How Not to Change Your Employer’s Culture

I told myself I wouldn’t write about the Google memo. The situation followed a drearily predictable script — guy writes something arguably sexist, it goes public, outrage erupts, company fires him, he becomes a martyr for the MRA cause, etc. — and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

There’s something that bothered me though… As I understand it, the (now former) Google employee criticized the company’s diversity policy regarding women, using an argument based on statistical differences between the sexes. At least that’s what I’m hearing from people I consider reliable. I still haven’t read the whole memo, and I hope I don’t have to.

Honestly, I tried reading it, but I didn’t have the stamina to go on once I got to the part where he invokes evolutionary psychology. I’ve seen this before, and it’s never pretty. Evolutionary psychology is a branch of biology that tries to link psychological traits back to the conditions under which they evolved. It’s a legitimate science, but one in which firm conclusions are difficult to come by. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped a lot of people from invoking it to make some very questionable pronouncements about race and gender.

I haven’t read enough of the Google memo to know how far the author goes down that road, but here’s the thing: Given his stated purpose, evolutionary psychology is completely unnecessary. The author justifies his proposals based on supposedly innate differences between men and women. But if the evolutionary basis for those differences is backed by science, that science must necessarily make use of contemporary studies of men and women which demonstrate those differences, and those studies alone should be sufficient to support his proposals.

When your purpose is to propose changing the work environment to make it more accommodating to the differing preferences of women, all you need to know is what those preferences are. How women came to have those preferences may well be an interesting area of scientific inquiry, but it has nothing to do with workplace policy.

For example, suppose evolutionary psychologists conclude that women like the color pink because ancestral women were the primary caregivers of infants and attention to pink tones in skin coloration was important to maintaining infant health. If this was real science (instead of something I just made up), then the body of research supporting feminine color preferences must necessarily include studies that establish the statistical observation that women like the color pink. So if you want to propose painting Google meeting rooms pink to make women more comfortable, you need only refer to the studies showing that women like pink. There’s no need to bring up evolution.

More generally, for the ostensible purposes of the memo’s author, the reasons for differing preferences are beside the point. Perhaps they arise because of evolutionary pressures, or perhaps they are instilled in men and women by the expectations and restrictions of society, but when it comes to setting personnel policy, it just doesn’t matter. By the time men and women walk through the doors at Google for their first interview, they have whatever preferences they have, for whatever reasons they have them, and Google can’t do a thing about it. Google has to take its job applicants as it finds them.

The point I’m trying to make here is that this should have been obvious to the memo’s author. If he was sincerely trying to propose ways to accommodate women’s preferences, all he had to do was cite the research that backs up his arguments about differences between men and women. Bringing in evolutionary psychology was unnecessary, divisive, and distracting. If this was a sincere attempt to influence company culture, it was a stupid way to go about it.

The author’s other major mistake was to be disrespectful to the powers that be. The title alone, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” implies that Google managers are closed-minded and therefore foolish. Even if the author is right and Google is managed by people with absurd liberal biases, this is not the way to make them see the light. In fact, if you begin your letter to your employer with the rhetorical equivalent of “Hey, dumb-asses!” you should not be surprised when they construe it as your resignation.

4 Responses to How Not to Change Your Employer’s Culture

  1. Plus — regarding your “pink” example — if he’s going to argue there’s evolutionary reasons for “pink = feminine,” it would be especially important for him to address the for-real fact that less than a century ago, the sex-color dichotomy was reversed (pink was the strong, manly color for boys, delicate azure blue for dainty little girls) … or, in the case of the Google memo, if he’s going to claim evolution for why there are fewer women in programming today, he needs to address why women dominated the field in its early days.

    • I used color as an example because I figured it was nonsense and didn’t want anybody to take my example seriously.

      I haven’t heard any explanations of why tech is male-dominated that I find compelling. (Which doesn’t mean one of those explanations isn’t the right answer.) Feminist sociologists have a theory about men taking high-status jobs from women and then returning them if the jobs lose status. It sounds plausible, but it also raises the question of why that happens. Why do men want it and why do women allow it? And that brings the evo psych people back in with explanations about male competition for mates… This kind of nonsense can go on forever without clear, testable, compelling answers.

      • Oh, to be clear: I KNOW your color example was meant to be nonsensical — as, indeed, the “men dominate tech because reasons” is equally nonsensical — especially considering that in both cases, the dichotomy was exactly the opposite WITHIN LIVING MEMORY.

        Given that Damore’s breakout as an alt-right superstar happened only a couple of days before the Charlottesville rally and well-deserved anti-alt-right backlash, I can’t help but wonder: would Damore still have put forth his idiotic manifesto had he known what would happen to the alt-right brand only a couple of days later?

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