The internet blew up this week when Google engineer James Damore circulated a long (very long) memo arguing that efforts to promote diversity within the company were misguided. While he believes in diversity and considers himself politically liberal, he wrote, "I'm simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don't see equal representation of women in tech and leadership."

Women, he noted, are generally more interested in people and less interested in things than men are, more likely to be agreeable and less aggressive, and more desirous of a fulfilling life and less status-driven. All this may explain why there are fewer women in tech positions and leadership positions, he wrote. (Google quickly and completely disavowed the opinions he stated, and the followed up by firing him, saying that the opinions expressed in the memo violated its code of conduct.)

Still, to many reasonable people--among them my colleague Suzanne Lucas--it seems worthwhile to at least pose the question: Could it be that biology is responsible for the dearth of women in tech? After all, there's plenty of evidence that women are in fact less aggressive than men, and that even newborn babies express preferences along gender lines. Maybe all this talk about bias is overblown.

You can knock down that argument with this simple question: What about race?

Ian Bogost, writing on The Atlantic's website over the weekend, was the first person I've seen make this point. If women are under-represented in tech, African-Americans and Latinos really are. According to the Census Bureau, African-Americans make up more than 13 percent of the U.S. population, but according to Google, only 2 percent of its U.S. employees are African-American. Hispanics are more than 16 percent of the U.S. population, but only 4 percent of Google employees.

Damore does occasionally mention race, but only as an add-on, as in his suggestion: "Focus on psychological safety, not just race/gender diversity." He does not say whether he thinks that the abysmally low representation of African-Americans and Latinos at Google is due to "biological causes"--that something about the genetic makeup of African-Americans and Latinos makes them less fit for tech or leadership positions than Caucasians or Asians. If he does think so, well, that's pretty much the dictionary definition of racism.

Just maybe there's something about our educational system, our society, our tech industry, and our tech companies themselves that perpetuates the disadvantage of traditionally disadvantaged people. I understand that if you're a traditionally advantaged person--i.e., a white man--it's pleasanter to believe that you and everyone else are on a level playing field. But wanting to believe that doesn't make it true.

Bogost makes another great point that's been largely missing from this debate: A more diverse Google is also a better Google. Damore argued that when it comes to diversity efforts, "we need principled reasons for why it helps Google." With that in mind, I give you the embarrassment the company suffered in 2015 when its algorithms repeatedly tagged a photo of two African-Americans as gorillas.

This was, of course, a classic case of GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). A.I. learns to identify an image based on the data that's been fed to it and clearly Google's algorithm was fed a whole lot of data showing human beings only in varying shades of pink or tan. This made sense because the engineers doing the feeding were white (or Asian) themselves and when they looked around their offices, that's all they saw. They might have caught their own mistake if they'd been looking around at a Google that more closely resembled the United States, or the world.

I think that's a pretty clear reason for "why it helps Google." What do you think?

Published on: Aug 7, 2017
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