Seems like everyone is talking about James Damore, the Google software engineer who wrote a screed claiming women engineers at Google are of inferior quality, and worse, that this difference has a biological basis. A reporter from the San Jose Mercury News interviewed me on it yesterday (and then accidentally attributed someone else’s comments to me, now fixed). Readers of this blog are asking my thoughts. My daughter texted me about it from Asia. I overhead two staffers at my local library discussing it this morning.
I’m in a small minority when it comes to attributing intellectual prowess to biology. In short, I believe the genetic/physiological component is either very small or outright nonexistent. On the Nature vs. Nurture issue, I go with Nurture. I am not impressed by the studies — with rats having almost identical Nurture, of course Nature’s role will be magnified — and after many years of observing the effects of Nurture in my students and other young people, I just don’t buy the Nature argument.
I must confess to a tendency to be irritated when talking to biologists, who take the Nature side for granted, never giving it any real thought. Imagine my horror, then, when I learned today that Damore is a biologist! Yep, MS in biology from Harvard. Apparently no one there at Harvard told him about Larry Summers’ famous gaffe concerning women in science. Well, serves Damore right. (Just kidding.)
By the way, Damore’s path into software development/Google is actually common. His biological research was heavily computational, and with his prestigious institutional affiliations, it was a natural for Google to consider him. One more illustration of the fact that most software engineers do NOT have a CS degree (or in many cases, any degree at all).
But no, Mr.Damore, there is no Software Development Gene. The art just requires logical thinking and abstract conceptualizing, skills that I claim we all have. Well, then what makes a really top programmer? Very simple really — extraordinary passion for the subject, at the wear it on your sleave, eat/sleep/breathe computers level.
And therein may lie the problem. As I have mentioned before,
And here is the gender aspect: I’ve only rarely seen women who talk like that. Most men don’t either, but the ones who do are almost all male. While it is understandable the employers want to hire workers who have enthusiasm for their field (though much less justified to value quickness), I believe that this view of hiring is wrongly disadvantaging the women, and is causing employers to overlook many top-notch talents who happen to be female.
In short, I suspect that Damore perceives his female Google colleagues as being inferior, because they don’t exhibit that behavior. Given that he (rightly) takes Google people to task for not questioning their assumptions, it’s sad that he didn’t question his own.