Thursday, 10 August 2017

That Google memo

Here's a reader on the subject and my thoughts below.

1. The memo itself.

2. Scott Alexander on the science. Men and women are different. Not that different - two arms, two legs, one head - but a little different. And if you set up society to allow men and women to choose where they go in life then they will head in slightly different directions. On average, with a lot of overlap. But read the link.

3. Helen Lewis saying that Scott Alexander is missing the point. Her conclusion: ""Do women suck at maths" is a complicated question, and I'm not sure how far answering it will move the conversation forwards. "Have we structured society so that those competitions between the sexes that men can win are deemed to be the most important competitions?" is a better one."

My thoughts on this subject have been somewhat changed by talking to someone who works in 'tech'. Here goes.

1. Any business will likely gain some benefits from having a diverse workforce. Some examples are obvious: if you make kitchen gadgets, you should probably include some left-handed people in your team. But there are other business goals too, and your team might just work better, faster and more innovatively when you take out that disruptive left-hander.

2. The memo says a lot of things, many of which are true. One of the things it says is that ideological diversity is a good thing for a business. I don't know, but that may well be true. Maybe New Coke could have been avoided with more conservatism; maybe Kodak could have been saved by more radicalism. Google has decided that it does not value ideological diversity. That's its decision. It may be the right business decision. Or it may be the least bad starting from the position it was in. I feel for the author, and I think it is a shame that saying a lot of true things in a reasonable tone is intolerable to Google, but if Google feels that it would work better without disruptive left-handers like him then so be it.

3. Lewis is a bit unfair to Alexander. He makes the point that law and medicine used to be heavily male but now they are not, and that gives you some reason to think that it's not sexism that is holding women back in what is - to be frank - a lower status, lower power sector like technology. We should be concerned if the distribution of power, resources and opportunities across society as a whole is unfair. But it is entirely possible for women to take the majority of well-paying vet jobs and men to take the majority of well-paying tech jobs and that be a fair outcome.

4.  Let's take the stereotypes of 'spectrum-y' computer geeks, and what I have been told privately about how unfriendly tech is to women, and accept that it is also possible that tech is a hotbed of unintentional sexism. Lewis has a good point. Jobs are not immutable platonic entities. Is being a doctor a male-type science job or female-type caring for poorly people job? Is being a lawyer a female-type dealing with personal relationships job or a male-type detailed analysis job? Both. Or it depends. The truth at the heart of the (massive and often unfair over-) reaction to the original memo is that one should be careful to ensure that these tech roles are not gerrymandered to make them stereotypically male as perhaps (and Google would know better than me) they have been to date.

5. There has been a big shift in society in terms of the relative values of male and female specialisms. Physical strength and courage jobs - fighting, mining, entering burning buildings - have declined in number and value for various reasons; caring jobs - looking after children, old people, sick people, rich people, animals - have increased, again for various reasons; and professional jobs have increasingly become more intolerant of common male failings (e.g. sexual harassment) and have come to value more feminine qualities (e.g. not sexually harassing people). That is almost entirely either a good thing in itself (as my harassment example shows) or the result of a good thing (not fighting wars against Germany; not smoking in bed so much); but it has made things a little tougher for men, and pretty tough for some men in particular. The tech industry, however, has been the notable exception. It has been perhaps the only place where a set of stereotypically male characteristics - and not the Big Strong Man ones often valued in the past but ones that made you the butt of jokes in wider society - was valued. And now that's changing. The people who are going to lose out here are the most geeky, the most 'spectrum-y', the most stereotypically male. Trust me: socially confident extrovert men will learn how to talk the diversity talk and walk the equality walk; the losers are going to be people who don't have many safe niches in life, and are now losing the best one that human society has ever made for them. As with the Raja sitting in his crumbling palace, I'm not suggesting we shed too many tears, but we ought to be alive to the losers as well as the winners.

6. Finally, Alexander is right that we must not let all this get out of hand. There's something about the internet that seems to encourage all kinds of crazy abuse from all kinds of crazy people. I blame men - they invented the internet.

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