The academic whose research is at the centre of Google’s latest sexism row says it isn’t clear to him how supposed differences between genders are relevant to the Silicon Valley firm’s diversity problem.
Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., fired James Damore after he circulated an internal memo claiming the company’s diversity policies were unfair and biased against white men. But according to David P. Schmitt, a psychologist whose research Damore based some of his arguments on, explaining gender gaps with assumptions about sexism was a “bad idea”.
Bloomberg reported that Damore confirmed the dismissal for “perpetuating gender stereotypes” over email and that he was “currently exploring all possible legal remedies.”
In the memo titled Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber, Damore wrote that the lack of diversity within leadership roles is due to innate personality differences between men and women, which means women are less willing or unable to take on high stress and therefore higher paying jobs.
He directly quotes but doesn’t reference from a 2008 paper co-authored by Schmitt titled: Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman? Sex Differences in Big Five Personality Traits Across 55 Cultures.
Damore uses Schmitt’s research to back up his idea that “we need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism”.
Schmitt told WIRED that while this isn’t his area of expertise, the assumptions made by Damore were unwise. “We should rely on rigorous evidence for making claims in this area. And I believe there is good evidence of both sexism (including sex stereotypes) and real psychological sex differences (some of which may be evolved) to be causes of the gender gaps across occupations,” he said.
“Both can be true, and we need much better evidence to know what percentage of the gender gap is caused by each. To make matters worse, it’s likely that psychological sex differences and sex stereotypes are interrelated, feeding off of one another in complex ways over historical time, and over developmental time as children grow up. There are no simple answers here.”
In response to the memo, Schmitt also wrote a blog post on Psychology Today, explaining that it was not clear how much sex differences are relevant to the Google workplace. “Using someone’s biological sex to essentialise an entire group of people’s personality is like surgically operating with an axe. Not precise enough to do much good, probably will cause a lot of harm. Moreover, men are more emotional than women in certain ways, too. Sex differences in emotion depend on the type of emotion, how it is measured, where it is expressed, when it is expressed, and lots of other contextual factors.”
Professor Gina Rippon, Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Neuroimaging at Aston University in Birmingham, said it was surprising how much of the research Damore misinterpreted or got wrong. She added that sex differences backed-up by proper research scrutiny were so tiny they couldn’t explain the kind of gender imbalance at Google.
“They’re assuming a divide that doesn’t really exist,” Rippon said. “Either its biological or its social and if its biological you can’t change it so Google shouldn’t be wasting its time with all these high minded equal opportunity initiatives.
“But the key thing is it can be changed – we know that if women have poor spatial skills, which has been demonstrated in the past, then its easy enough to change that by appropriate training – very often its associated with video game experience for example. He seems to be saying there are fixed differences and we’re wasting our time trying to gain equality,” Rippon said.
Damore makes a list of suggestions on how to fix Google’s diversity policies. Among them, he argues that mentorship programs for women should be removed because “these discriminatory practices are both unfair and divisive” and leave “swaths of men without support.”
Google’s demographics are available online and show overall, women make up 31 percent of employees, an increase of one per cent from last year.
Schmitt agreed that sex differences in personality traits can shift. “Our finding of cross-cultural variation in personality sex differences speaks to the flexibility of sex differences. Psychological sex differences require lots of experiences over time to develop (most do not develop until puberty).”
Rippon said its common for people to misinterpret studies, taking statements out of context or missing caveats included within papers such as studies that have not been replicated. “This kind of research moves on very quickly, there comes a point where quite a lot is made of a particular finding and there’s some discussion about it and then there’s some correction or a new technique comes up but somehow the original statement gets stuck in people’s minds.”
Motherboard and Gizmodo published the ten page memo that went viral on Google’s internal messaging platforms over the weekend. By Monday, the company’s vice president of diversity, integrity and governance, Danielle Brown, released a statement saying Damore’s viewpoint was not something Google “endorses, promotes or encourages.” She said expressing alternative discourse should be something employees feel safe doing but, it had to “work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws”.
It’s the latest in a string of reports of harassment and prejudicial behaviour, highlighting the entrenched sexism and racism within Silicon Valley.