August 31, 2017

Great article with a small problem

Dear Editor,

There’s a bit of a misrepresentation in the third sentence of Brett Yates’ otherwise excellent piece “Good things for bad people” published in the Aug.23-29 edition of the Mountain Times, in regards to the infamous Google memo. It reads: “The engineer, James Damore, asserted that the relative absence of women in Silicon Valley owed more to biology than to prejudicial hiring or the conditioning of a misogynistic society: according to the junk science propagated by Damore’s manifesto, it’s only natural that women should ‘prefer jobs in social or artistic areas,’ given their ‘lower stress tolerance.’”

This is false — Damore explicitly frames his argument as being against the proposition that the relative absence of women was wholly and completely due to social factors alone. To quote the background section from the beginning of his document: “For the rest of this document, I’ll concentrate on the extreme stance that all differences in outcome are due to differential treatment.”

Given that Damore concedes that social structures are legitimate contributors to the lack of equal representation multiple times throughout the memo, it seems fair to take him at his word that he’s mentioning biology as a counterexample to refute the claim that social factors alone explain the discrepancy, which he claims to be a popular stance at Google.

Damore also does not make the claim that women prefer jobs in social or artistic areas due to lower stress tolerance — the author appears to be conflating two separate points. He argues that a larger proportion of women prefer jobs in social or artistic areas to men due to women more commonly being more interested in people than things. While his conclusion about job preferences is certainly a controversial one, the people/things divide is one of the least controversial, most pronounced, and best documented examples of a gendered psychological trait, and is covered in most undergraduate psychology curricula.

Damore does mention lower stress tolerance later on, specifically as one effect of women reporting higher levels of the big-five personality trait of neuroticism on average compared to men. As an aside, this is not to be confused with neurosis, but is instead one of five fundamental personality traits present in all people in differing degrees according to the five factor model, the dominant model of personality within the field. In its proper context, this is not a negative statement; higher levels of neuroticism have negative effects like the aforementioned stress, but also positive ones, like increased conscientiousness and attention to detail.

Within the field of psychology, it is well accepted that average scores among women are higher than those of men in terms of the expression of this trait as well as the trait of agreeableness; this gendered distribution is present in large-scale crosscultural studies, which suggests it may be biological in origin. Damore’s arguments about how this manifests in job trajectories are probably too simplistic, and certainly controversial, but the science that informed those arguments is not “junk” as the author implies.

All this leads me to a conclusion: beyond the two that Yates mentions, there’s a third class of Damore defender — those who defend him not because they are misogynists, or anti-PC, but because they believe that the bulk of the criticism directed at him is for claims he never actually made.

That being said, I couldn’t agree more with Yates’ broader thesis about effective tactics for positive social change!

Matt Gilles, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

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