When the Google story first broke, I started to write an incendiary piece about how Silicon Valley is becoming a safe-space, trigger-warning culture. The terms "thought police" and "gender warrior" may have figured in the first sentence. But then I lost heart. Not because I think Google did the right thing — I've just grown weary of culture war rhetoric. So I'm trying a new approach.
First, a few facts: At Google, men hold 80 percent of tech jobs and 75 percent of leadership positions. But the disparity isn't unique to Google. At U.S. colleges last year, men earned 82 percent of computer science degrees and 80 percent of engineering degrees. Why are there so few women?
In his now-notorious memo, software engineer James Damore offered an explanation. But his answer included a lengthy discussion about how innate, biological sex differences may explain the gender gap in tech. His employer deemed him guilty of "advancing gender stereotypes" and he was fired.
As a rule, anyone who takes up the topic of sex differences has to proceed with care. There are many ways to go wrong. And even if you do it responsibly, you are likely to upset a lot of people.
Is that because those people are anti-science? Not necessarily. As a professor of philosophy of 20 years, I am well aware of the long history of bogus claims about women's essential nature. Immanuel Kant deemed women ethically inferior. And according to Friedrich Nietzsche, "when a woman has scholarly inclinations, there is generally something wrong with her sexual nature." History is littered with reckless and damaging pronouncements about women's nature. So, I get the skepticism.
In fairness to Damore, his claims were categorically different from those of Kant and Nietzsche: Damore discussed population-level differences in the distribution of personality traits and interests. "Women, on average, show a higher interest in people and men in things." He dutifully noted that population averages tell you nothing about individuals. But the memo was a little awkward and too easily misunderstood. He should have left out the references to women's greater tendency of neuroticism and high anxiety, for example.
As I look back at the hundreds of blogs and op-eds on the Google controversy, the one I like the most is by Alice Eagly. She is a professor of social psychology at Northwestern who has been doing research on the psychology of sex and gender for nearly 50 years.
"I agree," she says, "that biological differences between the sexes likely are part of the reason we see fewer women than men in the ranks of Silicon Valley's tech workers." She points out that men tend to score higher on spatial reasoning tests — and explains how this may give them an edge in computer science. Furthermore, she points to a large body of research showing that, in general "women are more interested in people compared with men, who are more interested in things. To the extent that tech occupations are concerned more with things than people, men would on average be more attracted to them."
But she warns pundits on both sides of the nature/nurture debate against rushing to conclusions: The precise connections between biology and life choices are murky and not well understood. And even if biology is partly responsible for the gender gap in tech, that does not rule out other explanations. It can simultaneously be true that there are natural differences between men and women that help to explain the gender gap and that Silicon Valley is a difficult place for women.
Take Chloe Condon, a 5' 2" female software engineer who recently wrote a funny piece about what it's like to be a woman in tech. "I don't look like the classic stereotype -- mistakes happen," she says. At conferences, people assume she is someone's daughter who tagged along, or a booth attendant who drifted in for a glass of wine.
Condon has the right instincts on how to address the too-few-women-in-tech problem: "It's important to approach this issue with passion and enthusiasm, but also with a sense of humor and forgiveness." In return, she promises not to assume a guy is an engineer just because of his plaid shirt and Patagonia jacket.
I promised no culture war rhetoric. But I can't help but say this: The proper response to Damore's memo is not for Google to double down on its implicit bias or microaggression training.
Listen to sane scholars like Alice Eagly, and bring in people like Chloe Condon. To quell the battle of the sexes, the goal should be a friendly atmosphere, where people can speak freely and even joke around with one another. By firing James Damore, Google has made that goal even harder to achieve.
Christina Hoff Sommers (@Chsommers) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of several books including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. She also hosts a video blog, The Factual Feminist.
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