"At Google, we're regularly told that implicit (unconscious) and explicit biases are holding women back in tech and leadership. Of course, men and women experience bias, tech, and the workplace differently and we should be cognizant of this, but it's far from the whole story." This is the premise of a 10-page document, written by a Google engineer that questions Google's diversity programs, as published by Gizmodo.

Is the fact that tech isn't 50-50 men and women due to bias against women or are there truly other factors, unrelated to bias, that keep the numbers different? And is the notion that biology, not bias, causes different career choices so offensive that women should leave Google? At least one Google employee thinks so (thanks to Motherboard, who found this tweet and covered the document first):

Think about that for a moment: Are we so delicate that we cannot address even the idea that biology may play a role in the types of careers we have? Let's leave tech behind and look at another area with a lopsided gender balance--education. Men make up 3 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers, 19 percent of elementary and middle school teachers, and 41 percent of high school teachers. Are those differences due to pure discrimination on the part of school administrators, or is there some biology at play here? The science suggests biology, as women are far more interested in nurturing activities, such as teaching. According to cognitive scientist and author Denise D. Cummins,

The problem with this "blank slate" interpretation of gender differences is that it doesn't jibe with results of developmental studies. Newborn girls prefer to look at faces while newborn boys prefer to look at mechanical stimuli (such as mobiles). When it comes to toys, a consistent finding is that boys (and juvenile male monkeys) strongly prefer to play with mechanical toys over plush toys or dolls, while girls (and female juvenile monkeys) show equivalent interest in the two. (See this for a summary of this research.) These sex-linked preferences emerge in human development long before any significant socialization can have taken place. And they exist in juvenile nonhuman primates that are not exposed to human gender-specific socialization efforts.

If we are going to say that the only reason for a lack of 50-50 representation in tech is illegal discrimination, then we need to make the same argument for education. Otherwise, what we're doing is classifying jobs that men prefer as "good" jobs and jobs that women prefer as "bad" jobs, and so it's OK if we discriminate against 50 percent of the population. We know that while we can't judge individual men and women by the total population, we also cannot expect each group to make the same career decisions as a group.

Are Women Disadvantaged in STEM Careers?

Certainly, there are many cases of blatant discrimination--just look at the disaster Uber faced with how it handled sexual harassment. That is unacceptable and needs to be dealt with immediately. But when it comes to hiring, at least in STEM academics, women have a strong advantage over men.

A 2015 study found that women who applied for professorships in STEM areas (excluding economics) were more likely to be hired than similarly qualified male candidates. Sixty-seven percent of the time, the hiring committee chose the female candidate. If things were unbiased, we'd expect it to be 50-50, given the similar qualifications.

A 2017 study (in Australia, so all the usual caveats about cultures apply) set out to show anti-woman bias in hiring and showed the exact opposite. When the study sent out blind résumés (résumés with no indication of gender), fewer women were hired than when names (which generally indicate gender) were included. Recruiters were more willing to hire a less qualified female than a more qualified male, once they knew the gender. With no knowledge of gender, they took the more qualified candidate. These weren't STEM jobs, per se, but it does indicate that things aren't always stacked in favor of men.

Why Do Men Want These Jobs?

The Google engineer asks a question we should ask more. He writes:

We always ask why we don't see women in top leadership positions, but we never ask why we see so many men in these jobs. These positions often require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.

The myth is that men in leadership have it all, while women have to sacrifice to achieve the same thing. The reality is, men sacrifice as well. You will never find a CEO of a Fortune 100 company who achieved that goal while working a flexible schedule, putting in no more than 40 hours a week. Women value flexibility over money. Men value money over flexibility.

If you want to have a career with long hours and high pressure and you want to have children, you need either a spouse that can be the primary caregiver for the children or you need a full-time nanny (or two!). Now, when you consider that 56 percent of American women with children would prefer to be stay-at-home moms, you can see that it's a lot easier for men to find a wife who wants to be the primary caregiver, giving him time to focus on his career, than it is for a woman to find a husband who wants to be the primary caregiver.

This is not to say that you can't find a husband who wants to be a stay-at-home dad--I personally know several executive women whose husbands stay home--but it's a lot harder. That does make it more difficult for women who want children to take on a demanding career, but that's not because of discrimination on the part of any given company.

Google's Response

Google's vice president for diversity, integrity, and governance, Danielle Brown, disagreed with the engineer's memo, saying that it is "not a viewpoint that I or this company endorses, promotes, or encourages," but she pointedly did not address any of his concerns. Until we can openly talk about the concepts of nurture versus nature and discrimination versus choice, we not only won't solve any problems but we also won't be able to identify if there is a problem to begin with.

All companies need to make sure that gender, race, or any other form of discrimination is not allowed, but they also would be wise to make sure they aren't giving preferences to women just to increase their numbers. What they really need to do is hire the best person for each job and treat that person well.

Published on: Aug 7, 2017