It’s not about Google. Our diversity efforts aren’t working

August 9, 2017 at 7:00 am 13 comments

The sexist “internal memo” from Google has been filling my social media feeds for the last few days. I’m not that excited about it.  Within every organization, there will be some people who disagree with just about any policy.  The enormous screed is so scientifically incorrect that I have a hard time taking it seriously.  

For example, the memo claims that the gap between men and women in CS is due to biology. That can’t be when there are more women than men in CS, especially in the Middle East and Northern Africa.  I saw a great study at NCWIT a few years ago on why programming is seen as women’s work in those parts of the world — it’s detailed work, done inside, sometimes with one other person. It looks like sewing or knitting. When told that programmers were mostly male in the US, the participants reportedly asked, “What’s masculine about programming?”  There’s an interesting take from four scientists who claim that everything that the internal memo says is correct.

The positive outcome from this memo is Ian Bogost’s terrific essay about the lack of diversity in Tech, from industry to higher education. It’s not about Google. It’s that our diversity efforts are having little impact. Ian explains how our problem with diversity is deeply rooted and influences the historical directions of computing. I highly recommend it to you.

These figures track computing talent more broadly, even at the highest levels. According to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, for example, less than 3 percent of the doctoral graduates from the top-10 ranked computer science programs came from African American, Hispanic, Native American, and Pacific Islander communities during the decade ending in 2015.

Given these abysmal figures, the idea that diversity at Google (or most other tech firms) is even modestly encroaching on computing’s incumbents is laughable. To object to Google’s diversity efforts is to ignore that they are already feeble to begin with.

Source: A Googler’s Anti-Diversity Screed Reveals Tech’s Rotten Core – The Atlantic

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Marcel Weiher  |  August 9, 2017 at 11:40 am

    I am somewhat disappointed by the shoddiness of this analysis.

    “the memo claims that the gap between men and women in CS is due to biology.”

    This is not true. The memo claims that due to the well-documented differences (at least partly due to biology, but that doesn’t really matter), we cannot *rule out* that factors other than discrimination are also at work.

    This is very clear in the text. First, the title of the section is called “Possible non-bias causes…” Second, he explicitly states that bias is one of the factors, he just says that it’s “not the whole story”.

    “That can’t be when there are more women than men in CS, especially in the Middle East and Northern Africa”

    Sure it can.

    First, there is evidence of a link to pre-natal androgen exposure:

    Also, the research shows, the difference in traits are *larger* in more advanced economies and more gender-egalitarian countries. So when you cite the Middle East and Northern Africa, you are actually supporting the point the author made.

    I collected some links to the relevant papers on my blog:

    The studies had very large sample sizes, were cross-cultural (one had 55 countries), large effects and replicated very well. Doesn’t mean they can’t be wrong, but you certainly can’t handwave them away.

    And finally, the author clearly states that he wants *more* diversity, not less as Bogost’s essay insinuates. He just thinks that we’re doing it wrong.

    The fact that our current approaches aren’t working strongly suggest that he may be on to something.

    You might want to think about that.

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  August 9, 2017 at 11:48 am

      Marcel, what do you think of the argument about gender essentialism — that the variance between women (and between men) is so large that it doesn’t make sense to make claims like “men like things and women like people.”

  • 3. Marcel Weiher  |  August 9, 2017 at 11:41 am

    Darn, wrong link:

    My post is at

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  August 9, 2017 at 12:05 pm

      I have now read your piece (and enjoyed it), and the original post. You’re right — he doesn’t explicitly say that women aren’t cut out for CS. He implies it, though, when he points out that men are stronger and women are weaker at the attributes that he considers important for engineering. What do you think of the historical argument? Women used to be much more represented in CS.

      The part of his argument that bothers me the most is his argument that we shouldn’t do gender and race specific initiatives. I think he’s confusing equality and equity. If some groups (e.g., low SES) get less access to computing education, targeting low-SES with special programs seems like a reasonable way to reduce gaps.

      • 5. Marcel Weiher  |  August 10, 2017 at 1:50 pm

        Thanks for the kind words about my glorified link collection, you are much more polite than I am 🙂

        I really, really disagree that he implies women aren’t cut out for CS, particularly because he repeatedly says that is not the case, and also because his evidence just doesn’t support that.

        There are statistical differences, primarily in preferences, that result in statistical differences in outcome (population statistics with huge overlaps). In now way can these statistical differences be turned into statements about individuals, or absolute statements about the entire population.

        The historical aspect is certainly fascinating, and I’ve been thinking about it. Would probably require a blog post, but I think it can be explained very simply when you accept that freedom of choice has increased over time. The people who insist that explanations cannot be other than oppression-based have to twist themselves into pretzels to explain the facts.

        His proposal to do away with gender- and race-specific initiatives also puzzled me, as I didn’t see them follow from the rest. It’s really more that he is trying to say “we don’t need to do these, we can do something else”.

        Of course, we can’t expect full context from a leaked memo, and after his firing he provided that context in a recorded interview with Jordan Peterson: one is that these initiatives are simply not working. (see also Google’s diversity efforts fall flat).

        The other is that presumably due to this failure of a positive effect and the intense scrutiny/pressure Google is under (PR, legal) to show improvement, Google has apparently ramped these efforts up in ways that are at the very least questionable and likely downright illegal. In fact, the memo was a direct result of one of those forced “diversity meetings”, which for example wasn’t recorded, unlike pretty much all other Google meetings, and where some of these shady practices were discussed.

        James, being an engineer, thought to himself: heck, maybe we can figure out a better solution, one that has a chance of working and isn’t illegal.



        • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  August 10, 2017 at 2:23 pm

          Thanks, Marcel. There are certainly other factors than explicit/implicit oppression, but the evidence suggests to me that biology plays little to do with it, or at least, is not the most critical factor. Consider which is more common: A biologically-capable female who is dissuaded from pursuing CS because of bias or culture (which includes making a choice for a different field because of a dislike of current Tech culture), or a biologically incapable female who flunks out of CS? Our data say that most women who drop out of CS have higher than class average performance, which makes the former more likely to me.

          • 7. Marcel Weiher  |  August 10, 2017 at 8:16 pm

            Who said anything about “capable” or *incapable*? All the research points to this impacting primarily *preferences*. “Capable” is a complete straw-man.

            Not Lack of Ability but More Choice
            Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

            So I reject your question.

            And then it resolves itself: Which is more common, a woman who *prefers* to study early childhood education, or a woman who prefers computer science but is “excluded” from CS by oppression?

            This is a complete no-brainer.

            I don’t have data about women dropping out of CS education, but the data gathered from professionals indicate that “oppression” is not a significant factor, and that in fact “bias” is often *positive*, favoring women.

            CACM gender survey

            And for women leaving the profession, again bias or sexism is a minor issue, with the most frequent reason given “don’t enjoy engineering”.

            Women Leaving Engineering

            And in fact, the biggest differences between the genders in the ACM survey were “Love of technology/computers” (men significantly more than women) and “flexible working hours” (women more than men).

            So when it comes to leaving, it’s the working conditions, which are the same for both genders but the women find more objectionable and are less willing to accept, whereas the men accept them partly due to their love of the technology.

            So if you want to retain more women: make working conditions less awful, for everyone.

            • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  August 10, 2017 at 9:07 pm

              We certainly can agree on the bottomline. That is what I meant by line that Ian quoted me saying, “Women used to avoid computer science because they didn’t know what it is. Now they avoid it because they know exactly what it is.”

              • 9. Marcel Weiher  |  August 11, 2017 at 8:19 am

                Yes, they know that the work is, largely, something they don’t particularly enjoy, that the working conditions (for everyone) are not sufficiently great to overcome that, and that they are more free to choose their passion rather than follow the money because they are not the default provider of income and not judged by potential partners by their ability to provide income.

  • 10. dennisfrailey  |  August 9, 2017 at 2:03 pm

    I worked in the hi-tech industry for almost 40 years and our experience was that the most productive software teams were those that had both men and women on them. What I think causes some to find men more suitable than women for some tasks (or vice versa) is part cultural (“manly things are physical” kinds of stuff you tend to find in less developed societies) and partly due to the development of very focused subcultures such as the highly competitive, “gaming” subculture that has developed in some segments of the computing community that may sometimes end up favoring the characteristics of one particular kind of person. I fear that this particular subculture is often prevalent in high schools (in the US) and tends to cause girls to avoid learning about computers because they think that’s what it’s all about.

    One of my biggest concerns is the attitude found in many places that software engineering consists mainly of programming. This totally ignores many other important functions such as management, organization, leadership, quality assurance, configuration management, verification and validation, and (I could go on and on). I used to develop cost estimates for large scale software projects and the proportion of the cost associated with programming tended to run between 1/4 and 1/3 of the total. Furthermore, the higher paid and more responsible positions were those that didn’t involve much programming and that programmers would aspire to be promoted to, such as systems engineering or project management.

  • 11. jkhuggins  |  August 9, 2017 at 4:00 pm

    Mark, do you have a link to the NCWIT article you mention?

  • 13. Blue Orchid  |  August 14, 2017 at 2:32 pm

    I have seen a lot of comments and analyses on the web but none about how this “manifest” is (possibly/probably?) affecting teenage girls who are considering majoring in CS. After all, it is all over the web, and we can be sure young people are reading it.

    Have you thought about doing some kind of survey in your incoming class? Perhaps also monitor drop out rates or something like that.


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