How the Imagined “Rationality” of Engineering Is Hurting Diversity — and Engineering

December 11, 2017 at 7:00 am 1 comment

Just a few weeks ago, Richard Thaler won the Nobel prize in Economics. Thaler is famous for showing that real human beings are not the wholly rational beings that Economic theory had previously assumed.  It’s timely to consider where else we assume rationality, and where that rational assumption may lead us into flawed decisions and undesirable outcomes.  The below article from Harvard Business Review considers how dangerous the Engineering “purity” argument is.

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…

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.”

Source: How the Imagined “Rationality” of Engineering Is Hurting Diversity — and Engineering

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. rademi  |  December 11, 2017 at 12:03 pm

    I think a problem we’re trying to grapple with here is the stereotype problem: we overgeneralize.

    If my office has some people who are unpleasant and/or counterproductive to work with and who are the opposite gender from myself, it’s easy to associate their gender with this issue. But if they are the same gender as myself, this kind of association is more difficult.

    I expect there’s quite a bit that philosophers have had to say about our mechanisms of abstraction, but another topic has to do with what we do about such things. And, I guess that includes:

    We find and present illustrative counter examples.

    We ignore the bad abstractions in favor of other priorities.

    We gather statistical information and make it available.

    Of course, we’ll never be perfect, and we’re dealing with something fundamental about how we think. And, there’s something of an endurance problem here.

    But another problem is that we don’t really have a solid consensus on concepts like “merit” which unfortunately means that rational people will have some tendency (and justification) to reject statistics that they do not already agree with. For example: if you have reason to believe you’ve acquired competence, it’s easy to take yourself as a model of merit. (But you knew that already…)


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