My impression of Damore’s Google Memo is that it is a thoughtful and well-considered personal opinion about workplace differences in abilities and attitudes. The tone is reserved, measured, and reasonable, avoiding sweeping claims. For example, it restricts its scope to the particular office in which he worked, and not Google as a whole. It is clearly written, with minimal jargon. Damore is at pains to explain himself, to clear up misunderstandings and to support his opinions with references. That does not mean that he gets everything right, nor is it intended to be a complete review of the literature of the sort one might find in a journal, but he makes a reasoned case for biological factors in sex differences. He makes helpful suggestions for Google to implement. I cannot comment directly on Google because I do not know about it first-hand, but I can look at the key assertions in this memo which can be tested by reference to psychological research. These have relevance for all workplaces.
I should make clear right away that I find most of his opinions perfectly reasonable and well supported by the research literature, though on some others I doubt their relevance or that they settle the issue. Of course, there is debate about all these matters, partly because there is debate about many important issues, but even more so because social science is often reluctant to consider biological causes for people’s abilities and attitudes. So, while on each of these topics there are references which favour either biological or cultural positions, there will be a majority which follow cultural interpretations. Damore is correct to say that there is a Left bias in social science, and unfortunately it has affected the interpretations placed on human behaviour, to the detriment of alternative biological explanations. Nonetheless, to associate a set of arguments with a particular point of view, Left or Right, is not to refute them. That must be done by a fair and balanced assessment of the evidence. In my view, there are many strong arguments to support the points Damore makes, though I can see that many people will not find them conclusive. Indeed, the research literature is as prone to culture wars as government regulated workplaces. Rival factions arrange their evidence in battle lines. As Buz Hunt used to say: “they are lawyerly rather than scholarly”. References from different perspectives rarely overlap, and often run in parallel, a case of perpetual confirmation bias. Even when a finding would seem to strengthen or weaken a particular position (I think that neonate visual preferences are in this category) the main flow of argument continues unabated. Are we swayed by evidence? Only sometimes, it would appear.
I find the ferocity of some of the replies to Damore extreme. The vehemence of the opposition is coruscating, and absolute. These issues should be matters of scholarly debate, in which the findings matter, and different interpretations contend against each other. Expressing different opinions should be a cue for debate, not outrage. We are far from having definite proofs about these matters, though personally I think we can see the direction of travel of the debate, which is that the case for genetics being a part cause of individual differences is gaining ground. It is only doing so because it can increasingly account for some of variance. A decade ago it was not possible to associate the genetic code with intelligent behaviour. Now studies which link snippets of code to intelligence are being published every few months. The pace of discovery is extraordinary. “Nature” and other science journals report frequently on new genetic correlations with important human behaviours, notably mental ability and mental illness and health generally.
Curiously, many people have reacted to Damore’s memo by assuming that cultural explanations for sexual and racial differences must be right, by definition. It is assumed that a culture-only explanation has triumphed because of the weight of the evidence. Damore’s view that both biological and cultural factors are involved in human differences seems to have been interpreted as him saying that only biological factors are involved. Damore has clearly argued for culture and biology being involved.
Worse, it has been assumed by some commentators that the consideration of biological explanations for sex differences is of itself reprehensible. As Jim Flynn said wryly to me of himself: “I know that I am on the side of the angels”. Whether they come from purported angels or devils, all hypotheses should be tested. As Jensen pointed out long ago, the Culture Only faction have to make a more fundamentalist case than the Heredity and Culture faction. The latter can concede at least 50% of the variance on a case by case basis, the former have to posit cultural explanations for all observations: a more demanding requirement.
The furore surrounding this memo seems to be based on sex differences, not racial differences, so I will concentrate on the former, though it has implications for the latter.
By way of background, it would be good to put the technology business into context, because many occupations, if not most, do not have a 50% representation of the sexes. An occupation is not an opinion poll: occupations represent competence, not opinions. In my view, there should be no requirement that a workplace be a mirror of society. Not every man wants to be a clinical psychologist. Personally, I have no objection to my technical computer assistance coming largely from Indian and Tamil men. I am interested in getting 5-star advice. As regards nurses and doctors, my main requirement is that they should be kind, and give me evidence-based and compassionate care.
Here are some issues raised in the memo on which I feel I can make some comments.
1 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.
Of course. The phrase “may in part explain” is general and not contentious. We need to look at the distribution of traits between and women to see if there are any such differences in traits, and if so, how big they are, and whether they “may in part explain” the representation of women in technology and leadership. We do not actually have to show what causes them, but it would help to show how easily they could be changed, and over what time span and with what amount of effort. For example, if women can be trained to be better at three dimensional tasks that is a good thing, but probably not of immediate comfort to a potential employer.
There are numerous sources, because the literature on sex differences is so extensive. I have made some suggestions in a previous post “Google Sex”. Here are a few I forgot to add to that list:
I would add that meta-analyses are not sacrosanct. They certainly provide larger sample sizes, but there can be idiosyncratic judgements about what is included and how the results are depicted. There will always be strategic differences between “lumpers” and “splitters”. Hyde (2014) is a case in point.