Using biology to justify the gender gap in tech is wrong—and not just because the science is bad

The bug that led to more bugs.
The bug that led to more bugs.
Image: Kim Jin-a/AP
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There are a lot of controversial statements in the leaked diversity memo written by Google engineer James Damore—most notably, his theory that the gender gap in tech could be attributed to biological differences between men and women.

“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,” writes Damore, who has since been fired by Google for perpetuating gender stereotypes. He argues that women, on average, have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” and “have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men.” He also argues that women are more prone to neuroticism than men, and less assertive and competitive “across human cultures.” In his view, biology, not discrimination or sexism, is to blame for the dearth of women at Google and in the tech industry at large.

Scientifically, none of this is true. Women are not born innately less competitive than men, and there is no evidence that women innately lack assertiveness or leadership. But as a thought experiment, consider a world in which the Google engineer’s arguments were true. Biological determinism still wouldn’t justify the gender gap.

“Human beings everywhere, male and female, not only differ from one another but continually differentiate themselves during their lifetimes,” Timothy Ingold, professor of anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, explains in an email. Biology helps shape the growth and development of any living organism, but so do social and environmental factors. People, Ingold says, “are not ‘products’ of nature and/or nurture, let alone of ‘evolution,’ but the producers of their own lives, in the company of others.”

Yet along with the Google engineer, many people try to explain social outcomes as a consequence of a given group’s natural predisposition. This is an argument that’s often used to justify maintaining a certain hierarchical order, particularly based on gender, race, and sexual orientation.

What such arguments miss is that what is “natural” isn’t necessarily good. One could argue that much of the course of human civilization has involved moving slowly away from our natural instincts by developing and observing laws and abiding to social norms. Otherwise, we might be running around assaulting one another and stealing food from our neighbors.

Nature, as British philosopher Julian Baggini wrote while commenting on natural disaster, is “amoral.” “Nature is simply what is and has nothing to do with what ought to be,” he writes, noting that there is no intrinsic value in allowing nature to act undisturbed—in its environmental manifestations or in its human ones. “We may well be in awe of her, but we should not revere her,” he says. ”If anything deserves reverence it is life, human life in particular, and we do not serve the cause of protecting and enabling it to flourish by leaving nature to take its blind course.”

This doesn’t mean that what occurs in nature is wrong—just like it’s not necessarily right. And so there is no moral value in attempting to justify a human behavior or phenomenon as “natural” or “unnatural” in the first place.