Beyond the Mean

Thoughts on the Google Memo
Alex Hsu

I work as a software engineer at a sports tech company and I am a woman. These facts about my life are why I continue to be distressed about the news of the Google Memo, written by software engineer James Damore, and its ramifications for my industry. While the headlines may make the memo seem like it was written by a deranged maniac, the fact that it wasn’t written as a blatant anti-diversity statement (it begins: “I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes”) is one of the things that makes it harder for people to be immediately outraged about its contents (and why this discussion is so fascinating and important).

As a software engineer, questioning assumptions and raising potentially controversial ideas is part of the job. I agree with the Damore’s assertion that “If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem.” The topic of diversity is critically important and I want to add my voice and insights to the discussion as honestly as possible. I agree with the myriad of responses suggesting that there were many productive ways that Damore could have raised some of his concerns, such as his views that conservative viewpoints aren’t valued in tech or that the diversity programs at Google should be more inclusive, without perpetuating gender stereotypes to make his point. I am pained to see that people are now afraid to raise controversial or minority opinions or ask questions because of the consequences of this memo.

But the issue for me is not the theoretical or hypothetical raising of unpopular opinions. In theory I absolutely agree that is very important. But I want to focus on the reality of this situation and the memo that was actually published. Damore’s main argument is that “Google’s political bias has equated the freedom from offense with psychological safety, but shaming into silence is the antithesis of psychological safety.” However, you can’t ask for psychological safety for one group while stomping on the psychological safety of another group. Content matters. The way these opinions were raised matters. Making an entire gender feel less qualified or question their career choice matters. As a female software engineer, the response to this memo makes me feel less safe. As a coworker, and fellow female engineer, put it, “[the memo] weighs on me because it validates my fears that I will have to spend most of my career proving I am competent before I’m given the space and respect to learn and grow.”

Despite Damore specifically recommending against reducing a population to their average, by even discussing “average” traits of women and men, the memo now provides specific stereotypes for people to point to to explain why a woman may be a lesser engineer. When you first start at a job or on a team no one has reasons to assume that your traits are anything but “average” until proven otherwise. If people believe that the “average” woman is less qualified it puts more onus on women to prove their worth the second they walk in the door. And trust me, even without this memo circulating, women in the tech industry are constantly being forced to prove their competence.

Damore selected three particular traits to discuss. He did not include his reasons for selecting those particular traits as his examples of genetic differences between males and females, although he did discuss ways in which, in his opinion, those traits cause problems in the tech industry. In summary, he mentioned that “average” female traits include: 1) “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics, rather than ideas…[including] a stronger interest in people rather than things;” 2) “extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness,” which included “higher agreeableness;” and 3) “neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).” Each of these terms in the memo also hyperlinks to a Wikipedia definition, rather than scientific treatises, and therefore seem to be a random selection of traits and stereotypes that Damore believed to be detrimental to the workplace. However, not only am I skeptical of the representativeness of the chosen traits and the sources cited, I believe that some of these traits are actually crucial to create a balanced, productive workplace. Imagine software built by a team where all members were more interested in “things” than people and no one wanted to pay attention to aesthetics (assuming the team was able to ship anything if it was comprised of assertive rather than agreeable people).

Additionally, while defining these “average” traits, Damore’s stated that “More men may like coding because it requires systemizing and even within [software engineers], comparatively more women work on front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.” This assertion really got under my skin because, for a split second, it made me self conscious of being a front end leaning developer. I do not only enjoy front end work because of aesthetics, that is one of the last pieces that I consider in my day to day work. Working as an engineer in any capacity requires deep systemizing and writing code. Contrasting front end work with coding in this way undermines the amount of critical thinking that front end engineering requires. This also serves to enforce biases that one gender should work on a particular part of the stack.

I can only share my own experience, but I believe it is important for more individuals to share their stories. To show that generalizing to the “average” actually hurts real people on real journeys.

My Journey

My entire adult life I have heard things like “you only got into MIT because you’re a woman” or “you’re just a diversity hire.” I went to a job interview where I asked how many women they had on the engineering team and the interviewer freaked out briefly and said “We only have one! But we’re trying to improve that number! That’s why we’re interviewing you!” By citing a diversity statistic as a reason to interview me, I suddenly felt less qualified for the position. Needless to say, I did not accept that job offer. But this constant questioning or suggesting that I am only interesting because I increase diversity numbers leads to feelings of imposter syndrome and wondering if I do belong or if I am actually good enough.

When people ask me what I do for a living and I say “software engineer” they often respond with a surprised “really?” or if I say I work at a tech company they say “oh as a designer?” (while I AM fully qualified to be an engineer, I am in NO WAY qualified to be a designer). I have even had this experience with other attendees at conferences specifically targeted at Software Engineers. As these conversations continue, when we finally do establish that I’m an Engineer, often times when I say I work on front end/UI work that is when the lightbulb goes off and people say “oh that makes sense.” Because I am finally saying SOMETHING that aligns with their preconceived perception of what I should be doing. I would get those reactions no matter where I worked, but I also work at an amazing company that focuses on youth sports. And I happen to work here because I LOVE sports, especially baseball. Plenty of other engineers at my company don’t care very deeply about sports, I just happen to be one of the ones that does. But even that is something I have to prove whenever I mention it, suddenly being quizzed about minute trivia or the last time my favorite team won the World Series (2013 in case you’re wondering). This not only occurs when I am discussing my job, but also in contexts such as having internet and cable installed in my new apartment. After an 8.5 hour installation process the cable rep finally turned on the TV and asked me what channel he could check to make sure that it was all installed. I responded “ESPN, I got the sports package” and he just turned around and stared at me like I had grown another head and said “You like sports?!”

I shouldn’t have to hesitate when being asked about where I went to school or what I enjoy doing in my free time, but I do. I often answer the simple question “where did you attend college?” by responding simply “in Boston.” Because having to explain more is so often a hassle. In addition to enjoying baseball, I also casually enjoy watching basketball, but you will rarely hear me admit it because I often feel like I do not know enough to answer the series of questions that follows.

While my day to day interactions with friends and coworkers are positive and supportive, constantly having to explain my job or prove my knowledge to others causes me to second guess myself regularly. Yet I know I am qualified. I worked my ass off in high school, crushed the SATs, volunteered with a bunch of organizations and did the typical over-achiever list of extracurricular activities. I was qualified to get into MIT, just as much as anyone else, but that is not what people see when they see me. It is the same with my job. I am fully qualified and capable of being here. I have both Bachelors of Science and Masters of Engineering degrees in Computer Science from MIT. I had technical internships throughout college and did a 1.5 year research project/thesis that involved building software. Often times I am told I shouldn’t experience imposter syndrome because of my qualifications, but because of these perceptions and stereotypes I do continue to feel like I don’t belong.

Thoughts & Conclusions

If you have never had your career choice or passions questioned or don’t regularly face people assuming you are unqualified for your job, you probably can’t comprehend why the fact that someone presented “scientific” ideas suggesting that you’re unqualified for your job hurts so much. I deal with these reminders of the uphill battle from people outside the tech industry regularly and now the fact that there is a publication within the industry that is causing more women to feel isolated, less qualified, or making them have to prove themselves even more than we already have to is not okay.

Additionally, the mere suggestion that if a woman does want to succeed, she has to exhibit more “male” qualities is (in my opinion) ludicrous. This is the main point of contention that I have with this memo: it put into very public words and thoughts the idea that women may be less genetically qualified to be engineers. While the memo does not say that ALL women cannot be engineers, it emphasizes the opinion that typically “female” traits make someone a bad engineer and that therefore the bad engineers are women and men who display more “female” traits. The memo also suggests that the diversity programs are lowering the bar for hiring, so even if the author truly believes that some or most of his female colleagues are qualified for their jobs, he has now created a document that allows anyone and everyone to question ALL women and whether they belong in their position or not.

I do not stop being a woman when I am doing my job. I don’t know where I fall on the continuum of traits, but based on the female qualities outlined in the memo, I am fairly solidly on the “female” end of the traits spectrum. And I am damn good at my job. What is so concerning is that the memo suggests that the way to succeed in the tech industry is to display traits matching the existing status quo. Women already receive more personality-based feedback and it is worrisome to think that documents like this memo can be used to further encourage women to alter their personalities to succeed. I want women everywhere to know that is unacceptable and untrue.

While I am extremely lucky to work at a company that values diversity and works to eliminate biases in the interview process, this is not necessarily true across the tech industry. It is horrible to continually be looking over your shoulder and wondering whether people think of you as a diversity hire, instead of a highly qualified worker. The fact that anyone can say “well maybe he has a good point” in even implying that “female” qualities make someone less qualified to be an engineer confirms my greatest fears and self doubts. The reason I am hurt and angry and upset about this memo is that it means that I am still fighting to prove that I belong here. That I have to continue overcoming these invisible obstacles. For instance, if I have a dissenting opinion in a meeting, I not only have to prove my point, but also prove I’m not just being “neurotic” AND actually have valid things to say.

I would very much like to erase the misconception that women are somehow inherently or biologically less able to be engineers. Knowing that potentially there are people holding those beliefs performing code reviews, filling out peer reviews, giving me feedback, and potentially determining my career path is terrifying. Being told that I may need to alter my personality to be successful or having my errors not necessarily be attributed to the fact that everyone makes mistakes, but the fact that I am a woman makes me feel like I am walking on eggshells. I want all the engineers on my team to be evaluated as engineers, not as men or women.

I honestly do believe the author of this memo has a right to question the hiring practices at his company. At GameChanger, I’ve asked questions about our hiring process/interview questions and I’ve spoken to a lot of people about ways we can continue to improve our culture. I do believe that people have the responsibility to ask potentially controversial questions, but I also believe it must be done in a way that does not attack or marginalize or state opinion as fact. This brings me to probably the most upsetting conclusion of the memo, Damore’s opinion that empathy makes you a bad engineer. The reason there is so much backlash is that the author did not for one second think about how this could impact others. How on earth can you build good software if you’re not empathetic to your colleagues, company, and most importantly users? You can’t! But because of this memo people all over the industry are pausing and thinking “maybe that is a good point” and that is what scares me.

I have been in a Software Engineering role full time for 2 years and I am already tired of hearing “don’t let it bother you.” I’ve already heard many things that I would have every right to be bothered by and they don’t bother me at this point, so the fact that this memo has been weighing on me compelled me to speak up. Being a woman in tech you have to pick your battles and this is a battle I am choosing to fight. I feel obligated to stand up for this because I am in a position where I can discuss my experiences candidly and this is a real issue facing the tech industry. I need it to be very clear that being told “this doesn’t relate to you, just to most women” or “just to the average woman” still insults me as an individual. Maybe you don’t believe this about your own coworkers or friends or family. I personally have received an outpouring of support from coworkers and friends and family. But I still know that I am “most women” to someone out there so if you belittle any of us, you’ve belittled all of us. I am hopeful now that we can shift the conversation beyond stereotypes of what a woman can and cannot do because of her gender. We instead need to focus on what individuals are qualified to do, interested in doing, and eager to take on. To make any meaningful change, we must stop perpetuating generalizing stereotypes and focus on the strengths, passions and abilities of individuals.

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of GameChanger.