This week the New York Times reported on Google’s firing of an employee for writing a memo and placing it on the companywide email system. The memo was written by James Damore, a software engineer, who was subsequently fired by Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO. Damore argued that the sex differences in employee coders favoring males (80% male) might be due to biological differences between males and females. Journalists writing in several major newspapers acknowledge that Damore had cited relevant peer reviewed articles supporting his view that biological (genetic) differences in personality and mathematical ability might in part account for the differences in employee sex ratio. In general, his memo was not viewed as a demented rant against women. In fact, David Brooks and Peter Singer in the New York Times and New York Daily News, argue that Pichai should not have fired Mr. Damore. Brooks argues that the thoughtless political correctness demonstrated by Mr. Pichai should results in his resignation.
The reactions by commentators on Mr. Damore’s position varied from ‘Hogwash” on one side of a long running scientific debate to the view that there is scientific evidence for substantial brain and behavioral sex differences. When sex or race get attached to debates about the cultural/biological contributions to attributes such as personality or intelligence, sparks tend to fly. My personal view is that virtually no scientist who has considered the nature versus nurture debate, thinks either is solely responsible for these complex attributes.
Components of intelligence demonstrate a bell-shaped distribution with most people in the middle and a smaller highly talented group of individuals on the far right tail. Germane to the brouhaha at Google, is an article in the December 2016 issue of the highly regarded scientific journal Intelligence that reports on the mathematical and verbal sex differences over the last 50-20 years. Math scores on the SAT extend back to the early 1960s. In a nutshell, if one examines the far right 5% or .01% females are better than males on tests of verbal ability and this advantage has remained stable over the last 20 or so years. The mathematical advantage for males shown in this far-right tail of the bell curve has shrunk from the early 1960 measurements but has remained stable in favor of males over the last 20 or so years.
So, what are we to make of Mr. Damore’s firing. By my view, he made a reasoned argument based on his reading of the scientific literature. Mr. Pichai fired him not because he was right or wrong, but because in his view this was an abhorrent sexist argument contrary to his views and goals for Google.