Engaging the Anti-Diversity Underground

Yes, women are less interested in tech, and that’s why we need diversity more than ever

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

If someone had told me a year ago that I’d be spending my free time watching YouTube videos of former Google engineer James Damore, some 15 months after his memo was released, I would have said they were deluded. Damore, if you don’t recall, argued that women are underrepresented in tech not because of bias or discrimination, but because of inherent physiological differences between the genders.

As a former director at the nonprofit Girls Who Code, with a background in electrical and computer engineering and nearly 15 years of tech experience, I couldn’t even look at coverage of the memo at the time. I know firsthand how hard it is to be the only woman in the room, and these arguments about biological differences only make it harder.

I dismissed the memo, and Damore himself, as ignorant without a second thought. But in doing so, I was inadvertently mimicking the very behavior I was protesting: an inability to listen. It took me a year to realize that if we’re going to make any progress in this conversation, we have to engage, and admit that a difference in opinion isn’t always a bad thing.

Though I had zapped Damore from my consciousness, it became clear that his influence wasn’t going away. In March, the New York Times published a large spread on the growing reach of what’s known as the “intellectual dark web,” where, according to columnist Bari Weiss, “heretics” like Joe Rogan exchange viewpoints that the mainstream would find controversial — the idea that identity politics are “toxic” and “tearing American society apart,” for example. The group has taken a liking to Damore’s point of view.

What few have been willing to acknowledge is that, in some ways, people like Damore are right.

Meanwhile, I, like many, grew queasy at the state of public discourse, with ideas flattening to Twitter-length platitudes and one side shouting at the other to no end. So I took a deep breath and finally decided to listen. It’s easy to wave away Damore’s viewpoints as extreme or nakedly misogynist, but as I played hours and hours of interviews with him and his IDW friends (Rogan included), it seemed that this strain of thinking about gender wasn’t a masked attempt to hold women back, but the uninformed perspective of guys who just didn’t get it. They mostly wanted the freedom to debate rather than bludgeon opponents into intellectual surrender; an ask that seemed not only reasonable to me, but — dare I say it? — kind of fun.

While sexists certainly exist, many who champion the biological point of view about gender and tech are processing the data available to them — industry diversity numbers that have barely budged despite major investment, female peers who opt out of more technical roles — and earnestly asking why we’re pushing so hard for parity, given that women generally don’t seem as interested in the work.

To women in tech, the gap in this logic is clear. These guys (and yes, some women) may feel informed from studies and statistics, but they lack the most critical piece of data: what it actually feels like to be a woman in tech.

So, maybe the answer is not to silence these conversations, which only fans the flames, but to say more.

What few have been willing to acknowledge is that, in some ways, people like Damore are right. At this point in time, men, on average, do seem more interested in highly technical roles, and women, on average, in people-centric roles. Getting stuck on this point only halts the larger debate. The far more important (and interesting) question is why?

I, like many, grew queasy at the state of public discourse, with ideas flattening to Twitter-length platitudes and one side shouting at the other to no end.

It rarely occurs to women in tech to ask why the gender ratio is skewed, because we’re hit over the head with the answer every day. From birth to the boardroom, women are nudged to care about people over things and to be agreeable rather than assertive. We’re judged more harshly if we’re not. It never ends: Just the other day, I was pitching to an investor, and he stopped me midsentence to tell me to smile.

Meanwhile, biological proponents tend to address the why by declaring that differences between the sexes clearly exist, letting the claim hang heavy with unwarranted implication. Unfortunately, this statement is as obvious as it is irrelevant. As many have already pointed out, there is no definitive data explaining how such factors would specifically relate to an individual’s interest in programming. Any proven biological difference is small, and its link to STEM abilities is tenuous. Damore’s memo was littered with caveats; it was a thought experiment at best.

Engaging with the “biological” argument about women in tech is less an issue of free speech than that of complete and accurate speech. And this carelessness has consequences. The dissemination of false assumptions often perpetuates those very assumptions. Ultimately, stereotypes are born — “women aren’t interested in tech” — which not only affects how women are viewed by others, but how we view ourselves.

In my hours of listening to interviews, I heard claims that we lack sufficient data to know the cause of the gender split for sure. It’s true that hard research is sometimes split, but data is everywhere. It’s just not in the form we are used to trusting.

At the heart of this debate and so many others is that we do not consider women’s lived experiences to be valid data. In this argument, women who work in tech are the experts, and that makes some people uncomfortable.

For as long as I can remember, I was wiring up devices in my childhood bedroom and trying to mold my very being into Data from The Goonies. It never occurred to me that girls weren’t supposed to like technology.

That changed when I enrolled in electrical and computer engineering at Cornell. My class was 86 percent men, and like many people who have been a minority in some field, I immediately became preoccupied with proving I deserved to be there. I was terrified of doing something wrong and confirming what I was sure everyone was thinking — that girls were not meant for this. I almost always coded alone so no one would see me struggle, though everyone struggled. I never asked a question in class — determined not to seem like I wasn’t good enough — propelling minor confusions into major misunderstandings. I spent much of my brainpower figuring out how to be one of the guys, memorizing their interests, repeating their mannerisms.

When graduation came around, I was urged to take advantage of my “people skills.” Apparently I had abilities that my classmates didn’t, and of course I did: I had spent four years figuring out how to fit in with them.

After a lifetime obsession with technology, I stopped coding, eager to take advantage of what my teachers assured me was my biggest strength. I went into management consulting. I was bored within a few years, but it felt like too much time had passed to go back, and the thought of trying to fit in all over again was too daunting.

At the heart of this debate and so many others is that we do not consider women’s lived experiences to be valid data.

This is not uncommon. Studies show that, through high school, women have the same abilities in STEM but perform better than men in things like linguistics, which encourages women to lean into those areas. Studies also show that as women enter an industry in greater numbers, the pay in that industry declines over time. In other words, women could do what men do, but we choose not to because we are relatively better at other things — but we also get paid less to do them.

Deterring women from programming fundamentally affects financial equality. Computer science is currently the highest-paying industry, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. If we perpetuate narratives that deter woman from these careers, we have to acknowledge the economic implications such messages have on women’s futures and, in many ways, their freedom.

The implications are farther reaching than you might expect. Teams that are more diverse build better solutions. Who wants to live in a world where everything we use is made by the same type of person, particularly when those products are social networks used by millions upon millions of people around the globe? Homogenous teams have left essential problems unsolved, like Twitter’s unwieldy troll problem, an issue male engineers hadn’t considered when designing the platform, or they’ve solved problems poorly, as was the case recently when Amazon launched an automated recruiting program that was filled with gender bias. At Girls Who Code, I watched girls build apps to help their communities, spread messages about empowerment, and solve urgent problems for women that have been neglected for years.

I’m not one to stifle debate. If anything, I’m the first to join in, and I regret that I so quickly dismissed Damore initially. I don’t believe he’s intentionally sexist. I just think he’s not listening. The finding that, at present, men are more interested in “things” and women in “people” is not a surprise — to women least of all. If anything, one could argue, it’s a rallying call.

Writer and founder of Chorus, the matchmaking app where friends swipe for friends. More at getchorus.co (or emjsmith.com).

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