Women, the Google Memo and Me

James Damore, writer of the Google memo.

When it comes to the infamous Google memo, I don’t have much data to add; I’m not a scientist. How I do qualify to comment is that I’m a woman who’s been in the workforce for over 40 years. Although I initially believed workplace sexism was an unpleasant norm–one whose burden fell squarely on women–that belief started waning after I left graduate school at 31 and embarked on a professional career. 

It’s hard to have a panoramic view of working women’s lives. It’s a wide field and those who believe it riddled with inequalities would be wise to remember that. Most won’t, however, because the singular narrative of workplace sexism has become inviolate. Women are defined as victims so frequently that to question this is to risk having one’s reputation irreparably damaged. Google’s James Damore is only the latest in a long line of men who have tried.

Damore’s generalizations may be controversial, but so are those made by his detractors. Mona Charen, writing in the National Review, observes that far from being oppressed, women dominate in many professions:

…women far outnumber men in many other realms. Besides earning 56 percent of all bachelors degrees, women comprise 55 percent of financial managers, 59 percent of budget analysts, and 63 percent of insurance underwriters. Sixty-one percent of veterinarians are women, along with 72 percent of Ph.D. psychologists. Why are these disparities tolerable?

That these numbers go largely unnoticed raises questions about how we perceive the employment disadvantages experienced by women. Are they frequent victims of sexism? And what about the gender paradox observed in Norway? It appears that in truly egalitarian countries, men and women who are free to choose their professions still gravitate toward those reflecting traditional values.

(Photo: Jefferson Graham)

Charen’s numbers tell one story, but there are other stories that rarely get told. When we accept as bedrock the assumption that women are typically ill-treated by male colleagues and employers, we create collateral advantages that are unfair or dangerous or both. This isn’t true for all fields, but is true for many, with the potential negative outcomes being unevenly distributed. For example, an incompetent librarian is simply displacing a competent librarian; an incompetent nurse, however, can kill you.  

The bias that women are naturally disadvantaged has created several no-go zones in discussions about women’s employment issues. Damore touches on some of these in his memo. The relatively new idea that businesses should engage in social engineering is one:

Philosophically, I don’t think we should do arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women. For each of these changes, we need principles reasons [sic] for why it helps Google; that is, we should be optimizing for Google—with Google’s diversity being a component of that.

The words “we should be optimizing for Google” supports Damore’s other observation that “Google’s funding is finite so its allocation is more zero-sum than is generally acknowledged.” The fact is that most businesses are run for profit. Optimizing toward that goal provides security for all employees, a fact increasingly minimized by some organizations in favour of maximizing political agendas. But businesses are not social welfare agencies nor should they be: among other things, blurring that distinction can inhibit growth and stifle innovation. If you want a concrete example, take a look at your smartphone. Its capacities were developed, in part, because of the fierce competition between Apple and Samsung.

That zero-sum dilemma became a central theme in my life when my I had the task of finding a suitable live-in caregiver for my newly disabled, 77-year-old mother. In Canada, the government-run Live-in Caregiver Program brings qualified foreign workers to Canada and requires that families adopt a de facto small-business status and adhere to official employment rules. This means paying into an employee’s taxation, holiday and retirement funds. I had no problem making these contributions, but when I considered that a foreign caregiver might become pregnant, I worried about the complications. My problem was that I could simply not afford anything approximating maternity leave; it would take money away from my mother at a time when she needed it most. So inflexible rules and limited finances meant I had no choice but to discriminate against a specific demographic. I’m sure there are small business owners doing the same.

Damore also discusses the use of shame to silence opposition:

Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence. This silence removes any checks against encroaching extremist and authoritarian policies.

Shame used to be simple. It was a warning to those who refused to conform, a harbinger of more overt strategies like ostracism, banishment or aggression. That changed, of course, with the advent of social media. With the knowledge that a bad joke or off comment can go viral and heap on individuals the scorn of thousands, those with opposing views, especially those with valuable opposing views, are often silenced.  Is the formation of a dangerous monoculture, beyond Google, taking shape before our eyes? Consider this: since the 1960s, the concept of ‘questioning authority’ has been synonymous with questioning only capitalism and other right-wing, conservative institutions. When I’ve asserted that a fair implementation of the concept should encompass all authorities, including left-wing, progressive institutions, I’ve been greeted with blank stares and the sight of people’s backs as they walk away. When did the idea that debate is necessary for a properly functioning democracy lose its purchase?

Damore is also correct when he asserts there is a need for “checks against encroaching extremist and authoritarian policies.” This applies to my mother’s experience with the Canadian healthcare system, a system that is government-run, has no competition and is a bona fide monoculture. In 2012, I described my experience with some of its authoritarian employees:

An unsettling theme emerges when I look back at my experience: I spent a lot of time fighting the manipulative strategies of a workforce that shames patients’ relatives into silence. And shame is a powerful force when it comes to making people work against their own best interests.

In a zero-sum health care system that does not appear to be one–Canada’s is driven by outsized idealism–euphemisms, lies, and prevarications are often integral to how patient information is disseminated. (And yes, the system’s structure is part of the problem.) The urgency of my mother’s situation meant dispensing with the niceties and expecting my mother’s nurses and doctors to be direct so I could make informed decisions. Power struggles ensued–knowledge is a power worth hanging on to after all–and resisting numerous shaming strategies designed to make me more docile and less inquisitive became my new norm. In the end, a phone call to another hospital saved my mother’s life: a doctor there broke with protocol and shared vital information with me, information the staff at my mother’s hospital should have reported. So doggedly gathering knowledge and withstanding the shaming granted me considerable power. It was a salient reminder of two things: (1) being shameless when it matters can be effective and (2) silencing opposing views means silencing information, and silencing information disempowers the vulnerable, whoever they are. 

Although the task of dealing with the staff was grueling–the hospital had a reputation for low morale–an especially troubling aspect of it soon emerged. Against all expectations, I had the hardest time interacting with several female nurses; our shared gender seemed to produce an inexplicable and aggressive attitude that often felt intense and personal. I was mocked openly, confronted randomly and, on more than one occasion, told to leave. Several memories surfaced. I remembered the all-female utopias included in the literary module of a Women’s Studies course and understood, in a very concrete way, that they were indeed fantasy. I then recalled three famous social experiments, by Solomon Asch, Stanley Milgram, and Philip Zimbardo, all of which helped me understand I was being pressured to conform, but was under no obligation to do so. I also recalled an essay by Doris Lessing, “Group Minds,” where she cautions readers against “obeying the atmosphere,” and asserts that being the one in ten with a dissenting opinion is difficult, but manageable.

Lastly, I remembered that the suicide rate for female doctors is considerably higher (by 250% in the U.S.) than the general population. (Suicide for male and female physicians and physicians in training are roughly equal.) Social constructivists would put this down to the patriarchal structure of medicine. While there may be some truth to that, it didn’t account for all the sexism I saw expressed by women toward other women, especially toward women with authority. I wondered about the underlying causes of those suicides as my authority as a legal advocate was assailed daily. It raised the question, what are female physicians really up against? In the end, my struggles with those nurses led to only one conclusion: their hostility was not patriarchally induced self-loathing as most feminists would have me believe. It was personal and we were fighting for control of my mother’s life.

Damore also addresses inclusivity incentives. Below he identifies three problem areas:

  • Programs, mentoring, and classes only for people with a certain gender or race
  • A high priority queue and special treatment for “diversity” candidates
  • Hiring practices which can effectively lower the bar for “diversity” candidates.

An unspoken consequence of these policies is that companies can end up with under-performing employees. It’s also likely they will be hamstrung by the momentum of these policies when it comes to managing their human resources. Can an employee who’s been accepted under more lenient standards (and been mentored lavishly) be terminated easily? Hasn’t an expectation of job security been created for this employee that makes doing so deeply unpleasant for him and legally risky for the company? Fair competitions among employees can be intellectually invigorating and boost morale. Less fair competitions, where some employees have been given a leg up, are more likely to foster resentment, even when those favoured employees become productive and reliable colleagues. In fact, this is one reason why extravagant corporate bonuses rankle. They too seem unfair, especially given the pervasive belief that high-level executives are by definition corrupt. Incentives for women and minorities aren’t so different, but their context–they are given with politically correct intentions–makes criticizing them far more difficult. Damore’s firing makes that clear.

What about other incentives? The sort designed to attract workers to positions that are hard to fill? There’s a global shortage of health care workers–orderlies, nurses, and doctors. This has given rise to competitive incentive programs, especially for doctors and nurses in many developed countries. Incentives are there for orderlies too. In Canada, individuals can usually qualify in six weeks. Jobs in hospitals and government sponsored nursing homes are plentiful, pay a decent wage and come with generous benefits packages. The problem is that many of the applicants who are attracted to these jobs are temperamentally unsuited to the work. They are trained and hired regardless.

I’ve seen the results of this incentivizing at my mother’s nursing home. While roughly half of the orderlies seem competent and happy with their work, the other half seem mostly indifferent. However, indifference isn’t their only problem: this latter group has also been responsible for several unpleasant incidents I’ve witnessed. I remember cringing as I watched my mother attempt to communicate with an orderly who was wearing ear buds and refusing to make eye contact with her; on another occasion, I saw two others laughing while imitating the motions of a resident with poorly controlled Parkinson’s. (They were standing right in front of her.) Dire personnel shortages in our hospitals and nursing homes mean we have no choice except to muddle along and manage the bad apples. That’s not true of every field, and I would argue that targeted incentives, especially for the tech industry,  are not only unnecessary, they are a bad idea. It’s better to give disadvantaged young people scholarships to study what they choose instead of incentivizing them (or recent graduates) to go into fields they may not be suited for. Damore wrote about how these supports and incentives seem discriminatory; in my experience, they are simply unwise.

As someone who has always been determined to succeed on merit, I’m troubled by the lack of balance in discussions about women’s employment issues. The fact is there are double standards that protect women unfairly too, standards with enough weight to produce unreliable performance reviews and discriminate against men in professions where competence (and a clear record) matter. In Canada recently, this double standard was made clear. Justin Trudeau, our much fawned-over prime minister, selected former female astronaut, Julie Payette, to be our next Governor General. While Payette is eminently qualified, two black marks on her record appeared after Trudeau’s announcement. Several years ago, a second-degree assault charge had been brought against her by a former spouse. When questioned about the charge, Trudeau responded with “no comment,” and Payette made light of it, simply saying it was “unfounded.” James Baxter, of iPolitics, a Canadian news site, had this to say:

“We think this is a story because it was such a random check and we turned up an arrest,” Baxter said. “From there, as we began to look, we saw the elements of a concerted effort to sanitize the record.”

Payette was also involved in a vehicular death, one where she was exonerated fully. However, whether she is innocent or not, it’s the magnitude of these events that has many Canadians asking if a male candidate could have survived these same revelations. It’s likely he would be labelled a misogynist, with feminists and left-leaning journalists making hay by claiming, “What? He assaulted one woman and killed another?”

If there’s a common theme here, it’s that making exceptions and blurring boundaries, when it comes to gender and employment issues, is a tricky business. Should we hold everyone, regardless of who they are, to the same standards? Should Google–with its huge scope of influence–be engaging in social engineering? I don’t think it’s wise to let an unelected, for-profit company adjudicate on issues regarding social welfare. The fact Google fired James Damore for daring to say so is a very bad sign indeed.

Below is Jordan Peterson’s interview with James Damore:

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