The now infamous Google memo, written by former employee James Danmore, became a swift lightning rod for condemnation upon it’s claim that Google’s practice of non-discriminatory practice of  hiring of women as software engineers created an ‘anti-male’ bias. His reasoning was that academically researched gender differences between men and women added up to women being less capable coders than men, concluding that practices that sought to increase the number of women in development teams amounted to a bias against choosing talent above all else, thereby creating a practice that unfairly discriminates against the hiring of men in the hopes of hitting a workplace quota.

Putting the topic of the memo aside, although it is asinine to extrapolate a few statistics over group averages in different communities across the globe to make assumptions about the abilities of a single individual, Danmore’s interpretation of data showed evidence of motivated reasoning (only finding information that supports what you already believe). He cites studies and findings from David Schmitt amongst others, a personality psychologist whose research has focused on sex differences. Schmitt’s research, along with regular publishing of blogs in Psychology Today, has helped inform the debate surrounding sex, gender and differences between men and women. It is important to note that Schmitt himself described Danmore’s use of biological sex to essentialize an entire group’s personality as “like surgically operating with an axe”, citing that women are not more emotional than men so much as they often display higher tendencies within ranges towards different emotions (women tend to be more empathetic, men tend to be more aggressive). How emotions are measured, where and when they are expressed, what type of emotions are expressed – all of these play a role in determining how much attribution a person’s gender can be assigned for the way they act. Even interpretation is subject to context: socio-structural conditions or barriers, prevalence of stereotyping, cultural gender norms, and workplace culture all play a role in the interpretation of how someone behaves and what it means.

Schmitt’s research begins with three warnings surrounding interpretation: 1, there is a difference between sex (biological differences inherent to our species), sexual identity (identification as a man vs. a woman) and gender (relevant local cultural norms aligning with perceived feminine or masculine tendencies). 2, Any conclusion reached pertains only to group averages, methodically measured over time, and does not refer to individuals. The phrase ‘women are shorter than men’ does not mean all women are shorter than all men. 3, biological, psychological and cultural influences play a factor as well, though not always how it might be expected. Culturally, men tend to prefer physically attractive traits in marriage partners over women. This trend equalizes out if higher rates of pathogens, disease and illness are prevalent, as women tend to emphasize physical attractiveness more than men by a low margin in these environments. A potential reason for this is that attractiveness is an indicator of good health.

One key finding of Schmitt’s is that in societies where roles are more balanced between men and women and sociopolitical gender equity prevails (ie. Nordic countries), sex differences are more significant. As a percentage of enrollment, there are more female science majors in Burma, Oman and Morocco than in Scandinavia. Schmitt theorizes that when all are treated the same, genetic predispositions become more observable and prominent, citing two researchers who conclude that fewer gender restrictions allows both sexes to pursue more freely the values they inherently care about. To re-iterate: this conclusion does not reflect individual preferences, capacities or capabilities. Danmore’s memo falsely concluded that this trend was indicative that because a statistically large sample in Scandinavia didn’t work in coding, it meant women didn’t want to work in coding as a whole. Danmore cites an unlabelled graph to illustrate his point, claiming that small differences in group averages create big differences in outliers. Danmore’s mistake here was in presuming that average natural interest can be correlated to individual preferences or capabilities. Once again, that is false.

Measures of personality and interest, while important, cannot be reliably correlated to measures of ability or performance. To say that is to conclude that genetic variables lead to inevitable choice outcomes, something that has been proven untrue time and time again. Humans are susceptible to evolutionary tendencies, like any other creature, but the complexity and variability of our local societies means straight lines cannot be drawn between you being born and your choice of a career should you be free to choose. Context is important. Schmitt interprets sexual differences and sexuality not as a binary state of ‘man or woman’, but as a series of dials for individual traits, with each contributing a small part to generating a small part of the differences in individuals across the globe.

The reason it is crucial to acknowledge that differences exist is because not all differences are as inane as height. Women have higher risk of depression, men have higher risk of autism and psychopathy. In order to understand and redress these issues, they must first be identified as existing. It would additionally help dispel some of the more unhealthy lines of reasoning about the role of women in the workplace that has had detrimental effects. Women are more likely than men to have GitHub contributions accepted – but only if their identities were concealed. Women are less likely to receive pay rises. Women are often given less useful feedback in project or program evaluations. By understanding the nature of the biological differences between sexes, we can move on towards addressing the cultural and gender-based issues that impede women from advancing on the workplace. And, if at the end of our exhaustive efforts, it turns out individual women choose to do whatever they had planned on doing in the first place, that’s fine. What matters is that any individual who chooses to pursue a life of excellence, ambition and achievement should not be met with anything other than opportunities to direct their passion into making the world a better place.

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