Culture and Society

Thoughts on the Google Memo

There’s a growing energy around the idea of diversity intolerance. A collective snap back, if you will, that our insistence on inclusion and political correctness is creating its own sense of intolerance—intolerance of diverse opinions. It’s a perspective to explore, I think. Because it’s clear that the level of resentment towards political correctness in many circles has driven us to a flavor of political discourse that’s not yielding particularly effective outcomes for governance. So, the notion of diversity intolerance is something to reflect on. Even debate. 

As for the memo and the resulting firing of the Google engineer that authored it, I’m sorry to say, this ain’t that. You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t dive head first into the alt-right v Silicon Valley mudslinging that’s going on. But, after fifteen years in the military prior to my transition into the California tech world, I’ve seen this movie one too many times. And I know how it ends.

The message that starts it usually begins with a proclamation that this is all for the greater good. Which is usually true in the eyes of the messenger. Then it raises some real, honest grievances about the processes of inclusion that are pretty hard to refute. Then comes the discussion about human nature. And then the heart felt appeal that this is in fact not about excluding a group, but protecting them, in some way, from a life they simply weren’t cut out for. It then concludes with a challenge for us to all be honest with ourselves about what’s really going on here before we do harm to something bigger than ourselves.

Somewhere, in the distance, you can almost hear Barry Goldwater’s 1964 anti-Civil Rights campaign slogan whistling in the wind. “In your heart, you know he’s right.”

In 1979, Jim Webb wrote the article Women Can’t Fight for the Washingtonian. It was, in a sense, the military version of the same argument in the Google memo. It was aimed at women attending service academies. And it was delivered by a decorated war hero. As a vet, and an Annapolis grad, Jim Webb was one of my heroes. This year, nearly 40 years after he wrote that article, Webb was selected to become a Distinguished Graduate of our school. Before it happened though, the women graduates rose up in protest. And Webb backed out.

As you can imagine, there was lots of debate about that too. I was less interested in the controversy. And more interested in why thousands of proud women who served their country successfully were so hurt by his words that they wouldn’t let it lie four decades later.

I talked to a few myself. I even wrote an article about it. The message was loud and clear. Webb’s message made their lives harder. His opinions made it difficult for them to serve. They were subjected to energized abuse and ridicule by those emboldened by the words of someone in his position. And for decades, even today, that article would circulate in the dark corners of the establishment, even though it’s been proven wrong a thousand times over.

Their protest matters to me. Not as someone trying to signal my gender diversity street cred. But as someone who’s had women serve in my command in a combat zone. You think integrating women SWE’s into a scrum team is hard? Try embedding one with a SEAL platoon at a remote outpost in Afghanistan. Talk to me about the “nature” of those women.

Oddly, the arguments against it were the same as what I saw in the Google memo. They were the same when women started flying planes. They were the same when they integrated my all male ship. And they were the same when they allowed gay Americans to serve.

These aren’t new ideas.

Women (on average) don’t have the temperament to be top software engineers.

Women aren’t mentally tough enough to handle combat environments.

Women don’t have the drive to handle corporate leadership roles.

Women don’t possess the logical objectivity to participate in the democratic process.

Women aren’t sophisticated enough to own their own property.

Women are property.

Those are all old ideas that we’ve moved beyond. Like the earth is the flat, motionless center of the universe. This last bit is just the 21st century, technology driven version of the same tired old argument put forward for millennia.

I don’t know how many women are supposed to be software engineers. But right now, at major firms, that number is about one in eight. What I do know though, is that if you want to solve a problem, and you get eight people in a room, and seven are dudes, you’re missing something. You’re missing some form of the emergent activity that comes from the friction of differing perspectives. And that may not be clear to the political minded or the closed system focus of an engineer who advocates for eliminating empathy and morality (his words not mine) but it’s clear to anyone that’s ever tried to build something great that lasts.

I don’t know if Google’s policies and programs are effective. I don’t work there. Chances are, if the argument were simply aimed at the programs, that guy still would. But they weren’t. They were aimed at bringing us back to a world where we describe “the nature” of a group as broad as half of all humans with finite certainty.

History isn’t kind to those that die on that hill. That’s the lesson I learned serving and leading in a world where inclusion for different people was a fight. And we’re about to learn it all over again.

18 replies »

  1. Great essay. I have been feeling that intolerance on the left, and the irrational thinking, and I don’t feel I identify with that anymore. It is as bad as what is coming from the right, you have to have total purity. and there is no room for nuance, or discussion. The cover story in this months Atlantic is really good talking about how both sides have lost touch, and are not interested in the concept of reality and facts.

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  2. Political correctness is nothing more than “respect” . It is too bad that respect has to have a different label to be initiated. The intolerance to political correctness is sexism, racism and all the other isms.
    If people were honest, they could just say that they are opposed to respecting anyone they want to.

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    • I would disagree. Certainly respect is a valued action. Political correctness has an entering assumption that certain forms of thought and speech are illegitimate. Further, political correctness ascribes motives (correct = “good,” incorrect = “bad”) to disagreement before ever considering the content of the idea/opinion.

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  3. “And we’re about to learn it all over again.” Let’s hope that there are more people, this time around, who can reach beyond the old paradigm and realize that inclusivity is the more rational, the more humane course. We just need to be stronger to confront those who want to go back in time. We are all still trying to build that democracy. Maybe this time we’ll get closer to it.

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  4. Women can’t fight or fly? Hm. Tell that to Lt. Lilya Litvyak, 437th Fighter Regiment, V-VS. 12 kills before she was KIA near Stalingrad. Her decorations include Hero of the Soviet Union. One might point out that Chuck Yeager himself is only credited with 12 kills.

    I’m not sure about World War II, but I know that in World War One the Russian Imperial Army fielded an all-female infantry battalion. Those ladies were known for their courage in battle.

    Now, would anyone argue that American women are more or less brave, or more or less capable, than Russian women? Nationality is probably much less a factor than opportunity.

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  5. The real issue here is the value of diverse viewpoints that deliver more impactful, successful solutions and outcomes, no matter the venue. I am CMO for a high tech product development firm and am often the only woman in the room. I can often feel the powerful, positive impact of my questions or comments which bring a more diffuse, circuitous awareness to a decision-making process that while intelligent and insightful, more often than not has been following a linear path. I’m proud to have this opportunity and to know that the company benefits from it. The other women in leadership and on staff at our company cheer each other on in this vein. We wish there were more of us. And that all of us were paid fairly. And that what we bring to the table was recognized and respected. BTW, I am no fan of political correctness for its own sake and find that it often masks malice far worse than overt misogyny or racism. Sean, I greatly appreciate your viewpoint.

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  6. I disagree with your assertion that we have moved beyond these old ideas. Four is the six you list are still very much a part of our culture. Here, today, in the U.S. of A.

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  7. Most of the debate around the memo makes me question whether any of those criticizing are able to read it without projecting the old sexist ideas they reject in the document even thought they just aren’t there. Has anyone actually read the thing? Because nowhere does it suggest women can’t code or anything of the sort.

    It points to a few POPULATION-level differences amongst genders, which do exist, just as differences exist amongst any 2 populations – the same applies to race. Usually, individual differences even amongst men or women are bigger than the population level differences across men & women – so EVEN THOUGH populations can differ, they differ so little it does not matter at the individual level, BUT the difference will show up when looking at a big enough sample.

    The root of the problem is people are sentenced and executed in the court of public opinion as soon as they say ANYTHING that is not what the angry mob wants to hear. I will pose a SIMPLE assertion:

    Google may have many programs intended to improve the company. Lets take a hypothetical program that adds more quiet spaces for work or closed offices for people who request them. Someone comes along and says “I am unsure if this program is helping Google” or “I have suggestions to change this program slightly”. A reasonable discussion ensues.

    Now this program is the diversity program. The same person comes along. He says “I am unsure if this program is motvated correctly” and “I have questions/concerns/suggestions”. He is lynched, fired, shamed, shunned, universally labeled as despicable and has his career destroyed. Thats NOT fucking right. Its delusional.

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  8. For once I disagree with much of what you say in your article! I enjoy your site and your perspective on various issues. But I have some problems with this post.
    1. It seems disingenuous to equate this memo with Jim Webbs Washingtonian piece because it misrepresents the purpose of the memo. After reading your post, I read the google memo and was surprised to find out the purpose was to bring attention to Googles biases by criticizing the unforthcoming and authoritative nature of the companies diversity policies. You had me expecting something along the lines of: “Women Can’t Code.”
    2. Unlike Webbs claim or the claims you listed, the memo does not make definitive judgements regarding what women “can’t” or “don’t” or “aren’t” doing. The memo is looking across population differences to debunk the extreme claim that disparate outcomes = disparate treatment (stolen from johnathon haidt) I.e Any difference in gender populations that favor men is due to systemic sexism.

    This is the first post that strikes me as not fully honest.

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    • Hi Jacob,

      Thanks for the feedback. I’ve gotten quite a bit that sounds the same as the point you make. And it’s likely because you’re not wrong in your assertions-with the exception of challenging that this article came from an honest expression.

      What I’ve observed in people’s reactions to the memo is a focus on one of two parts. The thoughtful, needed I think, discussion on a lack of tolerance for different ideas. In this instance it’s the belief questioning the that disparate outcomes=disparate treatment. Which I’m in agreement with the author here.

      The second is the less thoughtful language on “the nature” of humans and the broad description of populations. First, I can say as someone working in a firm not only functionally similar to Google but geographically similar, you can go ahead and throw out the studies on the “on average” about people. It’s materially irrelevant. The tone of the memo is a rational, science based approach to a hard problem. Yet it slips into an irrational, not science based argument here.

      A woman SWE who pursues a career in software engineering at Google is not representative of the broad population base. Just like a woman who pursues a career at Annapolis isn’t. Neither is a man BTW. So when you selectively transition between those two realities to make your point, it’s a curious inclusion that starts to become much more central to the author’s argument. Webb’s mistake too.

      I would say that anything after “women on average have more:” isn’t material to the first part of the argument and could have been left out. Not because it’s too mean or insensitive. Because it’s not material to the discussion of women who choose SWE careers at Google. It’s included though. Somewhat clumsily but with intent, therefore becomes the focus of the argument.

      I’m always going to look at problems like I’m a leader in the group going through them. In this instance, I actually am. This isn’t peripheral to me. I live in this every day. The belief that a company with Google’s place in our society is a closed system subject to only logical, non-moral, non-empathetic motivations is a non-starter for me. So while your point is a good one, and I take it onboard as feedback, I can’t ignore the other parts of it.

      This one wasn’t easy to write. There’s about five versions I came up with. What you read, I thought, was the best representation of my concerns.

      As always, thanks for reading and contributing. I hope this isn’t the last time we disagree. If it is…I’m not doing it right.

      -Sean

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  9. So, I’ve read James Damore’s memo several times. And this is my derivation of what he sees as a contradiction in the Google “echo chamber”:
    1. The presumption that all human sexes and races have exactly the same minds, with 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.
    2. The presumption that all human sexes and races have such radically different minds, backgrounds, perspectives, and insights of inherently positive natures that companies must increase their demographic diversity in order to be the most positively competitive; and any lack of demographic diversity must be due to short-sighted management that favors groupthink or bias.

    From personal experience, software does not just happen when you get a random bunch of people together and have them emote to each other.

    James Damore sees these presumptions as in complete opposition. Apparently, Google does not. I consider them to be a manifestation of cognitive dissonance.

    In consideration of Jim Webb, I engaged over a dozen of my female classmates/alumni on that issue, and in every single case, their opposition finally came down to a variation of “some upperclassman made me read it and tell them why it was wrong.” Solipsism at its finest, in opposition to a guy who earned the Navy Cross, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, a distinguished author, served as an Assistant Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Navy, and US Senator…all because he wrote one op-ed, that he didn’t title (the WaPo did), that he has specifically apologized for, and that happened in 1979. Yup: there were supposed to be public protests in Annapolis because of that.

    In both cases, the collective, politically correct pile-on was marked by far more invective and emotional outrage than logical disagreement, empirical data or any clear company policy. You noted the counter-reaction in your second sentence: a collective snap-back. There will be more.

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  10. I read the memo and he didn’t say ‘women can’t be software engineers’. The gist was that a lot of women don’t WANT to be software engineers for reasons rooted in gender differences. He didn’t say they can’t or even shouldn’t be software engineers. That is different from Jim Webb’s assertion that women SHOULDN’T be in combat.

    Something like 80% of all computer science grads are men. That might be because of institutional sexism. It might be because the field isn’t as appealing to women. I don’t know, but it is definitely something we need to explore. Damore seems to believe they don’t want to.

    Never in the essay did I get a Jim Webb style vibe that said ‘Women shouldn’t be software engineers because they aren’t suited for it because of x,y,z.’

    If he did say something like that, I would understand the outrage and Google’s reaction. But that’s not what he said.

    His point seemed to be that the arbitrary gender quotas and diversity for diversity’s sake aren’t necessarily good solutions to this problem.

    He then made the point that his views aren’t welcome at Google and that they are intolerant of other points of view.

    I think Google proved his point when they fired him.

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    • What if the memo switched the word “woman” or “female” with “black” or “hispanic” or “gay” – would you still be left with the same opinion? Google had to fire him for exactly that reason.

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  11. One bit of context that may be helpful to understand. In the tech world, SWE at Google is like QB in the NFL. It’s high demand, high competition, high pay. It is the pinnacle of the profession and requires a certain, “commitment” to the craft. Now read the following bullet points, with that in mind, the way anyone in the company or the industry would. And see if that impacts whether or not you feel like the author was claiming they were more, less or equally suited for the role based on gender.

    To be clear, had he not included this part of the argument, I don’t write this article.

    “Women on average have more:

    -Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).

    -These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing and even within SWEs, comparatively more women work on front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.

    -Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness.
    This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading. Note that these are just average differences and there’s overlap between men and women, but this is seen solely as a women’s issue. This leads to exclusory programs like Stretch and swaths of men without support.

    -Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.”

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    • I disagree with him. I just don’t think it’s off the wall alt-right hatred that should result in a loss of his job.

      I don’t see how we can do anything about real institutional sexism and racism if, as a society, we can’t have a conversation about it. If people have a point of view just because they ‘have’ to publicly tow a line to pay their mortgage — they’re never going to understand. We grow through dialogue.

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      • No. Not off the alt-right hatred. And neither was Webb’s BTW. It was misguided and proved materially damaging to people trying to make their way in places where their presence was not universally welcomed. That’s the analogy. To your point, I won’t acknowledge the memo as an alt-right manifesto. It’s more nuanced. Though still wrong and damaging. As for whether or not he should have been fired, I don’t have enough info to make that judgement. So I purposely didn’t state that.

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  12. I hear you. I guess, at the end of the day, all I am saying is that the more taboos we have, the more topics that are off limits to discussion, the worse off we are. It feels like the list of things we can’t talk about grows daily. That Google memo was an opportunity for a healthy discussion, instead it turned into an example of what happens when you don’t tow the line. The message is crystal clear: if you want to meet your livelihood, don’t question any modern secular orthodoxy.

    That’s not even good for the liberal causes themselves. If people can’t question things publicly, then they’re never going to truly embrace these views anyway. They might tow the line to conform and keep their livelihood, but that doesn’t seem to be a recipe for progress and understanding. They are never going to internalize the arguments if they aren’t even allowed to have the dialogue.

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  13. Some women aren’t cut out to be software engineers or soldiers. Some men are not cut out to be software engineers or soldiers. If we talk about differences of individuals, and what makes them right or wrong for the job, we remain righteous. If we fall back into the lazy
    forms of thinking- grouping people by height, weight, hair/skin/eye color, gender, culture, religion or sexual orientation, we are flat out wrong.

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