Google sacked engineer James Damore after he wrote a memo saying the gender gap could be explained by biology. Social and cultural factors are likelier culprits, writes Angela Saini.
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In one of his most influential books, Charles Darwin made an observation about women.
As far as he could tell, women appeared to be sadly lacking compared with men in every sphere of life:
“The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is [shown] by man attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain,” he wrote in the Descent of Man published in 1871.
What could possibly explain this distinction?
He assumed that women must be biologically inferior. Of course, he ignored the abundant evidence around him that women didn’t have nearly the same freedom and opportunities as men.
Female scientists, architects and politicians were certainly scarce in Victorian England, but then this was also a society that didn’t allow women to vote, married women to own property, or women to go to university.
Darwin fell into the easy trap of interpreting structural inequality as biological difference
Darwin fell into the easy trap of interpreting structural inequality as biological difference.
He was suffering from bias. As brilliant a scientist as Darwin was, he couldn’t help but be blinded by prejudice when it came to women. But then, to be fair, he was a Victorian male.
Today we have fewer excuses for egregious sexism, yet many still fall prey to the same trap when it comes to sex difference.
Google and the gender gap
A now-notorious memo written by a young male software engineer, James Damore, this month suggested that the gender representation gap in some of the tech-based and more eminent roles at his employer, Google, might be down to biology.
“Once we acknowledge that not all differences are socially constructed or due to discrimination, we open our eyes,” Damore wrote.
The backlash was swift and Damore has since been fired from the company. There has been an enormous global response, both criticising Damore and defending him. On Thursday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai abruptly cancelled a companywide meeting about the controversy due to concerns about employee’s online harassment.
The science on sex difference can only be understood together with the social factors that create gaps
But the science on sex difference can only be understood together with the social factors that create gaps, and by understanding that bias can also skew what scientists tell us.
The Google engineer speculated whether “human nature” might explain why there are so few women in technology, forgetting that Silicon Valley has been plagued by cases of sexism, sexual harassment and discrimination.
A recent survey found that as many as 60% of women have found themselves the target of unwanted sexual advances from a superior. By any measure, Silicon Valley’s problem with women goes beyond their “nature”.
Shedding these prejudices is one of the greatest challenges for male-dominated workplaces
But to be as fair to Damore as we are to Darwin, he isn’t alone in making this kind of error. Gender stereotypes are ingrained in many of us from the day we’re born. From the toys we are given to the way we are handled and spoken to, humans are routinely treated differently depending on their sex.
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