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Friday, August 18, 2017
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I usually avoid offering “real time” commentary on significant national events, as my inner nature is more tortoise-like than hare-like. I try to wait a while and let things cool off, if possible, before making judgments. Given that I graduated from engineering school way back in 1975 (BS Industrial Engineering summa cum laude), and then at age 47 took a half year break from my working career for a rigorous software training program (Chubb Institute’s long-gone “Top Gun” program), I was immediately drawn to the story of James Damore, the former Google software engineer who wrote and distributed a letter questioning Google’s diversity policies.

As you probably know, Mr. Damore was subsequently cashiered from the “Googleplex”. I.e., he was fired for criticizing Google’s vigorous efforts to recruit and maintain female technical and engineering personnel (mostly software designers and coders). These efforts include hiring preferences favoring women over men, on-the-job support programs for women only, and mandatory training for male technical staff warning against both explicit and implicit (i.e. sub-conscious) negative actions and attitudes regarding female techies. What made it tricky for Google was that Damore cited a variety of scientific studies to support his argument that the predominance of male technical staff is “natural” and nothing much can or should be done about it.

Over the past week or so, there have been a whole lot of opinion pieces about Google’s firing Mr. Damore. People with liberal / Democratic party biases generally support Google, while those with conservative / GOP sympathies think that Google was wrong. Also, more men oppose Google’s decision and more women seem to support it. But of course, you can find plenty of cross-over individuals. However, on average . . . ah yes, “on average”. This is at the core of what got Damore in trouble.

As you might guess, Google employs many more men than women (the overall ratio is 69% men, and the tech staff is 80% male). And women are still not doing all that well overall in the technical fields. In 2015, about 20% of bachelor-level engineering degrees and 25% of masters level degrees were awarded to women; in computer engineering and computer science, only about 14 to 15% of undergrad graduates were female (women are better represented in the environmental and biomedical engineering disciplines). Not a whole lot of progress has been made in the past decade; the female percentage of undergrad engineering degrees was 19.3% in 2006. Even worse, about 40% of female engineers eventually leave the field.

There are a whole lot of different ideas and theories about why this is so. One female engineering student says that it’s mainly because girls do not receive the same level of support in developing math and science skills as boys do from parents, teachers and mentors. I.e., it’s mainly a social environment thing, a matter of changeable culture. Other people say that it’s more a matter of unchangeable nature; that biology gives women certain features which “on average” direct their behaviors and interests away from most of the math and science fields (other than biology, in which women are well represented, although still struggling to gain the most prestigious positions in the top labs and universities). There is definitely no easy and agreed-to answer to this overall issue.

However, Mr. Damore felt that there was. Damore is a fan of Prof. Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. Peterson is rather controversial, and is popular amidst many conservatives and traditionalists. One of his video lectures is entitled “Why Few Women Are In Positions of Power“. In another one, he describes “Differences Between Women and Men“.

In a nutshell, Peterson supports the age-old arguments that women are inherently more emotional and less logic-oriented than men. Damore’s Google letter contains a basic summary of Peterson’s views, which are used to support Damore’s own view that Google’s efforts to promote workplace diversity and increase the number of women that it employs are a waste of time; and that some of them (such as diversity training) just divert the time and energy that hardworking guys like him can otherwise put into developing and improving Google products. Obviously, Google’s management disagreed, and felt that Mr. Damore’s views were too much in conflict with their own for him to continue working at Google.

This has attracted a whole lot of attention; do a Google search on “James Damore letter” and you get about 506,000 results. Conservatives have adopted Damore as something of a martyr of political correctness. Liberals have gone into the trenches in defense of Google. This is all just another manifestation of Donald Trump World vs. Hillary Clinton World, and that is getting a bit boring for me. I became more interested in the responses of scientists to Mr. Damore’s thoughts. Interestingly, the boffins are just about as divided on Damore as the pundits and political theorists are. There is an interesting piece on the Quillette web site with four essays by behavioral scientists who say that Damore’s contentions are at least arguable based on the current state of behavioral research. FYI, three of the scientists are guys, and one is a woman. By contrast, a female scientist writes that Damore totally misses the “anxiety gap” that women face regarding science/technology careers, a factor that is much more social than genetic. She concludes that there is no evidence that women’s biology makes them incapable of performing at the highest levels in any “STEM” (science-technology-engineering-math) field.

A male PhD surgeon also writes that Damore’s pseudoscientific Google manifesto is a better evidence for sexism than it is for intellectual sex differences. In this article, the author gives Damore the benefit of the doubt by examining the “autistism spectrum quotient” research of Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen. The results of Dr. Baron-Cohen’s testing of men and women with his quotient survey shows that men have a somewhat higher mean and mode to their distribution of results versus the distribution for women. I.e., men are on average more “geeky”, more inherently predisposed towards technical stuff. A similar result is had when comparing results for people working in science and tech fields versus those who don’t (which isn’t too surprising given that more men will be in the techie curve).

Does Baron-Cohen’s research support Damore’s position? The PhD surgeon concludes that “while this may be statistically significant, it’s still a tiny difference – a matter of about 3 points on this scale between men and women, and women and STEM workers who, on average, also tend to have a similar 2-3 point higher AQ score than the female mean . . . it is also hard to conclude the differences between women’s score and STEM isn’t due to intrinsic or cultural factors . . . it is not evidence to believe that 2-3 points difference in the mean score explains 2-4 fold gaps in hiring of men vs women.”

That seems to make sense; but Mr. Damore points out in his letter that even if two distributions of results are only a few percentage points apart, at the high end of the distribution, the ratio of people from the slightly higher group relative to the lower group would start going way up. This is the “tail exaggeration effect” — in plain language, it means that a company like Google is not going to hire average computer scientists and engineers, it is going to demand the creme de la creme. Google wants the people on the far right of the distribution curve, in the “upper tail” of skill levels. Because of the way that normal curves are shaped, that means that at that very high level of minimum skill, there will be many more from the group with the slightly higher average (men) versus the lower average group (women). You can see a nice graphic explanation of this on an anti-Damore article in The Economist. In sum, a 2-3 point difference in average skills at least partly explains a 2-4 fold gap in hiring of men vs women for a company like Google, which has the luxury of demanding above-average ability techies.

Personally, I thought that theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder had the best response. She feels that Damore is ultimately wrong, but that Google should not have fired him for what he wrote. She says that “Damore was fired, basically, for making a well-meant, if amateurish, attempt at institutional design, based on woefully incomplete information he picked from published research studies.” Hossenfelder agrees that “much of the data in Damore’s memo is well backed-up by research. Women indeed are, on the average, more neurotic than men. It’s not an insult, it’s a common term in psychology. Women are also, on the average, more interested in people than in things. They do, on the average, value work-life balance more, react differently to stress, compete by other rules . . . Women are different from men, both by nature and by nuture . . . Women are different in ways that plausibly affect their choice of profession.”

HOWEVER . . . Dr. Hossenfelder then points out that women’s differences do not justify Google giving up on diversity. “To begin with, even I know most of Google’s work is people-centric. It’s either serving people directly, or analyzing people-data, or imagining the people-future . . . The biggest problem with Damore’s memo . . . is that he doesn’t understand what makes a company successful.”

But as to Google — they don’t totally “get it” either per Hossenfelder. “One also doesn’t solve a problem by yelling ‘harassment’ each time someone asks to discuss whether a diversity effort is indeed effective. I know from my own experience, and a poll conducted at Google confirms, that Damore’s skepticism about current practices is widespread. It’s something we should discuss. It’s something Google should discuss. Damore was fired, basically, for making a well-meant, if amateurish, attempt at institutional design . . . But however imperfect his attempt, he was fired, in short, for thinking on his own. And what example does that set?”

Looking back on my own life experiences in tech world . . . back when I was in engineering school, there were very few women in my classes; maybe 2% of the students in the engineering curriculums were female. I made a bet with my cousin that by the year 2000, there would be nearly equal numbers of women and men in engineering school Obviously I lost that bet (but luckily for me, my cousin forgot about it by 2000). I entered the Top Gun computer training program around 2000, and my class had about 25 people in it. No women at all. The economy softened in 2001 and then tanked after the 9-11 attack, so Chubb was not able to place me in a computer coding job.

However, I eventually found work with the local County Prosecutor’s office, and I was able to put some of my computer coding skills to work (I upgraded their web site, set up a variety of networked Access databases with fairly sophisticated user-panels, set up some high-capacity “back end” data repositories using SQL Server, and learned how to code in an old quasi-mainframe database so as to garner very useful data summaries for the managers, e.g. detailed trial outcome statistics by month). Even though my main responsibility was keeping track of the state and federal grant money that my office received, I spent significant amounts of time using coding skills to do “real Into Tech” work. This was the first time in my career that I was setting computer tools up for others to use; in the past I used various computer programs for my own purposes, but I finally was able to find out what it is like to do “real world” IT work.

What was that like, and how does it relate to Mr. Damore and Google? Well, to set the context in my office, I was not formally in the Info Tech unit, although I worked closely with that group. Interestingly, there were and are several women in that unit, and I have interacted with all of them, generally in positive ways. Two of them were “user assistance” employees; they did not design and set up new systems for users, but helped users to make best use of the office’s pre-packaged software, including the Office suite. I thought that one of them, Cynthia, was really quite sharp. She knew her stuff (and still does!). I always got a straight and helpful answer from Cynthia when I had a question for her, and I tried my best to help her when she needed some info or advice from me. Not to belittle the other female user assistant, but Cynthia really stood out.

There was a third woman on the IT staff, and she was quite interesting. Her name was Kathy, and she grew up and received her technical education in Russia. Kathy was a full-fledged programmer; she knew more about coding than I did! Unlike myself, Kathy had worked in real “production shops” where she had to crank out database products according to a strict schedule. Basically, Kathy and I were doing roughly the same kinds of things. However, early on we came to some sort of unspoken agreement not to interfere with each other, to give people in the office the choice as to whether to work with her or me on a particular application. And since she was the full time programmer and I was only a part-time dabbler, it was understood that most people would use Kathy for their database and application needs.

So, Kathy and I pretty much got around any notion of competition, and we actually managed to cooperate quite a bit. Sometimes she would need to link to a database that I had set up, sometimes I needed some advice on a particular problem with a query or a VBA code statement. Eventually, the office obtained an “enterprise” system that eliminated the need for much of what we were doing, but some of our previous systems were still needed, so she stuck to maintaining what she set up, and I tended to my own creations.

But during the years when we were both active and available for setting up new mini-databases, Kathy and I would often take on opposite roles relative to our “gender biases”. I.e., even though I am a man, I would take a lot of interest in the user and in his or her particular needs when setting up a new data-front. Do you need a button here to print this? Should there be a table here, and how should it be sorted? By contrast, Kathy, given her commercial background, had more of a “mass production” approach. My databases all looked different, as I took the time to customize them; Kathy’s various databases seemed quite similar. It was an interesting yin-and-yang.

And so, I agree with Dr. Hossenfelder that making information products is NOT just a technical task; it involves a lot of people-skills. You definately have to be sensitive to what the user needs and wants, how the user will respond to what you give him or her. If Damore is right about men being better at hard skills and women better at emotional interactions (despite the situation in my office where Kathy had better hard skills and I was more attuned to emotional responses), then women are definitely needed in delivering a good info computing and presentation product to a user. Google is thus acting quite rationally in seeking to keep women mixed in with its high-octane technical teams.

Another thing that Mr. Damore seems to miss . . . let’s agree with him for argument’s sake that women “on average” are less qualified for hard coding than men. Nevertheless, as he admits in his letter, average is a concept, and reality is a mixture of people with a wide variety of skill levels. So there are still a significant populuation of women who would be up to Google’s high standards in tech ability. But given that society is generally aware of the “average” tendency of women, consider the uphill battle that a woman who does have natural tech ability faces. Most people will buy-into the logic that if you are a woman, you probably aren’t strong in IT “hard skills”.

But for you the individual, that “best guess” could well be wrong !!! You constantly have to “swim against the tide” and convince people that you are one of the top-third or whatever. Even worse, when women do it make into the tech world, they too often face harassment and other conditions (e.g. no tolerance for tending to family needs). Tech firms have a somewhat shoddy record in that regard. So no wonder that a lot of women who make it thru science or engineering college eventually change careers after graduation. And that many more who have the brains for science and tech probably don’t even get as far as engineering school, or they switch over to a “soft” field (or biology, as a compromise) after a few semesters.

I believe that Mr. Damore could agree that this situation represents a very unfortunate waste of talent, a lost opportunity for our economy and for our society. Perhaps then Google and its efforts to find and support such women is good both for Google and for the overall American economy.

And yet . . . as Dr. Hossenfelder said . . . did Google really have to bounce the guy? Could they not have kept him on and publicly engaged his arguments, explaining in detail why they (quite rationally) reject them? Isn’t Google big enough to have found some low-priority assignment for Mr. Damore while he figures out where in the working world that he would be more comfortable? Couldn’t Google have set an example that both defended intentional sexual diversity AND tolerance of differing voices?

Given that I also have some training as an economist, I tend to think that Google is not trying to support women out of the goodness of its heart (despite it’s “don’t be evil” motto). Bottom line, a pro-female employment policy is good for business, good for the stockholders !!! If Mr. Damore really believes in his arguments and is not open to Google’s views, then let him (voluntarily) take his vision to the market — let him find (in his own good time) a firm that agrees with his contentions, and see how well an all or mostly male company does in competing with Google.

James Damore is about 27 years old and has a long life ahead of him. I hope that his “15 minutes of fame” (in 3 months, people will be asking “what guy from Google, what letter?”) won’t lock him into the alt-right-ish political martyrdom path that he now seems to be pursing. American politics today are extremely corrosive. I would advise Mr. Damore to dive back into obscurity, finish his PhD, pursue life with an open mind and open heart; and in 10 years he may be able to write a book worth reading. (And I hope that he doesn’t try that right now — it will in the Barnes and Noble discount bin in a blink).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:48 am      

  1. Jim, Once again, you’ve done a very good job analyzing and explaining the whole “Google thing” and why everybody seemed so up in arms about some prejudicial attitude toward women in the IT field in general and Google in particular, which I must confess I had heard about but had no clue re what it was.

    I might also say that I find Sabine Hossenfelder’s comment, which you quote, 100% on the mark regarding the situation. You’ve dug around until you found Hossenfelder’s root answer (and solution) to the “Google problem”.

    But as I read your post, I found myself somewhat astonished. Well, first of all, I understood finally what the STEM program is; I also think I understand why once in a while, here and there, a person I’ve heard from is so dead set against it. Let me assure you that none of what I say here is any reflection on you or your education or the education of IT people in general. The STEM program is essential for today’s world of information technology and cannot be denied. But it seems to me that there’s another half that’s been dumped and left behind, forgotten completely. I should note here that the following will be very far afield from the “Damore/women aren’t as good at ‘techie’ stuff as men” that the “Google issue” involves.

    And before anything else, I must confess my prejudice for “word based” (reading) info rather than “number based” info (math) info, despite the fact that my father urged me unendingly to add numbers on license plates as we drove wherever when I was a young girl; such adding of numbers would help me in arithmetic; I must have been about 7 or 8 then. I had no interest in adding random numbers (as he must have had) or numbers at all; I much rather wanted to ruminate on what people were doing in the houses that were lit up at night when we were driving around for “something to do to get out of the house”. My attitude toward my dad’s attitude toward numbers was: You must be kidding! which accounts for what I describe as my number dyslexia or perhaps vice versa (just today I looked at “58” and wrote down “82” and wondered why the numbers didn’t add right; then I found the problem; I have tho’t for a long time I have number dyslexia.

    Regardless, I found myself taking note that there’s no “reading or writing”, but there is arithmetic involved (I presume) in the STEM program; got to start math with arithmetic (I think).

    This will sound very “old” indeed (and believe me, I’d never think I’d be saying something like this); but what bothers me most about the STEM program is not prejudice against women but my wonder where the reading and writing are in the STEM program. I come from the time of education, the 1940s (1950s, 1960s and some in the 1980s, even 1990s) when my beginning education formed my views; it consisted mainly of reading when I was in grade and high school, Liberal Arts and also “Science” when I got to college. Most people where I went to school opted for Liberal Arts. (At that time computers were maybe only a “gleam” in the eyes of scientists, if that.) I got a kind of “mix”; a program so new it really didn’t have a name and did NOT include math (as I’d never have been able to finish the curricula [plural, yes]). I must also say there was no STEM program at the time; the term “techie” would have been a mystery to all.

    Now it’s no surprise to me that the school children of today do not write cursive, can’t read or write anything but printing, and rely mostly on pictures for their education. (No reading in the STEM crowd, it seems.) (Now I see why all the “selfies” seem so necessary to young people. No pictures, no record for history; nobody writes any more.)

    Critical thinking seems to have been lost. (I might note that manuals for the “how to” of “techie” kinds of things these days require something of a concept of reading and how instructions must be written so as to accomplish what they are supposed to do, i.e., allow people to actually accomplish something requiring a person to read the instructions; problems on both sides of the issue: If it’s not written correctly, “it” won’t work; but somehow or other many “techies” of today seem unable to see where a “piece” in the instructions may be missing.

    I will give two examples I can immediately think of that were missing a critical piece of info, without which nothing worked right. One of these things was how to work a meter to read the blood sugar levels in a person. One critical but very small piece of instruction was missing, and thus it took literally weeks (two long phone instructions and one visit to a person who already knew how to use the meter) to get the meter working. I realized one, small, very important instruction had been left out. Another example that I admit had me totally frustrated was trying to figure out how to get something working on my computer; the instructions were somewhat jumbled, but I followed them until they said, (portions paraphrased here) if nothing else works, “play with it”. Then I knew the person who had written the manual him/herself did not know how the thing worked, or perhaps more likely, did not know how to write the instructions. Serious problem there. Perhaps some good reading and writing would have solved the problem of incoherent instructions.
    While these examples are not truly the idea of “critical thinking” I find myself wondering what has gone wrong with the thinking of the people writing these manuals. Perhaps that’s where not “critical” thinking but maybe some basic ability to think in terms of writing so others can understand would be helpful. It seems to me something of a foundation in reading and writing has been lost for most of today’s young people (by which I mean the last 2 or 3 generations).

    So, while I see the need to allow women to do what it is they wish to do (and haven’t I myself always done exactly that), and thus makes me all for women being scientists or programmers or mathematicians, even artists or writers. I say let people be what they want to be.

    Now that I think of it how about giving everybody in early school and college education a taste of both the STEM and Liberal Arts programs? Do they even use the term “Liberal Arts” any more? It seems they are nowhere to be found in education these days.

    I’ve also been thinking and wondering if some of my problem (which basically is a “who cares?” attitude) re this whole “Damore” situation develops from the fact that I come from a time, compared to today, when prejudice against women was a given. (I once was kicked out of a class I was auditing in basic engineering [I tho’t it might be interesting] because of the question I asked; I was told in no uncertain terms that if I had to ask the question I didn’t belong in the class and should get out. I’m sure the prof was right; but still, perhaps if he had been somewhat better at communicating and answered my question, I might know more about the topic than I do now.)

    While I understand what coding is and programing is. (I actually taught in a school at one time that taught the old [or maybe they are still used somewhere/somehow or other] FORTRAN and COBAL together with the basic binary system); I generally can find a way to make a computer do what I want it to do more than one way, but that has nothing to do with the “makings” of the computer, it’s in the using of the computer. I admit that I am helpless when it comes to knowing anything of the “innards” of computers, like say what the “browser” is or what anything else is that makes the computer do what it does or what someone wants it to do.

    However, I my education taught me to appreciate literature (really good writing, I mean), poetry, art (altho I cannot draw a straight line with a ruler); my interests are diverse. Someone once told me she tho’t she could LEARN anything; I realized when she said that I think I can become INTERESTED in anything (well EXCEPT math).

    So, while I can appreciate that perhaps women need more opportunity in the STEM area; I tend to think that the STEM people need also, together with STEM, more of a dose of Liberal Arts, the old kind where one learns to read and write cursive and learns to express oneself correctly, if not exercise critical thinking about topics.

    I might add here that these days, with today’s problems, perhaps some critical thinking would be helpful, useful, and “critical” to the situations that have been presenting themselves. (You’ve always done a good job in that area.) MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 19, 2017 @ 9:36 am

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