Brooks on biological sexism

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David Brooks recently argued that James Damore's anti-gender-diversity memo was right, and that Google was wrong to fire him ("Sundar Pichai Should Resign as Google’s C.E.O.", NYT 8/11/2017), giving us another example of Mr. Brooks' long-standing fascination with pseudo-scientific justifications of gender and ethnic stereotypes.

The best evaluation of Damore's memo that I've seen is Yonatan Zunger, "So, about this Googler's manifesto.", Medium 8/5/2017, which makes three key points:

(1) Despite speaking very authoritatively, the author does not appear to understand gender.
(2) Perhaps more interestingly, the author does not appear to understand engineering.
(3) And most seriously, the author does not appear to understand the consequences of what he wrote, either for others or himself.

Zunger focuses on points (2) and (3) — for a a deeper dive into point (1), see e.g. Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers, "We’ve studied gender and STEM for 25 years. The science doesn’t support the Google memo.", recode 8/11/2017.

But what about David Brooks?

Brooks' support for Damore is not an isolated example of contrarianism. I've been posting for more than a decade about his confused but consistent interest in the science of prejudice. He explained the overall narrative in "Is Chemistry Destiny?", 9/17/2006:

Once radicals dreamed of new ways of living, but now happiness seems to consist of living in harmony with the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago.

In other words, racism and sexism are realistic and appropriate responses to the natural world, so just relax and stop trying to change things.

Here are a few long-form discussions of how Brooks explores "the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago":

"David Brooks, Cognitive Neuroscientist", 6/12/2006
"David Brooks, Neuroendocrinologist", 9/17/2006
"David Brooks, Social Psychologist", 8/13/2008

And some other vaguely related posts:

"An inquiry concerning the principles of morals", 4/7/2009
"The butterfly and the elephant", 11/28/2009
"'Your passport has just been stamped for entry into the Land of Bullshit'", 3/3/2013
"David 'Semi True' Brooks", 3/20/2013
"Ngram morality", 5/22/2013
"Reality v. Brooks", 6/15/2015

"Stereotypes and facts", 9/24/2006
"Language and identity", 7/29/2007
"Is autism the symptom of an 'extreme white brain'?", 3/26/2008
"Sexual pseudoscience from CNN", 6/19/2008
"Innate sex differences: science and public opinion", 6/20/2008
"Delusions of gender", 8/24/2010


  1. Elonkareon said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 7:15 am

    1) From what I can tell, Zunger hasn't even read the full memo, just the Gizmodo version.
    2) When I first read his response it sounded very logical and reasonable, but… it's not? It's disgustingly condescending, written by someone who long ago stopped doing software engineering and focused on the social kind instead (which is why he was able to write such a convincing response in the first place).

    Those things said, I haven't taken the time to read the memo either. I was, however, briefly fooled by Zunger's post.

  2. Joe Pater said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 7:25 am

    Thank you for this Mark. I'll be tweeting it to Steven Pinker, who as you might have heard, found Brooks' analysis "excellent".

  3. David Cameron Staples said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 7:39 am

    Elonkareon, 1) I think I can guarantee that if Yonatan wrote an essay about something, especially something this important, then he read the whole thing. He didn't get the position and reputation he has by responding to a summary and hoping no-one notices.

    2) It's not condescention, it's anger.

    3) he is still a software engineer. His whole point is that "the social" is a an important aspect of the profession which doesn't get enough attention. It's not "instead", it's "as well".

    4) Does it seem a bit rich to anyone else for someone who admits that they haven't read the source document in question to be castigating someone else for seeming not to have read that same document?

    [(myl) FWIW, I did read (and link to) what I believe to be the full version of Damore's memo. And I agree with your characterization of Zunger's analysis.]

  4. Michael P said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 7:48 am

    Zunger's rant is a mess. He starts off by claiming that Damore doesn't understand gender, but Zunger neither provides a single example of this, nor provides a reference for anyone who wants to follow the details.

    Zunger proceeds to argue that "[e]ngineering is not the art of building devices; it’s the art of fixing problems", which shows that he himself doesn't understand engineering well and is apparently totally ignorant of the vast number of non-engineering fields which are about solving problems. Engineering is primarily distinguished from medicine, business management, and hundreds of other fields by the mechanism one uses to solve problems: namely, by designing and building devices.

    To Zunger's final point, the only way one gets from Damore's memo to "your colleagues are at root not good enough to do their jobs" is through misreading or by applying substantial constraints to what "their jobs" mean that Damore said should not be applied. Even more than that, to the extent that Damore's memo caused any problems for Google, it was because someone leaked the memo to the general press. If Damore did that, blame Damore, but it seems much more likely that someone opposed to the memo would have.

    Similarly, it is hard to take Barnett and Rivers seriously when their screed starts off by a similar misrepresentation about what Damore wrote, and continues on to the claim that a hyper-PC company like Google will exhibit blatant sexism in the hiring process. I'm not sure that their academic backgrounds, as professors of women's studies and journalism respectively, make them particularly well-informed about the biology or well-qualified to judge the research in question.

    Maybe Language Log would be better off sticking to linguistics, and venturing less into the realms of politically correct inquisitions.

  5. Willem Zuidema said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 8:28 am

    David Brooks might be notorious – I wouldn't know – but does he really argue that the memo was right? He quotes some scientists that say so and writes "in general the evolutionary psychologists have been winning this debate." but that is not the same thing.

    One of Brooks' main point is that the memo got misrepresented. Zunger is a good example. He summarizes the memo as being "about, essentially, how women and men are intrinsically different and we should stop trying to make it possible for women to be engineers, it’s just not worth it."

    I feel, that seriously misrepresents what's in the document. The document I read didn't talk about 'intrinsic differences' but about slight differences in distributions of traits, and explicitly talks about non-discriminatory ways to make it possible for more women to be engineers. I know people also question the sincerity and tone of that section, -fine- but Zunger's summary is just wrong and irresponsible.

    There are lots of dubious claims in the document, but I think they ought to be dealt with by solid counter-arguments, not by exaggerating the claims this dude made, firing him and, what I have also seen in social media discussions, comparing people that want to discuss the possibility of biological gender differences to holocaust deniers. I feel really strongly about this, because equal opportunities for people from different genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and social economic classes are very important to me, and I fear the reaction to this and similar cases is very counterproductive.

  6. languagehat said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 9:04 am

    Maybe Language Log would be better off sticking to linguistics, and venturing less into the realms of politically correct inquisitions.

    I agree about the first part, because this is going to degenerate into another shouting match between people who rant about "politically correct inquisitions" and people who refuse to let that crap go unanswered.

    Another good piece that explains why Damore's piece was terrible is this; for those who don't feel like clicking through, here's the nub:

    Imagine your name is Mike. You’re nine. Two bullies several years older have you on your belly in an alley and one holds a knife. They begin to calmly, rationally have a discussion about whether people named ‘Mike’ are too populous and whether the world even needs you. They, precociously, pull out bar charts of name distributions over time to show that your name is well outside the standard deviation of use. They discuss the Hebrew and Aramaic origins of your name and wonder if you, a WASP kid, really even came by it honestly. The knife twirls.

    Maybe these two bullies have a low heart rate and low levels of cortisol (a stress hormone). They are relaxed. It’s a totally rational discussion! We’re just talking about facts! Why are you panicking, Mike?!

    That’s effectively what we’re doing when we debate, say, whether women are less inclined to computer engineering.

    Also, David Brooks is an idiot. Why are we paying attention to him?

  7. Scott McClure said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 9:29 am

    Michael P, I took Zunger, on the question of devices vs. solutions, to mean that a wise engineer will focus on the problems that existing and potential clients need to solve, rather than on building or perfecting a particular device or technology. Better to be agnostic about particular technologies while looking closely at the problem that the client really needs to solve, in other words.

  8. Jonathan said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 9:45 am

    David Brooks does seem to have mastered the art of saying horrible and incorrect things while leaving the impression with a lot of people that he's being reasonable. It is in some ways impressive, but it's not quite linguistics to my mind. I wish that there was some sister blog to LanguageLog that covered rhetoric and public communication/media.

  9. D.O. said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 9:47 am

    LH, I respect you immensly, but overblown retoric is a poor substitute for reason. I also have a hard time figuring out what is wrong with not being inclined toward programming. There are enormous number of people of both sexes and all 60 genders and sexual orientations who do not want to make programming their occupation and, I dare say, would be bad at it if forced to do it. Honestly, we figured out how to leave in peace with people whose suggestions about saying mass will lead you to eternal damnation. Can we dial down a little bit heat on this topic as well.

  10. karimpootam said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 9:58 am

    As a woman who worked briefly in software engineering before moving onto another male-dominated field, I hope I'm allowed to talk publicly on this issue. (referring the article by Jack Danger linked to by LanguageHat above which explicitly says men should not be sharing their opinions in public about this issue).

    I just wanted to point out that both the Zunger article and the one by Barnett and Rivers speak as though the diversity memo suggests that the underrepresentation of women is due to a lack of ability. (Quote from Zunger: "You just put out a manifesto inside the company arguing that some large fraction of your colleagues are at root not good enough to do their jobs, and that they’re only being kept in their jobs because of some political ideas." and quote from the Barnett and Rivers article: "the idea that women just can’t hack it in math and science", and also "Evidence is mounting that girls are every bit as competent as boys in these areas. "). I have read the google demo -several times actually, since I read it so differently from most commenters who were outraged that I had to go back and check if I'd made any reading comprehension errors. And it certainly does not seem to *me* to be talking about an 'ability' gap, but an 'interest' gap.

    And as far as the 'interest' gap goes, I do not think this idea is so outside the pale of mainstream science that we need to ban discussions on it (or even discussions by men on it). Here's a nice discussion of this difference and why it just MIGHT be pertinent to the gender ratios you see in tech:

    Having said that, I understand why women who have often faced the very real and pervasive biases against them do not want to give the benefit of the doubt to the memo author. And I agree the memo is not perfect – perhaps those diversity programs do some good after all to counter the effects of those skewed gender ratios on the women who ARE interested in tech and want to make a living in that field (I'm a bit skeptical though). But the fact that *some* people use certain ideas to support their biases should not make us stop discussing those ideas in public altogether.

    (Also, I'm really not a special snowflake. I happen to know several women in real life who are quite amazed at the level of outrage this memo seems to have garnered.)

  11. languagehat said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 10:05 am

    I also have a hard time figuring out what is wrong with not being inclined toward programming.

    Huh? There is, of course, nothing wrong with not being inclined toward programming; has anyone said so? What is wrong is claiming that women are biologically programmed not to be inclined toward programming. And if by "overblown rhetoric" you mean calling David Brooks an idiot, I'm sorry, but I believe in calling things by their true names. Part of the reason we've gotten into the mess we're in today is reluctance to call the idiots and racists what they in fact are. Being polite to those who would destroy our shaky civilization-in-the-making is self-destructive and wrong.

  12. karimpootam said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 10:25 am

    > What is wrong is claiming that women are biologically programmed not to be inclined toward programming.

    Unless that's true, one hopes? (Not saying it is!)

    In any case, 'biological' does not mean 'inevitable' does it? Some of us don't think biological causes 'program' humans any more than 'cultural' causes do. I think it's pretty safe to assume that the fact of women being on average more sexually attracted to men than to other women is at least partly biological in cause. Yet lesbians exist. And we who are open to biological causes of average personality differences between the sexes don't think to explain homosexuality away.

  13. Andrew Usher said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 11:11 am

    – What is wrong is claiming that women are biologically programmed not to be inclined toward programming.

    Given how recent programming is, it would be quite a surprise indeed if any of us were biologically inclined to it. Obviously, the issue is deeper than that and Damore's memo recognised it; in fact, it seems he took especial care to be neutral. Why then did Brooks and Zunder have such opposite reactions to it, both thinking they're absolutely, obviously, right? The very political biases Damore mentioned; both only see one side.

    It is true that Zunder is no longer a 'software engineer', he says himself he's left Google and joined what is an obvious BS startup designed to provide sinecures to the privileged and politically correct like so many others. It's strikingly honest that he admits one of the purposes of his doing that was to oppose the 'universal basic income' – the one thing the leftist-capitalist-authoritarian elite like him could not stand – which is just why we need it.

  14. thegears said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 11:15 am

    > And we who are open to biological causes of average personality differences between the sexes don't think to explain homosexuality away.

    I don't think anyone made the claim there are no personality differences between sexes. No one said that. languagehat said that taking that and inferring that these translate into different amount of interest or ability in programming or engineering is incorrect.

    In other words, there seem to be two major schools of thought on why there are fewer women working for e.g. Google than other places:

    1. Women are inherently less interested.
    2. Women are discouraged because of pervasive sexism in primary, secondary, undergradute, and graduate education, the hiring pipeline, the culture surrounding the tech industry, and the specific companies in question, which results in them self-selecting away from working there, even if they would otherwise have been interested.

    It is possible for both of these things to be true. Damore implied that because, based on his understanding of science, the first one was true, that the second one was not, and that the gender gap at e.g. Google was primarily biological in origin, not predicated on the social conditions that actually exist. I don't think that his argument is supportable given the actual science. We simply don't know how many women would choose to apply to the likes of Google, if not for the actual, documented evidence of sexism that female computer scientists/engineers experience, and it may well be that it would result in more than 31% of Google's employees being female.

    Assuming that the percentage is due to innate biology and not sexism, in the face of evidence to the contrary, is sexist.

  15. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 11:40 am

    What a fuss. I'm sure that a similar memo written about men would cause no fuss at all. For example this one (here is a brief quote from it, the rest in the link)
    "Unfortunately, we as a community have allowed our left-leaning biases to cloud our thinking on this issue. In addition to the affinity we feel for underdogs in general, there’s a strong tendency among humans (especially female ones, whose brains tend to be wired more for empathy than logical thinking) to defer to men’s wishes, protect their feelings and overestimate their accomplishments. This tendency most likely evolved because men have a lot of testosterone in their system, and they’re apt to beat the shit out of anyone they think is disrespecting them."

  16. D.O. said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 11:50 am

    LH, I meant the quote in your first comment (I won't comment on Brooks, if it's just as well with you). If there is nothing wrong with not being inclined to become a programmer, then why should we deeply care that less women are programmers than men? If there is obvious discrimination in tech or not-so-subtle nudging of women from tech, it should be rooted out. Damore and his side think that there is none, their opponents think that there is, that's a valid point for discussion, which has nothing to do with who inclined more to do what. Separate and interesting point is what sort of genetic differences influence cognitive abilities. To my unprofessional mind, women/men distinction is not even the most interesting one. In any case, if there are some differences, it would be a weak evidence that there is no discrimination, and if there are no significant differences it would not be a proof of discrimination and only a weak evidence that something is deeply wrong. Both points are worthy of discussion, but blurring them together does not make sense.

  17. karimpootam said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 12:12 pm

    > Assuming that the percentage is due to innate biology and not sexism, in the face of evidence to the contrary, is sexist.

    Unless of course there is evidence also to suggest that when sexism decreases and gender equality increases, percentage of women in tech decreases? You can compare this, since there are countries in the world which are more sexist than others. It's not settled science, but that's precisely why you shouldn't be suggesting only 'sexists' can disagree with you and banning any discussion on the topic altogether.

    Here's a link suggesting higher occupational/interest divergence in societies that are more gender egalitarian:

    Linking to the SlateStarCodex article again:

    Quoting from there:
    Galpin investigated the percent of women in computer classes all around the world. Her number of 26% for the US is slightly higher than I usually hear, probably because it’s older (the percent women in computing has actually gone down over time!). The least sexist countries I can think of – Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, etc – all have somewhere around the same number (30%, 20%, and 24%, respectively). The most sexist countries do extremely well on this metric! The highest numbers on the chart are all from non-Western, non-First-World countries that do middling-to-poor on the Gender Development Index: Thailand with 55%, Guyana with 54%, Malaysia with 51%, Iran with 41%, Zimbabwe with 41%, and Mexico with 39%. Needless to say, Zimbabwe is not exactly famous for its deep commitment to gender equality.

    Why is this? It’s a very common and well-replicated finding that the more progressive and gender-equal a country, the larger gender differences in personality of the sort Hyde found become. I agree this is a very strange finding, but it’s definitely true. See eg Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Sex Differences In Big Five Personality Traits Across 55 Cultures:

    Previous research suggested that sex differences in personality traits are larger in prosperous, healthy, and egalitarian cultures in which women have more opportunities equal with those of men. In this article, the authors report cross-cultural findings in which this unintuitive result was replicated across samples from 55 nations (n = 17,637).

  18. thegears said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

    > Damore and his side think that there is none, their opponents think that there is [discrimination/discouragement], that's a valid point for discussion, which has nothing to do with who inclined more to do what.

    Damore is the one who said they were connected! The reason I and others are frustrated is because he's arguing that women are biologically less inclined to want to work at Google and that's why there's a gender gap. But he's ignoring evidence that doesn't support his point of view: there is discouragement, but more than that, there's outright harassment and intimidation of women:

  19. Michael P said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 1:51 pm

    Please excuse the length of this comment; this is a complicated topic, with a lot of elements going in different directions.

    languagehat, even if you think something is a "rant" and "crap", endorsing an analogy between posting a memo (which explicitly advocates making Google an attractive employer for female software developers!) and a back-alley assault is counter-productive, and rightfully called "overblown rhetoric". I would even say that it supports characterization of the memo's critics as an inquisition.

    Damore explicitly recognized biases as a contributing factor to why Google's software developers are not split 50/50 between males and females, explicitly did not argue against efforts "to correct for existing biases", and endorsed various approaches (like encouraging cooperation, accommodating more "life" in the work-life balance, etc.) to make Google more appealing to more women.

    He never says women are not good at programming, or that they are biologically geared to be not interested in it. He said that statistically, women tend to be less interested than men in tasks like writing software code (and gave some biological reasons that may explain part of the differences). My experience is that women than men are less interested in writing code. Some of this may be due to how universities approach computer science — I got my degrees in 1999, and there was a heavy emphasis in the coursework on writing code to solve contrived problems with a particular pedagogic focus, or proving theorems about rather abstract topics. Even "software engineering", as a discipline, focuses a lot on estimates and projections of hours and weeks and dollars rather than characterizing the problems that are being solved or how well proposed solutions will work. To a large extent, this is because these are things that are easy to make objective, even though (except for overall cost) they are usually not among the most important factors in a project's success or failure.

    There is what I would call a disproportionate focus on Damore's observation that women tend to be less interested in writing code. This observation is often mischaracterized as an assertion that women are bad at coding or never interested in coding — despite his clear statements that he is talking about averages, and that everyone should be treated as an individual rather than a statistical average of some group they belong to.

    Probably because of his intended audience, Damore assumes knowledge of what Zunger spelled out: That software development, as a job or a career, involves a lot more than just writing code. A successful software project involves a lot more than just writing code, and good leaders will want to have enough staff to do a good job at the whole spectrum of tasks. One should not optimize (e.g. by tests during the hiring process, or ratings during annual reviews) for programming prowess at the expense of the harder-to-quantify parts.

    While Zunger seems to think that it is a good idea to make silos where people are labeled UX designers, Damore is silent on that. From what I have seen in professional software development, that kind of label makes it very hard to change course. Some people might want to do user-experience work to the exclusion of other software development, but for a lot of people, it is better to be a "software developer with a focus on user experience" than to be a "UX designer, used to write code". For example, I think Zunger contributes to the problem when he distinguishes "UX'ers" from "engineers" proper.

    (I say Damore assumes knowledge of that because of what he said about pair programming and "limits to how people-oriented certain roles at Google can be": other roles, which I suspect he was not limiting to management and HR jobs, can be a lot more people-focused.
    He assumed readers would understand the theory behind pair programming and why a project might want to have only half its developers working at a keyboard for much of the time.)

    The way I see it, Damore mentions those differences in focus mostly to explain that even if all forms of intentional discrimination and unconscious bias are removed, women could still be disproportionately excluded from Google's software jobs — if Google puts too much emphasis on parts of the job that women are less interested in or are inclined to avoid — and that Google should work on ways to be a good place for female software developers to work in addition to its efforts to eliminate other forms of discrimination and bias.

    I guess Damore's critics would rather not address those ideas. What really mystifies me is why those critics also claim his memo says things that it clearly rejects — for example, that sexism can or should be ignored (in particular, as a factor that makes Google less attractive to women as a place to work), or that women are worse at software development. The most we can fairly say is that the memo expresses concern that Google defines many of its jobs in ways that make them needlessly, and even harmfully, unattractive to women.

  20. Lukas said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 1:59 pm

    > it’s the art of fixing problems", which shows that he himself
    > doesn't understand engineering

    I'm a software engineer. In 30 years of working in the field, I've yet to find a problem that doesn't fit Zunger's description. He's right about software engineering, and right about the fact that Damore doesn't get software engineering. In my experience, engineers who think like Damore are simply bad at their job.

    They produce correct solutions, but useless ones, because they forget that correctness is nothing without user acceptance.

  21. Lukas said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

    > My experience is that women than men are less interested
    > in writing code

    For context, when I studied comp sci around 2000, I shared a flat with a woman who studied with me, and the kind of crap she got is unbelievable. For example, a professor flat-out told her that there was no place for women in computer science. It often doesn't get much better for women once they start working.

    But maybe it's just genetic. I guess that's an option, too, if you ignore all of the actual facts.

  22. Michael P said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 2:30 pm

    Lukas, it is neither convincing nor constructive to say (essentially) "so-and-so is right, and this other person is wrong, because I know".

    Zunger is arguing, rather poorly, against a straw man. He dishonestly says that senior staff work "[put] in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code". That is exactly backwards. People do not jump from being fresh graduates to being effective leaders because they like working with people, or have lots of empathy, or understand the problems that and end user wants to solve, or have a burning desire to establish helpful "social structures".

    Senior staff have enough experience about what is possible, what is efficient, what is maintainable, and so forth, that they can delegate a lot of the details. Their expertise is often needed to solve higher-level problems, but that is only possible because they already intimately know the details of the practical work. In most cases, they also know who among their coworkers is good at different kinds of technical work, and how they can effectively partition up the work. They can be effective as senior staff precisely because they spent years upon years of focused effort on solving the more detailed problems.

    None of this is new or specific to software development, by the way.

  23. Michael P said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 2:39 pm

    > But maybe it's just genetic. I guess that's an option, too, if you ignore all of the actual facts.

    It doesn't seem to matter how often Damore or I or others say sexism (or racism or other kinds of discrimination) is still a problem, and one we should not tolerate — people are still quick to quote things out of context and pretend that we have said things that we already explicitly rejected.

    Yet people mock us for saying this looks like an inquisition.

  24. beowulf said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 2:54 pm

    I and I'm sure many others would appreciate it if Language Log just stuck to linguistics. We're here for your expertise on language, not your political opinions.

    (Note I would say the same thing – probably more emphatically, if it was right-wing ideology on display.)

  25. D.O. said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 5:05 pm

    We might start discussion on gender differences in language acquisition ability to keep everyone (un)happy.

  26. languagehat said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 5:19 pm

    Note I would say the same thing – probably more emphatically, if it was right-wing ideology on display.

    It is right-wing ideology on display; this is Brooks we're talking about. And his mock-objective approach is depressingly in the majority in this very thread. But I heartily agree with you about sticking to linguistics.

  27. Roscoe said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 5:23 pm

    "(Note I would say the same thing – probably more emphatically, if it was right-wing ideology on display.)"

    Now I'm curious: does the formulation "stick with [x]" (or "stick to [x]") appear more often in responses to left-wing or right-wing ideology? (Topic for another LL post, perhaps?)

  28. David Cameron Staples said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 5:58 pm


    Yonatan is "not an engineer" now in the same way that he "wasn't an engineer" at Google for a few years: in the sense that he was a senior engineer in management, with most of his responsibilities going to managing teams of other engineers. He didn't magically forget how to engineer as soon as he got his first direct report. He hasn't stopped being an engineer, he's just moved on to trying to fix different problems in a bigger system.

    Engineering is about solving problems. You can engineer a solution by changing a process… no gadgets needing to be built at all. (In that sense, the process itself is the gadget.) You can build devices all you like, but if you can never build them the same way twice, or (inclusive "or") it doesn't solve the problem, then you're not an engineer, you're tinkering.

    I know plenty of women who are keen engineers, and plenty of men who are just showing up for the cheque. I think part of the problem is that whenever you point out a female engineer, they are most likely to be exceptionally good. Which is awesome, but where are the average, ordinary, normal women engineers? There are millions of ordinary male engineers, who are about good enough. But women have to be better, just to get in the door. The point isn't that women are better, but that the standards are skewed so that they have to be better to be accepted as equal. Why aren't more women interested in engineering? Maybe it's because they are treated as being bad engineers, when in reality they're normal. They're just as good as their male coworkers, but are treated like they're not, until even they start to believe it. No wonder so many women fall away, without even necessarily knowing fully why. (Often enough, they know full well why, but there's only so much fighting the system you can do before being exhausted.) There's also the attitude displayed in the XKCD cartoon "Wow, you suck at math" vs "Wow, girls suck at math". A man's failure is his own. A woman's failure is all women's. Screw all this "is better than"/"is worse than" BS… when a women has the freedom to be as bad an engineer as her co-workers without disproportionate consequences, that's when the problem's getting fixed.

  29. elessorn said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 11:19 pm

    Screw all this "is better than"/"is worse than" BS… when a women has the freedom to be as bad an engineer as her co-workers without disproportionate consequences, that's when the problem's getting fixed.

    This is so depressing. If intelligent people of good will feel perfectly free to misrepresent a document we all have to hand for reference, I don't know what hope there is in the world, to be a bit melodramatic about it, if honest. "is better than"/"is worse than" BS? Heartily agreed. Would you mind pointing to the place in the memo where such BS is being dished out?

    I submit that you're reacting to an argument that the memo clearly isn't making. I say this with hesitation and apology because it's basically an offensive change to make, but I recognize that the issue of gender discrimination is bloody real enough that emotional reactions on all sides should be cut some slack. Please take the following in that spirit of charitable constructive discussion.

    The claim is that interests are to some extent colored by genes, like basically everything else, because we have discarded young-earth creationism. That there are genetic differences between men and women, some first-order at the cellular level, some second-order due to developmental differences in gestation. As far as I'm aware, neither of these claims has been disputed in all good-faith discussion of the memo so far, though you're welcome to be the first.

    The claim is not that there is some brightly-labeled "technophilia" switch on the Y chromosome. Not even that there are genes for interest in "things" over "people." How could there be? Even something as simple-seeming and as immediately selection-pressured as height is apparently quite a complex phenomenon genetically. Either way, however the genetics do work, it seems it's very much a black-box to even the evo-psychiest proponents out there. At least in all the back-and-forth in terms of whose side the science supports, all the evidence adduced on Damore's side of the argument has given me the sense that whatever trends we can observe the process working out to, the process itself remains in large parts unclear.

    But the trends seem robust. You offer: Why aren't more women interested in engineering? Maybe it's because they are treated as being bad engineers, when in reality they're normal. They're just as good as their male coworkers, but are treated like they're not, until even they start to believe it. I say that's nothing but a just-so story. I'm 100% positive that it's true for n=some number of women, but dispositively it proves nothing. Or rather it proves too much, which is why I discount it. It proves why women at still at 20% in medicine, law, psychology, linguistics, biology, etc., ad nauseam.

    More than that, it fails to take into account persistently reported *widenings* of gender preference gaps in places like gender-egalitarian Scandinavia. The implication of your argument and that of so many others is that sexism stunts interest in the pipeline and retention in the workplace. But maybe we're wrong that Scandinavia and Western Europe are less sexist? Would a reverse-engineered sexism ranking working backward from women in tech % give us a better picture of more-sexist and less-sexist countries? Would you support updating gender equality measures to emulate countries that came out on top of such a list?

    But like I said, I suspect that your argument, and languagehat's far, far more over-the-top knife argument, are driven by the certainty that actual sexists–of whom there are definitely a lot! maybe even especially so in tech!–will *love* Damore's argument. I'm sure this is the case. I almost have to believe this is that case. Because so many intelligent people being willing to flagrantly misrepresent an easily-checkable text for anything less than something as important as rejecting barbaric sexism is otherwise too depressing for words.

    But I suggest to you that that's an absolutely terrible reason to misrepresent it. (1) Because it won't work: the safe bet is that *more* of what makes us human is likely to be ego-deflatingly attributed to genes over time, not less, and this will eventually be obvious to all. (2) Because the ill effects of corruption on the reputation of expertise are always worse than we expect: we're literally having trouble convincing so-called "conservatives" to conserve the environment now! The model to follow in a polarized society is the ACLU – if you value facts absolutely, your commitment to them has to be absolute, even if it means letting the Nazis march through Skopje. And "the percentage of women interested in tech seems smaller than the percentage of men so inclined" isn't exactly Neo-Nazi stuff, is it? (3) Because the benefits of truth are always greater than we expect (Not what we do with that truth, mind you, q.v. 20th century), and we should be biased towards passing on as much of it as we can to the next generation. I'm sure the task of convincing sexists not to misread Damore's argument to mean women are worse at coding seems like a far heavier lift right now than culture-warring it enough to make it radioactive to support it and keep one's job. But because *if* he's right (or some approximation of it), then the long-term ability to obscure the truth is already asymptotically 0%–however Google's firing might make it seem possible in 2017. The harder fight on the surer cause of sexism=wrong is a far better bet long term.

    Of course, maybe the science is actually against him? Totally possible. Maybe humans are uniquely among Earth lifeforms so susceptible to cultural influences that we have simply escaped or one day will be able to cultural-engineer our way to escape from the evolutionary gauntlet. (I find it unlikely.) But the fact that most arguments against the memo misrepresent its actual words, that even the leakers made sure to sabotage the original document, and that the response has been endlessly driven by appeals to emotion is, to me, at least a substantial suggestion that other lower-hanging fruit to criticize wasn't available. And what could be a better example of that the this post? If we're going to confront an argument we find distasteful by holding up its weakest proponents like David Brooks for ridicule, it's a strong suggestion at least that we're not really interested in seriously confronting it at all.

  30. wally w said,

    August 14, 2017 @ 12:13 am

    Its nice to be able to interject a lighthearted linguistic point into this serious but valuable discussion. But surely the ACLU is not concerned with Nazis marching in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. They have taken a stand on marches in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago.

    My 2 cents is that we are circling toward a consensus: surely there are some biological differences in male versus female programmers taken as a group. The problem is in making too much of that fact, or in thinking it necessarily says anything at all about any individual.

  31. Jonathan D said,

    August 14, 2017 @ 12:13 am

    But maybe we're wrong that Scandinavia and Western Europe are less sexist?

    Well, yes, the idea that the levels of all gender/sex-based prejudice and societal pressures align with some one-dimensional measure of the level of sexism in a society is pretty strange. Much stranger than the differences in preferences around the world.

  32. elessorn said,

    August 14, 2017 @ 2:22 am

    Macedonia! How embarrassing… scary to think how long I've had that information misallocated.

    Though I should say, biological differences in male versus female programmers taken as a group is, to my understanding, not what is at issue. Just as tall people resemble each other in tallness regardless of sex, people interested in "things," to use what seems to be the popular phrase, should resemble each other in that dimension more than they resemble men or women who are not so inclined.

  33. Michael P said,

    August 14, 2017 @ 6:58 am

    Just as tall people resemble each other in tallness regardless of sex, people interested in "things," to use what seems to be the popular phrase, should resemble each other in that dimension more than they resemble men or women who are not so inclined.

    This is true, but I think one point of the memo is that this may not be enough. Relying on the fact that some women are naturally interested in programming may not get "enough" women to join the company and stay there, because there may not be enough coding-oriented women to fit the company's culture. (The definition of "enough" is very subjective, but I think the Damore memo presumes that Google does not hire and/or retain enough women.)

    Moreover, if heavily coding-oriented people tend to be very similar to each other, they are correspondingly less representative of the general population, and they are more susceptible to decision biases. To that end, it is worth looking at both day-to-day procedures and occasional things like review practices to figure out how to make the company more appealing to people with different perspectives and priorities. Even marginal changes can have significant effects if you are selecting from extremes of the general population, which Google definitely does.

    In other words, don't only recruit women who can pass as tech bros: make the company a good place for any good software developer to work, whether male or female. In particular, make procedural or cultural changes that increase the company's appeal to under-represented groups, at least where those changes are (legal and) per se neutral or helpful to the overall business.

    I think those kinds of changes are what Damore was advocating.

  34. languagehat said,

    August 14, 2017 @ 7:32 am

    Here’s your point by point refutation of the google memo.

  35. elessorn said,

    August 14, 2017 @ 8:48 am


    Seriously? I…there's no way to phrase it artfully: how do you feel comfortable citing a "rebuttal" like this? This isn't an argument, it's a travesty. "My opponent doesn't come out and say these horrible things he really thinks, but just look at them, how horrible these things are! You don't want to agree with someone who thinks these horrible things, do you?" Perhaps you think there's a way to quarantine off such a deeply dishonest form of debate, like a weapon in a glass case to be drawn out IN CASE OF SEXISM ONLY, but I don't believe such a quarantine is possible.

    For those who doubt, at the beginning of the offered medium link:

    The central argument of the google manifesto appears to be that discrimination against men is required to achieve the diversity Google wants. This argument is based on several sexist assumptions which reveal the deep sociological problems we face:

    Sexist assumption 1: A meritocracy would have more men than women in tech, because men are inherently better/more valuable than women.

    Sexist assumption 2: Women’s issues are not relevant to men at all.

    Sexist assumption 3: Women are not fulfilled by leadership positions.

    Sexist assumption 4: Housework and childcare are enjoyable leisure activities, not real work.

    Sexist assumption 5: Diversity efforts are only to make the company look good, because women’s work does not contribute to the company’s success or bottom line.

    Sexist assumption 6: Gender bias is not a real issue. Anyone who thinks so is blinded by political bias.

    Sexist assumption 7: The left values diversity because they like to to take care of and protect weak and helpless victims, like women.

    Sexist assumption 8: Women don’t actually want to get ahead in the workplace.

    Sexist assumption 9: Men should be able to promote sexist views with impunity.

    These unstated assumptions are blatantly sexist. By promoting and re-enforcing these stereotypes without data that backs up his claims, the author contributes to a hostile work environment for women.

    Now, if following this odious set-up the writer then actually proceeded to, as the title vainly promises, give a "point-by-point refutation," I think that would deserve some respect, and be worth reading and sharing regardless. Anything that frames a debate around the person's actual arguments is at least a step forward. But as Hat must know, the title of the medium article is insanely misleading. Instead of going through the memo point by point, s/he goes through his/her own list of sexist assumptions point by point, pulling out (very, very short) snippets from Damore's ten-page document and handling them under whatever subcategory of, again, his/her own list s/he feels they reflect. (Needless to say, even in a longish blog post only a small portion of the memo actually gets dealt with using this scrapbook method: at a charitable ballpark guess, the ratio of argument text to quoted text has got to be around 15:1.)

    Seriously, Hat, I don't think it goes to far to say this is serious red guards territory. I ask you: are you comfortable promoting such a debate norm? Comfortable having it used against you and those you care about? Trying people by what they haven't said, judging them by what they haven't done? Because sexism is bad? Are you aware of any other exemplary historical case where allowing obvious miscarriages of justice in the name of a greater cause turned out to be a good idea in hindsight? Damore is hardly the Devil by anyone's account, but the rebuke stands: When the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?

  36. Moreh said,

    August 14, 2017 @ 2:50 pm

    A dissenting take: "The Google Memo: Four Scientists Respond".

    Damore has shown a regrettable social naivety, and I don't entirely agree with his program, but the level of discourse around the memo has been depressing – especially the wilful (or at least, "motivated") disregard of the distinctions that he firmly and correctly draws between average distributions and individual character, and between interest/preference and ability. And I would echo the point, made above, that gender disparities in tech are well established to be greater in more egalitarian societies in which individual preference and interest can override practical imperatives. Societal sexism is unqeustionably one factor in play, but it's not the only one.

    And as some other commenters have urged – whatever your political inclinations (and for what it's worth, I'm a leftist), please don't turn LL into yet another earth-scorching venue for the culture war. ("This is why we can't have nice things.") There are already more than enough of those, and even the less heterodox readers here may appreciate a respite from the constant fighting that they're treated to just about everywhere else.

  37. Joe said,

    August 14, 2017 @ 7:57 pm

    As a scientist, parts of this memo's contents look most unlikely to me; as a lawyer, I'd say it would appear to have been written in good faith; and as an increasingly perplexed observer of contemporary US society, I deplore a very powerful company's decision to fire its author.

  38. AG said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 6:10 am

    Damore's misguided and harmful personal opinions (which, oddly, make up the vast bulk of an ostensibly "scientific" document) are transparently, malevolently sexist. Languagehat and a few others have the right idea.

    Also, trying to silence something you don't personally want to read by calling it "politics" is a cowardly and despicable _political_ tactic. If you support Damore's right to blather sexist nonsense, you should certainly support others' right to discuss it.

  39. Andrew Usher said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 7:20 am

    No one wants to silence its discussion in general; political issues are meant to be discussed, and everyone has a right to comment here as long as comments are open. The only objection is to seeing an obviously political post on _this_ blog, which is generally non-political and restricted to matters of linguistic interest. People of any political orientation can have an interest in such things, independently of their interest in political discussion.

    Yes, such comments saying 'stick to politics' are always in response to left-wing matters because that's the only kind of politics ever seen here; linguistics is (it seems) the most monolithically leftist of all academic departments, which is strange for something that claims to be a science and to at least some extent is. I must mention that Chomsky is excluded here; he's unique and due to his age not a representative of today's linguistics – he speaks the language of the Left a generation or two ago, when they at least pretended to be socialist.

    Anyway others above have made most of the points I wanted to add. The only further interesting things that I should have remarked on was the one point Zunger reluctantly conceded to Damore, and I will reluctantly concede to him, is that the pressure of men to fill a so-called 'gender role' is the real heart of the problem. He, however, doesn't have a real solution for that, either, and doesn't really want to solve it, being the elitist he is (he may have started as a novice coder but given how power and status change most people, that doesn't matter now). Again the 'universal basic income' he mentions only to dismiss is one thing that really would help with that problem.

    Also the definition of engineering given by 'David Cameron Staples' is silly and ad-hoc, if that were so anything could be called engineering. It is more than solving problems, it's a way of solving problem – one that fundamentally doesn't include interactions between people; even though engineers like everyone else do have to interact with other people at work.

  40. David Cameron Staples said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 7:37 am

    The definition I gave of engineering is the heart of engineering. If you're not solving a problem, you're playing. If you do solve a problem, but you don't know why, and you can't do it again, then you were lucky. Engineering is about taking what scientists and mathematicians have learned, and turning it into something which is repeatable on demand.

    Yes, it's a process and a discipline. No, it's not just "designing and building devices".

  41. elessorn said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 12:49 pm

    Upon reflection, I think I was wrong, and Andrew Usher is right. The internet is full of places to discuss politics, but there are not that many places to discuss languages and linguistics, and surely these few months at the Log have, if not demonstrated, at least strongly suggested that the more politics is discussed here, the less language will be.

    The obvious willingness of intelligent, reasonable-seeming people to misrepresent views they disagree with ("malevolent"???) is depressing as all hell. But: though I stand by my posts, an infinitesimally more politicized Log was probably not a price worth paying to write them.

    We're in Prof. Liberman's living room here, to decorate as he chooses, of course. But I hope he won't mind if this guest vocalizes a hope that in the future, Culture War (TM) posts like this one remain few and far-between.

  42. Andrew Usher said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 6:06 pm

    I'm not sure I deserve the credit, but thanks.

    As far as Mr. Staples's nitpick about engineering: he isn't wrong, it's just that saying 'engineering'='solving problems' is not a useful definition. Only some kinds of problem-solving belong in that category, and conversely _failing_ to solve problems can still be the practice of engineering. In any event no reasonable delimiting could include interpersonal interaction within that word, unless qualified by 'social' (which makes it a metaphor).

    k_over_hbarc at

  43. PeterL said,

    August 15, 2017 @ 6:50 pm
    (you might want to start at the first post, at the bottom)

    and, on a more positive note:

  44. John E. said,

    August 16, 2017 @ 12:31 pm

    I've lost a lot of respect for Language Hat as a result of his comments here and on a few other recent posts. So much tendentious, politically-charged bickering that is completely at odds with his normal approach to topics that require a cool and critical approach.

  45. languagehat said,

    August 16, 2017 @ 1:00 pm

    Well, since you've taken the trouble to attack me personally, I'll respond by saying that I'm tremendously disappointed in the general run of LL commenters as represented in this thread. I presume/hope that there are people who share my views but are worried about putting their names out in public in the context of these times, but the number of people cheerfully supporting bigotry as long as it's polite and pseudo-scientific and "cool and critical" is honestly appalling to me. I know a scientist who's compiling a better point-by-point refutation, and I'll post a link to it when it's done, but I don't expect it to change anyone's mind. It's hard confronting one's own unconscious support for domination by white men. (Oh dear, I'll bet that sounds tendentious, doesn't it? Mea culpa.)

  46. Kaleberg said,

    August 16, 2017 @ 11:24 pm

    For goodness sake, a woman invented computer programming and the first programmers were all women. Von Neumann was married to one of them. Anyone who starts babbling about biological determinism is just making stuff up. Having worked in software for all too many years and having worked with female programmers, including at least two "super-programmers", I think Zunger was right on target.

    Google has been trying to go post-autistic, if you haven't noticed. For example, they dropped those stupid interview puzzles – just Google the crib sheet on Quora – and they've been focusing more on their business. Now this Damore idiot – in the original sense of the word – executes the ultimate corporate self-destruct maneuver and embarrasses his boss.

    As for David Brooks, he's an a**. I use the asterisks so I don't insult donkeys or buttocks.

  47. Andrew Usher said,

    August 17, 2017 @ 7:23 am

    The statement 'a woman invented computer programming' is dubious at least – one can hardly imagine a programmable machine without knowing that someone will have to program it. The time that some companies only hired women as programmers is when it was seen as a menial task requiring no creativity – which was pretty close to the truth for much business programming back then (you know, when COBOL was used); nowadays I assume that kind of stuff has been replaced by commercial packages.

    If you think the existence highly competent female programmers (according to your account) refutes Damore, then you are not understanding him.

  48. Haamu said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 10:57 am

    @Andrew Usher: I'm not sure exactly what this means:

    The statement 'a woman invented computer programming' is dubious at least – one can hardly imagine a programmable machine without knowing that someone will have to program it.

    but it does suggest that you need to familiarize yourself with this person.

    You won't have to read very far to find a direct contradiction to your "one can hardly imagine" assertion. I refer to the second sentence of the article, which begins "She was the first to recognise that the machine had applications beyond pure calculation…."

  49. Andrew Usher said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 11:49 am

    I am of course cognisant of her and figured she was the woman in question; I did not find it necessary to mention that. I doubt you knew any more than I, at least before this right now.

    That sentence you quote is an opinion, and if true, does not in any sense equate to inventing computer programming, which can't be ascribed to any one person. The Wikipedia article itself contains more detailed criticism of her alleged programming skill; I am not going to address that as it is a matter for historians.

  50. Haamu said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 1:46 pm

    Well, I cited WIkipedia out of convenience, and should have remembered that such citations are often taken amiss — either that one considers one's interlocutor a lightweight, or that one is one oneself. My apologies; no offense intended.

    No doubt there's a legitimate Lovelace/Babbage controversy; I've taken an interest in it for many years. But regardless of what one may think about Lovelace's "skill" as a programmer (which seems curiously beside the point when the question is invention), it appears clear from the historical record, not to mention admissions from prominent critics like Swade, that she saw something truly significant in the Analytical Engine that Babbage did not.

    Perhaps a better way to make the original assertion that you found objectionable would be to say that, while a woman may or may not have been the first to program numerical calculations by machine, a woman does appear to be, based on every piece of historical evidence we have, the first to have imagined and expressed the realistic possibility of generalized symbolic calculation by machine.

  51. Haamu said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 2:06 pm

    Allow me to correct a typo: at the end, instead of "generalized symbolic calculation," I meant to say "generalized symbolic computation."

    Big difference — more or less the whole point, really.

  52. languagehat said,

    August 19, 2017 @ 4:54 pm

    OK, here's the full (long) refutation, and here's a convenient table of contents. I'm sorry if anyone is put off by the chatty tone, but it's reality-based and has lots and lots of citations.

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