Ask A Female Engineer: Thoughts on the Google Memo

by Cadran Cowansage8/15/2017

I’m the moderator for our Ask A Female Engineer series, and a female engineer on the software team at YC. This is the sixth installment in a series where we ask female engineers questions and share their candid, anonymous responses. In this post, we did something a bit different: we asked engineers to answer questions about the recent memo by former Google engineer James Damore. The engineers responding to these questions were given pseudonyms, and those pseudonyms are consistent through the series. Edith, in this post, is the same person named Edith in previous posts.

When I read the memo, I thought Damore made some points worth discussing: that PC culture can be stifling, that echo chambers are unproductive, and that corporate diversity practices don’t always work well. But I also disagreed with a lot of what he wrote, particularly his arguments pointing to biological factors as a primary reason that there aren’t more female software engineers. This argument seems like a distraction from the point that there is an uneven playing field for women who work as software engineers. No one should have to battle preconceived opinions about what they will enjoy or what they will do well at.

There’s been a lot of anger on both sides, but I haven’t seen many constructive discussions between people who disagree on these issues. I and all the women who have contributed in this post feel that there’s forward progress to be made by finding common ground and discussing different viewpoints without yelling. I hope this will be a good forum for that.

Did you read the full memo by James Damore?

Frances: Yes, I read the full memo. I also watched the first interview he gave on YouTube post-firing.

Edith: I did read it all. I haven’t watched any of his taped interviews since, though.

Ida: I read the full memo, at least twice.

What do you agree with, or find to be interesting ideas worth discussing?

Edith: I do think Damore is right that there is a lot of tension in our society about what is “okay” free speech, what tolerance means, what political correctness means, and how this all links to political views. I’m extremely liberal myself (though I come from a family of conservatives) and I acknowledge that a lot of people feel they can’t share their beliefs, and that they feel marginalized in places that overwhelmingly trend toward one political view or the other. I think as a society right now, with an unprecedented number of ways to get our opinions out to the world, we’re all finding it hard to navigate that appropriately. There’s a need to understand what “free speech” actually means versus how to be respectful, non-threatening and productive.

I also agree that there are a lot of differences between men and women with respect to things they may be interested in. Please note that I’m breaking this down along a binary here the way that he has, with the recognition that gender and sex aren’t binary, and that these arguments about innate biological traits are complicated by trans, non-binary, and intersex folks.

Ida: I agree that there is an ideological echo chamber inside Google (I’m a SWE there). As someone who is generally on the “correct” side of this liberal echo chamber, it hasn’t affected me much, but I think the vehemence of the reaction to his document proves this point right.

I also think that society should have room for the discussion of ideas that are not in step with what is considered acceptable at a given time. There is, of course, a difference between an unfounded opinion and the pursuit of scientific truth, but logically, we should not avoid pursuing a scientific truth for fear that the answer will not be aligned with currently accepted dogmas.

I also agree that there are differences between the behavior of men and women, on average.

Frances: I do agree the current state of political correctness makes it hard for people with unpopular opinions to ask questions and discuss their viewpoints. I do think the left can be extreme and hostile toward more conservative views. The internet allows everyone to publish knee-jerk, couch-expert reactions to statements made by colleagues and strangers alike, which makes it challenging to have constructive, thoughtful debate. I do agree we should reconsider existing diversity practices and what their desired outcomes should be. I do agree striving to have 50% female representation in the tech workforce may not be the most effective goal and it’s worth re-examining our metrics. For example, I’d be more interested in metrics that track retention and employee satisfaction rather than focusing so heavily on quotas and KPIs related to hiring women.

What do you disagree with or find objectionable?

Edith: I disagree completely and utterly that the (yes, real) average differences between men and women map to being better or worse at certain jobs. Interest in certain jobs, certainly. And we know – and many of us have experienced – that interest levels are also heavily influenced by social and cultural factors. For example, students and professors I met in college that grew up in the USSR thought engineering was stereotypically women’s work. But ability to do those jobs? No research I’ve ever read – and I have read a lot, because since I was 15 and fell in love with engineering it’s been made very clear to me that a lot of people don’t believe women are suited for the work I like to do – has indicated that the differences are so significant as to suggest that men or women are better or worse on average at any job that relies on mental work.

I disagree that it’s possible to write what he did about general populations, then walk it back to say “but of course it doesn’t apply at an individual level.” A lot of people have used that argument in defense of what he wrote, as evidence that the memo was not harmful or hostile to the women he worked with. When I walk into my job at a tech company, how do I know which of my colleagues thinks I’m an outlier among women versus someone who was hired because I’m female that doesn’t deserve the job they have? How do I prove myself to people one way or another? The additional mental and emotional burden on me just to do my job is not negligible at all, and it’s also a pretty crappy way to start every day thinking: “Will the team/manager/VC I talk with today realize I’m qualified, or will they be making stereotypical assumptions about my abilities and therefore make it harder for me to do my job?” To me, that absolutely makes for a hostile work environment, and it’s an unequal burden my male coworkers don’t have to deal with every day.

Frances: I disagree with the specific methods he used to convert opinions into facts. It seemed like he cherry-picked research that agreed with his views and didn’t seek dissenting research or opinions before sending the document to internal Google groups.

I think it’s far from clear why kids choose the interests that they choose. Growing up, I was more interested in activities that were dominated by boys. I don’t know why my interests turned out that way. My parents encouraged my interest in science and technology – did that play a role? I have no idea. But I was not convinced by the research he cited to suggest biology dictates those preferences. He did not address any counter arguments or research that opposes his views, or the validity of the studies he did cite and their reproducibility. He speaks about confirmation bias in the memo – and I wonder if, just like his footnote suggests might be the case, he fell victim to just that by focusing on views and research that proved his points and skipping the rest. Also, his skepticism of his own views deserves a much more prominent placement in the text than a footnote – had he led with this and made it clear he wasn’t sure whether he was correct and simply wanted to start a discussion (as he subsequently stated in a YouTube interview), he likely would not have been blasted the same way.

Ida: He claimed that Google’s diversity efforts represent a lowering of the bar. Google has stated many times that its efforts involve focusing more resources on searching for candidates in minority groups rather than lowering the bar for these groups. Such misrepresentation is harmful to those of us at Google who have to overcome the bias that we were hired based other factors beside our skills.

I don’t really see how it’s useful to have a discussion of general group traits in a work setting. Assuming that it’s true that women on average are more likely to have trait X, why should any woman have to overcome the additional barrier of proving that she’s not like other women, or that if she IS like other women, that the trait has no bearing on her job performance?

Some reactions to this answer will be along the lines of “but you’re not disagreeing with the substance of what he’s saying, you’re disagreeing with the form!” and that’s true. Nevertheless, I maintain that when I go to work, I go to work, and not to a debate club. Some people at Google reacted by saying “well if he’s so wrong, then why not refute him,” but that requires spending a significant amount of time building an argument against the claims in his document. On the other hand, if I remain silent, that silence could be mistaken for agreement. I should not be forced into that kind of debate at work.

Due in part to the aforementioned fear of my silence being misinterpreted as agreement, I’d like to mention that this is not a complete list of the items that I disagree with.

How do you feel about the way the internet reacted to his post?

Edith: Emotionally drained, mostly. The general advice of “don’t read the comments” and “don’t feed the trolls” is hard to remember when the takeaway from the memo is literally that the onus is on me to prove to men in tech that I’m not an “average” woman – it’s so hard to see so many defenses fly by full of inaccuracies and problematic claims that I know I shouldn’t spend the time and energy to respond to, but I feel like if I don’t, they “win”. I’ve been deeply disappointed to see a number of big names in tech defend this in ways I find really frustrating – like Paul Graham suggesting in a tweet that the strong reaction is due to “worry [the claims in the memo] might be true.” (No, I’m just exhausted by having this same damn argument over and over again since I was a teenager and the amount of time and energy I keep having to spend to counter it.) There is a whole spectrum of reaction that influential tech leaders could take on this, and I’m really bothered by the number I see that are on the far end of dismissal of the hurt and damage many of us are experiencing.

On the other hand, there have been some really fabulous responses, including many laying out a lot of research that counters what was in the memo, and I’ve found a lot of those informative and inspiring and encouraging.

Overall, I guess I am surprised that this has picked up the way it has – I realize Damore’s linking of his opinions about women in tech to his politics are hitting on two huge clickbait-y topics these days, but seeing the far-reaching reactions from people outside the tech industry is a little surprising to me. I guess I do see why it’s pushing so many peoples’ buttons, though.

Frances: I feel disappointed and tired. I’m disappointed that the left reacted with rage and sass and wasn’t able to calmly explain the failures of his text and have a constructive debate. I’m also disappointed that the men I know, including most of my male colleagues, remained silent on the topic. And the ones that did participate, either seemed to support Damore or demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding for the issues women engineers are faced with and care about. As a female engineer, you don’t get to just love coding, or love problem solving and hacking on hardware – you also have to figure out how to navigate men who seem to demonstrate with words and actions that they don’t consider you an equal, that they consider you less smart or capable, or that they assume you don’t have as much expertise as your peers.

I wish more successful men in tech thought deeply about the advantages they’ve had – the situations in which they were more likely to be trusted, deemed competent, promoted, given raises, etc. as men than they would be as women. This exercise isn’t intended to place blame, but to inspire empathy toward those who feel the weight of their gender each day at work.

Many powerful men in Silicon Valley have huge bases of social media followers. By remaining silent on this topic or tweeting support for Damore, they are sending a message that philosophical arguments and principles take precedence over the lived experiences of many smart, talented female engineers and technical founders. I wish Damore, who is clearly intelligent and capable, had thought more about how his female co-workers would be impacted by his statements, how they might be experiencing the world. I wish he had talked to some of them and had considered incorporating some of their viewpoints into his own. I bet a lot of his female co-workers would have found some of his viewpoints interesting and perhaps even supported them; I know I might have.

Katherine: Twitter is the worst way to have this debate but that’s where it mostly was taking place (with a sprinkling of medium posts and malformed news pieces to complement it). Given that we all have different values and morals, the very foundation of the debate is already shaky. So when shoved into short form, we’ve set it up for complete failure. A lot of people are actually just talking past each other, arguing on different playing fields but yelling nevertheless, because well, we are all having our values and morals questioned.

Ida: The reaction of the internet has been completely unsurprising. I think it’s a shame, but also true, that we’ve reached a point where the first reaction to hearing something objectionable is to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war, to become enraged, to accuse people of saying things that they aren’t actually saying, escalating all the way up to actual death threats. The discussion around this has followed the trajectory of most of the polarizing mass discussion in the last few years; everyone comes out the other side with their opinions more calcified than ever, and more convinced than before of the intractability of the other side.

We’ve also reached the point where truth doesn’t really matter – reactions on both sides have been rife with mischaracterizations, misstatements and overheated rhetoric. I don’t want this response to turn into a jeremiad, but I think it’s a real shame that we cannot disagree rationally and calmly, while sticking to what is actually true. If the goal is to change minds, then the current situation is not working, and it’s difficult to see how this will improve any time soon.

Do you have any thoughts on how his post could have been delivered in a way that caused less uproar and more meaningful conversation?

Edith: There’s a difference between “let’s have a discussion” and “let me tell you what’s up, all you wrong people.” An example I gave someone else of a better way to start a genuine discussion would be, “I find myself having trouble understanding what backs up Google’s diversity and inclusion programs, and that left me with a lot of questions about how the company manages this process while maintaining our very high standards. Can I see some of the research at the foundation of all this? Who might I talk to who could tell me about their experiences working within a system that is biased against them, so I can understand better? And also, I almost feel afraid to ask these questions because I worry I’ll just get shot down by the Google echochamber – I’d like people like me to feel more comfortable asking questions, so is there a way to ensure there’s a non-judgmental forum to do this with our VP D&I, especially for newer employees who have just gone through the training?”

Asking questions (versus making statements) is a great way to learn about the real experiences of people who aren’t like you, and tends to set people up to give you the benefit of the doubt in ways that will allow you to screw up occasionally without the wrath of god coming down on you. I also believe that conversations like this need to start with a much higher standard for engagement – this isn’t a political argument over tax rates or infrastructure policy. This is literally a discussion of whether half the human race is innately unsuited for a certain kind of work, work that is exciting, lucrative, prestigious, and actually very desirable to many of us. This is a discussion where I am not just defending my viewpoint, I am defending my right to do my chosen work without the emotional and mental tax of knowing some significant portion of my colleagues may not believe I can.

Even if the discussion is ostensibly brought about by purely objective logic and science (and that’s questionable, as many others have already pointed out in detail), the discussion itself cannot be divorced from the deeply personal and deeply human impact it has, and thus the standards for discussion must be very, very high. I get that the plural of anecdote is not data, so to some degree I understand his request to “de-emphasize empathy” and remove anecdotes from the equation, but that’s simply not possible in this sort of disagreement – you can’t remove the human element especially when there is a lot of acknowledged cultural baggage around it. You do need to find a balance between the data you have available (which is still often subject to bias, particularly in a lot of experiment design around human research and cognition) and the empathetic side, but you can’t discount one or the other completely and still have a respectful or meaningful conversation.

Frances: I thought the post showed a general lack of consideration for his female colleagues. If he had spoken with some of them individually and spent some time trying to better understand their views on the issues, I suspect he would have done a better job choosing words that would have inspired debate rather than hostility. If his intention was to persuade the left-leaning leaders at Google of concerns he had, he would need to understand how they think about diversity, how they would react to his words, and what the most effective way to persuade them might be. For example, he could have written an introduction stating that he had a lot of questions about diversity policies at Google and suspected it was an echo chamber, but he wanted to understand whether that was correct or not. That he’d spoken with many women before writing this piece, that he was proposing ideas and would like to talk about them and understand if they are reasonable. His tl;dr in particular was one of the most polarizing parts of what he wrote. I think he could have written it differently, so that people who chose not to read the whole 10-pages could have read the tl;dr and not immediately concluded he was sexist.

Ida: For one thing, I think that had he posted some variation on this in a non-work space, for example his blog, discussing diversity programs in general rather than at Google, it would have been a lot less of an issue. When you try to influence policy for a company, it is hardly surprising to see backlash inside the company. Perhaps he wasn’t expecting the vehemence of the backlash, but if he truly did not see that people would find aspects of his document objectionable, then he should find someone who can help him gauge such things in the future.

Which flows into my next point – presentation is important. This is an emotional topic and presenting one’s interpretations of research with an attitude of “this is a fait accompli because of this research I found, now just fall in line” is going to rub people the wrong way. Particularly since the inferences people draw from a descriptive social study may differ wildly. People’s hackles can be raised easily by taking an interpretation of research and presenting it as Truth.

Here is one example of someone who makes many of the same arguments, but posted them in a better venue and phrased them far less objectionably:

What’s your reaction to his firing?

Edith: I think it was the right thing for Google to do. There are consequences for things you say and do at work, for anyone and everyone, and had one of my coworkers circulated this I would absolutely perceive it as a hostile effort (even if it was not meant that way) to question me, my abilities, and my right to have my job the same as any of my other colleagues. As former Googler Yonatan Zunger wrote in his response, how on earth could he in good faith assign women to work with Damore after this? What does this publicity do to their ability to hire women and other underrepresented minorities in tech, or even to male allies who would look badly on Google for this? Not to mention the issues it presents to Google as a company given that they are under legal scrutiny for a gender-based wage gap. There are many ways Damore could have handled this very differently and possibly have gotten some traction with the people who could address his concerns or act on his suggestions without making himself a problem employee – he didn’t. Social skills are part of a professional skillset. It is important to learn how to handle difficult subjects in a workplace – we all have to do it. There are consequences for doing it in a way that causes problems for your employer, and I think in this case the consequences were appropriate. He was not fired for speaking truth to power, he was fired for mishandling a complex subject in a way that caused harm to his employer (and many of his colleagues).

Frances: I am conflicted about this and can see both sides of it. I think ideally there would have been a constructive internal discussion with him before the leak when he had shared the memo internally. Once the memo was leaked though, I understand how hard it would be for Google to keep him on staff and also support current and future female employees. It is really sad to watch him go from a confused, questionably informed kid, to a symbol of the alt-right, and to see his words polarize the issue even more.

Ida: I have mixed feelings about it. I can see that there are wide swaths of people who would refuse to work with him, and I am not sure that he can be unbiased when interviewing female candidates. Even if he does not believe that women are inherently worse than men at software engineering, I think it’s reasonable to be concerned that he might grade female candidates more harshly to counteract his perception of a lowered bar.

That being said, I can’t help but wonder if there was a useful discussion that could have been had. I think that variations on his opinion are held by people in the industry far more frequently than some (or many) people think, and it’s not productive to hide from that reality or shout down every expression of those opinions. That kind of opposition doesn’t change minds, and perhaps some minds could have been changed here.

Thanks to Aaron Stein, Michael Seibel, Kat Manalac, Adora Cheung, Sam Altman, Craig Cannon, Ramon Recuero, Scott Bell, and Daniel Gackle for reading drafts of this post.


  • Cadran Cowansage

    Cadran Cowansage is a software engineer at YC.