Google, Tech, and Diversity

The diversity problem at Google, which I highlighted in a post three years ago, isn’t going away.  Here’s a backgrounder from Fortune on the current flap, and you can–and should–read my original post on the subject.  It’s long, but worthwhile.

My views have not changed over the last three years.  There is money being thrown at the problem; there are programs to encourage women to get into tech and stay there.  Flexible hours, daycare, and family leave are all available now in the workplace to a degree that was unthinkable even ten years ago.  (Google itself, 70% male, has such services.) These developments are good; I laud them.  But I am stubborn enough and knowledgeable enough about how the world works to say that the burden of getting into tech and staying in is going to be mostly up to women themselves.  Lawsuits like the one Ellen Pao filed three years ago (she lost it) might be helpful in calling attention to the problem, but they also reveal that those filing them are often, like Pao, thin-skinned, irritating, self-entitled brats with whom nobody wants to work.  The workplace is and always will be a rough place.  “Niceness” cannot be legislated, in Silicon Valley or elsewhere.  Attempts to do so will fail.

Google has data on the people it has hired and has considered hiring.  Until recently, it has not made that data public, so it has been hard to determine if the relative lack of women in the company derives from a lack of qualified candidates or from the simple refusal of a male-dominated culture to hire them.  From the outside, the latter appears to be the case.  It also appears to be the case, though, that few inside Google even know why hiring women can be a good thing.  Firing James Damore, who wrote the original ten-page memo in which he called Google’s women-only training sessions “discrimination,” does not demonstrate that Google knows why.  It demonstrates that, at present, the corporation is incapable of having the discussion everybody outside the company thinks they ought to be having.  I highlighted two of the biggest benefits of hiring women in the STEM fields just yesterday.  That fewer women than men might be available right now is a given.  Full correction of the imbalance will not happen until curricula and the attitudes of those who teach that curricula are changed at all levels of education, and that will take several years of planning outside the classroom and teacherly encouragement inside it.

The issue of sexual harassment is another matter.  Nobody–no woman, no man–should have to put up with that nonsense.  And to deny a woman legitimate advancement because she won’t put out, won’t sleep with the boss, won’t do whatever, is wrong, and legal action is often the only recourse to punish it and to eliminate it.

But understand this, and understand it well:  America, and Western culture as a whole, is entering a period of social change.  We don’t believe in marriage any more, at least not lengthy ones.  The mating urge, however, will remain with us until the human race is no more or until it’s genetically programmed out of us.  James Michener once said that the most important thing college students do at college is find out whom to marry.  Even when marriage is not necessarily the goal, that quest is being transferred into the workplace, as we all know, and it is not going to go away.  On the contrary, our problems are likely to increase, not decrease, as couples opt less for marriage and more for casual relationships.  Lawsuits can handle malicious damage done to someone’s career because of harassment, but the other stuff–the flirting, the uncomfortable jokes, the inappropriate gifts–can’t be legislated away, either.  It has to be handled privately, and it is so handled, every day.

Nonetheless, I believe that, over the long term, the current flap over diversity could be a good thing for all of us.  If it gets more women into tech, that’s good.  If it forces universities to look at the curriculum they offer in the sciences, that’s good; because the core reality of work in technology is, you have to actually know how to do things in order to succeed.  That used to be the mission of universities:  to teach students how to do things that would help them (and their country) succeed.  The mission has changed in the liberal arts:  the liberal arts now teach us only how to feel, a talent that depends entirely upon the recipient for its usefulness.  The standard is higher, much more rigorous in the sciences.  They don’t really care how you feel about coding; they care whether you can do it.  It doesn’t matter whether you like the study of histology in med school; it matters what you know about it, and how you can apply it.  Math is genderless; so is engineering; so is architecture. If a woman builds a building, odds are that more women will walk through its front door (and the odds are that door will actually work, too).   If the current initiatives ultimately spur a change in the goals of the liberal arts within our colleges toward a renewed emphasis on verifiable knowledge and demonstrable skills, we will all benefit.  The more we can teach our students how to do things, the better the opportunities we will have to teach them the thought processes that lie behind that ability to do, and the more interested our students (and professors) are likely to be in learning more, with fewer opportunities (and less willingness) to engage in fruitless activities like sexual harassment.

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