The Google Employee Memo

What's happening?

You might have heard about 'the Google memo.' Last week, a Google engineer circulated a 10-page memo arguing that genetic differences between men and women (here's the first jump) are the reason for unequal representation in STEM jobs and (here's the second jump) mean Google should focus less on gender diversity in hiring.

 

The engineer, James Damore, was fired. His firing and his memo inflamed an already heated debate on genetics, gender equality, at-will employment and "political correctness."

Why is it important?

The debate isn't really about the memo. At the highest level, we're grappling with the immense influence Google and other tech companies have on society and on our lives. 

 

More literally, there are two reasonable questions at the heart of this controversy: 

  1. Why aren't there more women in technology jobs?
  2. What should we do about it?

 

It's important to set a few things straight about the science here. Damore claims that difference between men and women aren't purely social. That's true. He goes on to claim that these differences "often have clear biological causes... and they’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective." That's not true.

 

At best, research shows conflicting results about empathy, assertiveness, and quantitative thinking. At worst, Damore's comments are flatly false, as when he claims (with no cited evidence) that women's biological tendency toward "higher agreeableness" leads to "women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading." A 2005 analysis of 46 separate studies suggests that's wrong. The same applies to Damore's claims about empathy: the science doesn't support it. In general, these kinds of claims have been used throughout history to justify systemic racism and sexism.

 

Informed by good science, it's worth debating what we should do about low representation of women in tech—and what a private company's responsibilities are.

Debate it!

Should Google prioritize gender diversity in hiring?

Yes: 

Google has every reason to prioritize gender diversity: it's better for the company financially, it's better for the company's reputation, and it's better for the social good this powerful company can and should do.

 

"Fit for the job" includes the need for diverse perspectives in the workplace, which in turn leads to more innovation and better financial returns for the company. As the Wall Street Journal reports, "More diverse companies have better financial returns, are more innovative and are just plain smarter than their more homogenous competitors."

 

I'm not Damore, so I'll back that assertion up with data. Studies show that "diverse groups outperformed more homogeneous groups not because of an influx of new ideas, but because diversity triggered more careful information processing that is absent in homogeneous groups." From the Wall Street Journal: "In a 2009 Kellogg study involving members of fraternities and sororities, a team was more likely to correctly solve a murder mystery if it mixed in (same gender) people from other houses. Tellingly, those same teams were less sure they were right and often felt their interactions were less effective."

 

Research focusing on venture capital firms found that "companies whose male senior partners have daughters are more likely to hire women as partners... and those companies secure superior investment returns."

 

Let's assume (for one second) that we buy all the claims in the Google memo. Journalist Josh Barro writes, "If it is true that aggregate population differences mean that a majority of the suitable candidates in a field are men, that can make it more important for firms in that field to undertake aggressive efforts to recruit and retain women."

 

Responsible hiring practices that include gender as a priority benefit everyone—including the engineer that wrote this memo.

No: 

Prioritizing gender diversity in hiring hurts more than it helps. 

 

Whether you disagree with parts of the memo or not, Google is a private company and—while following every hiring and labor law, and short of legislation—it is not required to compensate for societal problems in a way that is not clearly beneficial to its financial future and its shareholders. Damore is right that to change hiring practices from a system purely interested in fit for the job, "we need principles reasons for why it helps Google; that is, we should be optimizing for Google—with Google’s diversity being a component of that." 

 

Diversity programs don't benefit anyone in the long term. As the Harvard Business Review found, "most diversity programs aren’t increasing diversity. Despite a few new bells and whistles, courtesy of big data, companies are basically doubling down on the same approaches they’ve used since the 1960s—which often make things worse, not better."

 

The conclusion was striking: "In analyzing three decades’ worth of data from more than 800 U.S. firms and interviewing hundreds of line managers and executives at length, we’ve seen that companies get better results when they ease up on the control tactics."  

 

Another longitudinal study of more than 700 companies found that "implementing diversity training programs has little positive effect and may even decrease representation of black women."

 

We should not be using outdated standards, effectively endorsing quotas for gender, or actively focusing on characteristics outside the individual's ability to fill the role. The conclusion is similar to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts' statement: "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." Applied here: Google should not discriminate based on gender in hiring. Long term, it doesn't help anyone.

Learn more...

  1. The original memo, published by Gizmodo
    • "Philosophically, I don’t think we should do arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women. For each of these changes, we need principles reasons for why it helps Google; that is, we should be optimizing for Google—with Google’s diversity being a component of that. For example currently those trying to work extra hours or take extra stress will inevitably get ahead and if we try to change that too much, it may have disastrous consequences. Also, when considering the costs and benefits, we should keep in mind that Google’s funding is finite so its allocation is more zero-sum than is generally acknowledged.
  2. The Wall Street Journal on the business case for diversity
    • "Research has established the business case for diversity. This isn’t an argument about redressing historical inequities or even present-day fairness. More diverse companies have better financial returns, are more innovative and are just plain smarter than their more homogenous competitors. One reason diversity is good is that it’s hard, says research done by Katherine W. Phillips and others while at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Diverse teams tend to have more disagreement but better outcomes, while homogenous ones are more confident in their abilities but perform worse. In a 2009 Kellogg study involving members of fraternities and sororities, a team was more likely to correctly solve a murder mystery if it mixed in (same gender) people from other houses. Tellingly, those same teams were less sure they were right and often felt their interactions were less effective."
  3. The Harvard Business Review on why diversity programs often fail
    • "It shouldn’t be surprising that most diversity programs aren’t increasing diversity. Despite a few new bells and whistles, courtesy of big data, companies are basically doubling down on the same approaches they’ve used since the 1960s—which often make things worse, not better. Firms have long relied on diversity training to reduce bias on the job, hiring tests and performance ratings to limit it in recruitment and promotions, and grievance systems to give employees a way to challenge managers. Those tools are designed to preempt lawsuits by policing managers’ thoughts and actions. Yet laboratory studies show that this kind of force-feeding can activate bias rather than stamp it out."