The Empathy Gap in Tech: Interview with a Software Engineer

The Empathy Gap in Tech: Interview with a Software Engineer

Claire Lehmann
Claire Lehmann
15 min read

Last year I was working on an article about the tech industry when I decided to interview a software engineer who writes for Quillette under the pseudonym “Gideon Scopes”. Gideon had mentioned to me in passing that he had Asperger’s Syndrome (a mild variant of autism spectrum disorder) and I wanted to find out more about the industry from the point of view of someone who is not neurotypical.

I first asked him when it was that he knew he wanted to work in technology. He told me that he first knew it when he was five. His family got their first home computer and he was transfixed. Later, he would come across a brief introduction to the BASIC programming language in a book and proceed to teach himself his first programming language. He was only seven.

As a child he taught himself programming out of books, mostly alone at home. He told me that his family were not particularly supportive of his hobby. His mother was not happy to see him focus so intently on one interest and viewed his study of programming “as the equivalent of a kid spending too much time watching TV.”

Growing up in suburban New York, he told me that a compiler for a programming language would cost at least $100, and programming books generally cost $40-60 each. His only source of income was a $1 per week allowance, so it would take him a year or two to save for just one item. This was despite the fact that his parents were in a high income bracket, and could have easily provided resources to help him learn. He learned anyway.

Despite his cognitive ability, however, Gideon underperformed early on in his schooling. He thinks it may have been because he experienced the school environment as overly rigid and inflexible, and the work was just not challenging enough to engage him. It wasn’t until he was able to take accelerated math and science classes that his grades reflected his ability.

Fast forward several years, and today Gideon is a successful senior software engineer in a prestigious technology company in New York. He loves his job and he loves where he works. He is grateful for the fact that his company values his work, and not how he promotes himself and how he dresses. He feels that the technology industry rewards talent and hard work, and that it is one of the best places for “Aspies” to be. He tells me that the only drawback is the occasional bar event (where he doesn’t like the noise) and a weird and somewhat rigid political culture.

*   *   *

A paper authored by Simon Baron Cohen et al in 2001, outlines a brief measurement tool for screening for autism in adults who have normal or above average intelligence. The tool, which is called the Autism Spectrum Quotient (ASQ) can be self-administered and only requires a pencil and paper; individuals receive a score from 1 – 50 with scores closer to 50 representing a higher likelihood of having Aspergers or High Functioning Autism (HFA).

In validating the test, Baron-Cohen assessed a range of adults including some with Aspergers or HFA, randomly selected controls, students in Cambridge University and winners of the UK Mathematics Olympiad.

The results were remarkable. Adults with Aspergers or HFA had an average score of 35.8, much higher than the controls who had an average score of 16.4, (with men on average scoring slightly higher than women). Among the Cambridge University students the average score was the same as the control group, except mathematicians and scientists scored significantly higher than humanities and social sciences students, which, the researchers claimed, “confirm[ed] an earlier study that autistic conditions are associated with scientific skills”. Within the sciences, those studying mathematics scored the highest. This was again reflected in the scores found in the winners of the Mathematics Olympiad, who scored significantly higher than the male Cambridge humanities students.

More recently, in 2015, a team of researchers led by Baron-Cohen collected the autism quotient scores of half a million people on the UK’s Channel 4 website, after the airing of a medical education program. They found that the mean AQ score was 19.83, with men scoring 21.55 and women scoring 18.95. They also found that individuals working in STEM careers had a higher average score (21.92) compared to those who didn’t work in STEM (18.92).

The theory underpinning Baron-Cohen’s work is the prenatal sex steroid theory. The theory posits that when a baby’s brain is developing in utero, the amounts of hormones produced by the ovaries or testes his or her brain is exposed to affects its development. Baron-Cohen’s theory predicts that exposure to higher levels of testosterone in the prenatal period leads to a “masculinization” of the brain, which can result in symptoms associated with autism. Such symptoms include higher rates of delayed language, reduced eye contact as well as higher attention to detail and a stronger interest in systems than people.

Critics of Baron-Cohen’s work have long said that while his hypotheses are interesting, the evidence so far has been insufficient. The core criticisms have focused on his reliance on proxy measures for prenatal testosterone (looking at digit ratio rather than sampling amniotic fluid directly) and self reported measures of behaviour, such as pencil and paper or online surveys. These methods have not been adequate, claim the critics.

Such criticisms have been met with further research, however. In 2015, Baron-Cohen published the results of the first direct test of amniotic hormonal fluid levels and their relation to the development of autism later in life. He found a clear relationship – boys with autism had been exposed to elevated levels of testosterone, cortisol and other sex steroid hormones in utero. When the study was published, The Guardian quoted Baron-Cohen, who explained: “in the womb, boys produce about twice as much testosterone as girls, but compared with typical boys, the autism group has even higher levels. It’s a significant difference and may have a large effect on brain development.”

In my interview with Gideon, he mentions Baron-Cohen’s work to me. He tells me that it resonates with his own experience and his experience of taking computer science classes at university. With regard to the tech industry he says—

I’ve opted to stay in the closet at work to avoid the risk of either being discriminated against on account of the AS label, having others unfairly discriminated against in the name of helping me (à la affirmative action), or being perceived, whether correctly or incorrectly, as having gotten where I am because of my diagnosis rather than on merit. There are a number of people I’ve met over the years who I suspect are likely on the spectrum, but I can’t really bring it up in a work setting. I definitely find that software engineers tend to have higher levels of autistic traits than the average person on the street, even if the overwhelming majority wouldn’t have enough to qualify for a diagnosis.

People with Asperger’s or high functioning autism often struggle socially, and those with more severe versions of the syndrome are often incapacitated in the social realm. So I asked Gideon what his social life was like growing up. This was where the story became fraught. Gideon says that he was mostly a loner at school, but made one friend in second grade and another in fourth grade, whom he felt very close to. But things eventually changed. He wrote to me in an email—

During sixth grade, my two friends from elementary school both turned their backs on me. With David he did so by telling me, “I was never your friend. I just took pity on you.” At the time, I was perplexed by the comment and didn’t understand why I was someone to be pitied. Looking back on it now, I wonder if he may have known about my AS [Asperger’s Syndrome] years before I did. In seventh grade, I made some new friends, but that only lasted for a few months before they each decided that I wasn’t cool enough for them.

Gideon also suffered serious bullying in elementary school and middle school. He was picked on by both girls and boys; and at times this escalated into violence. One boy was suspended from school after repeatedly trapping him and violently strangling him in a busy hallway near the gym during passing time.

Despite these social difficulties and other symptoms such as hypersensitivity to touch and prosopagnosia (difficulty recognising faces) it wasn’t until he was in college that he received a diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome. He says the “breakthrough came during a Yom Kippur service during my junior year”

I was standing there in the sanctuary, and the distress from the shirt I was wearing was such that I couldn’t focus on the service. It felt horrible—there I was at the service on the holiest day of the year to atone for my sins against God and other people, and all I could think about was my own suffering! Then, this crazy theory came to me. I had read something several months earlier about the similarity between Asperger’s syndrome and the traits that characterize a “nerd” or “geek” in popular culture. I had also heard something years earlier about autistic people having issues with certain types of clothing similar to my own. I put the two together and wondered if I could have some very mild level of autism. After the holiday was over, I went on Google and typed in “Asperger’s syndrome.” I pressed enter, and my life changed forever.

*   *   *

When the tech industry is written about in the media, it is often portrayed in terms of its maleness and sometimes “macho” qualities, exemplified by the widespread use of the epithet “techbros” and “brogrammers”. As an example, a book about the Valley has just been released with the portmanteau Brotopia as its title. This is a growing phenomenon.

Yet the tech industry more broadly is rarely discussed in terms of friendliness towards those with high functioning autism, such as Gideon. On the job selection process Gideon says:

When you come for a coding interview, it’s a three- to five-hour-long oral exam. Show us what you can do. That’s what we care about, ultimately, not how good you are at talking yourself up or what you look like.

Speaking of what someone looks like, the fact that software engineers largely have the freedom to dress as they please is huge for those of us with sensory differences that affect clothing. Before I realized that this would be such a non-issue in my field, I was worried that I’d have trouble finding a job at all if I insisted on being able to work and interview under humane conditions. I suspect that people with similar sensory issues whose interests and aptitudes lie elsewhere may face a really tough situation that
I’ve been fortunate enough to not have to deal with.

On the day to day work experience he says—

The technology industry is one of the most Aspie-friendly places that there is. The social demands on software engineers mostly consist of collaborating with colleagues to build a product, so if your social skills are good enough to handle that and you’ve got good technical skills, you can be very successful.

Gideon tells me that in his experience there are many autistic traits that don’t fit at all with our cultural conception of masculinity. Hypersensitivity to sensory stimulation is one of them, as is the tendency for those with autism to develop anxiety and depression—conditions that in the general population are higher in women than in men—the predilection of autistic people to prefer consistency and predictability also contrasts with the masculine trait of risk-taking.

Nevertheless, individuals who are adept at systematising tend to be good at the tasks which are profitable in today’s information economy. Baron-Cohen’s work shows that systematisers tend to be interested in patterns, and can quickly spot them in natural, mathematic or mechanical settings. A good empathiser, by contrast, can quickly spot emotional states in others. While both skills are vital, and have been crucial to our evolution as a species, our modern economy increasingly rewards those who can build systems which scale, ratcheting up productivity and efficiency. Often—but not always—it’s systematisers who do this (it’s also worth remembering that this will not last forever, with the advent of automation and AI).

Yet the fact that systematisers are often well remunerated in today’s economy does not mean that these individuals have lives that are necessarily easier, or even happier than the average person. A person who is an outlier on the systematising spectrum might find it hard to make friends, find a girlfriend or boyfriend, and engage in the day-to-day social activities that make up so much of our lives. Last year, Thomas Clements, a writer with autism, wrote for Quillette

Every morning when I wake up I feel a heavy sense of trepidation as I contemplate the complex series of social interactions I will have to navigate in order to make it through the day at work. Being on the autism spectrum makes me instinctively averse to the superficial chit-chat I am expected to engage in in my job as a retail cashier. To my mind at least, small-talk serves no real practical purpose. It just makes me feel on edge and increases my overall stress levels as I expend huge amounts of cognitive energy decoding idioms and non-verbal communication…I am prone to be blunt, sometimes to the point of rudeness, which is a personality trait that tends not to sit especially well with many members of the so-called ‘neuro-typical’ or non-autistic world.

As accounts like Thomas’s describe, autism can be extremely debilitating, especially if one sits further out on the spectrum. But even those who are “high functioning” often describe social anxieties, unemployment and prejudice. The fact that the tech industry is perceived by some as being “friendly” towards those with autistic traits could be seen as a positive attribute—and one that deserves recognition.

But the industry does not receive recognition for being friendly. Most of the media attention that the industry attracts focuses on sexism. For example, The New Yorker recently published “The Tech Industry’s Gender Discrimination Problem,” which argued that the lack of women in companies such as Tesla was due to a rampant culture of misogyny, on par with the criminal predation of Harvey Weinstein. In April 2017, the prestigious The Atlantic ran a cover story titled: “Why is Silicon Valley so Awful to Women.

The Atlantic’s April 2017 issue.

The articles in The Atlantic and New Yorker contained the same reasoning. which can be reduced to the following syllogism:

  1. The ratio of men and women in the tech industry is uneven,
  2. There are cases of sexism and sexual harassment within the tech industry,
  3. Sexism and sexual harassment has caused the imbalanced gender ratio.

Of course, women are sexually harassed in the tech industry just as they are harassed in every other industry in which they work—so the first two components of the above reasoning are correct. But the third is simply unfounded. There is little evidence that shows that harassment in tech is any higher than other industries, such as public administration, government, academia or media (in fact there is evidence that the prevalence is lower). Statistics collected on sexual harassment find, overwhelmingly, that the majority of reported cases occur in low-wage and service sector jobs. The causal evidence showing that sexism causes the gender imbalance simply isn’t there.

What we do know, however, is that while girls and women do meet the diagnosis for autism spectrum disorder, the ratio between men and women sits somewhere between 5:1 to 3:1. We also know that men and women’s interests diverge in ways that are congruent with Baron-Cohen’s systematising- empathising spectrum. Women overwhelmingly prefer working with people, and have “artistic” and “social” vocational interests, and men overwhelmingly prefer working with things and have “investigative,” “enterprising,” “realistic,” and “conventional,” interests.

Indeed, academics at the Heterodox Academy have concurred that the most important sex difference that is relevant to the question of unequal gender ratios in certain industries is that of enjoyment and interest. My interview subject, Gideon, did not need any direction from a teacher to learn coding. He learned it because he was transfixed by computers, and teaching himself to code was a pleasurable activity for him. When I ask if there are any benefits to having Asperger’s Syndrome he says—

For me, the hyper-focused special interest aspect of autism is one of the greatest joys in the world and a significant part of why I’ve been able to be so successful at what I do. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The extremely strong memory and navigation skills are also very much something to cherish. Certainly, there have been plenty of difficulties when it comes to how I’ve been perceived by others, especially as a child, and how to navigate a world that’s built for people whose sensory perceptions work differently from mine. I believe that most of this can be fixed in good time through awareness and understanding.

My discussion with Gideon made me reflect. If the technology industry is indeed a friendly place for Aspies and those who have subclinical levels of autistic traits, then intuitively, it is going to attract and retain more men than women (at least in the engineering streams) due to baseline rates of systematising, combined with men’s demonstrated interest in working with “things” rather than people. Stating this is not sexism, it is simply engaging in probabilistic reasoning.

Of course, none of this rules out sexism and sexual harassment as playing a role in deterring women or prompting women to leave the industry once they are there. But any discussion of women in tech should at least mention sex differences in systematising and autistic traits, and sex differences in vocational interests as a relevant factor, even if it is to rule these factors out. Of course, the recent articles in The Atlantic and New Yorker do no such thing.

James Damore, who wrote the infamous ‘Google Memo,’ has recently said that he may have high functioning autism himself.

In The Guardian, he was reported as saying—“my biggest flaw and strength may be that I see things very differently than normal…I’m not necessarily the best at predicting what would be controversial.”

In considering Damore’s experience, it’s important to remember the caveats that Damore included in his memo. He wrote:

Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from all women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.

Despite this, he was, of course, fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes”.

In an email, Gideon mentioned to me that when the news first broke about Damore and the Google Memo, he immediately suspected that Damore “was on the spectrum,” and possibly further out on the spectrum than himself. When I asked him to explain why, and he said:

If he didn’t get the message that the women in science movement wasn’t interested in dialogue and is glad to destroy anyone who questioned it then he must be [on the spectrum]. The only reason why it was him rather than me winding up that [kind of] situation is that I realized what was happening well enough to keep my mouth shut at work and to also turn down an offer from Google, since I knew that they [are] one of the worst offenders, if not the worst.

I asked Gideon if he thought that the American media painted a distorted picture of the gender gap in tech. He told me yes. He chalked it up to three factors: a growing tendency towards collectivism in American culture, combined with a blank slate view of human nature and an empathy gap towards men.

He said that society increasingly sees groups instead of individuals, to the extent that group rights may supersede individual rights in all sorts of contexts, including politicised work environments. Because contemporary moral codes delineate women as vulnerable or marginalised, we stop seeing them as individuals with unique talents and idiosyncrasies, but as representatives of a victimised class. The reverse is true of men. Because women are now a victimised class, men are increasingly seen as victimisers, irrespective of their individual attributes or actions.

The second factor, he thought, was an attachment to an outdated, blank slate view of human nature. He says that many people still insist on seeing the human brain as predominantly moulded by culture, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. There tends to be a hesitancy towards attributing any differences between people to any cause that is biological in origin. This hesitancy has been around for decades, and appears like it will not be alleviated anytime soon.

And the third factor, Gideon said, was the empathy gap, where we tend to be more receptive to women’s pain than men’s. When women talk about being made to feel uncomfortable at work, or being sexually harassed, we feel empathy and want to punish the wrong-doers. But we don’t have the same reaction for “geeks,” or “techbros”. Because our understanding of neurodiversity is painfully lacking, our culture tends to view men as a homogenous category, seeing all men as inheritors of privilege and all men as possessing the masculine traits that foster toughness and resilience. We have a habit of ignoring those who don’t, and when they do talk about their vulnerability, we are inclined to ignore, or ridicule them for it.


Claire Lehmann is the editor of Quillette. Follow her on Twitter @clairlemon


Claire Lehmann

Claire Lehmann is the founding editor of Quillette.