History and Tech

Something inherent about the tech industry is its focus away from history. The industry as a whole looks past history as a relic, something to be improved upon.

Or perhaps its a cultural shift in general of the 21st century. With ready made goods coming from assembly lines in China, new goods are as cheap as ever. Companies such as IKEA make disposable furniture and Starbucks serves us in disposable cups. Then again, if we observe cars, which usually come with about a 10 year life span, perhaps the focus towards the new in technology stems from a natural degradation of complex machinary over time. While a 100 year old chair, piano, or silverware may still function their designed functionality after time with equal efficiency, machines get outdated. A 1990 Honda Civic neither has the lasting design language or fuel efficiency to make sense keeping it on the road. But then again, is there an argument to be had that creating the lastest 2017 model is more wasteful?

Of course, there are antique cars as well. I’m sure people would love a 70’s Porche or a 80’s Mustang.

Then, we must be mindful that electronic gadgets probably have done a very poor job in everlasting design. There are some kitchen wares, such as stoves and fridges from the 20’s~40’s that carry a type of astetic that are pleasant to look at today (although if you’re goal was to cook faster, hotter, and keep your food colder at lower utilities bill, they might not be the best option.) It’s hard to think of an average consumer product that has lasted through the times. Perhaps the iPod, Sony Walkman, the boombox design, the corded telephone are things that are classic and have become iconic.

I’m sure there are also numous pleasant gadgets from the past that are still great design by today’s standards. It might just be that they were not popular.

In today’s digital age, admittedly the history is very short. The TCP/IP is only an invention from 1982. Even still, it would be encouraging to draw on our short history and celebrate it, cherish it, as times go by.

Tech, Diversity, and the Manifesto

Silicon Valley has a diversity problem.

Nothing new there, it’s been an ongoing discussion for years now.

Yesterday at 1:30PM PST – Gizmodo released a leaked document that has been circulating within Google. A 10 page document outlining “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.”

I read the manifesto and while I can see the sentiments and even the intention of the author – there are some fundamental flaws that need to be addressed. Let’s try to dissect it piece by piece as Gizmodo have formatted for us.

Background [1]

People generally have good intentions, but we all have biases which are invisible to us. Thankfully, open and honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow, which is why I wrote this document.[2] Google has several biases and honest discussion about these biases is being silenced by the dominant ideology. What follows is by no means the complete story, but it’s a perspective that desperately needs to be told at Google.

The document opens on an intention to have an honest an acknowledgement that “bias” are a real thing and that discussion regarding it should happen. Beginning with this section gives me the greatest confidence that the writer had some well intentions and was driven to start a dialogue. While his ideas may be flawed, I agree that dialogue is always a good thing.

Google’s biases

At Google, we talk so much about unconscious bias as it applies to race and gender, but we rarely discuss our moral biases. Political orientation is actually a result of deep moral preferences and thus biases. Considering that the overwhelming majority of the social sciences, media, and Google lean left, we should critically examine these prejudices.

Left Biases

  • Compassion for the weak
  • Disparities are due to injustices
  • Humans are inherently cooperative
  • Change is good (unstable)
  • Open
  • Idealist

Right Biases

  • Respect for the strong/authority
  • Disparities are natural and just
  • Humans are inherently competitive
  • Change is dangerous (stable)
  • Closed
  • Pragmatic

Neither side is 100% correct and both viewpoints are necessary for a functioning society or, in this case, company. A company too far to the right may be slow to react, overly hierarchical, and untrusting of others. In contrast, a company too far to the left will constantly be changing (deprecating much loved services), over diversify its interests (ignoring or being ashamed of its core business), and overly trust its employees and competitors.

Only facts and reason can shed light on these biases, but when it comes to diversity and inclusion, Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence. This silence removes any checks against encroaching extremist and authoritarian policies. For the rest of this document, I’ll concentrate on the extreme stance that all differences in outcome are due to differential treatment and the authoritarian element that’s required to actually discriminate to create equal representation.

I’m not sure if I agree with his divisions between left and right bias. Do conservatives readily give into authority? If anything I would’ve have thought that the right in the US leans towards independence from authority, Regardless, as we see throughout Silicon Valley – I am sure that he has suffered from what he describes as the “left’s politically correct monoculture.” That being said, I wonder if these ideas have come from a culmination of conversations between individuals or just his own personal thoughts about what he things they are. He portrays himself and the right-leaned employees at Google as victims and projects his own bias in this section.

Possible non-bias causes of the gender gap in tech [3]

At Google, we’re regularly told that implicit (unconscious) and explicit biases are holding women back in tech and leadership. Of course, men and women experience bias, tech, and the workplace differently and we should be cognizant of this, but it’s far from the whole story.

On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because:

  • They’re universal across human cultures
  • They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone
  • Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males
  • The underlying traits are highly heritable
  • They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective

Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from 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.

I fail to see how the evidence he presents supports his notion that biological differences support the gender gap that exists in tech. The “implicit and explicit bias” he cites to begin the section has been backed by data. The fact that the majority of tech CEOs (and now that Marissa Mayers’ Yahoo is mostly irrelevant, perhaps no high profile female CEO exists) are men speaks volumes in regards to these bias. The experience can be felt across the valley as women are continuously disregarded during review season for promotion and the pay gap has been well documented. Yes, men and women are different biologically – no one would argue against that – but how does that explain representation or lack thereof?

Personality differences

Women, on average, have more:

  • Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).
  • These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing and even within SWEs, comparatively more women work on front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.
  • Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness.
  • This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading. Note that these are just average differences and there’s overlap between men and women, but this is seen solely as a women’s issue. This leads to exclusory programs like Stretch and swaths of men without support.
  • Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.

Note that contrary to what a social constructionist would argue, research suggests that “greater nation-level gender equality leads to psychological dissimilarity in men’s and women’s personality traits.” Because as “society becomes more prosperous and more egalitarian, innate dispositional differences between men and women have more space to develop and the gap that exists between men and women in their personality becomes wider.” We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.

Thoughts like this are very dangerous as it paints people into buckets. Women are good at X. Men are good at Y. This will make qualified candidates overlooked. Generalizing about half the world’s population is also an issue. Gender is a construct created over one’s entire upbringing. I haven’t looked at the data so I cannot say if there are demonstrated gaps in neuroticism and other personality metrics between men and women – but I would also be very interested to see how exposure to popular media and the school system helps form these internal bias as well. Companies like Google should fight on the grassroots level (that being schools) to help combat these bias. That’s why programs like Girls Who Code is so powerful.

Men’s higher drive for status

We always ask why we don’t see women in top leadership positions, but we never ask why we see so many men in these jobs. These positions often require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.

Status is the primary metric that men are judged on[4], pushing many men into these higher paying, less satisfying jobs for the status that they entail. Note, the same forces that lead men into high pay/high stress jobs in tech and leadership cause men to take undesirable and dangerous jobs like coal mining, garbage collection, and firefighting, and suffer 93% of work-related deaths.

We never ask why there are so many men in those roles because it is very obvious. If the funnel has more men – of course more men will be on top levels. And seniority carries a big weight in promotions, as women are pushed out of positions well before they would be eligible for senior leadership roles, this gap occurs.

Non-discriminatory ways to reduce the gender gap

Below I’ll go over some of the differences in distribution of traits between men and women that I outlined in the previous section and suggest ways to address them to increase women’s representation in tech and without resorting to discrimination. Google is already making strides in many of these areas, but I think it’s still instructive to list them:

  • Women on average show a higher interest in people and men in things
  • We can make software engineering more people-oriented with pair programming and more collaboration. Unfortunately, there may be limits to how people-oriented certain roles and Google can be and we shouldn’t deceive ourselves or students into thinking otherwise (some of our programs to get female students into coding might be doing this).
  • Women on average are more cooperative
  • Allow those exhibiting cooperative behavior to thrive. Recent updates to Perf may be doing this to an extent, but maybe there’s more we can do. This doesn’t mean that we should remove all competitiveness from Google. Competitiveness and self reliance can be valuable traits and we shouldn’t necessarily disadvantage those that have them, like what’s been done in education. Women on average are more prone to anxiety. Make tech and leadership less stressful. Google already partly does this with its many stress reduction courses and benefits.
  • Women on average look for more work-life balance while men have a higher drive for status on average
  • Unfortunately, as long as tech and leadership remain high status, lucrative careers, men may disproportionately want to be in them. Allowing and truly endorsing (as part of our culture) part time work though can keep more women in tech.
  • The male gender role is currently inflexible

Feminism has made great progress in freeing women from the female gender role, but men are still very much tied to the male gender role. If we, as a society, allow men to be more “feminine,” then the gender gap will shrink, although probably because men will leave tech and leadership for traditionally feminine roles.
Philosophically, I don’t think we should do arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women. For each of these changes, we need principles reasons for why it helps Google; that is, we should be optimizing for Google—with Google’s diversity being a component of that. For example currently those trying to work extra hours or take extra stress will inevitably get ahead and if we try to change that too much, it may have disastrous consequences. Also, when considering the costs and benefits, we should keep in mind that Google’s funding is finite so its allocation is more zero-sum than is generally acknowledged.

Ok I think I understand this man’s position now and would rather not spend the energy to through it more. Basically, he is upset that there are programs that promote diversity but he does not understand why they even happen in the first place. In his mind, women are born women, men are born men, and there are roles that are more fitting for these “roles”. His projection about defining people’s places in the world rather then allowing individuals to make their own decisions is a huge red flag. He is upset that Google and the rest of the industry spends a lot of resources trying to “fit a square peg into a round hole” to use a common phrase.

Luckily, it appears many around the tech community and the world disagree with this line of thinking and would like to continue the path towards greater equality of opportunities and promoting females as equals in all walks of life including traditionally “male roles”.