Google worker: ‘blame biology for gender gap’

Outnumbered: Only 31% of Google’s employees are women. © UNSW

An employee at Google has argued that the lack of women in top tech jobs is all down to biological differences between the sexes. Typical Silicon Valley sexism — or is there something in it?

Only 5% of tech start-up companies are owned by women. They earn 28% of computer science degrees and hold just a quarter of computing jobs. Women hold only 11% of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies.

Some of these figures are declining, and many in the tech industry are encouraging women and girls to take up STEM subjects.

But a Google employee has caused a furore by claiming that the firm’s initiatives to hire more women are inherently flawed; he argues that the disparity is actually down to biological differences between men and women.

In the memo, which was posted on an internal discussion board and then published by Gizmodo, the unnamed employee said: “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.” He also writes that women generally “prefer jobs in social or artistic areas” while “more men may like coding”.

His comments have met with a furious reaction in some quarters. Google’s head of diversity, Danielle Brown, wrote on Motherboard that it is “not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses”.

Kelly Ellis, a former Google employee, tweeted that it symbolised the company doing “nothing about rhetoric that was harming employees”.

Asking whether there are fundamental differences between the male and female brain is always touchy, but many studies do find significant variations between the sexes.

For example, most IQ studies find no difference in average intelligence, but far more variation among men, with women tending to crowd around the mean.

Gender differences are born out in other fields. Take medicine, where 88% of neurosurgeons in the USA are men, while 96% of speech therapists are women.

But the real question is whether this is a result of different brains, or a result of society’s differing expectations. A new book by Angela Saini says that many core assumptions about gender difference “do not stand up to detailed scrutiny,” and “researchers have often fitted the evidence to their theories.”

Does the memo lay bare Google’s sexism, or does it contain a kernel of truth?

In the genes?

This reveals “tech’s rotten core”, writes Ian Bogost in The Atlantic. He believes that flawed computing systems are “a direct byproduct of the gross machismo of computing writ large”. This is the result of a culture that expects boys to be clever and women to be pretty. It has nothing to do with innate differences.

“Study after study demonstrates that there really are differences,” reply others. We know this from our own experience of life. It is not a question of men being “better” than women; it is that constant equality drives have failed to radically change the academic preferences of the sexes. Let men and women do what they want.

You Decide

  1. Are there innate differences between men and women (beyond obvious physical characteristics)?
  2. Is Silicon Valley sexist?

Activities

  1. Class debate: “This house believes that diversity quotas are inherently unfair.”
  2. Imagine you are starting a tech company. In groups, draw up an ethics code for your company.

Some People Say...

“Stereotypes do not come from nowhere.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
An unnamed Google employee wrote a lengthy internal memo criticising the company’s diversity initiatives, saying that the reason why there are not more women working in tech companies is because of biological differences between the sexes. We know that major Silicon Valley companies all have a significant gender imbalance, as does the study of STEM subjects at school and university.
What do we not know?
Whether the imbalance is down to biology or circumstances, or a mixture of the two. We also do not know what effect the gender imbalance at tech firms has on their success, and whether consumers will start boycotting them en masse.

Word Watch

Silicon Valley companies
Many of the major California-based tech companies have come under fire in recent years for a supposed culture of sexism. For example, the chief executive of Uber, Travis Kalanick, quit the company this year following claims that the firm had not done enough to tackle complaints about sexual harassment.
STEM
Curriculum based on the four disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Google
The world’s most visited website was founded in 1998 and is valued at $527 billion.
Social or artistic areas
In the UK, women make up 76% of students studying education-related subjects. In the creative arts, the figure is 60%.
Most IQ studies
For example, a study conducted at the University of Edinburgh this year.
Book
Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong — and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, by Angela Saini (Fourth Estate).

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