Monday, August 28, 2017

Take a memo...

I felt it was time to make a more detailed response to the James Damore (JD) memo and the increasingly long thread on my Facebook page. Please excuse the insane length of this posting (3x the original memo!) and its potentially repetitive nature; I wrote it over several sessions and wanted to address JD's entire memo and all the rebuttals properly.

For those who don't have time for 10,000 words, here is a TL;DR, or summary, as we used to call it ITDBABSP (in the days before acronyms became so popular):

1. There is credible evidence to support Damore's most controversial assertion that there are some fundamental differences between men and women, but I think he did himself no favours by making these such a core of his argument, when even he accepts they are not extreme, don't apply universally, and can be reduced through nurture and opportunity.

2. This whole episode raises wider concerns about the direction of much of Western society in terms of in-built bias to a particular ("progressive") way of thinking, which he highlighted as being a problem in Google, and had his point well proven by being fired for it.

3. A core reason for my having debated this so vociferously and for writing this long response is because this is a free speech issue. Even Damore's most contentious and unproven assertion is well within the bounds of reasonable discourse that can be taken apart in a grown-up manner by people who disagree. Efforts to simply silence him, smear him, and compare him to the extreme right are very distasteful.

4. I'm interested in genuine equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome. I get that there is a cascade effect of lack/bias of opportunity in society, ie girls don't get toys that guide them to engineering as kids, aren't encouraged to study it at uni, don't fancy applying to Google as it seems so bro-ey, or whatever. But forcing a 50-50 outcome despite this is not the right solution. Ensuring equal opportunity at each level is.

I think that covers about 90% of it. Now, here is my original posting, which linked to his WSJ op-ed, "Why I Was Fired By Google":
I've been following this story very carefully. Please read the full original version of Damore's document (not the Gizmodo redacted one) and its links to supporting evidence of some of his more contentious statements before passing comment. I'm not in agreement with every word but certainly most of it, and I definitely believe it's a cop-out of Google to fire him and most of his detractors to criticise him without properly rebutting his arguments, which to date I've not seen anyone do - just lots of repetitive knee-jerking and shrill virtue signalling.

What I'm going to do here is try to clarify, per the above, what I'm in agreement with, and what I'm not. It's unfortunate that - exactly as people have done with JD himself - many responses to my posting the above have been knee-jerk and shrill, even though I don't agree with much of what he has said (or how and perhaps even where he has said it). The message from one particular party has been clear - if you agree with ANY of it, you are a wicked, misogynist bigot, and woe betide you for even trying to have a discussion about the finer points.

As luck would have it, JD has been obliged to add a top-line response to his detractors, which neatly sums up my own position:
I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes. When addressing the gap in representation in the population, we need to look at population level differences in distributions. If we can't have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem. Psychological safety is built on mutual respect and acceptance, but unfortunately our culture of shaming and misrepresentation is disrespectful and unaccepting of anyone outside its echo chamber.

If you don't believe him or his motives, that's up to you, although having seen several interviews with him, I happen to think he is sincere, if not particularly brilliant in some regards. If you don't believe me or mine, this is the time to stop reading, and also please take the liberty of unfriending me now. I won't miss you. I'm used to being contrarian and outspoken, but I'm also used to being surrounded by intelligent, articulate people who may sincerely believe I am wrong and once in a while convince me of this. At the very least, they certainly temper my views. 

I actively seek to befriend and debate people with whom I disagree strongly, provided they are capable of reasonable, good-humoured dispute. Fortunately most of my friends have commented and debated in a civilised way, even though they may not agree entirely. This is the juncture at which I want to thank those of you who have disagreed respectfully and posted thoughtfully on the subject, especially where you have included links from credible sources that demonstrate a counterpoint to the basis of JD's arguments.


Firstly I think it is worth adding a little information on who JD is and what qualifies him to make the assertions he has, because he has been accused of writing a "screed" containing "pseudo-science". He seems to have been quite a child prodigy, a multiple youth chess champion, high-flying undergrad in molecular and cellular biology, and has a Masters from Harvard (PhD started but I guess he didn't have time to finish it until now!) in systems biology, as well has having done research at Princeton and MIT. So the guy is not a simpleton, has some background in biology, and knows a thing or two about research. I daresay he is more academically qualified than many of his detractors to discuss this particular topic; he is not a "pseudo-scientist".



Also it was raised by several people that he wrote and published this in a manner intended to provoke, but in fact it transpires that he had attended a diversity-related meeting within Google, and they had particularly asked for written responses. When his was ignored by the very people who had requested it, he put it on the internal blogging network of Google along with myriad other people's opinions, and from there it went viral, internally and then externally.

·         Background·         Google’s biases·         Possible non bias causes of the gender gap in techo    Personality differenceso    Men’s higher drive for status·         Non discriminatory ways to reduce the gender gap·         The harm of Google’s biases·         Why we’re blind·         Suggestions
  • The human sexes and races have exactly the same minds, with precisely identical distributions of traits, aptitudes, interests, and motivations; therefore, any inequalities of outcome in hiring and promotion must be due to systemic sexism and racism; 
  • The human sexes and races have such radically different minds, backgrounds, perspectives, and insights, that companies must increase their demographic diversity in order to be competitive; any lack of demographic diversity must be due to short-sighted management that favors groupthink.



Anyway, let's crack on with the substance. As a framework, he has opened with a summary set of points, which bear some fleshing out first:
●Google’s political bias has equated the freedom from offense with psychological safety, but shaming into silence is the antithesis of psychological safety. ●This silencing has created an ideological echo chamber where some ideas are too sacred to be honestly discussed. ●The lack of discussion fosters the most extreme and authoritarian elements of this ideology. ○ Extreme: all disparities in representation are due to oppression ○ Authoritarian: we should discriminate to correct for this oppression ●Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don't have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. ●Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

1. FREEDOM OF SPEECH VS FREEDOM FROM OFFENSE, PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY

For Google, read much of Western middle class society these days. I fear for our ability to have proper debate, with the advent of safe spaces, trigger warnings, virtue signalling, and its new politics including absurdities like intersectionality, which take well-meaning empathy between one group's experiences and identities and another to the most alarming extremes. 

2. THE ECHO CHAMBER

I believe that our over-reliance as sentient, sophisticated adults on "safe spaces" and not having to hear any opinion outside or own, is the grown-up equivalent of clapping our hands to our ears and shouting "lalalala I can't hear you". I remain incredulous that this is being indulged on college campuses, right in the heart of the formative years where we should be learning about open debate. There seems to be a direct correlation between this and a left-wing political leaning (we have charitably called this "progressive", but I believe it is in fact regressive).

3. EXTREME AND AUTHORITARIAN VS "NO PLATFORM"

My friends from university days in the UK will remember UJS fighting to preserve a "no platform" policy within NUS and on campus, meaning that whilst free speech was admirable in theory, those people beyond the pale should not be given a place to make hate speech and peddle Holocaust denial. I have had many debates with my Aussie friends around their free speech laws and the idea that sunlight is always the best disinfectant. I find myself quite torn on the principle because the practice is challenging - who decides what is or isn't outside the scope of reasonable debate (for example, how about climate change denial) and how do you guarantee that resources and time can always be found to argue with and defeat the extremists and combat their lies?

However, in the case of Google and most of the generally liberal, free, educated societies we are privileged to live in, the subject of what is causing gender disparity in engineering roles just cannot be outside that scope, provided it is done respectfully. JD never denies there is one, and doesn't even think we should do nothing about it. He is challenging how, where and why it is being corrected. I think that's wholly reasonable. 

As he points out, the core assumption at Google and among his (and my) detractors seems to be that all disparities are due to oppression (I prefer repression, which I think is a little more accurate in the Western world where women have theoretically equal rights, even if they are not entirely realised), and that these must be corrected through "positive discrimination". 

4. DIFFERENCES IN INHERENT TRAITS BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN

I think this is the main area where I differ somewhat from JD, but in the same way as nobody denies there are physiological differences between men and women (although increasingly there is a movement to allow people to legally oblige people like me, JD, and famously, Jordan Peterson, to deny the reality of their own chromosomes and call them something else), it does seem to make some logical sense that there may be indelibly hardwired biological differences  too. There is also a very interesting middle ground, covered by the field of behavioural epigenetics, which covers the possibility that nurture, especially in the formative years, actually changes nature.

That being said, I think the differences are probably fairly slight between the majority of men and women (even he doesn't say ALL) in the context of modern society, and certainly nothing that might render the latter insurmountably unsuitable for certain kinds of work. However, the outcome is the same, which is that we have a societal issue where disproportionately few women have the skills or desire to enter certain professions, and the environment of those jobs is less than sympathetic. 

I think it is way too flippant to simply say "well, this must be down to gender bias and a bro culture", and therefore to force-fit a given ratio or minimum of women in certain roles as a corrective. Whether or not there is a problem of nature, there is certainly one of nurture, and I believe strongly that changing our old-fashioned views on gender roles and stereotypes in raising and educating children is likely to correct both to a much larger extent than doing so on us as adults.

This may be very unfortunate, in that we could have something of a "lost generation" of women unable to fulfill their potential in the same way. 

5. DISCRIMINATION TO REACH EQUAL REPRESENTATION

On my Facebook wall there was a discussion about the experience of South Africa in terms of that the corrective post-apartheid was to remove many whites from jobs and university places and replace them with blacks. This did little to actually raise the standards of education or the performance of companies; in fact it was usually detrimental, exacerbated by "white flight". Whilst it might have been politically unpalatable to do so, true equality and a better shot at long-term success would have meant recruiting on merit, regardless of race, colour or creed, whilst investing heavily in expanding the number of university places and creating new jobs outside menial and manual labour, and working to fill the knowledge and skills gap created by apartheid in the first place.

It took a while but there are now mature, brave black political leaders in South Africa who recognise this, and cannot be accused of being racist or pro-apartheid for doing so. I would argue that the same logic applies to the gender gap. The post-apartheid system was an inheritor of one built by whites, for whites, and largely failed because the ANC sought to remove it entirely or (worse) populate it with its own black elites rather than bring blacks up to speed on how to participate as equals; it also required substantial work to accustom whites to the idea of sharing the system and to find their own incentives to do so. 

Similarly, perhaps we live in a post-masculine system that is an inheritor of one built by men, for men, but the answer is to work to evolve it rather than overthrow it, and to co-opt men to an agenda of gains for all, rather than treat things as zero-sum ie more women should be employed regardless of merit, inherently at the expense of men. However you argue the semantics, that is the reality of any corrective quota on gender split.

I imagine this must be extremely frustrating for the modern, educated woman to have to do, a hundred years after the Suffragettes etc, and I can only empathise and be supportive in my own way. But supporting purely artificial means of gaining equality is a superficial short-term solution that does not tackle the underlying causes (and may even exacerbate them). Thus they are a sure way to get a lot of us injured on the shards of a shattered glass ceiling.




Next I'd like to look at some of JD's sources and core arguments. I've used the same section headers as him for ease of reference:


1. BACKGROUND

Here, he explains that people have good intentions but everyone has unconscious biases, and that he believes Google is unwilling to discuss these biases. This is all the more ironic because to a large extent, their diversity policy is predicated on correcting the presumed unconscious biases of the recruitment process and ongoing management. Questioning this presumption and the validity of its role in decision-making is verboten.

In the context of the company, and an increasing number of college campuses and entire cities and neighbourhoods, what this means is that there is a perfectly conscious bias against anyone not aligned to their thinking.

This has spawned an entire culture and language of political correctness, predicated on an assumption that everyone is capable of "micro-aggression" that must be curbed, whites and especially male ones must "check their privilege", the value and validity of an opinion no longer stands on his own but is tempered or enhanced by the background of the person stating it (a form of positive discrimination I find completely patronising), the notion of "intersectionality" allows various groups who feel downtrodden to appropriate and align the experience of other groups along particular axes (Black Lives Matter and the Palestinians is one that springs to mind), all these groups require "safe spaces" and to be given "trigger warnings" as a shelter from potentially troubling experiences or discourse, and so on.

The reaction to this is the language to describe them by those of us who believe in a more rational approach, and who (backed by the research of clinical psychologists) believe that speech itself is not violence, and that hearing things you don't like is part of the experience of education and growth. This leads to some creative epithets - among them snowflakes, virtue-signalling, and SJWs. Of course, because some of this language has been appropriated by parts of the right, now using such terms is deemed to mean alignment with conservatives - or worse.

The irony of JD's firing and the opprobrium he has received, is that it demonstrates his point entirely - that there is a systematic bias against anyone not behaving according to what amounts to a progressive dogma. This polarising approach is more of an attack on the natural centrists than it is on the right, and that's why I'm wading in - I want to shore up the middle ground. JD doesn't in fact come across as anything other than a libertarian, fairly neutral thinker, for any dispassionate reader of his actual words.

2. GOOGLE'S BIASES

This is the one area which I really struggle to find any decent research for, outside a single (but pretty credible) group who authored Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), which touches on quite a lot of this - and plenty of really interesting other stuff. 

JD's assertions ring true but I fear that's because they are the received wisdom of both sides in justifying themselves, ie our confirmation biases push us to want to see it this way, and that much like JD, as a self-proclaimed centrist, I identify my own characteristics as being balanced between the two. Perhaps everyone interprets this chart to put themselves at where they determine to be the correct fulcrum (not necessarily the middle!). You might enjoy MFT's set of self-administered tests to find out where you stand.

Anyway I think it's a rather generalised position, which makes it problematic as a fundamental foundation of the rest of his argument.

Another little snippet that has been used frequently to try and shut down debate and lump JD and his supporters with Charlottesville-esque fascists is this clever-sounding quote:
Watching tech insist on arguing on both sides of sexism bias with itself is fascinating. Only a racist would want to argue on both sides of racism. The rest of us just stand there horrified.
The trouble is that the parallel is just not there - whilst the opposite of racism is anti-racism, which we should all agree with, the opposite of bias against women is bias for women, but many of us quite reasonably believe in working towards that not being necessary either. 

In this Quillette article by four different specialists with relevant experience in the field, there is a pithy quote that covers a much more critical paradox:

The author points out that most people on the so-called pro-diversity side of the spectrum want to have their cake and eat it by using both of these arguments, even though they inherently contradict. It's worth a read.

3. NON-BIAS CAUSES OF GENDER GAP

This focuses on gender differences and the apparent male characteristic of the higher drive for status. I simply fail to understand the knee-jerk reaction of saying there are no differences - quite palpably there are and there is a rich body of credible research to support this - here is just one article (written by a woman!) covering a lot of the ground. JD points out with a neat graph that these differences are generally slight, there is huge overlap, nature can largely be overcome by nurture, and tendencies are not the same as abilities.

Furthermore, there has been a hostile reaction to JD's characterisation of women as being  on average more neurotic than men, but this is in fact the term used by clinical psychologists, which has become rather exaggerated and simplified in common parlance into something more negative, and there is no shortage of decent evidence to support his claim. Again, this does not make all women totally unsuitable for swathes of tasks, and he never implied it did.

I also think it's very easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the gender gap only goes one way in terms of the benefits. It seems clear to me that if the literature JD has used to support his argument is right, then why on earth would women want to get to an even playing field in a "man's world"? They appear to have a much healthier grasp of work-life balance and the ability to get along with other people. 

And if the literature is wrong, and there are no biological or nurture differences, then the only plausible explanation left is that the vast majority of men are actively working to maintain the historical biases against women, which is really quite insulting. One of Ania's most unpleasant barbs against me on my original Facebook thread was this:

Michael, about you though, I noticed a pattern of interest in arguments where women must extra-prove their validity and where men have every right to disparage women and women have to defend themselves... And where you consistently see nothing wrong with that :)
Could it be that I believe everyone should equally have to prove the validity of their arguments, and that I just happen to extra-disagree with the kind of viewpoint that seems to turn feminism into the female version of misogyny and chauvinism? 

I don't believe men are superior to women, and therefore I don't believe that competent women on a level playing field should be given any extra allowances above men. But I do believe we should discuss whether the playing field is genuinely level, which also includes looking at nature, nurture and societal issues that may influence that playing field and who gets to be on it. 

I think this is about as pro-women as I can be without emasculating myself, and I can tell you that I have had many private messages and discussions with women who entirely support (and feel supported by) my stance on this. I think the definition of feminism has been appropriated by fairly radical people to a point where it's hard for many men to be feminist any more. It should be the neutral position ie I am pro-equality, in the same way as I wish people could be Zionist and pro-Palestinian at the same time, rather than seeing it as zero-sum and a matter of choosing sides based on wider political alignments. 

Much of JD's wording is clumsy because he has inadequately expressed the fundamental concern that feminism, and what he determines as more female-orientated characteristics, should not be the sole domain of the left. As a result, he lays himself open to attack because it looks at a glance like he is saying Google is left-wing and pro-female, and should allow right-wing and therefore anti-female voices to be heard - hence the claim that it's an "anti-diversity screed". 

That's not what the document actually says once read properly - in fact he is trying to credit women (and everyone, minority or otherwise) with the ability to make up their own minds where they stand, be competent enough to get and do the job, and not to feel like they need to rig the system to be empowered.

The sad thing is I really thought highly of Ania until this moment, and my postings on other articles she has shared to do with inherent bias in the tech industry were intended to help strengthen her arguments and show genuine support, because she is right, not because she is female

This distinction is exactly why I fear the PC culture that has made the medium ("as a [FILL IN THE OPPRESSED IDENTIFIER OF THE DAY HERE]...") more important than the message.

I generally don't want to get into a slanging match with Ania but as she has made particularly unpleasant claims about me and some of my friends (TL;DR - misogynist porn-addicted neo-Nazis who only have our jobs and better pay because we keep women down), I thought she might like to watch this video clip by Jordan Peterson on what he did about his mischaracterisation as a member of the alt-right. He sums up exactly how I feel and indeed where I sit on the political spectrum myself.

4. REDUCING THE GENDER GAP

JD makes sensible suggestions that we play to our strengths. There is only one small thing I feel uncomfortable with, but I don't know about the specific programme or its methods, so he may still have a valid point. This is where he mentions Google's efforts to get more women into coding - I think we have to assume they are not being coerced or tricked into it on the grounds that it's going to lead to something beyond coding. It could well be that those women just want to learn coding!

Here is a decent article from Bloomberg by a woman who started her career in IT, and explains a little more about the realities of the male-dominated atmosphere, as well as largely supporting JD's underlying arguments - fundamentally she questions why on earth women would want to bother with engineering, not because of a lack of skills, glass ceilings or awful experiences at the hands of men in the industry. 

Moreover it's because this profession requires an overdeveloped interest in things over people, and the kind of person who likes engineering that much is, well, a neb. And she didn't want to be stuck with them. She handily also agrees with my main issue with JD's style:
James Damore should probably have used fewer words with high negative emotional indices, when more neutral ones were available.
In general, JD is really quite pro-Google in this section, and I think it demonstrates a lot about his intent to foment genuine debate within and in support of the company.

5. THE HARM OF GOOGLE'S BIASES

Here, he raises some serious points which question the legal basis of Google's policies and actions. I don't know enough about American law to comment on the legality of it all, but on a practical level, I get his concerns.

Let's look at this through two examples:

A. A job posting at Google requires you to hit a score of 85+, and that it will make a marginal difference to the ability to deliver successfully, however much you score over that level. Now imagine the team is completely white and male, and you have 2 candidates who score over 80 - another white man who gets a 90, and a black woman who gets an 80. 

She is almost competent for the job, so are there grounds for Google to hire her instead of the already competent white male, and spend the time and resources to bring her up to an 85+, purely because she is black and female? This could be seen as a triple discrimination: hiring a candidate below the determined competence threshold purely on identity (sorry, I mean diversity!) grounds, denying a white man a job he was more qualified for because he has the wrong identity (if you don't feel uncomfortable thinking about that consequence, I worry), and funnelling internal resources towards one employee over another based on background. 

I think these are quite reasonable concerns for an employee to bring up, without being accused of sexism or racism - they are their own form of bias, which should only be carried out if they are within the bounds of the law, done with the prior knowledge and consent of the other employees and potential recruits who are directly affected by this process, and as a public company, demonstrably in the financial interests of the shareholders.

B. A job posting at Google requires you to hit a score of 80+, and that it will make a marginal difference to the ability to deliver successfully, however much you score over that level. Now imagine the team is completely white and male, and you have 2 candidates who score over 80 - another white man who gets a 90, and a black woman who gets an 85. 

She is perfectly competent for the job, so assuming all else is equal, is it acceptable to JD to hire her instead of the white man, in the name of diversity? Prima facie there is no downside to Google to do so, and I imagine this is exactly what they do. I think this is much closer to the kind of thing that really is "positive discrimination", and if done right, may well add value in a variety of ways to a company and team.

But in reality, there are further factors to consider; what JD is criticising is the assumption that diversity is a moral good that overrides other motivations. What if it were the case that the team ran most efficiently because of the similarities between its members? In other words, what if the reason why it seemed okay for anyone scoring over 80 to be recruited was because actually, having a homogenous team was actually teasing out better performance? 

These are obviously totally hypothetical examples, but I think JD's view is that Google should have been prepared to have the discussion and justify its case on grounds other than emotion or some sense of morality. It seems an inaccurate reflection of his paper to assume he means there should be NO moral decision-making by Google or other companies, but he IS challenging that the moral factor should be the overriding one and that nothing else should even be calculated and considered, both as a matter of policy, and at the point of implementation.

6. WHY WE'RE BLIND

This section looks at first glance to be quite polemical but it's also the most heavily sourced. Instinctively his findings seemed about right to me, albeit very generalised, so I went down the rabbit-hole of his sources. It turned out that his confirmation bias resource was published in the pretty liberal New Yorker, quoting the same Jonathan Haidt that many of JD's detractors have tried to wield against him! It has myriad further links to support the general claim about the preponderance of liberals in the social sciences etc, and is well worth a read. 

Given that there seems to be consensus about this, albeit for sometimes hilariously divergent reasons (liberals just want to be in those positions more than conservatives, liberals are smarter, the agenda of the social sciences is inherently about liberal issues etc), surely the diversity agenda should insist on polling for political opinion and aiming for a more equitable distribution of job opportunities?! Especially given that we know there are no biological differences between liberals and conservatives, apart from the latter being evil two-headed monsters of course. 

I thought there were some interesting points raised in this blog posting he linked to, about men's issues in modern society, and how to raise and handle them without it being anti-women, in the same way as one would hope that women are doing the same thing through feminism, without being anti-men. The title of the posting of course gives away that the authors' experience is precisely that the modern feminist movement has been appropriated to such an extent that there is little room in it for most men, and this is a tragic missed opportunity for all of us. Warning: that posting is even longer than this one!


7. SUGGESTIONS

I'll cover these one by one:

● De-moralize diversity.
I agree with this - how do you decide who has the power to draw lines, and on what basis, unless the diversity agenda is based on something much more evidence-driven? And I do think it can be - if not in a data-led company like Google of all places, then where?

● Stop alienating conservatives.
I think this was probably what should have been his core argument, and I think it would have been much more compelling to stick to this than to bring up the gender issue front and centre, if at all. Sometimes you have to shoot for more attainable victories.

● Confront Google’s biases.
Does Google have this information on its staff? Should they? Anecdotally (for JD and in my own experience of the Bay Area and most of the tech world) it appears to be true that there is an overwhelming tendency towards liberals over conservatives, and a stifling of the space to share the viewpoints of the latter.

● Stop restricting programs and classes to certain genders or races.
I agree with this. You only have to imagine this going the other way for it to be quite problematic. There are plenty of ways to subtly achieve the desired outcome of the mix of a programme or class without simply attaching labels. 

● Have an open and honest discussion about the costs and benefits of our diversity
programs.
He uses my favourite argument here: "Discriminating just to increase the representation of women in tech is as misguided and biased as mandating increases for women’s representation in the homeless, work-related and violent deaths, prisons, and school dropouts." In general, as a public company, Google should be obliged by their shareholders to have done a cost-benefit analysis on anything that goes beyond a simple legal requirement and uses a serious level of company resource. 

● Focus on psychological safety, not just race/gender diversity.
Hard to argue with this one in an era of ever-growing workplace stress for a whole variety of reasons.

● De-emphasize empathy.
This isn't as brutish as it sounds - he isn't actually saying not to empathise, he's saying that in the end companies should make dispassionate decisions, but I think they sure as hell need to explain and deliver them with more empathy. They hardly showed that courtesy in how they fired him!

● Prioritize intention.
I couldn't agree more on the subject of microaggression, an area which makes me not wish to live or work in any environment where this kind of PC claptrap is taken seriously.

● Be open about the science of human nature.
Agreed, in balance with recognition of social construction and discrimination where it  genuinely exists.

● Reconsider making Unconscious Bias training mandatory for promo committees.
There are actually some decent studies debunking a lot of the idea that unconscious bias leads to any particular level of conscious and impactful prejudice. I agree that there is a real danger of overcorrection. I also note that he endorses some of the training methods, so he is not saying to do away with it all completely.

Here follows my take on some of the rebuttal articles and arguments I received from various friends. For ease of reference, here are the titles and links:



1. HBR ARTICLE (HT: LAUREN HOFFMAN)

This contains some interesting points, some disappointingly poor straw men, and some statements which I feel actually support JD's arguments. 

The article focuses on these three questions: 
Are there gender differences in outcomes achieved by men and women? If so, is there evidence that they are due to biological differences? Is there stronger evidence that they are due to bias?
JD agrees on the first one - yes, there clearly are. On the second, he says they may be in part due to this. On the third, I don't think he is denying bias exists, but he is challenging that it is the only factor, and what to do about it.

The primary source for the author's scientific claims (and implicit rebuttal) is Janet Hyde, a developmental psychologist who looked at 46 meta-analyses (ie each containing many underlying studies) over a 20 year period, which showed little to no difference in many areas, and allowed her develop her hypothesis about gender similarities. However:
The only large differences she found related to girls being better than boys in spelling and language, and testing higher than boys on the personality variable of agreeableness/tendermindedness; boys tested higher than girls on motor performance, certain measures of sexuality (masturbation, casual attitudes about sex), and aggression. So there are some gender differences, but most are small to nonexistent. [my emphasis]

This last statement is a pretty big denial of her own evidence. How on earth can the large differences highlighted in the first line be small to non-existent a sentence later?! I'm sorry but this smacks of someone coming to the matter with a huge agenda to predetermine the outcome. I don't think JD was arguing that ALL men and women differ on ALL counts either, merely that MANY differ and on MANY counts, and that this merits debate about how to take this into account in the workplace.

Where the HBR article is strongest, and I very much agree with this, is in the middle part, arguing about nature vs nurture, and that workplaces and societies are evolving very rapidly in the right direction. I think there is an unfair assumption that JD is somehow trying to argue against this movement, and maintain the tech community as a bastion of male dominance. I don't read it that way, and certainly that is not my view - I think a good company or employer has already "arrived" in terms of its willingness to recruit across gender lines.

The HBR article goes on to quote some work that suggests companies which believe and hold themselves out to be meritocracies are ultimately the least meritocratic; I am sure this may be true for some, but I find this blanket statement an affront to those who really are making strides in terms of recruiting on merit, and also not an entirely accurate reflection of the actual research it quotes.

Furthermore, the article predicates its arguments almost entirely on this particular meta-analysis (implicitly suggesting that such an approach must be definitive), in which case this meta-analysis of 426 studies with 76,000 participants is rather inconvenient, because it concludes that the association between unconscious bias and actually acting in a prejudicial manner on that bias is much weaker than previously assumed.

Here is the closing statement:
In his memo, Damore wrote, “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism,” and that we should assume “people have good intentions.” But the gender gap in the workforce can be explained by sexism, just as the race gap can be explained by racism. When workplace practices aim to support underrepresented groups, that does not mean they are unfairly biased against overrepresented groups. It just means that we need more than good intentions to change biased behavior.
Here is the problem though: whilst gender gaps may imply sexism, that is not all they may imply, just as the entire race gap cannot be explained purely by racism. I find any attempt to do so on the latter to be an affront to my own heritage! If racism is the only reason why certain groups are relative under-performers, what are we to make of those groups who considerably over-perform? Did they suffer insufficient racism, or are they in fact in some way the most racist of all to achieve such success?! 

The bottom line is that individuals have agency, and so do entire communities, especially over any period of time and living in the free world, where there is considerable opportunity, even if it may be relatively less than the average white Christian male has. This is not to say that every grouping must be left to stand or fall on their own; I believe that there is scope to provide extra support to correct historical wrongs by a society that have set back certain groups so far that they cannot close the poverty/culture/education/opportunity gap entirely under their own steam, African-Americans being the obvious example. But this needs to be done by addressing root causes, not by artificially promoting people based on ethnicity or skin colour (see the South Africa argument above).

In other words, women have plenty of agency as individuals and as a collective. Women themselves claiming they have little or none is to assume of themselves that they need a lower threshold to succeed than men. In this day and age, the difference between either sex in any modern country, whilst it may still exist in some categories, is still at a historical low, and is no real barrier to any ambition a woman may have. We may not have enough of them, but we do have female CEOs, heads of state, judges, venture capitalists etc, and we even have female referees in mens' sport, and occasionally even female participants.

It has become the way of the world in the past few years for many groups to use particularly crude methods to have its voice heard and its demands met; in turn, they are seeking often short-term and clumsy solutions (here I am thinking about many of the policies and most supporters of Corbyn, Trump, Brexit and Bibi to name but a few). 

This spreads across the political spectrum, and I find it increasingly disturbing that we seek this new kind of tribalism - it is perhaps a replacement for religion, community and the nuclear family - but an unworthy one. I rather hope that most women (and especially not my friends) do not seek to make a similarly "them and us" political movement to achieve goals that may end up being counterproductive in the long run. I daresay it also does a disservice to other interest groups who are genuinely downtrodden and much further away from achieving the societal equity they deserve, by pulling attention and resources away from them and creating an often inaccurate parity between their claims.

As the author of the HBR article concludes herself:
We all want systems that are fair. But we need to consider how to make them fair for everyone.
Making them fair for women should not involve making them less fair for men. I think there is a subtle issue of how to define "fair" and how to correct imbalances in practice. 


2. VOX ARTICLE (HT: ALEXANDRA BENJAMIN)

I think this one raises a very interesting question, about how many women, especially in tech and male-dominated professions (Ania being an absolutely prime example), find or feel themselves under a constant deluge of scepticism and challenges to legitimacy, and about the "divide and conquer" approach of some men towards women. 

I think these issues are what triggered the visceral reaction I got from Ania for daring to repost JD with anything other than total opposition to what he wrote.

As a bloke, it's obviously impossible for me to fully comprehend what it must feel like, but as my friends who rallied round to defend me from Ania have pointed out, I'm generally sceptical and interested in challenging the legitimacy of any opinion, regardless of its source. 

In most situations, "go easy on her, she's a chick" would rightly be considered a pretty awful thing to say. Equally the opposite is true, but that's what she accused me of - going extra tough on her just because she's a woman, rather than because I disagree on some things. My reaction in these circumstances is to double down, because that's what I do to everyone who resorts to cheap barbs rather than actually trying to have a reasoned debate. For reference, see absolutely everyone else who disagreed with me on that entire thread.

I'd like to point out that I particularly felt insulted by her rounding on be because I had gone out of my way to read her previous postings on the issue of women in tech, and to be supportive of most of her positions. In some cases, I felt that she hadn't made the best argument or presented the strongest evidence for her claims, and I said so. That was not done to belittle her or even disagree; quite the opposite. I'm actually surprised I wasn't accused of patronising or mansplaining her! Now, she has decided to use this against me on my own Facebook wall in a string of easily misconstrued  and highly critical comments.

Anyway, back to the article. I agree that a lot of the wording of JD's memo around averages left too much room for misinterpretation, and I also get that Google's own diversity statistics are currently not what you would have assumed from reading the memo, ie women are still enormously under-represented in all parts of the company, despite the initiatives he is criticising. The kind of diversity-orientated recruitment process that I prefer (and I suspect, as mentioned, that JD would accept) is hinted at here - simply spend more time recruiting on college campuses where efforts have already been made to get a 50-50 split earlier in the cycle.

I thought the short section on race was a bit of a cheap shot - he didn't say biological differences were the only reason for the male:female ratio, and actually there is a solid body of research to suggest that there are some tendencies of people from different ethnic backgrounds to excel or be deficient in different areas, again for reasons of both nature and nurture - again, on average these may be slight, but there are outliers which matter and cannot be entirely explained away by positive or negative biases or experiences. That's not to say the nature cannot be overcome and in any case the hard-coded nature of ethnic groups themselves is changing rapidly as they evolve and intermix, and (largely/hopefully) rise up the socio-economic ladder. Anyway, this is a sensitive topic best left for another day.

The conclusion, however, is really excellent - and actually the basis on which I had been agreeing with and supporting Ania's much-needed exposés on the bro culture in tech in the first place:
Regardless of whether biological differences exist, there is no shortage of glaring evidence, in individual stories and in scientific studies, that women in tech experience bias and a general lack of a welcoming environment, as do underrepresented minorities. Until these problems are resolved, our focus should be on remedying that injustice. 
This comes back to my main critique of JD's memo, which is that nurture and society are as important as possibly innate characteristics in determining outcomes, easier to adapt, and we should find a balance in the way we discuss that and work out solutions.


3. PLOS ARTICLE (HT: DAVID COOPER)

I think this is a very interesting piece. My main concern with Damore's manifesto was that it was too vague or general about many of the issues, which this article has clarified - Damore made sweeping statements which had a kernel of truth and a basis of debate about them, but his phrasing made it easy for his detractors to ignore the entire message. 

I don't think there is much to be gained by this author or others making subjective remarks about what they think of Damore's general demeanour; I feel even a more nuanced and articulate version of what he wrote might have garnered similar opprobrium and his sacking, because (and this is why I found it interesting and important) this kind of thinking and debate has become very un-PC. I'm nervous of anything that shuts down reasonable debate, and too much of the reaction he has had (and I have had just for reposting him with a mildly favourable comment) has been about doing just that. 

Once again I find that the conclusion of the article actually supports JD more than argues against him:

Scientists, especially biological and evolutionary scientists, cannot allow the ignorant and erroneous misuse of “biology” as a tool to control and repress. We have seen the effects of this too many times in our own society and in many others. At the same time, we cannot shut down debates and discussions about difference and similarities…these are needed now more than ever. What we can do is participate, offer knowledge, data and insight from scientific investigations to correct errors, to reject lies, and to provide access to understanding everywhere we can.


In fact, let’s heed Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s suggestion that society “eliminate structural biases in education, health care, housing, and salaries that favor white men and see if we [women and everyone else] fail. Run the experiment. Be a scientist about it.” This is science worth trying.

I think JD is arguing that the repressive and controlling misuse of "biology" is the insistence on there being no difference (whether through nature or nurture) between men and women. Many of his critics have shut down debate and discussion on these issues, and this memo was a direct result of that happening within Google.

I'm 100% in agreement with the need to eliminate structural biases that favour any one group against another, and I suspect so is JD. His point is that there is in fact an intent to create a structural bias against (I assume) white, non-leftist men within Google - I'm surprised not to have seen a solid refutation of this point. I'd actually highlight something he didn't raise, which is that there is an overwhelming disproportion of Asians within Google - they are the first generation to be the beneficiaries of the removal of structural biases in their parts of society, and that's a positive outcome based on merit.


4. MEDIUM ARTICLE(HAT TIP: ANIA HOFFMAN)

To be honest, I saw the guy's name and picture, figured he was an Israeli living in Silicon Valley, made a guess that he was a Meretz-supporting ex-8200nik who struggled morally with his army service but still did it, was anti-capitalist but still co-founded a start-up with other tent-protesting, Bibi-hating, V15-supporting hirsute geeks, loathed much of what America stood for but still took the money and the move when Google came a-calling, and wondered if I had ever heard him playing guitar to horny Taglit girls on a street corner in Florentin. Now that's how you stereotype someone properly, JD!

Well, I was somewhat wrong - Israeli family background but no trace of him having lived in Israel or served in the IDF at all, and certainly no evidence of guitar-playing or any success with Taglit girls.

Firstly I indulged myself by clicking on the link he provided to explain why he left Google himself. Props to Zunger for this explanation of virtue-signalling, with of course no sense of irony in that the publication of his paper is a prime example:
I increasingly believe that Maslow missed something very important: that even below physical survival, there is a deeper need for social acceptance, and it manifests in all of the ways that people would rather die than live.

Having read that quote, I couldn't help thinking of South Park's episode about PC Principal and his bros who are so pro-female rights that they get consent slips signed by women before they "get some puss" (their words, not mine).

Back to his incredible effort to dismantle JD's arguments. Handily he does so on 3 bases:
(1) Despite speaking very authoritatively, the author does not appear to understand gender.(2) Perhaps more interestingly, the author does not appear to understand engineering.(3) And most seriously, the author does not appear to understand the consequences of what he wrote, either for others or himself.

Let's see how he did. On the first point, he simply says JD is utterly incorrect, refuses to provide any evidence for this, and highlights how he has no background whatsoever in biology, sociology or psychology. In other words, his opening gambit is to point out he is less qualified or well-read than JD.

On the second point, he makes some valid points about how companies, systems and products work, but says very little about the actual engineering, as well as selectively quoting JD's own sources (oh, motivated reasoning - see the Economist article below!) to show how women are more likely to have or develop great skills that complement any actual engineering prowess, which makes them even more suitable for the role than men. 

Well, yes - but in such a case, someone still has to do the coding, and Zunger has failed to refute the suggestion that - whether nature or nurture - men are (at least currently) more likely to want to do it, study it, and be good at it. I think JD is arguing that surely Google should just recruit honestly, on the basis that the differences between men and women are what it seeks, rather than hiding behind the PC position that everyone is just the same and therefore there must be the right quota of various people lest we allow our biases to come through.

His third point is much closer to a screed than anything JD said. I could barely get through it. There was an implicit endorsement of workplace violence, there was a sweeping assumption to speak on behalf of all women, and there was the classic overarching argument that this guy's right to an opinion should be suppressed in the name of everyone else's right not to hear it. 

But don't worry, because he provided a link to his explanation of the paradox of tolerance. As ever, I struggle with the issue of who gets to determine whose speech is beyond the pale, and really I remain shocked at anyone who finds JD's memo as deeply offensive as the material of neo-Nazis (or the little-mentioned Communists, the largest mass-murderers of history).


5. RECODE ARTICLE(HAT TIP: ANIA HOFFMAN)

This one has some real value, in that it specifically unpicks the actual core research around which JD has built his thesis. In particular, the Baron Cohen paper does sound quite shaky. And indeed, this is the area that immediately jumped out to me as a weakness in JD's argument, as well as far too much of a core focus of his memo.

I also think many of the points raised around how gender roles are becoming more fluid in society, and that this is proving to be quite a healthy thing, are very interesting. However, the observation has been made that the outcome of this is that business and political leadership might "over-correct" and become too malleable to make tough decisions when necessary. There is a solid argument that Trump is the poster-child of a backlash against this. A bit of a tangent that needs its own posting, I think.


6. THE ECONOMIST ARTICLE (HT: DAVID COHEN)

I've left this one until last because it is by far the most effective rebuttal of many of JD's arguments I've seen this entire time. However, it does this by often wilfully misinterpreting his intent to make a more dramatic conclusion, and it's unbelievably patronising for a number of reasons.

For example, it makes the sweeping accusation that JD is using "motivated reasoning", even snowflakesplaining what it is, although JD himself uses the expression to describe in an even-handed manner how both the left and right use it to fortify their own arguments, and posits that as Google is positioned to the ideological left, it is using motivated reasoning in its diversity decision-making, and this is clouding its ability to do it in a fairer and more productive manner.

Additionally, there are eight core flaws that this article claims to see in JD's position, which I will respond to briefly:

1. Yes, there are gender differences, and yes, you point out that the averages are similar between men and women, but you conveniently ignore that at the tail of normal distribution in your chart, ie the upper echelons of Google/society, the outcome is that the gender bias is most extreme.

This is a very interesting point, and one which relates to my argument that the issue starts long before recruiting into Google. We have to do vastly better from childhood to university, in shaping society to grant equality of opportunity to men and women alike. What I question is why any individual private company is expected to moralise on this subject and try to correct for it without entertaining a proper debate about how and why.

2. You infer that there are differences in men’s and women’s ability to code, for which there is no evidence.

I just don't think he meant to infer this, at least not on an individual basis. On an average basis, of course one cannot argue that men are better than women, but they are certainly as a group more likely to proficient and prodigious than women purely because more of them study it and pursue careers in it. Even some of the counter-arguments to JD from female engineers have pointed out that a vast percentage of one's time in a team at a place like Google is spent doing things other than actual coding, tasks for which women may - according to JD's own conclusions! - be more suited than men. Are they implying that women are therefore not as good at coding but make up for it in other ways? I hardly think anyone wants to accuse them of that.

3. You ignore many other gender differences, basing your argument only on a few that you think support your conclusion. 

How long did this document need to be?! JD simply is not arguing against women being good enough coders. He's just arguing that there may be certain traits (whether nature or nurture) that predicate it to be a more male-dominated profession. So yes, he picked the differences that support this. 

4. You’re ignoring everything else that could explain the gender gap. 

Er, he is arguing that as it stands, the entire diversity policy is predicated on ONE explanation alone, which is that women are only not equally represented because of gender bias. He is the one who is trying to expand the rationale for the gender gap, and try to resolve it.

5. The gender differences you cite differ between countries and over time. 

True but I think he does specify that he is talking about the USA and Google's Mountain View office. In any case, there is fascinating research showing that there is surprisingly little difference in the end, after years of trying to socially engineer things, in the number of women represented in STEM jobs in Scandinavian countries (or in fact the other way round - men represented in jobs like nursing or teaching).

6. You don’t seem to understand what makes a great software engineer. 

The Economist posits (they are by the way probably right about this in principle) that a great software engineer at Google needs a whole bunch of non-technical skills these days, for example to do with leadership and project management. However, I don't see much evidence that JD disputes this, but neither he nor the Economist has adequately expanded on what they think it takes on a technical level. I don't think JD believes that most women are inherently unsuited to the role, regardless of training, but that most men are inherently more suited to it, especially given the advantages of nurture, as actually argued by the Economist. 

7. You clearly don’t understand our company, and so fail to understand what we are trying to do when we hire. 

I think he is directly criticising what he understands Google to be. He is actually potentially supportive of what they are trying to do with their hiring process, he is concerned about how and why they are doing it, as he thinks it isn't going to genuinely achieve its purpose as it is.

8. Even if you are right that more men than women are well-suited to the job of software engineer at Google, you are wrong that taking steps to recruit more women is inherently unfair to men.

This is a contradictory argument. Setting aside that I don't think he is saying this either at Google or in general, if the Economist or anyone else actually believed this, it would be unfair to men if they were on the whole more competent than women, for this competence to count for less purely because their chromosomes are XY rather than XX. Again I don't believe JD is saying it's necessarily wrong to try and recruit more women, just that it's wrong to do it on the current basis. An example of how to recruit more women in a completely fair way would be for Google to particularly focus their recruitment process on universities like Carnegie-Mellon, where (hat tip David Cooper again) huge efforts have been made to make the intake of their computer sciences and engineering courses much more equal between the genders. Assuming the equal distribution of performance between the sexes, a recruitment drive from this pool should automatically be better-balanced.


MY CONCLUSIONS



Anyway, I hope this lengthy posting has gone some way to helping unpick this debate a bit. In conclusion, having taken the opportunity to work this through and read very widely on the subject, I basically stand by my original posting - I think there is validity in discussing everything he is bringing up, even if he doesn't always do it in the best way, and even though I may disagree with the validity of some of his research, or parts of his conclusion. 

The best way to discredit parts of his memo that you disagree with (or really are just plain wrong) is to have the debate, not to fire him and silence all dissenters. I see no reason to reject the whole just because parts may be somewhat inaccurate or woefully written, and I absolutely abhor attempts to shut him (or me) down for that or any other reason.

I think the whole thing could have been written in a more nuanced way that might have kept more of the centre ground onside. For example, even in writing this conclusion, I was trying to find the words to describe how my position was further to the left than his on the nature vs nurture question, and I realised it probably wasn't - it's just that he articulated his views and the supporting evidence so badly that he appeared to be to the right of me.

One of the other messages that has popped up in the better rebuttals of JD's memo is that there is plenty of scope for the typical man to learn what are considered to be typical female characteristics, for example of empathy and agreeability. I think this is a very valid observation, but here's the irony - my closest male friends, many of whom came to defend me and were themselves attacked by Ania, are the ones I've worked hardest with to develop those characteristics and be less macho. This doesn't mean we are doing it wrong though - the opposite - I suspect that precisely because we are all trying to engage in this kind of introspective, we are the ones prepared to debate and be outspoken, whilst so many other men are either willing to subjugate themselves to the PC culture, don't want or know enough to engage in the argument because of similar fatigue to that mentioned in the Recode article, or have already dismissed the whole thing as just another bunch of neurotic shrews sounding off.

My own motivation, as I keep insisting, is that I want to see a meritocratic society where we correct for potential biases more at the root than at the fruit. Once again, if you've got this far and you're currently grinding your teeth and wondering how I'm still a woman-hating, porn-depraved neo-Nazi, now is the time to unfriend me. It's been fun.

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