The ‘screed’ about diversity that wasn’t
The first thing to know about the instantly infamous “anti-diversity screed” written by an anonymous Google software engineer is that it isn’t anti-diversity or a screed.
The loaded description, widely used in the press and on social media, is symptomatic of the pearl-clutching over the memo, which questions the premises and effectiveness of Google’s diversity policies.
The document was meant — before getting splashed on the internet — as an internal conversation-starter. The author posits that innate differences between the sexes may account for the disparity between men and women in the male-dominated world of high-tech.
He states repeatedly that he believes in diversity, and there’s no reason to doubt his self-description as a classical liberal. His exclamation-point-free memo is hardly a rant. He expresses the hope that “open and honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow.”
How naive. The witless and inflamed reaction to his document instead underlines his point about “a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence.”
It is one thing to disagree with the memo; it is another thing to believe the views therein should be forbidden. Former Google engineer Yonatan Zunger says that if it were up to him, the author would be summarily fired and escorted from the building immediately by security (you can’t take a chance with such a danger). Entrepreneur Elissa Shevinsky believes that the memo could run afoul of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act — i.e., it might be illegal.
Google’s diversity officer, Danielle Brown, didn’t quite go that far. She offered a pro forma assurance that different views are welcome at Google. Nevertheless, she stipulated the opinions of the author are “incorrect” and added, ominously, that any discussion needs to be in accord with “our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.”
Her case would have been much stronger if she had rebutted any of the author’s statements about sex differences — assuming that she could.
A line in the memo about women being more prone to anxiety has drawn particular ire — as if the author made this up. As the publication Stanford Medicine notes, “Women are twice as likely as men to experience clinical depression in their lifetimes; likewise for post-traumatic stress disorder.” An article in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews likewise says that “female-biased conditions include depression, anxiety disorder, and anorexia nervosa.”
This doesn’t mean that men are superior, just that they are different, and more prone to other problems — among them, alcohol- and drug-dependency, schizophrenia, dyslexia, autism, Tourette syndrome and attention deficit disorder. It’s not bias against men, or in favor of women, to note these tendencies.
Sex differences are value-neutral. From Stanford Medicine again: “Women excel in several measures of verbal ability — pretty much all of them, except for verbal analogies.” On the other hand, men “have superior visuospatial skills.” Which is better? It depends on who’s asking, and why.
Women tend to be better with people, men with things. Is either of those superior? Women tend to put more emphasis on family, men on their status. Does that speak better of women or men?
As the Google author cautions, “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.”
In light of these differences, though, it is foolhardy to expect 50/50 gender parity in professional life, and otherworldly to believe such differences don’t have a role in the predominance of men in, say, software engineering.
Obviously, the field should be open to women, and Neanderthal behavior in the workplace should be stamped out. But a company that believes implicit bias accounts for gender imbalances must be allergic to certain inconvenient facts. The Google author raised them, and will probably pay the price.