HEALTH NEWS

Using Biology to Debunk Google Memo on Women

Written by Constance Gustke on August 21, 2017
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A software engineer at Google cited biology when he issued a memo explaining the technology industry’s gender gap.

However, experts are quick to point out that biology alone can’t explain the high tech world’s gap between men and women.

Several meta-analyses, experts said, show that there are only small biological differences between men and women.

And the biggest one is obvious: physical strength.

In his 10-page memo, Google engineer James Damore said that “on average, men and women biologically differ in many ways.”

These differences aren’t “social constructs,” he added.

Damore was fired after the memo became public.

But the debate it prompted continues.

“That memo is roughly the equivalent of a memo denying climate change,” Janet Shibley Hyde, director of the Center for Research on Gender and Women at the University of Wisconsin, told Healthline. “It contains many scientific inaccuracies. And he equates biological with immutable. Yet modern neuroscience research, for example, emphasizes neural plasticity.”

Men and women are more similar than we think, said Hyde.

“The average differences between the sexes are small compared to variations within a gender,” she said. “Damore cherry-picked one small wing of science.”

Using results from 46 meta-analyses, Hyde helped created an influential gender similarities hypothesis link that men and women are more alike than different.

Different gender, equal brains

Damore largely focuses on personality differences to explain gender work preferences.

For example, in his memo, he wrote “more men like coding because it requires systematizing.” More women, however, have jobs that deal “with both people and aesthetics.”

There’s no evidence that men are more systematic than women, said Hyde.

Men’s and women’s brains are similar and can do similar tasks, she said.

“But girls are more ‘feeling directed’ from the time they’re born,” Hyde explained.

Another study on sex differences in science and mathematics found that “early experience, biological factors, education policy, and culture context” all affect the numbers of men and women who pursue math.

There are no simple answers, the study authors conclude.

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, also published a rebuttal to Damore’s memo on LinkedIn.

In it, he wrote that according to nearly 4,000 studies “boys aren’t better at math than girls.” He adds that data on occupational interests “reveal that men and women are equally interested in working with data.”

“Across 128 domains of the mind and behavior, 78 percent of gender differences are small or close to zero,” he wrote.

Socialization is a factor

Few differences between men and women have been proven to exist in the brain, Lise Eliot, professor of neuroscience at Rosalind Franklin University, told Healthline.

“Gender only accounts for about 1 percent of the variance in brain structure,” she said. “There’s no such thing as a male brain and a female brain.”

Socialization, she adds, plays a much bigger role in this phenomenon.

“We have different expectations for boys and girls,” she explained. “We talk to each differently. You’re immersed from birth.”

Another Damore theory that there are “clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone,” is also unproven.

“No studies show any effect on human brains,” Eliot said.

Damore also stated that women are less assertive than men.

“But we have a whole bunch of data that shows that women who are assertive are put down,” Rosalind Barnett, a senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, told Healthline.

Again, there’s no scientific evidence to prove Damore’s theory, Barnett said.

Gender myths still persist

Without clear evidence, why are views like Damore’s so persistent?

Blame stereotypes that linger despite women’s changing role in the world, said Barnett.

One study published last year concluded that these stereotypes haven’t changed in 30 years.

“They have very deep roots,” Barnett said, “and they’re hard to pull out.”

Hyde agreed.

She said that humans practice something called stereotype confirmation, which is a desire to confirm stereotypes that people already believe.

“It makes people feel secure,” she said.

But the price for these stereotypes is a heavy one.

Claims of gender differences carry substantial costs in the workplace and relationships, Hyde said. 

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