Have You Read the Google Memo?

Have you read the anti-diversity manifesto written by a Google employee that resulted in his firing from the tech giant?

I don’t mean have you heard about it on the news or read somebody else’s thoughts about it on social media. No, I’m asking if you’ve read the actual memo itself. If not, I implore you to check it out. It’s not hard to find. You don’t even have to read the entire thing. I think reading the first page and skimming the rest is all you need to get a sense of the entire document.

Why did I ask you to actually check out the contents of the memo itself? Because I believe that the public reaction and media coverage of the memo has been unfair and misleading, with too many people having knee-jerk reactions to headlines and social media commentary, and this is depriving society of the opportunity to have a thoughtful discussion on gender, diversity, free speech and echo chambers.

Before we go any further, I want to make something crystal clear: Nothing that I am writing below is intended to be an endorsement of any of the points from the memo at all. Rather, I’m much more interested in discussing some of the reaction to the memo and whether it warranted the backlash that it has received.

The Media Coverage

The headline of this post asked, “Have you read the Google Memo?” How many of you noticed that in the first sentence of this post, I changed “Google Memo” to “anti-diversity manifesto”? My guess is not many noticed, especially if you’ve already read some of the media coverage surrounding the memo.

The most common term that I’ve seen the media use to describe the memo is “anti-diversity”, which I believe is far from the truth. The first sentence of the memo states: “I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes”. There’s an entire page dedicated to alternative ideas for reducing the gender gap at Google. Conor Friedersdorf does an excellent job of laying out why calling the memo “anti-diversity” is misleading in an article at The Atlantic:

Casually perusing “anti-diversity” headlines without reading the memo might mislead readers into thinking a Google employee had assigned a negative value to gender diversity, when in fact he assigned a positive value to gender diversity, but objected to some ways it was being pursued and tradeoffs others would make to maximize it.

The distinction is not insignificant, especially as some news reports mentioned that some at Google agreed with the memo. Many people might prefer to have colleagues with the actual views of the memo’s author, however objectionable or wrongheaded they find those views, rather than work alongside colleagues who believe that the presence of women at the company is a net negative, and want a future in which only men are recruited and employed there. Coverage that conflates those perspectives ill-serves even readers who would object to both views, but who do not see them as remotely equivalent. And it doesn’t capture the contents of a memo which concludes, “I strongly believe in gender and racial diversity, and I think we should strive for more.”

If anything good is to come of the broad public circulation of this story, news outlets must do a better job of accurately characterizing the memo’s contents—I’ve seen numerous mischaracterizations that would lead readers to believe that women had been attacked or disparaged in ways that the text of the memo does not actually bear out.

The Most Common Error in Media Coverage of the Google Memo by Conor Friedersdorf

Apparently some people agree, as there have even been some examples of media outlets retroactively changing the headlines on some of their coverage of the memo.

“Anti-diversity” isn’t the only misleading term that has been used. The memo has been called a “manifesto”, which is defined (by Google) as: “a public declaration of policy and aims, especially one issued before an election by a political party or candidate”. The memo wasn’t intended to be public; it was initially shared on an internal mailing list before being leaked to Gizmodo and published. It also wasn’t a “declaration of policy or aims”, and is clearly an attempt to kick-start discussion and solicit feedback. I’ve also seen the term “screed” used, which has implications that certainly don’t seem accurate to anybody who has read the memo.

Instead of describing the actual substance of the memo — which was remarkably measured and data-driven — news outlets have routinely chosen to slander Damore as “anti-diversity” and to claim repeatedly that Damore argued women shouldn’t be allowed to work at tech companies.

Neither of these claims is true. In fact, Damore’s memo was premised on the fact that he values diversity and believes it isn’t being properly cultivated. “I strongly believe in gender and racial diversity, and I think we should strive for more,” he stated explicitly in the memo. Regardless of whether one agrees with his solutions to the problems he identifies, it is ridiculous to assert that he is “anti-diversity.”

But you wouldn’t know that from reading the media coverage of the controversy, which has seemed intent on obscuring Damore’s real message. For example, Recode and Gizmodo — both of which republished the memo in full — removed every single one of Damore’s extensive links and graphs, which had provided rigorous data and research to substantiate his argument. There is absolutely no reason for a site to erase that context, other than to vilify the author and make his argument appear less credible.

Gizmodo also gave the memo the fair-and-balanced label “anti-diversity screed,” as did pieces in The Atlantic and HuffPost. Reuters, ABC News, New York magazine, CNBC, USA Today, and The Guardian referred to it as an “anti-diversity memo.” Vox, meanwhile,went a little further, calling it a “sexist screed . . . arguing for less emphasis on gender diversity in the workplace” and describing its publication as an act of “hostility.”

CNN classified the memo as an “anti-diversity manifesto” and tweeted, incorrectly, that it “argues women aren’t suited for tech jobs.” Such an argument didn’t appear once in the memo. Either CNN’s reporters decided to write about the memo without having read it, or they intentionally misrepresented its content.
– The Mainstream Media Misrepresents a Google Engineer’s Memo by Alexandra Desanctis

These may seem like minor complaints and harmless infractions, but I believe they are inexcusable. Anybody with an interest in providing a fair account of the memo and willing to spend a few minutes even skimming it should shy away from such loaded terms as “anti-diversity” and “manifesto”. I also believe that such reckless reporting does a disservice to the public discourse. These loaded terms might just be slightly slanted, but as the story spreads among the public, the bias compounds like a snowball rolling downhill. Seeing discussion of the memo on social media is like a bad game of telephone. “Manifesto” and “screed” becomes “rant” and “ravings”. “Anti-diversity” leads people to believe that there were comments in the memo about different races. Misinformation runs rampant, and people talk about how the memo circulated to all Google employees or it contained no links to sources. So instead of having a well-informed and nuanced discussion of diversity efforts and the biological effect of gender, we’re instead all burning the same straw-man in effigy.

The Science

Of course, it’s hard to talk about the memo without talking about the science behind some of the points Damore made. I’m not a biologist or a sociologist or a sexual neurologist, so I’m extremely unqualified to judge the merit of some of his points about biology. All I can do is read what people smarter than I have to say on the topic. Anecdotally, most of the articles about the memo that discussed the science behind Damore’s points have largely said that legitimate points were made.

Of the four scientists who commented at Quillette, a libertarian-leaning online magazine critical of “political correctness,” three, including neuroscientist and science writer Deborah Soh, thought the memo was almost entirely correct. University of Michigan psychologist David Schmitt, whose research was cited in the memo, thought it overstated some fairly modest sex differences (in ambition and vulnerability to stress, for example) and was too negative about efforts to remedy societal disadvantage. Yet Schmitt also emphasized that biological difference as a contributor to occupational gender gaps should not be off-limits to discussion.

Googler fired for diversity memo had legit points on gender by Cathy Young

And from an article written by Debra Soh, the neuroscientist mentioned above:

Despite how it’s been portrayed, the memo was fair and factually accurate. Scientific studies have confirmed sex differences in the brain that lead to differences in our interests and behaviour.

As mentioned in the memo, gendered interests are predicted by exposure to prenatal testosterone – higher levels are associated with a preference for mechanically interesting things and occupations in adulthood. Lower levels are associated with a preference for people-oriented activities and occupations. This is why STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields tend to be dominated by men.

No, the Google manifesto isn’t sexist or anti-diversity. It’s science by Debra Soh

Soh also appears to agree with Damore’s point about how, regardless of environmental factors, biology would seem to indicate that a 50/50 split in STEM occupations is unrealistic:

Of course, differences exist at the individual level, and this doesn’t mean environment plays no role in shaping us. But to claim that there are no differences between the sexes when looking at group averages, or that culture has greater influence than biology, simply isn’t true.

In fact, research has shown that cultures with greater gender equity have larger sex differences when it comes to job preferences, because in these societies, people are free to choose their occupations based on what they enjoy.

As the memo suggests, seeking to fulfill a 50-per-cent quota of women in STEM is unrealistic. As gender equity continues to improve in developing societies, we should expect to see this gender gap widen.

This trend continues into the area of personality, as well. Contrary to what detractors would have you believe, women are, on average, higher in neuroticism and agreeableness, and lower in stress tolerance.

However, it’s not about one gender being worse at specific things than another, it’s much more complicated than that and is instead also about preferences and trade-offs. From the same Cathy Young article:

There is also evidence that girls with high mathematical ability are likely to have strong verbal skills as well, while boys tend to be less versatile. The girls thus have a wider range of occupational choices. (Interestingly, youths with strong skills in both areas are likely to choose non-tech professions regardless of gender.) Finally, in numerous studies, women and girls tend to prefer working with people and other living things, while men and boys show more interest in mechanical objects. All this is obviously relevant to careers in tech.

Are these people correct in their assessments? I have no idea, but I’m generally not going to argue biology with anybody who has a PhD in a branch of neuroscience that I didn’t even know existed. Nearly all of the criticism that I’ve read about the memo has unfortunately been about how it perpetuated gender stereotypes or tried to link it to race or attempted guilt by association. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a Wired article that took an excellent stab at attempting to actually refute the scientific arguments in the memo instead of waving them off. They argue that while many of Damore’s assertions have a basis in science (including the now infamous comment about “neuroticism”), he’s often cherry-picking his evidence and exaggerating the impact:

That said, Damore’s assertion that men and women think different is actually pretty uncontroversial, and he cites a paper to back it up, from a team led by David Schmitt, a psychologist at Bradley University in Illinois and director of the International Sexuality Description Project. The 2008 article, “Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman? Sex Difference in Big Five Personality Traits Across 55 Cultures,” does indeed seem to show that women rate higher than men in neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

As always, the issue is the extent of the difference (and what causes it—more on that in a bit). Also, as Damore himself notes: Google hires individuals, not populations.

Damore argues that greater extraversion and agreeableness, on the whole, would make it harder for women to negotiate and stake out leadership positions in an organization, and that higher neuroticism would naturally lead to fewer women in high-stress jobs. The first-order criticism here is easy: Damore oversells the difference cited in the paper. As Schmitt tells WIRED via email, “These sex differences in neuroticism are not very large, with biological sex perhaps accounting for only 10 percent of the variance.” The other 90 percent, in other words, are the result of individual variation, environment, and upbringing.

– The Actual Science Of James Damore’s Google Memo by Megan Molteni and Adam Rogers

So who is right? I have no idea. At the very least, though, this seems like an issue where it can be argued that the science is unsettled and where smart and honest people on both sides can disagree. Considering the calm and measured tone of the memo, along with how well researched it seemed to be, a lot of the more hysterical reaction seems a little unwarranted to me. Again, I want to stress that I’m not defending the assertions or conclusions of the article, only that it seems like a topic that we as a society should be able to calmly and rationally discuss. Even the aforementioned Wired article, which was the most well researched and reasoned critical article that I could find, couldn’t help but throw in some unsavory (and unfair) comparisons at the end:

Damore needs scientific consensus to make his case—not just because of confirmation bias but because the memo goes on to argue that the left is just as guilty as the right when it comes to science denialism. He equates conservative tendencies to reject climate change and evolution (theories with an overwhelming scientific consensus behind them) with liberal refusals to accept differences in personality traits between the sexes and—in a quiet racist dog whistle—IQ, where the evidence is far, far weaker.

Climbing to an even higher altitude, though, we might ask another question about Damore’s appeal to science: So what? Which is to say, what are we to do with not just the conclusions of the memo but also its implications? Damore is hardly the first person to use science to justify social norms or political preferences. Science has, too often in human history, been a tool for literal dehumanization as a rationale for oppression. It happened to people of African descent in America; to the poor of the Victorian era; to women in the years leading up to suffrage; and to Jews, people of nonbinary gender, Roma, people with disabilities, and so on in Nazi Germany. Historians try to wall off those ideas now—eugenics, phrenology, social Darwinism—but each, in its day, was just science.

– The Actual Science Of James Damore’s Google Memo by Megan Molteni and Adam Rogers

Was it really necessary to draw comparisons to racist dog whistles and eugenics and Nazi Germany1? The memo is about finding the causes behind gender disparities and raising the idea that it could be at least partially due to biological differences between genders. Is that at all similar to sterilizing large segments of people or wiping them out? Is it taboo to talk about biological differences between genders because, hey, the Nazis believed that too?

Google’s Reaction

Somewhat overshadowed in the discussion around the Google memo is how one of the main points was about the lack of ideological diversity at Google (the title of the memo is “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”). It’s a point that is hard to completely dismiss considering Google fired Damore for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace”. Essentially, he was fired for expressing ideas that were not popular with Google management.

Before going on, I want to be very clear. I absolutely believe that Google had the right to fire Damore, and there are a number of legitimate reasons why it would want to. I do not disagree that writing and sharing this memo clearly put the company in a bind. However, just because Google had the right to fire him and had legitimate reasons, it doesn’t mean I think it was the right thing to do.

Google claims to value diversity, but they primarily seem to be measuring diversity by gender and ethnicity. As Elaine Ou notes in Google Can’t Seem to Tolerate Diversity: “Silicon Valley has a very peculiar definition of diversity that requires proportional representation from every gender and race, all of whom must think exactly alike.” That’s perhaps an exaggeration, but it’s clear that certain viewpoints (held by a non-inconsequential number of people) are considered so taboo for some companies that to be outed as having them is a fire-able offense. In fact, there are even rumors that some members of Google management might be keeping “blacklists” of coworkers with viewpoints that they don’t agree with and that who they refuse to work with.

Damore’s contentions about the bias at Google is a near-perfect summation of the dangers manifest in all close-minded institutions, including most of the news media and many universities. He points out that conflating “freedom from offense with psychological safety” shames people into silence. Further, he argues that these monocultures foster unhealthy environments where people can no longer honestly debate important topics. Finally, and most destructively, he says that these bubbles then promote “extreme and authoritarian elements.”

We see incidents of this close-mindedness all the time. In schools. In government. In business. Just ask Brendan Eich, who was hounded out as CEO of Mozilla in 2013 for having the wrong opinion on gay marriage in 2008, despite zero evidence that he had ever discriminated against anyone in his life.

Or, better yet, ask Danielle Brown, Google’s new vice president of diversity, integrity and governance. She wrote in response to the engineer’s memo, “Diversity and inclusion are a fundamental part of our values and the culture,” and then rebuked the statement, telling employees that she wouldn’t link to the letter because everyone disagrees with its contents. Rather than showing appreciation for diverse thinking among her ranks, Brown even went on to insinuate that the engineer’s suggestions in the memo might undermine “discrimination laws.”

Does Brown believe that dissenting Google employees will now feel safer sharing their opinions when they see that the company won’t stand by those making unpopular ones? Because, after all, any old VP of diversity, integrity and governance can defend positions that confirm the biases of the majority of their workforce.

– By Firing the Google Memo Author, the Company Confirms His Thesis by David Harsanyi

I don’t envy Sundar Pichai’s position in this whole narrative. The decision on how to deal with this memo was no doubt a difficult one, and I don’t believe there was any “good” response. No matter how he chose to respond, somebody was likely to be upset. By all accounts, he’s an intelligent and thoughtful leader. At the same time, I do have to question his decision to fire Damore. There’s no doubt that firing Damore was the easy decision as there are any number of reasons why keeping him around would be dangerous. Standing up for unpopular speech takes a lot of courage, and I wish Pichai showed more courage in this decision. I don’t support the conclusion, but I do understand the sentiment of David Brooks, who writes:

Which brings us to Pichai, the supposed grown-up in the room. He could have wrestled with the tension between population-level research and individual experience. He could have stood up for the free flow of information. Instead he joined the mob. He fired Damore and wrote, “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not O.K.”

That is a blatantly dishonest characterization of the memo. Damore wrote nothing like that about his Google colleagues. Either Pichai is unprepared to understand the research (unlikely), is not capable of handling complex data flows (a bad trait in a C.E.O.) or was simply too afraid to stand up to a mob.

Sundar Pichai Should Resign as Google’s C.E.O. by David Brooks

Google is supposed to support “free expression” and the “free exchange of ideas”. Their position as gatekeeper to information on the internet for so many Americans through Android, Chrome, Maps, YouTube and the Google search engine itself gives them a tremendous amount of power. Some say they could even influence an election without anybody realizing it. If Google as a company feels so strongly about certain topics being taboo enough to warrant firing an employee for even discussing it, is it that far of a leap to wonder if they might modify search algorithms to make those topics harder to find? They’ve already taken a stand and banned payday loan ads, so they’re not adverse to taking sides on hot button issues. If some employees really are blacklisting coworkers over holding ideas they disagree with, isn’t it conceivable those same employees could be (intentionally or subconsciously) tweaking search algorithms in ways which bury sites they disagree with? Crazy conspiracy theories? Quite possibly, but they seem a little more possible today than a month ago. I’ve always wanted to think of Google as being committed to spreading information and being opposed to censorship in all its forms. For the first time that I can remember, I have reason to question that commitment, and that’s a shame.

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Paul Essen
Founder and Chief Discourse Officer at Rampant Discourse
Proud geek. Trekkie. Browncoat. Entil'Zha. First human spectre. Hokie. Black belt. Invests Foolishly. Loves games of all types and never has enough time to play as many as he wants. Libertarian who looks forward to the day he votes for a winning presidential candidate. Father to two beautiful daughters.

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