Brief thoughts on the “Google memo”

(I wrote this in reference to this memo and the ensuing uproar)

First off, his argument had some flaws. For example, even if he was correct about personality differences between men and women being a factor in the gender imbalance in tech, he never made a case for why we shouldn’t think other factors are even bigger (like a discriminatory workplace). And I think he overstates the case for observed personality differences being biological in origin rather than a mix of biological and cultural.

However, his overall claim that there exist personality differences between genders that differentially affect men’s and women’s interest in and aptitude for tech jobs, is what people are mostly getting mad at. And that’s a claim that seems plausibly true. Not obviously true, but also not a claim you would be justified in emphatically dismissing as false, as many people have, including Google, who called them “incorrect assumptions.”

I mean, the existence of personality differences between genders is very well established (and if you want to disagree, I’d love to make a wager with you about whether a randomly chosen handful of academic psychologists would agree with that claim). The more open question is whether we should expect those differences to make women relatively less interested in and/or suited for tech jobs than men. There I think the author of the memo tells a compelling story about why they would, but it’s not the only story you could tell.

I’d actually be less disappointed if the critics’ response had simply been “Look, you can’t talk about gender differences at work.” As a general rule, I hate to ban topics, but I can see how this one could have harmful effects. Human psychology appears to be such that if you acknowledge that a mean skill level is even slightly higher in group A than group B, we waaaay over-update, and act as if all individual A’s are higher-skill than all B’s. So perhaps talking about the possible existence of group differences is just too damaging to be worth it.

So as far as I can see, there are only two intellectually honest ways to respond to the memo:

1. Acknowledge gender differences may play some role, but point out other flaws in his argument (my preference)

2. Say “This topic is harmful to people and we shouldn’t discuss it” (a little draconian maybe, but at least intellectually honest)

Unfortunately most people have taken option 3, “Pretend there is no evidence of gender differences relevant to tech and only a sexist could believe otherwise.”

P.S. There’s a widespread statistical misunderstanding of the memo that’s been bugging me, which I haven’t yet seen anyone point out (though someone may well have):

Some critics object “You’re saying that women at Google aren’t qualified because of personality differences.”

But that’s not implied by his hypothesis. His hypothesis implies that personality differences mean a smaller percentage of women will be interested in and/or qualified for a Google job than men, but that doesn’t mean any of the women at Google fall below the “qualified” threshold. [Edited because my original statistical claim wasn’t quite right.]