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Google’s ‘tolerance’ is too intolerant

Updated: 
August 13, 2017 - 12:05am

In one of my favorite scenes in HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” a comedy series about the world of computer engineers, a male engineer injects himself into a meeting between two female investors to explain, of all things, “something called ‘mansplaining,’ ladies….”

They view him with silent, chilly bemusement as his condescending and patronizing manner unintentionally demonstrates “mansplaining,” a term invented by a woman, even as tries to explain it.

That scene came to mind amid Google’s recent diversity drama in its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters in the real Silicon Valley.

Quite frankly, I wish Google had not fired computer engineer James Damore this past week for writing an internal memo. The memo argued that the notorious gender gap at Google, where techs are 80 percent male despite Google’s liberal diversity policies, and other computer-age firms might be explained by biology.

You may have heard through some of the news coverage that he wrote a 10-page, 3,000-word “screed” of an argument against the notion that women are not as qualified as men. He didn’t. Quite the opposite, his critique of Google’s diversity policy cites various research into male-female differences and argues that maybe women simply aren’t as interested in tech, engineering or leadership positions as men are.

He takes studies that found, for example, that men are more interested in things and how they work while women are more interested in people and relationships. He cites studies that found women as a group to be more social and artistic and less tolerant of the stress that comes with high-pressure jobs.

Yup, he’s wading into some pretty thick goo with that argument. His paper reminds me of the dust-up around “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” the 1994 book by Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein that controversially tried to link intelligence to class and race.

I thought that book was wrong, too. So did scholars far more expert than I am. Yet I don’t deny that such theories of evolutionary psychology are rampant and need to be argued openly, not censored and driven underground to fester without intellectual challenge.

I feel the same about Damore’s memo. He draws a lot of broad conclusions which he claimed were backed up by studies.

His research was too thin to sufficiently support his questionable and inflammatory conclusion. He walks out on some thin ice, for example, to suppose that women are more prone to “neuroticism,” or higher anxiety and lower stress tolerance for competitive, high-pressure jobs. Exceptions to that scenario are plentiful.

For example, Damore’s memo omits evidence that bias, conscious and unconscious, still holds women back in the tech fields. A study by university computer students last year, for example, looked at 3 million “pull requests” for computer code at GitHub, an open-source repository of codes with which users can build software. The study found that “code written by women was requested at a higher rate (78.6 percent) than code written by men (74.6 percent),” according to The Guardian, as long as the gender of the woman was not revealed. When the code author’s gender was revealed, the acceptance rate dropped to about the same as men.

That study hardly settles every argument, but it does offer evidence of how women can, as a group, receive less reward for the same or superior effort. Like Damore’s memo, it invites more discussion like that which Google’s diversity program seemed to offer Damore, until the discussion he brought up ruffled too many feathers.

In fact, it was with that in mind that Damore titled his memo “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” He calls for more diversity, not less, and even concludes with suggestions for what he calls “non-discriminatory ways to reduce the gender gap” and increase the diversity of views in Google’s diversity programs and policies.

Firing Damore makes a martyr of him. To figures of the “alt-right” movement (a rebranding of new-Nazis, in my humble opinion), he became an instant hero, another sacrificial white male victim of liberal, pro-diversity “Social Justice Warriors,” the alt-right label for those of us who think our society benefits from its diversity.

We Americans can find even more ways to make diversity work for us, not against us, as a society. But first we need to talk.

And, when others make their case, we need to listen — and maybe learn to be better explainers.

Email Clarence Page at cpagechicagotribune.com.

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