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? Continue Reading

The only good rebuttal of the Googler’s memo that I’ve seen

You might have heard about the controversial memo by a Google engineer about diversity that started to make its rounds a few days ago. I won’t summarize it here, as any summary I’ve seen failed to get the author’s points accurately across (no surprise considering the length of the text).

Unlike others, I considered his text as a sincere attempt by a thinking individual to point towards something which he personally perceives as a systemic problem inside Google and the tech industry in general. So when I saw the “quality” and style of the negative reactions, I was… well, not impressed, to put it nicely. In fact, it made me even feel solidarity with the author.

Fortunately, the writer and social scientist Adam Grant today published a compact rebuttal of the memo’s core conclusions, which sets things right. Grant avoids expressions of hot-headed outrage, moral preaching, name calling and denial of scientific facts, while he at the same time presents the available scientific evidence from meta analyses and studies that clearly indicate that the memo’s author most probably overestimates the larger effects of biological/neurological gender differences on girl’s/women’s professional choices in regards to the IT industry. That is to say, he is not wrong about the general scientific foundation that he builds his argumentation on (as it seems to be consensus among researchers in the natural sciences community), but his conclusions are overblown.

In other words, the role of cultural biases is with some large likelihood much more significant, which is why striving for diversity, working to change cultural stereotypes and encouraging more girls/women to become IT professionals/programmers remains a smart and right thing to do.

Personally though, I don’t think at all that the author of the memo should be fired, as some have demanded.

Update: A few hours after I posted this, word came out that he has been let go. In case you are interested in the scope of opinions about the whole situation, head over to Hacker News.

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