The infamous #googlememo and the neuroscientific difference in sexes

Denying differences between women and men stands in the way of an equitable society regardless of STEM or anything else.

WrittenBy:Science Desk
Article image

by Divya Swaminathan

James Damore is now an infamous man. Damore, who was fired last week for authoring a memo at Google first went viral internally at the company and later online. The memo argued against enforced diversity at 50 per centmisreported on most platforms as anti-diversity–pointing that, amongst other factors, tech gender gap may be a result of innate biological differences. Following swift backlash Damore was fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes”.

A day after, as we all got together for morning coffee at our lab, the Google memo was on everyone’s mind. From a gender perspective, we are a balanced lab with five men and four women. We disagreed, right down the middle as to whether Damore should have been fired or not- all the three women present feeling Google overstepped. And all nine of us agreed –there is no denying the fact that men and women are physiologically different, process their environment differently and maybe innately wired to approach the same task differently. None of us think being different diminishes capability- a critical distinction.

After coffee we poured over the memo- I guess we were driven by disbelief that someone would say women are incapable as had been widely reported.

So what does Damore really say?

Damore’s memo is thoughtful, thought provoking and heavily referenced. He argues against enforced-diversity at 50 per cent not diversity per say–a big difference everyone seems to have missed. When we think about what causes the gender gap we think correctly about bias and discrimination. Damore argues we cannot discount that innate biological factors may lead to men and women making different choices for themselves. And this may have a bearing on the observed tech gender gap. As a population measure, more women seek work life balance whereas more men seek high pressure jobs. From one individual to another, of course, population measures cannot be applied. He touches upon hyper-masculinity and how men need to change going forward.

Along the way he talks about women being more nervous than men- the one statement that was plastered everywhere. His statement is (a) part of a larger narrative and (b) also, even if one is only concerned with this statement at face value, backed by neuroscience data. Cherry picking one line from a thorough ten page document is careless.

My women colleagues (both experimental biologists) and I (a computational physicist) have read the memo in its entirety and none of us were offended by it. He never says or implies women aren’t capable or can’t do tech (as has being said, including in the NL Hafta #132 discussion on the topic) – what he says is, a certain percentage of women and men, choose differently and this may have its basis in how they are wired. This is also one component being reflected in the observed tech gender gap.

Both social media and Google’s reaction have left us in the lab confused.

I do not write this in defense of the Google memo. No, my stated position is (a) I, a woman, am not offended by it, (b) I have no knowledge of Google’s internal workings and am not concerned with them but (c) I am curious -where does science- not emotion, culture or politics- stand on the issue?

The neuroscience point of view sex matters

There is a vast body of work in neuroscience that demonstrates differences between the male and female brain from the level of gene expression to small scale molecular activity to large scale structural connectivity. One example is that the female brain is more symmetrically organized across hemispheres when compared to men. What this means for function is not perfectly clear (and needs more work) but that differences exist and should be considered while designing experiments or interpreting results- particularly in the context of health and diseases- this thought is believed in and strongly advocated by the National Institute of Health and the National Academy of Sciences.

Women have suffered in the past when animal research in health and disease studies only focused on male animals as test subjects- erroneously believing that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. In recent years it has become clear that treatment for disorders like depression, schizophrenia and PTSD has to be sex-specific.

For a succinct overview of sex- specific neuroscience research ,what one can learn from it and why it is important I direct the reader to this elegant account by Dr Larry Cahill. (Full Disclosure: Cahill and I work at the same university though in different departments. He is a neuroscientist and part of his work concerns with sex differences in the brain )

The psychology and sociology point of view – the mosaic brain

A parallel point of view is propagated by the Psycologists and the Sociologists, there really isn’t a male or female brain rather a ‘mosaic’ or a ‘unisex brain’. To outline this sector’s main arguments consider the quote (a) ”Thus, rather than falling neatly into masculine and feminine clusters, males and females possess a complex mosaic of both characteristics ” and (b) few (if any) meaningful behavioral differences exist between men and women, for example, the LinkedIn article now doing the rounds.

But there are problems here and I found consensus does not exist.

If we have a ‘unisex brain’ then why does connectivity within and between hemispheres, for men and women, vary dramatically ?

Another argument against the unisex brain comes from X-chromosome inactivation observed strictly in females. The genetic make up of a female is characterized by the XX twenty third chromosome, the male being XY. It is known that in females, for every cell, one copy of X inactivates with interesting consequences. In some – and only- female brains one hemisphere is dominated by the mother’s X and another by the father’s X. Conversely, direct Y-chromosome linked defects are observed in the male brain. The ‘unisex brain’ hypothesis does not reconcile these facts.

Meta analysis – a method that analyzes and combine data over several published results- underscores the ‘no behavioral differences between sexes’ model. Some have deemed meta analysis as inadequate methodology- change your mode of analysis you change your results- from no behavioral difference between sexes to large differences. This should raise some red flags.

Is it correct to conclude that because an average difference between men and women is quantitatively small, that difference will have no practical consequences? I will leave it to the reader to answer that question for themselves. Also a section of sociologists would themselves reject the claim that any or all observable behavior difference results from cultural and environmental bias. For a moment, for the sake of argument consider this- if there are no behavioral level differences between the sexes does it imply our innate biology, our brain wiring, is the same? To the non-neuroscientist perhaps yes, to the neuroscientist, no.

More nuanced scientific arguments can be presented against the ideas of a ‘unisex brain’ and ‘no behavioral differences between the sexes’ as done here.

Aware of Cahill’s research work, I reached out to him for his opinion on the Google memo. In an email exchange he shared the following with me:

“In fact it is perfectly scientifically defensible to argue that sex based influences on brain function help explain aptitudes and preferences of women and men for all fields, not just tech. And there is nothing “sexist” in trying to understand such influences. None of this, however, means anything about any one woman or man, or how they should be judged.

There is, however, something very wrong in a person being vilified and fired for expressing a scientifically defensible opinion because that opinion happens to offend those who are less familiar with the science, and who have other political views.”

So what’s wrong with enforced diversity at 50 per cent- particularly in tech?

Simple, it’s untenable.

Keeping all other factors aside, the one question Damore should have asked but did not (and my guess is because it was an internal Google memo)- where are the women? You can have 50 per cent of all positions filled by women if you have a pipeline of educated well trained women coming in. Enough women are not enrolling in universities to study computer science, math, physics or engineering to take up tech jobs later. If the goal is to have more women upstream one needs to pay careful attention downstream. What is happening in schools ? What junk are we feeding our girls so that they stay miles away from computer science? Are we telling them you are different hence incapable or different hence inferior or some other version of this mumbo-jumbo?

Differences and equality are mutually inclusive

After reading the memo, social media reactions and some scientific literature dealing with the issue I realized that for most people the word ‘different’ or ‘difference’ automatically translated into ‘inferior’, ‘incapable’ or ‘ incompetent’ and that too always for the female. This speaks of our ingrained biases.

Controversial as it is, I still feel I need to put this forward as I suspect people in tech crying wolf over the memo know this well. It is believed good programmers have Asperges’ syndrome – one disorder on the autism spectrum. It is also a fact for every single girl diagnosed with autism four boys will follow suit and that is a conservative estimate. So, does this mean all autistic boys become exceptional programmers ? No. Does it mean girls should not bother with coding/computer science at all? No. As this probably makes us all a wee bit uncomfortable, is it better to just ignore these facts and pretend there are no innate biological biases at play ? Once again I will leave this to the discretion of the reader.

In my considered opinion it will be of service to society and women’s march towards equality that (i) we do not shy away from understanding and acknowledging biological differences between the sexes, (ii) work towards changing the social labelling around these differences- there is nothing superior or inferior about men or women; there can be no equality or justice when differences are denied and (iii) we need to think carefully about restructuring the modern workplace. Every time a woman goes to work, she is effectively stepping into an institutionalized space created by men for men and spends an inordinate amount of time (de)’normalizing’. That should change.


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like