Pity James Damore. The Google engineer wrote what he thought was a sacred screed that would change the world or at least Google’s politically correct culture that valued women — unfairly, he thought — over talented male coders. Instead he got fired and sparked a maelstrom of responses ranging from a fund set up by an alt-right website to help his legal bills to a job offer from WikiLeaks.
I read Mr. Damore’s 10-page memo. Some of the things he said were clearly holier-than-thou: men’s higher drive for status causes them to take jobs in…coal mining. Really? Some were abstruse: what is a social constructionist? But here is the thing: I agreed with many of Mr. Damore’s “concrete suggestions”.
Outside the echo chamber
Before you shoot me, let me say this: I am a feminist who tries really hard not have a chip on her shoulder. I am the mother of two daughters. My elder daughter is studying electrical and computer engineering. I care deeply about Silicon Valley’s gender biases because my child’s life and work will depend on it. That said, I am not sure that Google did the right thing by firing Mr. Damore, not because the firm’s heart — and HR policy — is not in the right place but because Google hasn’t solved the problem by making one of the perpetrators go away. In a sense, they have strengthened Mr. Damore’s position and caused others like him to go underground or assume anonymity.
There is a reason why feminists like me felt sucker-punched when Hillary Clinton lost the U.S. presidential election. We were so caught within our ‘ideological echo chamber’ of voices that only spoke about empowering women, valuing diversity, and shattering the glass ceiling that we failed to acknowledge that there were others who thought differently.
We suppressed those voices so successfully that there was only one option open to them: to burst open like a tidal wave upon which Donald Trump rode to victory. Google engineers could well be like the U.S. President’s underground voters. Strategically, a more effective option is to co-opt and convert these engineers.
Diversity in general, and gender bias in particular, has become such a sacred cow that anyone who questions it risks being fired. So what happens? It is not as if the sexists, the naysayers and dissenters disappear. They just stay quiet, agree with each other in secret chat rooms such as the one that happened recently at Harvard University, stew in their ideological juices, mark time and then vote a misogynist into power.
Engaging with biases
Suppressing dissent is the wrong strategy in the long-term fight for gender equality. We need to try to listen to them — not necessarily with the womanly empathy that Mr. Damore mocks, but at least with a semblance of openness so that they feel like they have been heard. Engaging with their biases might prevent them from blowing up and gaining strength.
Women engineers are tired of this conciliatory approach, because traditionally such “soft” options were the only ones available to women. Coding isn’t that hard and women shouldn’t have to constantly prove that they are good at it. As one tweet said, “Dude. The reason we want workplaces free of discrimination is so we can focus on our actual d*** jobs.”
Stereotypes and biases are real and powerful. The Implicit Association Test, developed by Harvard and available online, gives a list of words and asks participants to assign it to a female or male. More than 70% of the half a million people from all over the world associate the word ‘male’ with the sciences and ‘female’ with liberal arts. Researchers say that each one of us — women included — hold subconscious biases that colours the way we interact with women, and also men; with girls, and also boys.
We need to take a different approach to solving these long-standing biases. Feminists may view men as the problem, but they have to be part of the solution as well. Firing an employee who says what many men perhaps think is like shooting the messenger. Google should have debated him instead. Engineers pride themselves on being rational. They can be convinced with data. And current data shows that the most high-performing teams have women in the majority. That should be the first talking point with men in general, and with this memo-writer in particular.
Shoba Narayan is a journalist and author