The Google memo, the reactions to it, and why my mind couldn’t let go

Dear reader, if possible, please don’t just skim this text until you spot something with which you agree or disagree. It would be brilliant if you could read the whole piece. The estimated reading time is about 7 minutes. 

The past days have been rather depressing. The infamous memo of a Google engineer (which can be read here) and the response to it kept occupying my mind in a way which surprised me, which I didn’t welcome, and which went against one of my core philosophies in life. Over periods I had a hard time focussing on anything else. Not even a jog or food and a beer with friends would help my mind to let it go.

Through self-observation, I tried to understand what was happening. Is it that I hold a deeply ingrained but somehow subconscious belief that women are worse engineers than men, and so I took it very badly that so many of my peers in the tech industry instantly were out on social media and tech blogs condemning 100% of what was written in the memo? I mean, if they all were so sure about their point of view, and I somehow might doubt the ability of a female programmer or other type of engineer in comparison to a male one (without being aware of it), that would explain my own strong emotional reaction.

But the honest answer I could give to myself is “no”. In fact, over the past years, I have been strongly supporting women who code in various situations of my private life, and I have found myself multiple times suggesting to females that maybe a career within computer engineering would be something for them. While the biases we have are sometimes extremely hard to access, I couldn’t come to think of any evidence that would point to that I somehow carry around the unconscious bias that women cannot be incredibly good software engineers or that they through their biology would be unable to be as good as male engineers (It’s worth noting here that this was not the claim of the Google engineer’s memo, but became part of the overall media and social media misrepresentation of his text. I read the memo 3 times over the past days but I only found claims by the author about the average distribution of traits. He did, as far as I can tell, at no point state or imply that a female engineer cannot be extremely good at her job. Talking about “average distribution of traits” is completely different thing than stating “person from group X is worse at something than person from group Y”. I tried to briefly explain this here, and here is a similar but more professional take).

Another question I posed to myself: “Am I against initiatives that strive to achieve diversity in workplaces at tech companies?”. Again, “no”. As much as I digged, I didn’t find any biases about that hidden in my subconscious. If you ask me “Is it a good thing if software engineering stops being a sausage fest?”, my unconditional answer is “yes”.

So then what caused me to be so captivated and agitated by how this story played out?

Based on my own introspection, three things:

First:
I am worried about how a growing number of people who I generally share a lot of common values with are increasingly unwilling or unable to engage with opposing or differing viewpoints in other ways than “WTF”, demands that the responsible person is being fired or silenced, or by name calling or using lazy labels to stigmatize and to put obstacles in the way of any attempts to have a civilized, factual, nuanced discussion about it. In my eyes, this is not how an enlightened, democratic and pluralistic society is supposed to work, and it won’t work like this in the long run. I seriously think this is how much is at stake here. I am not someone who in 100 % of the cases prioritizes free speech over everything else, but as a rule of thumb I oppose the idea that something which one strongly disagrees with and those who support this thought/viewpoint have to disappear (literally or figuratively).

Second:
It surprised me to see how absolutely sure many of the harsh critics of the memo were about that the scientific foundation it was built on must be entirely and 100 percent wrong. Not even reputable scientists would describe their research results with the kind of certainty and absolute truth-like tonality which I have seen among many of the memo’s loudest, most outspoken critics. Considering that essentially everyone commenting on this thing is at best “interested” in these topics, has read some books and maybe even taken some classes in biology/psychology/etc, I cannot see how any other reaction than humility would be the appropriate choice. Especially considering that there exists a vast trove of data and research which clearly points to gender-related biological (aside from the obvious physical ones) and neurological differences (see here, here, here, here or here, for example). Whether these are huge or small, whether they in any way play a role for the choice men or women would make in an hypothetical environment without social norms and constructed gender roles, and whether maybe in 100 years science will have come to different conclusions, is a completely different matter. But to go out with full confidence and claim that the matter is all totally clear and that consensus exists about that differences entirely are socially constructed, is not far from other types of science-denial that are en vogue.

Third:
How to confront something like this memo seems to be a lot a question about applying one of 2 ethical theories: Consequentialism or Deontologal Ethics. In the deontological theory, the morality of an action is judged based on rules. Essentially, an action is taken because of a principle. Consequentialism on the other hand judges the morality of an action based on its consequences. According to Wikipedia, “from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission from acting) is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence”. A subcategory of Consequentialism is Utilitarianism, which states that the best action is the one that maximizes utility.

I have a fair share of principles in my life, where I judge based on a rule, not on the expected outcome (although maybe I am just not aware of that the outcome in fact provides me with bigger utility). But when it comes to situations like the memo, my introspection revealed to me that I tend to follow a more consequentialist or utilitarian approach. I judge whether the outcome of an action is desirable and matches the greater goal. And in this regard, my personal answer is “no”. The outcome that we are facing now does not fulfill this requirement, in my view.

Reacting to controversial but civilized viewpoints that don’t come across as the work of an ideological radical (and this is my characterization of the memo) with ideology-fueled outrage based on the theory of deontological ethics (= the morality is following the rule, and the rule requires to spot any possible perpetuation of stereotypes and condemn it in the sharpest way possible, no matter the collateral damage) is, in my eyes, not increasing the broader consensus about the importance of diversity, the common understanding of the role that socially constructed gender roles play, nor the overall benefit for the society at large. This behavior divides and causes severe backlash. Division brought the U.S. a leader which essentially anyone I am writing about here does despise, and I personally do see a connection.

Let’s put it like this: There is very little evidence that getting the Google engineer fired, feeding the assumptions of the Alt Right, and alienating a share of people from the cause (!) is beneficial to the society as whole or the underrepresented groups that are the focus here. However, what it for sure does is making some people sleep good at night because they have done what they feel is the morally right thing for today. This is very short-term thinking (and I actually do encourage everyone who voiced a strong opinion about the memo to do some serious introspection themselves). My personal focus is on the long-term outcome: I am envisioning a society in which every person can do the type of thing/profession she/he feels drawn too, freed from society’s norms telling him/her what it should be (realistically I don’t know if this can work as no human is not influenced by other humans and culture, but let’s see how close we can get). But I also envision it to be a society in which people are not easily falling into patterns of dogmatic group think, and I envision a society in which people who put effort into presenting a civilized contrarian viewpoint which is not simply based on made up facts, feel they can do so without afterwards being pushed towards the edge of society.

Of course this is material for lengthy discussions about ethics, and there is most likely no single “right” or “wrong”. I acknowledge that there are many other viewpoints, so I am not stating this being objectively the only way or the best way. But I would love to make it clear that there is more than one possible strategy and framework to achieve a desired goal. And not everyone who does not agree with a certain strategy or dogma does disagree on the greater goal or many of its underlying values.

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I read a fair share of articles about the Google memo, and I found the following quote from this text very suitable to wrap up this piece (note: I wouldn’t apply it to a text promoting an extremist ideology, but this is not what the memo is).

“To me, if you read it and are completely outraged or uniformly in favor, then you are part of the problem. If you can read anyone’s opinion, spread out over 10 pages, and find nothing with which you agree, then you’re almost certainly not thinking. Similarly, if you can read this guy’s entire memo and find yourself blindly nodding, then you probably aren’t using your brain either.”

So I hope if you read my text from beginning to end, you found some things you agree with and some you disagree with.

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