Just how common are the views on gender espoused in the memo that former Google engineer James Damore was recently fired for distributing on an internal company message board? The flap has women and men in tech — and elsewhere — wondering what their colleagues really think about diversity. Research we’ve conducted shows that while most people don’t share Damore’s views, male engineers are more likely to.
Engineers are taught that “engineering work can and should be disconnected from ‘social’ and ‘political’ concerns because such considerations may bias otherwise ‘pure’ engineering practice,” to quote a 2013 study by Erin A. Cech. This viewpoint — let’s call it engineering purity — means engineers believe they need to protect the purity of their profession from extraneous considerations that threaten engineering’s rationality and rigor. Damore’s memo is an exemplar of this kind of thinking. “De-emphasize empathy,” Damore advises. “Being emotionally unengaged helps us better reason about the facts.” Students are taught engineering purity, Cech found, so their commitment to public welfare declines significantly over the course of their engineering education.
Engineers are taught that “engineering work can and should be disconnected from ‘social’ and ‘political’ concerns because such considerations may bias otherwise ‘pure’ engineering practice,”
In the nationwide study of engineers cosponsored by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), we found robust levels of both gender and racial bias. To cite just one example, 61% of women engineers reported having to prove themselves repeatedly to get the same level of respect and recognition as their colleagues, as compared with 35% of white men.
But our most interesting finding concerned engineering purity. “Merit is vastly more important than gender or race, and efforts to ‘balance’ gender and race diminish the overall quality of an organization by reducing collective merit of the personnel,” a male engineer commented in the survey. Note the undefended assumption that tapping the full talent pool of engineers rather than limiting hiring to a subgroup (white men) will decrease the quality of engineers hired. Damore’s memo echoes this view, decrying “hiring practices which can effectively lower the bar for ‘diversity’ candidates.”
Google and taxpayer money, Damore opines, “is spent to water only one side of the lawn.” Many male engineers in our survey agreed that women engineers are unfairly favored. “As regards gender bias, my workplace offers women more incentives and monetary support than it does to males,” commented one male engineer. Said another, women “will always be safe from a RIF [reduction in force]. As well as certain companies guaranteeing female engineers higher raises.”
In our surveys, male engineers are about four times as likely as male lawyers to express similar attitudes. Note that the legal profession’s no picnic for women: The percentage of female equity partners in law firms has increased only two percentage points in the past 10 years, from 16% in 2006 to 18% in 2016. Like engineers, lawyers pride themselves on being highly analytical. Yet male lawyers are about four times less likely to believe that women have unfair advantages, or that pursuing diversity will hurt their profession. (In fact, male lawyers were much more than twice as likely as male engineers to even respond to our survey; male engineers were much more likely to ignore the survey or to attack it.) That’s the influence of engineering purity.
But it’s important to note that only 17% of male engineers who submitted comments expressed this view. Many others, no doubt, would disagree, and about half of the male engineers who responded expressed support for diversity efforts: “I have worked for 36 years and will soon retire. During my career, my workplace has become much more welcoming to women engineer[s], but there are still some lingering (and mostly subconscious) issues that arise — by both men and women who work here.”
As in Damore’s memo, SWE survey comments also sometimes linked engineering purity with stereotypes about women. One typical comment: “Women are much more difficult to work for and with…. It’s like hitting a moving target, and an approach of ‘I’ll know it when I see it…and that’s not it.’” Damore’s memo describes women as more neurotic than men, as well as more cooperative, less competitive, more agreeable, and less assertive, without recognizing that a key reason women conform to these prescriptive stereotypes is that women who aren’t self-effacing, helpful, and nice often encounter backlash in the form of comments on their “personality problems.” Backlash is commonplace in tech: An informal study found that 66% of the performance evaluations of women in tech included complaints about their personalities, while only 1% of men’s evaluations did.
Engineering purity is a 19th-century relic that the 21st century can no longer afford. An illustration of its perils is the computer science professor who invented a way to create video of people saying things they didn’t really say so that she could have a talking hologram of her mother, who lives in Israel and whom she misses. When Radiolab reporters asked the professor whether she had ever thought about how her invention could be used to create videos of world leaders saying things they never said, she became literally speechless and eventually stammered out that her role as a computer scientist was to invent stuff and let others cope with the consequences. This is what happens when you use an outdated, 19th-century notion of purity to invent 21st-century technology.
Engineering purity is a 19th-century relic that the 21st century can no longer afford.
Engineering purity also lets engineers who are low in social or emotional intelligence off the hook. Other employees — especially female ones — are expected to think about how their words and actions affect others. But not “pure” engineers. They get a pass. When Damore was in graduate school at Harvard, he once so offended fellow students with a skit that two professors felt the need to write an open letter of apology. Damore didn’t sense that his skit, about a professor using suggestive phrases to thank women who helped a male professor with his “Microtubule Jerking,” crossed the line. Apologizing for such behavior — or even firing someone over it — is not PC silencing. It’s a super-awkward way to mop up the mess left by someone who missed the memo on basic norms of social discourse, and mitigate the risk of being fired for allowing a hostile work environment.
In a YouTube interview, Damore reminds one of the Richard Hendricks character in HBO’s Silicon Valley: socially clueless but hardly evil. But recently no one has done more to dramatize that being able to interact with one’s colleagues without deeply offending them is a job skill. If engineering departments want their grads not to get summarily fired, maybe they should add that to the curriculum too.
Joan C. Williams is Distinguished Professor of Law and Founding Director of the Center of WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Her newest book is White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.
This Op-eD was first published on HBR You can read it HERE