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More on the Google memo

August 18, 2017

In my previous post on the Google memo, I focused on the fluctuating history of women in computer science in recent decades. Software engineering is my forte, after all. But what about the biological points the author raised? Do they hold some water, even if they fail at the task to which he puts them?

Not much. The memo reads as if it were written by someone who gets their biology from alt-right bulletin boards. Evolutionary biologist Suzanne Sadedin undertakes the thankless task of explaining where the memo goes wrong in the science. As does a Recode article, which looks at where Damore got the notion that boys focus on things while girls focus on people:

Damore cites the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, who argues in his widely reviewed book “The Essential Difference” that boys are biologically programmed to focus on objects, predisposing them to math and understanding systems, while girls are programmed to focus on people and feelings. The British psychologist claims that the male brain is the “systematizing brain” while the female brain is the “empathizing” brain. This idea was based on a study of day-old babies, which found that the boys looked at mobiles longer and the girls looked at faces longer. Male brains, Baron-Cohen says, are ideally suited for leadership and power. They are hardwired for mastery of hunting and tracking, trading, achieving and maintaining power, gaining expertise, tolerating solitude, using aggression and taking on leadership roles. The female brain, on the other hand, is specialized for making friends, mothering, gossip and “reading” a partner. Girls and women are so focused on others, he says, that they have little interest in figuring out how the world works. But Baron-Cohen’s study had major problems. It was an “outlier” study. No one else has replicated these findings, including Baron-Cohen himself. It is so flawed as to be almost meaningless.

As importantly, Damore’s memo is laden with false assumptions about society, from what causes sex bias to why Google might want diversity. A nice article in Medium addresses some of those.

Being a nerd, my starting point is that Damore was working as an engineer, and wrote a memo that judged purely on its technical merits, was a piece of junk. I have seen quite a bit written about his firing, delving into the culture at Google, how much leeway employees should have, and similar issues. I have to claim ignorance about Google culture, its HR policies, Damore’s work history, California employment law. So unlike many pundits, I don’t believe I’m informed enough to have an opinion on that, that goes much beyond my starting point.

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