Smearing Free Thought In Silicon Valley

Smearing Free Thought In Silicon Valley

Gideon Scopes
Gideon Scopes

In the aftermath of the so-called Google memo affair, there has been no shortage of misleading and in some cases downright inaccurate media coverage painting the author, James Damore, and his supporters in a very unfavorable light. The most recent example of this arose this past weekend, when The New York Times printed a hit piece on its front page with the inflammatory headline, “As Inequality Roils Tech World, A Group Wants More Say: Men.”1 In a clear display of narrative-driven journalism, the article attempts to smear those in the technology industry who hold dissenting views on gender issues by associating them with a political movement with which the public has little familiarity while providing little explanation of what that movement is or what it stands for.

I wrote about the backlash to the women in tech movement https://t.co/vyGIAzuPbZ

— Nellie Bowles (@NellieBowles) September 23, 2017

Like much of the media coverage on this issue, the article misrepresents what Damore said in his memo, claiming that he argued that women “were biologically less capable of engineering.” In reality, Damore’s memo focused on differences between the sexes in interests and personality traits, not abilities, that scientific evidence suggests are at least in part due to biological differences.2 Damore stresses that these are differences at a statistical level between large populations and that we should not assume that they are descriptive of any particular individual. He offers a set of alternative proposals to increase the number of women in technology without treating people differently because of their gender. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Damore’s conclusions, it is difficult to see how one could read his memo in its entirety and walk away with the conclusion that it was written by someone who seeks to keep women out of technology.

Furthermore, the article makes it out as if only men have supported Damore’s conclusion, providing a smattering of short quotations from male executives and venture capitalists who have expressed reservations about the current thinking on diversity in the industry. In fact, the article tweeted by one of the venture capitalists mentioned, Eric Weinstein, was co-authored by a woman, Debra W. Soh.3 No mention is made of the fact that prominent women such as the equity feminists Christina Hoff Sommers and Cathy Young have concurred that Damore was right on the science and expressed grave concern with the way that Google handled the incident.45

The article claims that “studies and surveys show there is no denying the travails women face” in technology, although not a single example of a study providing such conclusive proof is given. In fact, many of the studies commonly cited to back up this claim suffer from major methodological flaws that call into serious question their accuracy. Consider, for example, a 2014 study published in the journal PLOS ONE that was used by opinion pieces in The New York Times to claim that an epidemic of sexual harassment and even sexual assault caused the gender gap in science and technology.6,78

A careful examination of the original paper reveals a number of problems with its use to support that conclusion. First of all, the fields of science considered in this study were not the ones in which men outnumber women. They were field-based sciences such as anthropology where there are more women than men. If it were true that the harassment documented by this study was driving women away, then why did the fields in question have more women than men?

Furthermore, the study found that a whopping 41% of male respondents reported that they had experienced sexual harassment. If true, this would indicate that there was an only somewhat smaller pandemic of harassment against men that was receiving no attention in the media. The study also failed to distinguish between what happened yesterday and what happened half a century ago when sexual harassment was not taken anywhere near as seriously as it is today. It used an overly broad definition of harassment that included “comments about physical beauty [or] cognitive sex differences.” Under this definition, professors who study the differences between male and female brains could be considered to be engaging in harassment by simply discussing their area of expertise. With this type of research being used to substantiate the claim that Silicon Valley is hostile to women, is it any wonder that so many in the industry are beginning to doubt and question what they are told?

Perhaps the most dishonest aspect of this weekend’s Times article, however, is that it conflates dissenting voices in Silicon Valley with the men’s rights movement, a political movement seeking to raise awareness of how gender inequality issues affect men and boys that has long been smeared in the media as misogynistic. The link is made primarily on the basis of anecdotes provided by one software engineer, James Altizer, who is also a men’s rights activist. Quotes from Altizer and several other men’s rights activists who do not work in technology are interspersed with quotes from James Damore and the aforementioned dissenting executives and venture capitalists, giving the impression that they are all part of a single movement.

In reality, there is no evidence to indicate that any of these executives or investors have supported the men’s rights movement or that they are even aware of its existence. As a college student, I came to question the narrative that women are systematically disadvantaged in science as a result of reading some of the research used to support its claims and seeing how weak it was. I also observed how many of my colleagues, both male and female, would stifle dissent on this issue by casting anyone who disagreed with the accepted dogma as being a misogynist. I had no awareness of the existence of the men’s rights movement at the time and would not until a number of years later.

Yet even if it were the case that many of Damore’s supporters within the technology industry were men’s rights activists, that would still not be reason to dismiss their concerns automatically. Contrary to what many people have been lead to believe by much of the media coverage of the men’s rights movement, it is not a hate movement rooted in misogyny. While there is no denying that certain extreme segments of the men’s rights movement are hostile, this is not what the movement is about as a whole. To present it in this way is just as dishonest as writing a piece on the Black Lives Matter movement that focuses entirely on anti-police sentiment without giving any context regarding the concerns about racial injustice that fuel the movement.

If we wish to move forward as a society to a place where there is greater respect between the sexes, we need to ensure that all voices expressing legitimate concerns can be heard and taken seriously. One of the executives quoted in the Times article, Dick Costolo said, “We should worry about whether the women-in-tech movement has gone too far sometime after a couple of these [instances of harassment] aren’t regularly happening anymore.” In doing so, he draws a false dichotomy, as a movement can go too far in certain respects while not yet achieving its worthy goals in others.

Even if it is true that harassment of women is as prevalent as Costolo makes it out to be, there is no doubt that efforts to remedy it have been approached in a way that creates unnecessary hostility toward men. I have seen a female executive disparage “men who don’t support women” as being “sub-human.” Her use of the word “sub-human” echoes the ways in which Jews and other minorities have been dehumanized in the past, in order to justify violence against them. When diversity efforts have been contorted to the point that their supporters actually start to sound like Nazis, it is clear that something is severely wrong. I have witnessed this same executive publicly berate the CEO of our company over perceived sexism with impunity, only to stand silently a few minutes later through a lecture on “mansplaining” out of fear that I would be fired if I called attention to the sexism behind that word. If we are serious about creating inclusive workplaces, then we must work to ensure that people of all races, religions, genders, and yes, political persuasions can feel welcome.

Yet for all needless animosity directed toward men and people of dissenting political persuasions in Silicon Valley by the article, I fear that the greatest casualty may be the public’s confidence in The New York Times itself and the media in general. A functioning democracy depends on an educated populace, and this requires that the public have access to accurate facts on which to base their decisions. When an institution that has historically been revered as the gold standard in journalism can manage to mischaracterize James Damore, dissenting voices in Silicon Valley, and the men’s rights movement all in a single front-page article, it does not encourage the public’s confidence in the mainstream media. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” If we are unable to agree on the truth but instead each pick our own preferred media narrative based on our political persuasions and biases, then it does not bode well for our ability to address the complex issues that our society faces.

 

References

[1] Bowles, Nellie. Push for Gender Equality in Tech? Some Men Say It’s Gone Too Far [Internet]. New York: The New York Times; 2017 Sep 23 [cited 2017 Sep 24]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/23/technology/silicon-valley-men-backlash-gender-scandals.html

[2] Davis, Sean. Read The Google Diversity Memo That Everyone Is Freaking Out About [Internet]. Alexandria (VA): The Federalist; 2017 Aug 08 [cited 2017 Sep 24]. Available from: http://thefederalist.com/2017/08/08/read-the-google-diversity-memo-that-that-everyone-is-freaking-out-about/

[3] Jussim, Lee; Schmitt, David P.; Miller, Geoffrey; Soh, Debra W. The Google Memo: Four Scientists Respond [Internet]. [place unknown]: Quillette; 2017 Aug 07 [cited 2017 Sep 24]. Available from: https://quillette.com/2017/08/07/google-memo-four-scientists-respond/

[4] Sommers, Christina Hoff. Reflections on the Google controversy and James Damore’s infamous memo [Internet]. Washington (DC): Washington Examiner; 2017 Sep 07 [cited 2017 Sep 24]. Available from: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/christina-hoff-sommers-reflections-on-the-google-controversy-and-james-damores-infamous-memo/article/2633662

[5] Young, Cathy. Googler fired for diversity memo had legit points on gender [Internet]. McLean (VA): USA Today; 2017 [cited 2017 Sep 24]. Available from: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2017/08/08/googler-fired-diversity-memo-had-point-researchers-agree/548518001/

[6] Clancy, Kathryn B.H.; Nelson, Robin G.; Rutherford, Julienne N.; Hinde, Katie. Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault [Internet]. San Francisco: PLOS ONE; 2014 Jul 16 [cited 2017 Sep 24]. Available from: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0102172&type=printable

[7] Aschwanden, Christie. Harassment in Science, Replicated [Internet]. New York: The New York Times; 2014 Aug 11 [cited 2017 Sep 24]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/12/science/harassment-in-science-replicated.html

[8] Jahren, A. Hope. Science’s Sexual Assault Problem [Internet]. New York: The New York Times; 2014 Sep 18 [cited 2017 Sep 24]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/20/opinion/science-has-a-sexual-assault-problem.html

FeminismScience / TechTop Stories

Gideon Scopes

The author is a software engineer. Gideon Scopes is a pseudonym. Given the current climate surrounding political expression in the technology industry, his real name has been withheld.