This was my first time reading the infamous memo from the recently dismissed Google-employee. I avoided it for the longest time, knowing it would set me on edge. I am not as angry as I thought I would be, more amused at his attempt to defend his position from an ostensibly informed, considered standpoint.
Briefly, I’ll disclose my stance on what’s become a fairly political event. I fully agree with Google’s decision to dismiss the employee who distributed this memo, and I think the note to employees from Sundar Pichai was an appropriate and well-considered response to the backlash against this decision. As he says, it was in the employee’s right to critique the ideology that predominates at Google, every workplace has one. Still, comments that reinforce gender stereotypes leave particular members of the team feeling prejudged or accosted. Distributing the memo was a deliberate action that gives recipients who do not fit into his social outlook the impression that they do not belong. As Mx Kas Perch says, we do not need bad actors.
But let’s consider how this employee actually makes his argument. His rhetoric came across not as caustic but impartial and informed. Most of his controversial statements rested on the phrase “on average.” We could hear him responding to Pichai’s allegation in advance, saying, “I wasn’t targeting anyone! I was just speaking about gender differences on average!” He’s able to say a lot with this helpful modifier, that, on average, women are more drawn towards feelings and aesthetics than ideas, on average, women are more agreeable, on average, women are more prone to neuroticism, etc. My personal favorite is when he says men are, on average, more prone to systemizing. Well look at you! median male! following your biological disposition and systemizing! He admits that biases exist, hastily dividing up right and left outlook as he sees them, then acts like he’s dispelled all bias from his statement. How are we to trust his argument when everyone has inherent biases. Oh right, because he’s backed up with facts, statistics, the real stuff, just what a systemizing male should, on average, use to make an argument. He talks like he climbed up to Mount Sinai and got handed a set of normal distributions. He has footnotes all over the damn place, which I didn’t bother to read but they might as well have said ‘Jehovah’ because I don’t know where else he could have verified these findings. He begins, “On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because…they’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective.” Oh great, I’ll just throw out my Judith Butler then because this techie did the maths and found out what he perceived as average traits are biologically conditioned. Evolutionary theory is just one theory among others, and there is not a single alternative called “social construction.” Theories of epistemology and culture are a complicated affair, and these sort of hasty rationalist arguments can only support themselves by ignoring almost the entirety of the conversation on that subject. I have heard Steven Pinker argue a similar case, that social theories are biased against heritability for political reasons, and for a closing argument he disparaged Judith Butler’s work. He did not even seriously present her views, but selected a unfairly difficult passage to show his audience how obtuse critical theory had become. Well I understood it, and considering that he gave this presentation as a TED talk, mainly a popular science venue, I think he was preaching to the choir.
I would love to hear what the writer of this memo has to say to Amy, who wrote her story as an Uber survivor. Is that supervisor’s vile, harassing, and remorseless behavior part of his biological make up as well? Should she move into more empathetic roles and let men with no remorse take on the grueling exploitation? He is much to quick to assume the way things appear to him are as they are and should be. Some truly visionary person, who isn’t so complacent and won’t fit squarely into his schema, will prove him tragically wrong.