Saturday 16 February 2019

That Google heretic might have a point

The future of the world is too important and too scary to be left in the hands of limited men, says Brendan O'Connor

Damore suggests Google should make software engineering more people-oriented. Stock photo: Bloomberg via Getty
Damore suggests Google should make software engineering more people-oriented. Stock photo: Bloomberg via Getty
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

It is widely accepted that we need to have a conversation about men and their limitations. And, thankfully, that conversation is happening. It has been widely accepted, for example, that if there had been more women in charge in areas like banking and finance and property, the financial crash would not have been as bad as it was. It is widely accepted that an overdose of testosterone, of a particular type of man, and not enough people with different perspectives and skills, caused the madness that led to the crash.

Under the spotlight right now in Ireland is the woeful lack of women on boards and in politics. We all agree that diversity - of perspective and of skills - is a good thing, not just for women and for minorities, but for society. And in this there is an implicit agreement that men, especially those who fall into the traditional mould, have huge limitations.

A group of men trying to complete a task can be a recipe for disaster. There tends to be a lack of listening and a lack of people willing to admit they are wrong. Indeed, there will be a very real chance that the project will be done badly because the actual result will take second place to some kind of dumb 'big-d**k' contest between men. This is not to say this is biologically predetermined. Or that it always happens. But it can tend to happen. Women, for whatever reason, can often have a moderating influence on this kind of thing. They can bring different perspectives. They tend to listen more. When women are involved, there is more of a chance that getting the project done properly will take precedence over ego or dominance. Not to say this is biologically predetermined, but it can be true in practice, that women are often better at doing things well than men are.

I'm tippy-toeing here but I think we all agree, through nature or nurture or life experience or whatever, that men and women can be different. This is one of the reasons we argue for diversity, why organisations want diversity. It is not for the good of every little girl, so that she may dream big.

Google 'heretic' James Damore
Google 'heretic' James Damore

Big companies like Google don't truly care about things like that. Big companies are there to make money and get bigger. And they recognise that diversity can help with this. Diversity helps foster innovation, can prevent massive mistakes arising from groupthink, can round off the skills base and provide valuable different perspectives.

And most of us agree with this, when we agree that more women in banking and politics would probably have meant the crash would not have been bad.

Because men are limited.

We live in an exciting time. Not since the 1960s, half-a-century ago, has there been such an appetite to change society.  Right now we are making the world a very different place for our daughters, for people with disabilities, for people of different races, sexualities and lifestyle.  A huge responsibility hangs over us not to mess this up, because everything may not be up for grabs like this again for another 50 years. We have a moment in time right now where the world is alive with possibilities. We need to make sure we don't limit the conversation, and thus the possibilities. Everything needs to be open to question, and we need to have a conversation where we engage with people even if we disagree, where people can take a chance, and throw out things to the group that might be wrong, and that get argued down. That is how we get diversity of ideas.

So. Brace yourselves. Because I am going to suggest that James Damore, who wrote the infamous Google "anti-diversity" memo, for which he has been fired, might have had, hidden away in there, some important points.

I am nervous even discussing Damore. There is one very simple line on Damore right now. He suggested that women are biologically incapable of doing important jobs in tech. He is against diversity. He has now been embraced by the loonies of the alt-right where he belongs, and all right-thinking people should shun him.

But maybe it's a bit more complex than that.

Damore's memo itself is complex and contained lots of often contradictory thoughts. Much of it is flaky and sexist. Damore himself would say he is pro-diversity, but against some of the ways in which Google is seeking to foster it. He bases some of it on flawed assumptions. But then, the fact is that the ways in which Google is attempting to foster diversity now clearly aren't working. West Coast tech in general and Google with it have a shocking record on gender and racial diversity, an extreme gender pay gap, and a huge lack of representation of women and minorities in many roles, including leadership ones. What this means is that we are leaving tech largely in the hands of a certain type of white man, men who have huge limitations.

You would not know this from much of the coverage, but Damore's memo actually contains a list of suggestions for how to encourage more gender balance at Google. And he argues that this needs to be done not with box-ticking programmes but by changing the whole culture of the organisation. For example, he argues that women, on average, show a higher interest in people, and men in things. While this is not a hard and fast rule, most of us would probably agree that this can be a weakness men have.

So he suggests Google should make software engineering more people-oriented. You'd have to agree that if there's one thing tech culture needs, it's more of a people focus. A feel for people needs to be more evident in every part of the tech process, from what they do, to why they do it, to how they do it. Tech has tended to disrupt things and develop new technology purely because it can, with little sophisticated thought for ultimate outcomes ­- the fallout for people, jobs, well-being, for where it is all going. Tech lords can tend to believe in progress for progress's sake.

Would we not agree that what  is regarded as a more traditionally "female" perspective, which comes, right now, whether we like it or not, from females,  might help tech to create a more rounded future? Just as it might have prevented banking from doing stupid stuff?

Damore also suggests women, on average, are more co-operative, and he wonders if we shouldn't design organisations where co-operative people thrive. Again, you'd have to admit this is another weakness in many men. And rewarding co-operation makes sense not just from a diversity standpoint but in general, to create better organisations. Tech created in a paradigm of competition between loners will not always serve the future well. In fact, it's downright scary at times.

Damore also suggests that Google needs "to truly endorse, as part of our culture, part-time work". Could anyone argue with this? Not just to bring more women in to the workplace, but even to allow more men to have a work-life balance, to people an organisation with more rounded individuals?

"The male gender role is currently inflexible," Damore says. "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." And the male gender role, we all agree, is limited and limiting and has many shortcomings. It is in all our interest to get men out of it. It has, indeed, done huge damage to the world.

What Damore has stumbled upon here, perhaps despite himself, is a core truth. What he seems to be suggesting is that rather than pay lip service to diversity, which is clearly not working, it is the paradigm of the workplace that needs to change. Tinkering around the edges is not enough. The paradigm of tech as we know it now was invented largely by a particular type of man. The future is too important to be defined by this paradigm, to be designed by their limited minds.

I say all this as a good liberal for whom diversity is an article of faith. Indeed my own bias is that in my life I have found women to be better colleagues, bosses, mentors, confidantes, advisers and even friends. Maybe then, I am as bad as Damore. Maybe I positively stereotype women, and negatively stereotype men.

But in terms of Damore and in terms of improving the direction of something as powerful and scary and important as the techno future, maybe it doesn't matter where truth comes from, or how many lies it is wrapped up in. Maybe we should be open and diverse enough to listen to good ideas, even if they come from an asshole. 

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