Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks on stage during the annual Google I/O developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Google
CEO Sundar Pichai

Thomson
Reuters


Imagine there were a professional field where, due to aggregate
differences in aptitude and interest across genders, 35% of the
good job candidates are women, and that you would expect an
industry environment that truly treated men and women equally to
produce an employee base in this field that is 35% female.

In the real world, employment in this field is likely to end up
being a lot less than 35% female. Consider the following reasons:

  • A widespread assumption that “most” of the good job
    candidates will be men may lead to stereotyping in the hiring
    process, with hiring managers more likely to assume that men
    are good candidates and overlook qualified women.
  • Women may self-select out of the field because they
    internalize the stereotype that the field is “for men”; the
    stereotype may also make men overconfident in their fitness for
    the field and more inclined to pursue employment in it.
  • A male majority in the field is likely to be excessively
    self-reinforcing, as research shows hiring managers tend to use
    the qualitative and “culture fit” aspects of hiring to
    hire candidates who
    resemble themselves
    , and most of the hiring managers in a
    male-dominated field will be men.
  • As seen in a number of high-profile cases in Silicon
    Valley, male-dominated management structures may foster
    cultures of pervasive workplace sexism and harassment that drive
    women out of the field.

And this is a key problem with the
now-notorious Google memo
 written by a now-former
employee: If it is true that aggregate population differences
mean that a majority of the suitable candidates in a field are
men, that can make it more important for firms in
the field to undertake aggressive diversity efforts to recruit
and retain women. Otherwise, firms may end up with a
employee base of which only a small minority is women, even
when women make up a large minority of the suitable
candidates.

The memo misses this entirely, jumping from a claim that gender
differences in interests and aptitude “may in part explain”
the strong male skew in Google’s engineering groups to a
conclusion that specific efforts at Google to recruit and
retain women and underrepresented minority candidates are
counterproductive and should be ended.

For example, the author complains about
“hiring 
practices which can effectively lower the bar
for ‘diversity’ candidates by decreasing the false negative
rate.” That is, he’s upset that women candidates get a second
look when men don’t.

But this is something you would absolutely want to do in order to
prevent a phenomenon described above: hiring manager biases and
stereotypes leading to a lopsidedness by gender in hiring
that exceeds the actual lopsidedness by gender in the
qualified candidate pool. It makes sense to be extra
certain that women who got screened out
were rejected on the basis of qualifications and aptitude,
not something else.

He also objects to Google’s various programs to mentor and
develop women and members of various underrepresented minorities,
an approach that he calls “unfair and divisive.” But these
programs may be useful to counteract another phenomenon I
describe above: qualified people in certain demographic
groups self-selecting out of the field because they believe they
are at a disadvantage in it.

Defenders of the memo say the firing of its author proves the
memo’s point about political correctness: That certain factual
questions are not allowed to be discussed in liberal-leaning
organizations. Whether there are inherent,
aggregate differences across gender that one would expect to
lead to unequal representation in a given field is an
empirical question, and it’s true that some people want to close
off investigation of it.

But a reason proponents of gender equality are reluctant to
discuss the question is that it’s so often raised in the way
it is in this memo: As a pretext to justify whatever gender gaps
exist in a field, regardless of whether the magnitude of those
gaps can be explained by such differences; and to dismiss efforts
to promote diversity, even when such efforts would remain
justified — or even become more justified — if
aggregate differences across genders are real.

The claim at the top of the
memo — ”discrimination to reach equal
representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business” —
is a straw man. Google’s workforce in tech jobs is currently just 20%
female
, and so diversity efforts are obviously not coming
anywhere close to imposing equal representation.

Even if you think there is a true gender skew toward men in
the pool of qualified candidates for technical jobs at firms like
Google, which seems more likely to be more true to you: That
political correctness has led Google to choose too many
female candidates for technological jobs over
more-talented men? Or that a combination of the factors I
describe at the top of this post has created an excessive male
skew in technological employment at Google and other tech firms,
even if perfect personnel practices would not eliminate the skew
entirely?

The latter seems much more likely to me.

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