, attempting to retain as much context as possible.

Damore added a paragraph of explanation once the controversy began spreading within Google. But his original manifesto started like this:

TL:DR

  • Google’s political bias has equated the freedom from offense with psychological safety, but shaming into silence is the antithesis of psychological safety.
  • This silencing has created an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed.
  • The lack of discussion fosters the most extreme and authoritarian elements of this ideology.
  • Extreme: all disparities in representation are due to oppression
  • Authoritarian: we should discriminate to correct for this oppression
  • 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. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

Commentary: This is the clearest portion of the piece, and I give Damore credit for starting with a clear summary. But right here you can also see the weakness in this piece: it traffics almost completely in generalizations. I searched the whole document and found no evidence other than this bald statement that Google as a whole has political bias and silences ideas. He’s put his most controversial statement about “traits” at the end. Look how it reads when you start with that generalization.

Translation: Men are better at tech and leadership than women. Discrimination to help women is unfair and bad for business. We need to talk about this openly.

 

Google’s biases

At Google, we talk so much about unconscious bias as it applies to race and gender, but we rarely discuss our moral biases. Political orientation is actually a result of deep moral preferences and thus biases. Considering that the overwhelming majority of the social sciences, media, and Google lean left, we should critically examine these prejudices.

Left Biases

  • Compassion for the weak
  • Disparities are due to injustices
  • Humans are inherently cooperative
  • Change is good (unstable)
  • Open
  • Idealist

Right Biases

  • Respect for the strong/authority
  • Disparities are natural and just
  • Humans are inherently competitive
  • Change is dangerous (stable)
  • Closed
  • Pragmatic

Neither side is 100% correct and both viewpoints are necessary for a functioning society or, in this case, company. A company too far to the right may be slow to react, overly hierarchical, and untrusting of others. In contrast, a company too far to the left will constantly be changing (deprecating much loved services), over diversify its interests (ignoring or being ashamed of its core business), and overly trust its employees and competitors.

Only facts and reason can shed light on these biases, but when it comes to diversity and inclusion, Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence. This silence removes any checks against encroaching extremist and authoritarian policies. For the rest of this document, I’ll concentrate on the extreme stance that all differences in outcome are due to differential treatment and the authoritarian element that’s required to actually discriminate to create equal representation.

Commentary: To believe this, you must buy into a rigid view of the left-right spectrum. I question two elements of this. First, must we analyze all thought along this spectrum, or can we (and the presumably more-intelligent-than-average staff at Google) actually think for ourselves outside this framework? And second, is it really accurate to view everything at Google through this prism? Was Google Plus a product of left-oriented thinking? Are self-driving car efforts an attempt to support liberal or conservative ideologies? A better thinker would look for solutions outside this polarized view rather than just whining about it.

Translation: Everything is either left or right. Google is left. We shame anyone who’s not a lefty.

Possible non-bias causes of the gender gap in tech [3]

On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways.  . . . 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.

Personality differences

Women, on average, have more:

  • Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).
  • These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing and even within SWEs, comparatively more women work on front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.
  • Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness.
  • This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading. Note that these are just average differences and there’s overlap between men and women, but this is seen solely as a women’s issue. This leads to exclusory programs like Stretch and swaths of men without support.
  • Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.

Note that contrary to what a social constructionist would argue, research suggests that “greater nation-level gender equality leads to psychological dissimilarity in men’s and women’s personality traits.” Because as “society becomes more prosperous and more egalitarian, innate dispositional differences between men and women have more space to develop and the gap that exists between men and women in their personality becomes wider.” We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.

Men’s higher drive for status

We always ask why we don’t see women in top leadership positions, but we never ask why we see so many men in these jobs. These positions often require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.

Status is the primary metric that men are judged on, pushing many men into these higher paying, less satisfying jobs for the status that they entail. Note, the same forces that lead men into high pay/high stress jobs in tech and leadership cause men to take undesirable and dangerous jobs like coal mining, garbage collection, and firefighting, and suffer 93% of work-related deaths.

Commentary: Here’s a generalization for you: any generalization about men and women is wrong. Statistical statements about men and women may be true, but statements about their “innate motivation” are impossible to disentangle from cultural prejudice. Having worked in an idea-driven company with plenty of idea-driven women, I find the idea that “women are more interested in people than ideas” to be an odious caricature. The same goes for these supposedly gregarious, neurotic women who can’t negotiate for a salary or lead. And I refuse to accept the generalization of status-driven men either. Women and men are not the same, but any argument that depends on psychological caricatures of women and men is corrupt.

Translation: Let’s be honest about women and men. Women are people-focused, artistic, gregarious, neurotic creatures who have trouble negotiating for a raise or leading. Men are macho, status-driven monsters. On average, of course.

The Harm of Google’s biases

I strongly believe in gender and racial diversity, and I think we should strive for more. However, to achieve a more equal gender and race representation, Google has created several discriminatory practices:

  • Programs, mentoring, and classes only for people with a certain gender or race
  • A high priority queue and special treatment for “diversity” candidates
  • Hiring practices which can effectively lower the bar for “diversity” candidates by decreasing the false negative rate
  • Reconsidering any set of people if it’s not “diverse” enough, but not showing that same scrutiny in the reverse direction (clear confirmation bias)
  • Setting org level OKRs for increased representation which can incentivize illegal discrimination

These practices are based on false assumptions generated by our biases and can actually increase race and gender tensions. We’re told by senior leadership that what we’re doing is both the morally and economically correct thing to do, but without evidence this is just veiled left ideology that can irreparably harm Google.

Commentary: This is the best part of this document. Google ought to have an honest discussion of whether these practices make sense. But it’s a little hard to take them seriously after the generalizations in the previous section. The statement “I strongly believe in gender and racial diversity” is belied by the blanket statements about women and men earlier in the document.

Why we’re blind

We all have biases and use motivated reasoning to dismiss ideas that run counter to our internal values. Just as some on the Right deny science that runs counter to the “God > humans > environment” hierarchy (e.g., evolution and climate change) the Left tends to deny science concerning biological differences between people (e.g., IQ and sex differences). Thankfully, climate scientists and evolutionary biologists generally aren’t on the right. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of humanities and social scientists lean left (about 95%), which creates enormous confirmation bias, changes what’s being studied, and maintains myths like social constructionism and the gender wage gap. Google’s left leaning makes us blind to this bias and uncritical of its results, which we’re using to justify highly politicized programs.

In addition to the Left’s affinity for those it sees as weak, humans are generally biased towards protecting females. As mentioned before, this likely evolved because males are biologically disposable and because women are generally more cooperative and agreeable than men. We have extensive government and Google programs, fields of study, and legal and social norms to protect women, but when a man complains about a gender issue . . .  affecting men, he’s labelled as a misogynist and whiner. Nearly every difference between men and women is interpreted as a form of women’s oppression. As with many things in life, gender differences are often a case of “grass being greener on the other side”; unfortunately, taxpayer and Google money is spent to water only one side of the lawn.

Commentary: If I’ve got the right LinkedIn profile, Damore spent six years between 2007 and 2013 at the University of Illinois, Princeton, and Harvard. It sounds like he’s still fighting the battles of academia. Google clearly has a problem with sexism, gender diversity, political correctness, and programs intended to correct them. But I don’t think this demagoguery is going to help solve the problem.

Translation: The left denies sex differences. People who study sex differences lean left. Google leans left. Therefore Google cannot see how men and women are biologically different. We need to fix this at Google and in government. Let’s stop trying to help women, it’s hopeless.

Damore got fired, not for telling the truth, but for making unsupported gender generalizations

Here’s part of what Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote to Googlers in a email after the Damore controversy erupted:

First, let me say that we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it. However, portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace. Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives. To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.

This is not a free-speech issue. The First Amendment says you can say what you want. It doesn’t say that Google has to let you say whatever you want, or that Google can’t fire you for saying things it doesn’t like. For example, if you are a Google employee saying “Google Sucks” you are not going to get thrown in jail for what you said, but you’ll probably lose your job.

I support Google’s policy of not permitting speech that characterizes people with gender stereotypes. I think if the Googler had said that people of color were lazy, that Jews were genetically better with money, or that Asians were smarter than white people and there ought to be a quota for Asian coders, that most of Google would find that offensive. It’s no different to say that women are genetically lesser leaders or that men are inherently focused more on ideas than people and driven by status.

I distrust generalizations. You should, too. I believe in statistics. I learn from case studies. But once you start lumping together groups of people and making generalizations about how they think or what they’re good at, you’re on shaky ground. You have a right to make statements like that, but don’t be surprised if your employer doesn’t tolerate them.

9 responses to “The James Damore Google manifesto is a toxic exercise in generalization

  1. On the other hand, that gizmodo review says”Two charts and several hyperlinks are also omitted.”
    The unsupported parts are unsupported because they expunged the sources and data.

    1. The charts are illustrative of his proposition that traits are inbuilt for men and women, without having actual data or even scales on the axes. They do help to make his points easier to understand, but they don’t provide evidence.

    1. People mistake freedom of speech for freedom from consequences. Imagine the uproar if a female employee had stated an opinion that male engineers fundamentally lack the social skills to build usable software, and that Google’s policies and programs had to be revised to account for that. There’s nothing Left or Right about accountability.

  2. It’s funny how he talks about sex differences but everybody argues he was talking about gender. But I guess sex is not real, it’s all about gender now and conveniently, gender is a social construct.

  3. If he doesn’t like social constructivism, that would be because academia’s forced humanities vs sciences dichotomy is producing the stupidest educated people since the Third Reich. His inability to recognize IQ “biology” as pseudoscience shows that he can read numbers but can’t understand how to apply them in real life.

  4. Scott Alexander, a psychiatrist with a widely read blog, has a post that cites studies supporting Damore’s points on the notion that differences in women’s interests (with biological underpinnings) are the cause of their under representation in the field of computer science and in their over representation in certain other fields (veterinarian science, nursing, pediatrics, etc). It’s worth a read. http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/08/07/contra-grant-on-exaggerated-differences/

  5. He got fired because he made the wrong generalizations according to Google’s political views. I don’t think he would’ve been fired if he said that “the white male patriarchy oppresses millions around the world!”
    By the way, I also distrust generalizations. This is a good lesson on why we should avoid them. But this was purely a political exercise, not a firing based on BS in writing.

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