women in tech engineer

A long memo titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber: How bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion” landed with a loud thud in the emails and bulletin boards of Silicon Valley in July of this year. A lively debate about its content ensued. Eventually, the memo’s author, 28-year-old James Damore was fired. Hopefully, the Valley will never be the same again.

In the aftermath of the memo, a parade of women entrepreneurs, engineers, and administrators stepped forward and courageously called out their sexual abusers. To tell the truth, I was totally ignorant of this ugly reality. In this day and age? With all the laws on the book? With a highly educated population? I wondered, why were they silent until now? I was compelled to get a copy of the notorious memo so I could read it.

Before I dive into the details of the memo, let me point out that Mr. Damore is not just a crackpot woman-hater. He has impressive academic credentials, including molecular and cellular biology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, research in computational biology at Harvard, Princeton, and MIT, and a Ph.D program at Harvard, from which he dropped out before completion.

 

The main arguments of the memo

After acknowledging the presence of implicit and explicit bias against women in tech (by which he means software engineering), he nonetheless lists “non-bias” causes of the gender gap in tech, namely biological differences between men and women that are not socially constructed because, as he said in the memo,

“They’re universal across human cultures.”

Of course, several of the differences are so anatomically obvious you don’t need a high school GED to recognize them. But he is talking about very specific gender differences, namely performance in math and engineering. The trick of making some generally obvious statement and slipping under its cover a less obvious one is well known in debate strategies. But, we are here to illuminate, not debate.

Damore went on to say that the differences

“often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone.”

But he failed to cite examples or make the connection to math performance in later years. But I have one: The celebrated example of prenatal exposure to high testosterone of a first-born female spotted hyena. She is so aggressive she eats the other babies in the litter. However, within a short period of time, her testosterone-fired rage subsides and she duly assumes her place in the hierarchy of the pack. Although it doesn’t connect to math performance either, it does make the point that this prenatal exposure to testosterone leads to a behavioral change that is not long-lasting.

Another unsupported statement from Damore’s screed is this one:

“Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males.”

Exactly what point is he trying to make here? That “the underlying traits are highly heritable”? Well some are, but many are not. Further, what’s the relevance to math/engineering proficiency?

He also said,

“They [women] are exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective.”

Here he falls into the trap of the circular reasoning that people who don’t understand the field of evolutionary psychology often use. The limit of this field is that it is retrospective. It offers possible explanations (many times closer to rank speculation) for certain biological observations. To be a predictive science, it would have to offer testable hypotheses that are subject to experimentation. The field of evolutionary psychology hasn’t done it yet; maybe because it cannot?

 

“Generally accepted” differences between men and women

After stating that there are “generally accepted” differences between the genders, Damore goes on to list the personality differences that may explain why women are less adept than men at software engineering:

  • Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men.

Tell it to my wife who hasn’t seen a new gadget she hasn’t fallen in love with at first sight. But seriously, women less inclined to ideas? In your own field, Mr. Damore, let me introduce you to Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace (née Byron; 10 December 1815 – 27 November 1852), commonly known as Ada Lovelace. She was an English mathematician and writer, chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, the analytical machine. She was the first to recognize that the machine had applications beyond pure calculation, and created the first algorithm intended to be carried out by such a machine. As a result, she is often regarded as the first to recognize the full potential of a “computing machine” and the first computer programmer. So, like it or not, Mr. Damore, your field was invented by a woman. So much for lack of interest in ideas. And, in case you haven’t noticed her maiden name (née Byron), she was Lord Byron’s daughter. She wrote many of her ideas on machine computing in rhyme! Speaking of heritable traits. I would love to have some of hers.

  • Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness.

Of course, he is right on this point. We all know what happens to women who are perceived as assertive. Remember the epithets thrown at Hillary Clinton during her runs for the highest office in the land? And, how about our President’s treatment of assertive women like Megyn Kelly or the beleaguered mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico? The B word is liberally sprinkled all over the poison tweets of professional haters.

BTW, this assertion of women’s extraversion being misperceived as innocuous back-slapping gregariousness rather than substantive assertiveness coming out of a Google employee is laughable given that the male-dominated chaotic company was whipped into shape by Ruth Porat, one of the world’s best Chief Financial Officers. She came to Google, courtesy of testosterone-saturated Wall Street. She is the former CFO of J.P. Morgan. Google is also the organization that spawned leaders like Sherryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), Marisa Mayer (former CEO of Yahoo), and Susan Wojcicki (running YouTube at Google). Sorry Mr. Damore, your argument is not credible.

  • Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).

I served in the Israeli military side-by-side with female soldiers that remained cool, and deadly, in high-stress situations that I hope you will never have a chance to experience. Did you know that we have now female marines, female pilots, and female Special Forces in our military? And in case you follow current events, the Kurdish Pesh Merga fighting Isis is highly populated, and many times led, by female soldiers. I have to admit that this bias, both explicit and implicit, is not limited to engineering, software, and otherwise. In my own field (medicine), women were not welcome in medical schools for many years because of ‘low tolerance to stress.’ You get an idea of the medical profession’s attitude from language that we don’t even stop to give a second thought. The word ‘uterus’ derives for the Greek hysteros. From there to hysteria, as a uniquely female affliction, arising from having a womb.

 

Why don’t females excel in math?

This is a simplistic question with a complex answer. The following findings are from a paper published by the American Psychological Association that highlights several meta-analyses, including millions of participants:

  • Janet Shibley Hyde, Ph.D, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, and colleagues published a groundbreaking meta-analysis that compiled data from 100 different studies of math performance. Synthesizing data collected on more than 3 million participants between 1967 and 1987, the researchers found no large overall differences between boys and girls in math performance. Girls were slightly better at computation in elementary and middle school. In high school, boys showed a slight edge in problem-solving, possibly because they took more science classes that emphasized those skills. But boys and girls understood math concepts equally well and any gender differences actually narrowed over the years, belying the notion of a fixed or biological differentiating factor.
  • In 2005, Elizabeth Spelke, Ph.D, a psychologist at Harvard University, and colleagues reviewed 111 studies and concluded that gender differences in math and science ability have a genetic basis in cognitive systems that emerge in early childhood. Nevertheless, the studies suggested that men and women, on the whole, possess an equal aptitude for math and science. In fact, boy and girl infants were found to perform equally well as young as 6 months on tasks that underlie mathematics abilities.
  • Other studies suggest that when it comes to math, girls and boys are similarly capable. A 2008 analysis by Hyde and colleagues reported that in children from grades two to 11, there was no gender difference for math skills. And in 2009, Hyde and Janet Mertz, Ph.D, reported that while more boys than girls score at the highest levels in mathematics, that gender gap has been closing over time. In fact, they reported that the gap is smaller in countries with greater gender equality, suggesting that gender differences in math achievement are largely due to cultural and environmental factors.

 

And yet…

When we look at the normal distribution of math performance of males and females, the mean is indeed almost the same. But there is an intriguing difference; the right tail (highest performing) of the curve is “fatter and longer” in males than in females, meaning that among the very high performers, there are more males than females. Are there more “genius” boys than girls? A paper by 2 Economics professors, Muriel Niederle of Stanford and Lise Vesterlund of the U. of Pittsburgh, convincingly explain it. They ran a whole array of experiments of math competitions between groups of mixed gender as well as between groups of the same sex. Females in the mixed genders groups performed significantly worse than their male teammates. On the other hand, females competing against females performed equally to boys in mixed-gender or boys-only teams. This is a known phenomenon in the psychological literature: Females have higher anxiety in tests when competing against boys, especially in math tests. As any sports coach or anybody who ever took a college test would tell you, anxiety impairs performance.

But why the anxiety? Girls and boys with the same math test scores have very different assessments of their relative ability (for example, see Eccles, 1998). Conditional on math performance, boys are more overconfident than girls, and this gender gap is greatest among gifted children (Preckel, Goetz, Pekrun, and Kleine, 2008). The strong gender stereotype that boys are better at math may help to explain this gender gap in confidence.

 

What’s the solution?

Niederle and Vesterlund ran an experiment when the chance to win a monetary prize in a math tournament was either for the best two (regardless of gender) in every mixed-gender team or for every one male winner, there has to be a female winner (the “affirmative action” experiment). Their study showed that when women are guaranteed equal representation among winners, more women and fewer men enter competitions. The change exceeds that predicted by the changes in the probability of winning that result from the introduction of affirmative action.

The response caused the fraction of entrants who are women to increase from 29 to 64 percent! The excessive response is explained to a large extent by changes in beliefs on the chances of winning the competition and attitudes toward competition. Specifically, men are less overconfident and women less reluctant to compete in groups where their own gender is better represented.

So yes, Mr. Damore, Google is doing exactly the right thing by ensuring that women are guaranteed equal opportunity to win, they will equal your performance, and may even exceed it. We did it in medical schools years ago with spectacular success.

Try it, you might even grow to like a real competition.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

5 COMMENTS

  1. You cherry picked your examples to provide a foundation for your political viewpoints that isn’t anywhere as grounded in fact as you’re pretending. It’s dishonest, and you can do better.

    Gender dimorphism is a reality. The intricate details between nurture and nature are not easy to parse out, but we both know nature is definitely part of it. There are simply jobs that are better fitting for different sexes, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Infact, there are studies that indicate female doctors are better, and in my real life experience, that has been the case. I believe it to be true.

    Yet somehow for me to think men in general make better firefighters is offensive to delusional idiots that I fear you’re representing. The fact of the matter is, more men have the strength to carry you out of a burning building, and you do no one any service by demanding equal representation of genders in the field. Further, I think the idea that women are “scared” to compete with men is an even bigger insult to them than to suggest that they might be a little worse at certain types of thinking. (And men might be a little worse at other types of thing. Like language)

    We should cherish and capitalize on our differences instead of pretending they don’t exist and perverting nature to humor delusional idiots that get their feelings hurt easily.

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4270278/
    “Thus, we see advantages for females in the early primary-school years, when mathematics consists of computational knowledge and speed; little or no sex difference through the rest of the primary-school years; and then a male advantage when the mathematical concepts require more reasoning and are more spatial in nature, in the context of solving problems in geometry and calculus, subjects typically taught in the higher secondary-school grades”

    It is glaringly obvious that the left’s political agenda is biasing interpretations of science as it is that funding bias exists. You’re smarter than being part of it. What I commented hints at a different interpretation than you’re pretending, and I know you know what it is. Further ,obviously, none of the generalizations mean there aren’t exceptions, and giving examples of an exception is nonsense that proves nothing.

    Let merit reign.

    • Ryan,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I had actully read the the paper referred to in the ncbi ( which is only a very brief summary of the original paper). Virtually all papers on the subject state that whatever difference exists in math proficiency can disappear by either educational means or sociological (like creating an environment in which women are treated as equal or assuring an equal opportunity to win in competitive situations). There is good evidence that on average women are less adept in tests of spatial tasks, and that these are related to mathematical problem solving. However, and this is a big ‘however’, the difference is very small and can be totally wiped out by training in solving spatial problem. I am aware of dimorphism between male and female, not only in our species, but in most other. However, the evidence does not support the contention that math skills fall into this category. So in total, it seems to me that women are not inferior in mathematical skills. Rather, we (myself included), should really look seriously into our own implicit biases.

  2. I wish you’d do more articles on supplements or even drugs instead of political agendas. I have a friend with high blood pressure that I’ve been pushing to see a doctor for years. One of the drugs on my radar is Telmisartan. It’s interesting to me because it supposedly has neural protective effects on top of lowering blood pressure? She’s going to see a doctor soon because I pushed her into it (I even called the office and handed her the phone LOL) I’m going to send her with a note to the doctor of the things I know wrong with her health, and what I think in terms of what she might try.

    Do you think it’s a good choice for someone with high blood pressure? I can read the studies, but I don’t pretend to have the training to navigate the mess with proper judgment.

    • Ryan,
      Good suggestion, I will definitely consider it. In the meantime warn your friend that she is playing with fire. It is not for nothing that hypertension is dubbed as ‘the silent killer’. Any doctor could tell about cases when this killer strikes when you least expect it.

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