A few weeks ago a Google software engineer, using the company’s employee message board, published — and was fired for — a 10-page memo asserting that the disparity observed between women and men in technology and leadership-related roles is attributable mainly to population-level biological differences that make women less likely to aspire to and flourish in these types of roles.
This engineer also made explicit his belief that, because gender disparity should be explained biologically and is not caused by socially constructed obstacles, diversity programs that are designed to reverse generations of social injustice are misguided, create a biased environment against men, and are doomed to be ineffective. He further suggests that, in their attempt to provide a work environment “free from offense,” companies such as Google create policy and work climates that lead to “shaming into silence.” He asserts that the result is the antithesis of the psychologically safe environments these companies seek to create.
The issue of whether Google was correct in terminating the engineer’s employment over his “manifesto” is beyond the scope of this piece, as are the positive or negative effects Google’s diversity programs might have on that company’s employees. However, considering the wealth of scientific research we have conducted regarding gender issues in the workforce, we at Caliper feel a strong sense of obligation to scrutinize a little more closely the assumptions upon which this author’s conclusions are based:
1. An incomplete understanding and misuse of the scientific data.
The primary premises upon which this author builds his argument are that personality traits are distributed differently in men and women; that these differences in personality have a biological/evolutionary basis; and that these differences produce the greatest causal effect on the gender disparities we see in tech and leadership roles. It is true that there are population-level differences between men and women in a number of the personality traits that the author highlights. Caliper’s own data is consistent with findings in the greater research literature and show women to be more accommodating and collaborative than their male counterparts; that extraversion tends to manifest in women more as sociability rather than as assertiveness; and susceptibility to workplace stress may be seen somewhat more in women than in men.
However, the data also show a far greater degree of overlap between men and women in a wealth of personality traits related to performance in such roles as leadership and coding. A few examples of relevant traits where no meaningful gender differences can be found include: aggressiveness, self-discipline, results orientation, risk-taking, resiliency, openness, flexibility, and persistence. Women and men also show comparable idea orientation (creativity), while women tend to measure higher in thoroughness and extended task focus. If we were to interpret the data using the same filter as the author of the manifesto, we could conclude that women may actually be better than men at coding. But perhaps where this memo is most misleading is in the very narrow and outdated definition and nature of organizational leadership today.
2. A male-oriented definition of organization and leadership.
In conducting in-depth research on the topic, we have obtained tremendous insights into the leadership performance, style, characteristics, and experiences of successful women leaders across a wide range of industries and organizational types. This research leads us to different conclusions about the variables most relevant to understanding the causes of persistent gender disparities. We see that organizational-design components and prevailing employee policy still very often favor men’s lifestyles over women’s. For example, requiring the workday to be defined by traditional business hours when there may be no relevant business need; or making a percentage of travel a requirement when new technologies make that travel less necessary. These practices disadvantage the family member(s) who shoulders a majority of family-care responsibilities, and a wealth of data suggests this family member is much more likely to be female than male. Additionally, the lack of paid maternity leave in the United States has a profound impact on the career aspirations of women but a limited effect on the career goals of men.
In researching the most significant challenges and barriers women leaders face, we find work/family issues to be the most negatively impactful. Specifically, “family responsibilities interfering with work,” “feelings of guilt for not spending enough time with family because of work,” and “lack of support in the household when work is demanding,” are three of the most negatively impactful (both in frequency and induced stress) challenges reported by women leaders. Instead of recognizing the impact of work and organizations that are designed to be more consistent with male lifestyles, the memo writer interprets this dynamic as women preferring to focus on family instead of work, thus proving insufficient dedication needed for a leadership role. Further implied is that empathy and concern for the welfare of others leads to irrational biases and flawed decision making, and only the cooler reason shown by men can provide factual clarity. Essentially, the author of the memo looks at a deck that has been stacked against women and then blames them for not winning.
Notwithstanding that men and women score equally in measures of empathy across broad populations, there’s nothing in the scientific literature to suggest understanding of multiple perspectives leads to poor decision making. Rather, broadening one’s scope of understanding and displaying high emotional IQ is the standard for good leadership in the 21st century. This is no more clear than when we examine the distribution of leadership styles, especially as applied to the transactional versus transformational style.
Transactional leadership works quite well in manufacturing environments, where converging on the single best way to accomplish production goals is the primary objective. Conversely, transformational leadership works in service and information environments by communicating how each employee contributes to the big picture, thereby tapping into intrinsic motivation. We need more transformational leaders to foster innovation and creative problem solving in our current economy. The traits that the memo’s author suggests hold women back in leadership roles are the same traits that correlate most strongly with transformational leadership. And Caliper’s research confirms very clearly that women tend to be stronger in the application of the transformational leadership style.
3. The saddest irony: perpetuation of stereotype threat.
Imagine you apply for a job as a product engineer. The hiring manager says, “Even though product engineers are poor public speakers, I’m going to offer you a job anyway.” They give you a desk far away from visitors to your new company, because, well, they don’t want you near potential customers with your poor public speaking. Someone even circulates a memo around your company lambasting product engineers for their poor public speaking.
After two years of this daily reminder about your poor public speaking (which is inevitable for a product engineer), your manager comes to you and says, “I’d like you to present the new product line at a conference tomorrow.”
When you’re on that stage the next day, it’s pretty predictable what will happen once you hear a cough from the audience or see an attendee or two shift in their seats. You’re going to think, “I’m a poor public speaker.” Then you’ll start stumbling over your words and losing focus. Your anxiety level will rise. Your performance will turn out exactly as predicted.
Stereotype threat is a phenomenon first defined in the 1990s to help explain disparate outcomes across races on standardized tests such as the SAT. It was found at the time that if a member of a minority group is made aware of a stereotype about the group with which he/she identifies, his/her behavior is much more likely to conform to that stereotype. This phenomenon has also been shown to have a significant impact on women’s reported aspirations toward leadership. Just by making women aware of the stereotypes that are held about gender and leadership, they tend to aspire less toward leadership roles. This suppression of aspiration does not occur in the absence of the reminder of that stereotype — it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When women are told they aren’t as good at leadership as men, that they are too emotional, that they’re not dedicated because they care too much about people and not enough about facts, they become less likely to succeed in those roles. Instead of helping fix the problem, the author of the memo perpetuates a self-fulfilling prophecy. He tells woman that they are less likely to be successful as leaders or as coders, and then uses their struggles as evidence to support his claim.
Furthermore, all individuals are likely to suffer from anxiety as a result of threats to status, restriction of autonomy, or a perception of unfairness. These reactions occur on a chemical level in the brain. It happens to men and women, but for women who are already stereotyped as “emotional” and “anxious,” it becomes a vicious cycle. Normal anxious reactions to threats are perceived as a gender-related weakness, which leads to weaker performance and more anxiety.
Women face a hostile environment in the professional work space nearly by default. The assertions in the software engineer’s memo do nothing to rectify this problem but, rather, make it worse by perpetuating stereotypes and cherry picking data. His assertions are further unraveled by a variety of contradictions (e.g., I believe in diversity, but…), false equivalencies (if we are going to help women advance in STEM through diversity programs, how come we aren’t making sure more of them die on the job like men do?), and moments of hubris (I don’t agree with the results of scientific research, so the researchers must be biased).
It’s fair to say that the author’s conclusions are more due to his own personal views on women in the workplace than they are to a serious application of behavioral science.