Gender and perspective in institution

There are some interesting issues related to women in high tech industries and academia. Institutional leaders don’t want to discuss them.

When a diversity program at Google solicited feedback, one of the people who attended it, James Damore, wrote a memo entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” In it, he argues that men and women think differently. Damore (a former doctoral student in systems biology at Harvard) notes that the differences are merely shifted bell curve rather than a difference found when comparing individual men and women. Damore argues that the differences are likely biological because they are universal across human cultures, often have clear biological causes, and are linked to prenatal testosterone. In addition, he argues, the underlying traits are highly heritable and they’re what one would expect from an evolutionary perspective. As an example, he notes that a biological male who was castrated at birth and raised as a female still identified with and acted like a male.

Damore argues that these biological differences can be seen in that women focus more on people than things when compared to men. One way to understand this, he notes, is that women focus more on empathizing and men focus more on systematizing. This, Damore argues, explains why women prefer jobs in social areas compared to men and why men prefer jobs in systematizing areas (for example, coding) when compared to women. He notes that women are higher on some personality dimensions: agreeableness, extraversion, and neuroticism. This, he argues, explains why women have a stronger preference for a balanced and fulfilling life and men a stronger preference for the long, stressful hours required for high pay/high stress jobs in tech and leadership positions. It explains, he claims, why men take undesirable and dangerous jobs such as coal mining, garbage collection, and firefighting and why they suffer 93% of work-related deaths.

There is controversy over whether Damore is correct. Among the people who think Damore got the science roughly correct are Rutgers’ Lee Jussim, University of New Mexico’s Geoffrey Miller, University of Toronto’s Jordon Peterson, and psychologist and columnist Debra Soh. Damore’s reasoning also overlaps with research done by Cambridge University’s Simon Baron-Cohen (some of which has not been replicated) and Harvard University’s Steven Pinker’s summary of the relevant literature. It is also worth noting that the sex-differences in personality are small.

Lance Welton (pen name) wrote “Are Women Destroying Academia? Probably” in the Unz Review. In it, he discusses the idea that female dominance of universities is eliminating the space geniuses need to make breakthroughs in academia. Such breakthroughs, he claims, are critical to the generation of new ideas. Relying on the ideas of Edward Dutton, Welton asserts that geniuses are overwhelmingly male for two reasons. First, males have more outlier IQs. Specifically, Welton notes, men have a flattened bell curve and thus more very high and very low IQ scores. Second, he notes, geniuses have distinctive personality features. Specifically, they tend to have moderately low conscientious and agreeableness. These features, Welton claims, are connected to systematizing, an important feature for the generation of new knowledge. As universities feminize, he argues, the increased emphasis on not causing offense, working in groups, and rule-governed bureaucracies eliminate the environment geniuses need to flourish.

Given its speculative nature, it’s hard to evaluate Welton’s argument. Even if Welton’s account of the relevant science were correct, it is unclear whether, in general, the outlier IQ is more productive when paired up with lower levels of some personality traits (for example, conscientiousness) than with higher levels of them.

In addition, it is unclear what, if anything, Damore and Welton want done. They might want high tech firms and universities to return to merit-based hiring and promotion and to become less bureaucratic. Alternatively, Welton might want universities to discount women’s applications similar to what is currently done to white and Asian applications (see, for example, Harvard). It is unclear whether the benefit of elite universities emphasizing space for geniuses over rule-governed bureaucracy outweighs its cost. The cost of discounting women’s applications for high tech and university jobs is high due to the incredible talent that half the population brings to the table. There is also a concern about providing girls and women efficient incentives to develop their intellectual abilities.

One way to test Damore and Welton’s ideas is to let the different models compete in the free market. Firms and universities that emphasize competitive norms (for example, less bureaucratic rule-governance especially against discrimination, high pressure, no protection from offense, and special space for geniuses) should be allowed to compete against those that emphasize empathetic norms (bureaucratic rule-governance especially against discrimination, more attention to work-life balance, protection from offense, and no special space for geniuses). Other firms and universities might split the difference. This would provide a test for the different models’ desirability and productivity. To some extent we have this now. Consider the different commitments to work-life balance found in various law firms. Permitting more extreme workplace models and allowing them to compete would further our knowledge of the tradeoffs. It would also allow people to choose the type of place they want to work.

The institutional response to their arguments was as pathetic as it was predictable. Google fired Damore for his argument despite its having asked for his feedback on a diversity program he attended. Google’s vice president for diversity (Danielle Brown) denounced Damore’s memo. She asserted that writing that men and women are biologically different in how they think and what they want conflicts with equal opportunity. She didn’t explain why.

An Indiana University professor (Eric Rasmusen) tweeted out Welton’s article. The university’s provost (Lauren Robel) denounced Rasmusen, calling his views “stunningly ignorant.” Instead of explaining what aspect of Welton’s argument was stunningly ignorant, she denounced Rasmusen and then crawled back under her rock.

Merely because Damore’s and Welton’s ideas cause offense doesn’t show that they’re false. Nor will it make them go away.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia philosophy professor. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com