Lessons (Not) Learned From Google's Diversity Screed

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Over the last couple of days, we've seen an interesting game played out at Google. An unnamed employee has said, in a 10-page memo that was widely circulated at the company, that the reason women are under-represented in IT is because they are psychologically different to men and, therefore, aren't as well suited to the jobs in the tech sector as men.

Now, that man has been fired according to reports today. I want to discuss a few things before coming back to the specific situation at Google.

I've been a hiring (and firing) manager in the past. It's not easy to balance all the different things you need when making a successful hire.

My rule of thumb, when hiring for a job, was simple. Look for what we don't have and fill the gap. The biggest mistake hiring managers can make, in my opinion, is hiring in their own image. Empathy with interview candidates is important but often we "connect" with people who are similar to us. And that can be a problem.

So, when the author of Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber says the company has particular political biases and hires people that fit into that it's easy to see how that can happen.

But the author of the memo is arguing from, what I think, is a flawed position.

Let's take a simple measure like height. In general, men are taller than women. But there are plenty of men who are shorter than the average woman. If you plotted the height of men on a bell curve and the height of women on another bell curve, you'd probably find the 50th percentile (the peak of the bell) for each set of data would be apart. But there would be a lot of overlap between the two graphs.

I believe - and my life experience supports this - that this would be the case for almost any criterion you measured. Men and women are different.

But, I don't think the bells are nearly as far apart as the Google employee would believe. And dealing in generalaties which back up his internal biases, which the Google employee did in his memo, is where the problem lies.

The gender gap is real. Recruiting managers are more likely to hire people based on embedded cultural biases. We see this in several different ways.

Job ads and position descriptions are often written in ways that, perhaps inadvertently, play into the cultural expectations of a specific gender. When I interviewed security expert Jane Frankland last year, she made specific mention of these issues.

And there have been countless examples of tests where women who change their names to suggest they are men are given interviews they are rejected for with exactly the same resumes.

On a recent panel I attended at a closed event one of the speakers, a trans-gender woman noted that she was given exactly contradictory advice on how to handle herself at a meeting by someone who did not recognise her prior to her transition.

This exemplifies how cultural biases do impact the way men and women are treated.

Are men and women different? Of course they are. Biologically and physiologically we're different and that diversity is borne out in many ways. But the Google worker's supposition that the lack of diversity is OK because women aren't as capable as men is bullshit.

The echo chamber he refers to is one he is fully engaged in. It's the echo chamber for the last few thousand years where men have, largely, ruled the world. And, as a middle-aged white guy, it's a set of cultural biases I have to fight against constantly. I don't profess to get it right every time. But the Google worker seems completely unaware that he is reinforcing the strereotypes he writes about.

Google's CEO said in a statement "portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace".

In breaching the company's guidelines, the employee clearly put himself at risk of losing his job. I wonder if that's the best outcome. While it would be appropriate for him to be disciplined, this could have been a great opportunity for education.

Perhaps then, if he was able to see things from a different perspective he might have become an advocate for diversity rather than an opponent.

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Comments

    When lifehacker actually hires a Harvard Biology Phd, I will actually care about what they have to say on this matter

      Downvote all you want Mr lost a million dollars on a HDD simpson! :P
      Pretty sure the 'unnamed employee' who happens to be a Harvard Biology Phd knows more about gender than a bunch of diversity zealots on a literally nobody blog

      lol - there are doctors that advocated smoking long after it was known to kill. Psychiatrists who used long discredited tortures. Appeal to authority is one of the basest, laziest logical fallacies. How about we let his words speak for themselves. They are clearly contradicted by scientific consensus in the field. AKA bulldust

    The fact that the bell curve for female capability and male capability is different literally means more men are capable of doing the job than women. Therefore unless you have sexist hiring policies to hire more women than the natural percentage, you will get more men than women without any bias causing that result. The reason is simple. Men are better at virtually everything than women. Sorry for the truth.

      That's not what I said. I suggested that the bell curves represent difference at the 50th percentile but that there is lots of overlap. And difference is not about being better. Everyone brings different things to the table.

        Actually the Google author said there was a lot of overlap, so you do agree with him. Your latest comment indicates that you do understand that if the 50th percentiles are different then there should be a different outcome between sexes if there were no bias.
        So you agree with the Google guy but think he was wrong to bring it up because everyone brings different things to the table.

    How about hiring the best person for the job?

    Seems pretty simple to me.

      Because who is "best" is not that easy. Your definition of "best" is informed by personal biases.

        I could understand that, however do you concede then that diversity targets could also be subject to biases - e.g. who decides what the acceptable levels should be of a particular 'oppressed' class? Circular reasoning.

        In any field, "best" is also influenced by past experience. If a field is dominated by one sex or another, the standard practices and procedures are going to be based around that particular sex doing the job. And that can be hard to undo.

        Some fields, because of equipment, make it a natural choice of one sex over another, while others, because of environment, do the same thing. Why is nursing so predominantly female for example? Or why aren't there more female professional race car drivers?

        The bias is there for a reason, and its not always going to be sexism or personal.

    Best for the job might be judged by performance criteria, it might also be judged by diversity criteria, or a mix. Some positions may get the best performance by stressing the former, others the latter. "best person for the job" implies to me that objective criteria are used.

    How did you figure that Cbenci was advocating using his personal bias?

    As an author, you get to write the article, and defend it, but not have a go at the readers and accuse them of bias when there is no evidence of it.

    Last edited 11/08/17 2:00 pm

    Diversity - the state of being diverse. Differences. Diversity of opinion.

    Unless you are a guy whose opinion differs from the groupthink. Fairly sure this is ironic.

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