What we must ask about the fired Googler who wrote a 'diversity' memo is this: Did he know his job as an engineer?
Last week when an internally shared memo written by a Google software engineer triggered an eruption of culture war in Silicon Valley, I was in Europe. But the news hit close to home for me.
I found in this little tirade an indisputable attack on women’s ability (or lack thereof) to do science, engineering and coding. Naturally, I was offended. But I decided to weigh in on this topic now – after so much ink was already spilled – not because I was compelled to defend my gender.
What actually fascinates me is that this so-called “diversity” memo offers such fertile ground to debate many issues at so many levels. They include the eternal controversy over “biological differences between men and women,” accusations about the “politically correct monoculture at Google,” an examination of “freedom of speech for employees at corporations,” and the author’s reported plan to take legal action against Google.
Job as an Engineer
The final straw, inspiring me to speak up was an essay written by Yonatan Zunger, who nailed the manifesto-writing Googler for not knowing his job as an engineer.
Zunger, who served as Distinguished Engineer on Privacy at Google until recently, defined his engineering mission as “not the art of building devices.” He said, “It’s the art of fixing problems.”
Pointing out that “devices are a means, not an end,” Zunger wrote: “Fixing problems means first of all understanding them — and since the whole purpose of the things we do is to fix problems in the outside world, problems involving people, that means that understanding people, and the ways in which they will interact with your system, is fundamental to every step of building a system.”
In short, the point was that if you can’t understand women as users of your system and don’t have women in your engineering team, how can you, Mr. Engineer, fix problems and build your system that speak to the entire outside world (more than half of which is women)?
'Echo Chamber' Debate
Read carefully the offending blog, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” you find that the author’s central grievance is political bias on Google management’s part that proscribes Googlers from an “open and honest discussions” on diversity issues. The author’s full manifesto can be read here.
Let’s accept the guy’s premise and believe that a hunger for intelligent discourse motivated him to cry out, “J’accuse!”
However, even a casual reader has no difficulty discerning a predisposition that might be called sexism, especially when he writes that “men and women biologically differ in many ways,” an anodyne observation that he twists into a justification for “why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”
All engineers are equal, in other words, but some engineers are more equal than girl engineers.
Of course, the memo’s author, James Damore, 28, with a Harvard degree in systems biology, offered literally no foundation for the congenital engineering deficit in the female of the species.
After Google fired Damore this week, the case got even weirder. Predictably, the political right seized the moment and declared Damore a martyr. In their narrative, Damore’s career got squashed by proponents of what they call “political correctness.”
Excuse me if I forego any attempt to define “political correctness,” a phrase so overused by now that it’s meaningless.
Freedom of Speech
Under the current divisive political climate, a backlash was inevitable. But it’s misguided to use Damore’s blurt as a serious freedom-of-speech issue.
Note first that virtually every U.S. corporation insists on being an “at will” employer. Hence, anyone who believes that the company exists to protect his or her First Amendment rights is smoking dope on company time. Any employee who uses the corporation’s computers and corporate e-mail systems to publish controversial personal views — especially the kind that go viral and offend powerful interest groups — is risking a pink slip.
The best argument I found on this issue was a story on Business Insider. The story made it clear: “The First Amendment protects Americans' free-speech rights from being restricted by the government, not their employer.” This piece also discussed that Damore was most likely employed in California, which has a law uniquely sympathetic to political rights for workers. But even in California, Damore has an uphill fight, it said.
As I read the whole manifesto by Damore, the most disconcerting passages focused on his warped grasp of biology, leading to a series on conclusions that no repurtable biologist would endorse. He writes:
On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because:
• They’re universal across human cultures
• They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone
• Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males
• The underlying traits are highly heritable
• They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective
Next page: Think Jackie Robinson