Is there a biological difference between genders? And, if so, can it partially explain gender-based discrepancies in our society?
That’s the gist of James Damore’s now infamous “Google Manifesto” that has been mischaracterized by some in the media as asserting he argued “that women are not biologically fit for tech roles.” Damore never argued that women as individuals “are not biologically fit;” rather that our biological differences may lead us toward different work endeavors in an aggregate sense.
Damore was asserting that not all disproportionality between men and women can be explained away by bias, stereotyping, discrimination, prejudice, and the patriarchal society.
Some of his assertions are broad-brush and questionable, but it is not an unscientific or immoral question to ask.
Clearly, there is something “masculine” and something “feminine” in our brains, or else we wouldn’t be talking about Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox and the meaning of being transgender.
So, does that difference naturally translate to masculine brains seeking certain vocations and feminine brains seeking others?
It’s not an easy question to unravel. We can’t take 100,000 masculine-gendered and 100,000 feminine-gendered infants to a hermetically-sealed, prejudice-free society where they’re raised by genderless robots and then see how many of each turned out to be software engineers.
There is no doubt there is misogyny to be found in every aspect of modern life. It’s the confounding element in this debate.
For enlightenment, one example I turn to in these debates is the orchestra.
Originally, orchestras hired their musicians by having them audition for their chair. The composition of orchestras hovered around 5 percent female for years.
There’s no logical reason for that. Both men and women can be virtuoso musicians. Aside from hauling the double bass from place to place, there isn’t much about playing in an orchestra where being a big, strong male is a performance-enhancing benefit. So, why else would women rarely break through and land a chair in a major orchestra, and then more often as a violinist or flautist than as a trumpeter or percussionist, if not gender bias?
Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, some orchestras started holding their auditions behind a curtain, so the judges could not know what gender the musician was. The musician would even be told to take off his or her shoes as he or she walked to the audition chair, so the sound of the shoes some musicians wore wouldn’t give them away.
From that point on, women’s inclusion into major symphony orchestras skyrocketed. Clearly, eliminating the possibility of gender bias greatly increased the access for women into those jobs.
However, women’s representation in orchestras is rarely as high as 30 percent. Which leaves us with the same conundrum; that is, does our society’s inherent gender bias disproportionately steer women away from becoming virtuoso musicians, or is there something about being male that pushes a person toward the long boring hours of practicing musical scales and vibrato technique more so than females?
This is the heart of Damore’s essay: if we were free from all inherent biases, would male and female participation in all endeavors be roughly 50/50; or, if gender does, in part, play a role in how we select our endeavors, are we doing society a disservice by trying to artificially force a 50/50 split in all endeavors?
Another example I turn to in these debates is basketball.
The entire point of the WNBA (and, for that matter, every sport we designate “Men’s” and “Women’s”) is to create access to sport for women who, by nature of their biological differences, would be severely underrepresented if they had to compete head-to-head with men. This is not controversial.
If we can acknowledge that being biologically male or female results in different height and musculature, why is it controversial to suggest being mentally male or female might result in different drives and capabilities?
Damore’s point was his belief that biology plays a role in forming coders like it does creating great basketball players. Yes, there can be some Diana Taurisis and Lisa Leslies who might have had a fighting chance to play NBA ball, but in the aggregate, more men will be great basketball players than women.
To further the analogy, Damore is arguing that Google’s gender diversity goals would be like the NBA mandating that half of all its teams’ playing minutes must be assigned to female players. Damore’s arguing that Google will suffer from forced diversity like the game quality of the NBA would suffer with half-female teams.
Now, before you jump into the comments to excoriate this bald white guy “mansplaining” this issue, please note that I don’t agree with Damore’s thesis. I think institutional bias and cultural mores are, by far, the greatest factors in the gender-based discrepancies we find in society. I think in that hypothetical de-gender-biased experiment I proposed, you’d end up with about a 50/50 split on nearly all non-physical occupations.
What I disagree with vehemently is the automatic shunning and shaming of people who dare to pose these sort of questions. The corollary of Damore’s thesis was that Google claims to welcome all viewpoints, but his would get him fired, and Google proved him right.
Google claimed he was “perpetuating gender stereotypes,” but Damore did report actual statistics about gender. Men do tend to be evaluated more by their status. Women do tend to score higher points on tests of agreeableness, in a study that concludes, ”Gender differences in interests appear to be consistent across cultures and over time, a finding that suggests possible biologic influences.”
There do seem to be differences in the masculine and feminine brain and it’s worth debating whether that translates into real-world effects independent of cultural and institutional biases, and, if so, whether artificially-mandated, perfectly-distributed diversity is beneficial or harmful to society.