Does biology maketh the (wo)man? Sacked Google employee’s controversial memo on gender differences

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Our attention has been drawn to a Google engineer who was sacked for writing a memo against his company’s gender diversity policies, claiming (with evidence) that there are biological reasons for the women’s relatively poor interest in software programming and leadership.

In the memo, which is the personal opinion of a male Google employee and is titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” the author argues that women are underrepresented in tech not because they face bias and discrimination in the workplace, but because of inherent psychological differences between men and women. “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism,” he writes, going on to argue that Google’s educational programs for young women may be misguided.

I was compelled to download and study the memo, expecting to actually see concrete biological evidence (genetic, biochemical, evolutionary) supporting the conservative views of the man, and frankly, I wasn’t impressed.

It is a FACT that women are poorly represented in the tech industry (software), but putting it down to biological reasons is a serious mistake. Long before today, I had been aware that the pioneers in the software programming industry were women, and programming used to be women’s work, while hardware engineering (better paid at the time) was considered men’s work. Think teaching today. Think clerical jobs. Design was compared to planning dinner at one point.

Think back to the early 1940s, when the University of Pennsylvania hired six women to work on its ENIAC machine, which was one of the world’s first electronic computers. These six women, known by contemporaries as the “ENIAC girls,” were charged with “setting up” the ENIAC to perform computation tasks. They are widely celebrated as the world’s first computer programmers. Dr. Grace Hopper, one of the leading lights, told a reporter at one time, “programming is just like planning a dinner. You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so that it’s ready when you need it…. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”

There are many other instances. Indeed, programming was a poorly paid job until it became men’s work. This was brought about by the deployment of hiring tools that deliberately excluded women, by favouring personality traits that were seen as antisocial and manly, among other factors.

By the ’60s, women were up to sixty-five percent of the workforce in the software industry, until men took over. {Lockheed Marlaine E.(1993). Women, Girls, and Computers: A First Look at the Evidence Sex Roles 29, 115-121}. Today, males dominate the industry and policy makers are hoping to change the trend, by encouraging workplace gender diversity.

I don’t think it was particularly fair to sack a worker for his dissenting views, but then it is one thing to insist women should stay out of men’s soccer, and another to link leadership and programming skills to testosterone.

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