Taking on the Google-bro’s sexism in Portland

February 15, 2018

Jesse Joseph and Neil Loehlein explain why it's key that conservative Google-bro James Damore's sexism is met with opposition if he comes to Portland State University.

INFAMOUS ex-Googler James Damore, author of the leaked anti-diversity memo "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber," is hitting the ground running after his firing.

Damore has filed a class-action lawsuit against the tech giant, claiming that Google discriminates against conservative, white men. He's also pressing his case publicly--Damore is scheduled to participate in a "no-holds-barred conversation" titled "We Need to Talk About Diversity" hosted at Portland State University (PSU) on February 17.

Another invited speaker at the event will be Bret Weinstein, the former Evergreen State College professor who made headlines when he wrote an open letter denouncing as "an act of oppression" a voluntary campus event designed to draw attention to racism and its consequences.

But Damore won't go unopposed in Portland. PSU students and community members are planning open protests and alternative events to make it clear that Damore and the conservatives who are hosting him don't represent them.

IN HIS memo, Damore claims that Google is a leftist authoritarian environment that silences conservatives. Damore, a self-described "nerd centrist," sees himself as challenging "the reigning moral orthodoxy"--and he claims to have been mistreated for daring to speak out. In this, he is following the cynical claims of right-wingers who wrap themselves in the right to free speech whenever anyone uses their own free speech to criticize them.

James Damore
James Damore

Damore specifically focuses on the issue of women in technology. According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, women made up only 26 percent of the computing workforce in 2016, with women of color representing less than 10 percent. At Google, the statistics are similarly dismal, with women holding 19 percent of technical positions, and Latinx and Black employees making up 3 percent and 2 percent of total employment.

Damore claims that women's low representation in tech work may be the result of biological differences between the sexes, as opposed to societal factors like gender discrimination, sexual harassment and pressure to fit gender norms. This is an argument that supporters of women's liberation must take on.

Damore's appearance at Portland State is part of a larger campaign by the far right to to propagate their ideas on campuses across the U.S.. Events like Damore's give centrist and liberal cover for the alt-right's reactionary agenda. For those who want a world free of inequality, taking on ideas like Damore's, which seek to naturalize disparity, is part of the struggle for women's equality.

As part of his argument, Damore suggests that biological differences manifest as differences in personality, aptitude and work-type preferences between men and women, which lead them to choose different types of occupations based upon these biologically inherited traits.

Women, according to the Damore, have higher average aesthetic, empathetic and feelings-based demeanors, preferring to deal with "people rather than things." These qualities, he asserts, lead women to choose fields in "social and artistic areas," as opposed to the more "systematizing" men, who gravitate toward coding and software engineering.

Damore goes on to make similar arguments for why women are less prone to receive raises and promotions (women apparently are too "agreeable") and why they don't aspire to high-profile jobs like their status-seeking male counterparts.

Damore cites prenatal testosterone as one of the "biological causes" of sex differences in human beings. It's widely accepted that the presence or absence of prenatal testosterone does influence some physical characteristics of human beings, particularly sexual organs, but what about prenatal testosterone and the brain?

Far from testosterone being the determinant in hardwiring human brains as "female" or "male," as Damore claims, it's but one factor in a myriad of influencing conditions. In her latest book, Testosterone Rex, feminist psychologist Cordelia Fine writes:

Sex isn't a biological dictator that sends gonadal hormones hurtling through the brain, uniformly masculinizing male brains, monotonously feminizing female brains. Sexual differentiation of the brain turns out to be an untidily interactive process, in which multiple factors--genetic, hormonal, environmental and epigenetic (that is, stable changes in the "turning on and off" of genes)--all act and interact to affect how sex shapes the entire brain.

Recent research in brain science supports the idea that the human brain represents more of a mixture of different traits, some more common in women and some more common in men and some prevalent in both.

This study also found that the brains at the extremes of both "maleness" and "femaleness" continuum were rare, with the large majority subjects exhibiting a "mosaic" of different brain traits. So, if there are sex differences in the brain--which is still up for debate--they are likely to be small and reliant upon factors beyond simply biological sex.

DAMORE'S INSISTENCE that men are naturally more suited to tech work than women ignores the rich history of women pioneers in the field of computer science, such as Grace Hopper, a programmer of the first fully electronic computer in the U.S., who went on to lead a team in developing the world's first compiler (a compiler transforms human-readable code into machine instructions).

Women in mathematics, especially Black women, proved crucial in the space race, as highlighted by the recent film Hidden Figures, which calls attention to the role of several Black women mathematicians. These women were known as "computers," and were employed in the highly complicated and systematic work of hand-solving equations that eventually enabled space travel.

The women pioneers in computing are not exceptions. In fact, in the U.S., women represented a much larger share of programmers in the 1940s and '50s than they do today.

Back then, programming was low-paying, low-prestige and considered "clerical work" relegated to women, while hardware development was considered the respectable side of computing and therefore male-dominated. As people began to understand that the field required analytical, logical and planning skill, the esteem surrounding programming work changed.

A shift in the gender makeup of programming began in the 1950s and 60s, accelerated by the use of aptitude tests and personality profiles across the industry which reinforced a trend toward male domination in programming work.

Personality profiles drew largely on a single study that attempted to profile the personalities of programmers in the industry--but only 13 percent of those surveyed were women. Aptitude tests involved trivia that favored people with access to formal mathematical education--predominantly men.

With the rise of male representation came increased pay and prestige to a field that became "professionalized" as software engineering. Professionalism offered benefits to programmers as well as employers.

For programmers, professionalism meant consolidating the labor market to the small group of insiders, advancing programmers into the middle class, and creating standards of pay and benefits. For employers, professionalizing the work discouraged unionization, made it easier to identify candidates and motivated programmers to develop their own skill.

Professionalism, however, benefits those with the most access to technical education, and serves to exclude women and people low on the socioeconomic ladder. Indeed, professionalism, in conjunction with the cultural attitude toward who makes a good programmer, shaped what the tech industry looks like today.

THE PERSONALITY traits that Damore identifies as "male," specifically competitiveness and a single-minded orientation toward technical systems versus people, are major pitfalls to the argument he makes, since they may actually be disadvantages for creating the large-scale technological systems of the modern world.

These personality traits are drawn from a cultural myth that is falling out of favor in the world of computer science: the myth of the lone genius programmer.

But the tendency to prioritize individual merit and competition over collective and cooperative strength isn't distinct to the technical world--it's key to neoliberal ideology. The "lone genius" myth perpetuates the culture of individual meritocracy, which intersects with existing cultural stereotypes about women, ultimately pushing them out of lucrative technical work.

Gender stereotypes are essential to the nature of our sexist society. From early on, children experience gender bias and develop a keen sense of gender roles through popular media like movies, video games and television.

This socialization works to force people with widely different gender and sexual expressions into a strict male/female, heterosexual gender binary, where girls and women are supposed to be nurturing, empathetic, and passive, while boys and men are supposed to be competitive, risk-taking and confident.

A 2015 report states that cultural stereotypes of male-oriented careers such as computer science and engineering "serve as a gatekeepers, driving girls away from certain fields and constraining their learning opportunities and career aspirations."

For the women who get jobs in tech, they may be entering a workplace rife with gender discrimination, sexual harassment and company cultures that don't support mothers and their needs.

A Kapor Center for Social Impact study found that that the high attrition rates of women and people of color in tech are due to a culture of unfair treatment and stereotyping. So, the gender disparity problem isn't just an issue of girls and women being dissuaded from tech careers; it's also a retention problem caused by oppressive company cultures.

Damore claims that Google discriminates against white men, but if the company is anything like the rest of the industry, the deck is stacked against women and people of color.

DAMORE'S IDEAS serve to justify the oppressive aspects of society by making them seem like they are "common sense" or just the "natural order of things"--that the inequities in society are the result of humans' biological makeup. Women and Socialism author Sharon Smith explains, "For those interested in maintaining the sexist status quo, biological determinism offers a convenient justification."

The idea that women are nurturing and empathetic fits neatly within the expectation of their role as caregivers in a society that depends on the unpaid domestic labor of women, countless sexist stereotypes justify women's lower pay compared to men.

Damore's ideas have implications, particularly at a time when Donald Trump and his administration are poised to roll back gains for women. As Leia Petty wrote at SocialistWorker.org, "The Trump administration represents an acceleration of the backlash against the gains of the women's movement of the late 1960s and early '70s that has been underway for decades, which takes aim at any attempts to win true equality for women, including reproductive rights, equal pay and an end to discrimination."

As Trump's neoliberal agenda seeks to destroy the last vestiges of social services in this country, an ideological assault on women is part and parcel of his broader attack on the working class and poor.

Furthermore, Damore's ideas give fuel and legitimacy to the far right, which seeks to find an audience for on college campuses for its racism and sexism. Neo-nazi Richard Spencer thinks that women should not be allowed to vote in his dream of a white ethnostate.

However, we are also witnessing the emergence of a mass feminist sentiment with the #MeToo and #TimesUp phenomena, with women taking a stand against sexual assault. At last month's Women's Marches, hundreds of thousands turned out to oppose sexual assault and the Trump administration, with many expressing solidarity with DREAMers, LGBTQI rights and anti-racist struggles.

This shows the potential to build a mass, intersectional feminist movement in this country. The women's and LGBT struggles of the 1960s and '70s were able to counter the reactionary gender norms of society and opened up opportunities for women to enter male-dominated fields.

Part of the struggle to build a new movement involves taking on Damore on February 17 and stating loudly and clearly that sexism won't go unchallenged at Portland State.

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