Women in Tech: A Post-Google-Memo Discussion

The gender gap in technology industries garnered recent national media attention through a highly publicized memo authored by (then) Google staffer James Damore, who suggested that men are better suited for tech and leadership positions than women. The company subsequently fired Damore for violating the company’s code of conduct by “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”

Dr. Romila Singh, Associate Professor of Management at the Lubar School of Business, has studied the gender gap in the engineering profession. In 2012, Dr. Singh and Dr. Nadya Fouad, UWM Distinguished Professor and Mary and Ted Kellner Endowed Chair of Educational Psychology, published a report titled “Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering.”  Funded by a major grant from the National Science Foundation, the scholars examined why women make up only 11% of practicing engineers, even though women comprise more than 20% of engineering school graduates.    Dr. Singh shared her thoughts on Damore’s assertions and Google’s corporate response.

Q:  In his memo, James Damore said:  “I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”  What is your opinion of this statement?

A:  There is no scientific research to back Damore’s contentions. In fact, studies of differences between men and women by numerous researchers show virtually no differences in ability. Research by evolutionary biologists and psychologists unequivocally demonstrates that any sex differences in abilities and preferences are a result of a complex interaction between nature and nurture – one’s genetics, epigenetics, and environmental influences.  Our research and studies by others show that women’s lack of representation in tech and in positions of leadership is a reflection of gender-biased corporate systems, practices and climate, and sexual harassment, rather than women’s “innate” skills, abilities and predilections.

Q: Damore commented that, on average, women have more openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas, more extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness, and more neuroticism.  Why is stereotyping such as this harmful in the workplace?

A: It undermines everyone’s performance – the target of the stereotype as well as the perpetrator.  These comments perpetuate hackneyed stereotypes that paint a whole group of people with the same brush and serve no purpose other than to exclude, demean, and/or undermine women with varied talents and abilities. Destructive as it is, a discerning manager can use these opportunities as a “teaching moment,” partnering with the HR colleagues and other like-minded leaders to start conversations around these topics.

Stereotypes also serve to echo or reflect some of the dominant views held by the “in-groups” who feel their identities threatened by the shifts in the company’s culture, practices, and/or demographic patterns.  This is where the company’s leadership is tested and it is important to address these expressed stereotypes.

Of course, one must be vigilant and not confuse stereotypes with sexism, racism, able-ism, and other -isms.

Q: Google fired Damore because he violated the company’s code of conduct.  The CEO said Damore crossed the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in the workplace.  Based on your research, do you feel it was important for leadership to take this position, and why?  What is the organization’s role here, in broad terms?

A: Google did the right thing by enforcing its policies if, indeed, Damore violated its code of conduct.  It is imperative that any successful change effort start at the top.  Google CEO Sundar Pichai took a step in that direction by immediately and directly addressing the content of the memo.  Even before this incident, however, Pichai sent a strong message about his commitment to diversity by ‘gender balancing’ his executive team — a rare feat in Silicon Valley.  Leaders’ words matter, but their actions and behaviors matter even more.  However, to be balanced, given the debate, and the very fact we are discussing this, more research needs to be done by organization behavioral scientists to understand whether the views presented by Mr. Damore represent a small minority or an increasing strain of resentment/dissatisfaction (especially amongst men) and what organizations can do to successfully address these sentiments without driving them ‘underground’ or relegating it to cooler talk.

Overall, companies need to view women’s representation and advancement as a strategic goal and treat it with the same intentionality as they would in addressing falling market share and cost structures – not because of legislative goals or perceived inequities – but because it makes good business sense. Companies also need to create a performance- and metrics-driven culture which instills accountability into fair working conditions, evaluation and reward systems, and equal opportunities for developmental work assignments.

Q: Damore believes that the training and support for boosting women in tech is a form of discrimination.  What has your past research found on this topic?

A: For years, companies have focused on training and supporting women to boost their numbers in tech and leadership ranks. Our research has highlighted that this “fix-the-women” approach focuses a company’s efforts and attention on fixing the wrong segment of the problem. Women are not broken. Rather, various employee management systems are, and the underlying attitudes are outmoded.  Our research has strongly demonstrated that a chilly corporate climate is the reason for continuing low numbers of women in engineering and in leadership positions; 40% of 5,500 women engineers in our study cited these reasons for leaving the engineering profession. Corporate culture needs to change to value both male and female attributes.

In the short run, this means first uncovering the mindsets held by managers in positions of power that hold women back and then implementing metrics driven system wide changes that break down not only the structural roadblocks to representation and advancement of women but also the invisible barriers.  Removing these invisible barriers includes training both men and women on implicit biases as well as skillfully addressing the conscious biases such as those reflected in the statement made by Mr. Damore.

In the long run, training and programming also needs to move away from “gender specific” or “gender sensitive” approaches in which men’s and women’s needs are considered separately to “gender transformative” approaches (where gender norms are challenged) which address the roots of inequity and inequality.  Achieving gender equity is not an end-state in and of itself, but represents a continuum of progress to create an inclusive environment that works for everyone.  The mantra should be “we are all on the same team with our differences – not despite them.”