Brave boys and perfect girls

Have you read the Google memo?

If, like me, you wanted to contribute to the conversation sparked by the now infamous Google doc this week, but struggled to find the words, then I have the book for you.



If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the Google memo, allow me to catch you up. The memo is a multi-page manifesto by a twenty-something software engineer in which he argues against his employer’s approach to encouraging gender equality in the workplace. Essentially, the writer challenges Google’s philosophy that diversity and gender equality is good for business and society, on the basis that “on average” women do not pursue certain jobs and challenges because they are inherently less interested and less capable than their male colleagues.

The writer says: “On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways […] Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that 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.”

“On average”, the memo was met with sinking hearts. Google CEO Sundar Pichai summed up the problem with this type of rhetoric perfectly when he said:

“First, let me say that we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves, and much of what was in that memo is fair to debate, regardless of whether a vast majority of Googlers disagree with it. However, portions of the memo violate our Code of Conduct and cross the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace. Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives. To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”

For me, the most disappointing aspect of the memo is the suggestion that because a man and woman may operate differently in the same job, the woman is therefore inherently less capable of doing the job.

I do acknowledge that men and women will often go about the same job in different ways. In “Not Just Lucky”, Jamila Rizvi explains that hormonal differences cause men and women to reason their way to the same outcome using different parts of the brain to get there. Rizvi also explains that while the male brain is physically larger than the female brain, they share the same number of cells (female brain cells are just more densely packed together). Accordingly, modern science has repeatedly determined that the difference in cognitive abilities between female and male brains is nil.

Doing one’s job, whether that be writing code, mending broken hearts or building houses, requires the amalgamation of an inordinate number of skills, talents, perspectives and instincts. No matter how specific the job, there is more than one way to combine those elements to achieve a “right” result. Yes, even a heart surgeon can approach a very specific operation in a unique way. The way that he or she communicates with the people in the operating room will impact on his or her ability to execute the operation and therefore the result. Just because one surgeon communicates in short sharp language and demands a quiet operating room to support optimum performance, and another prefers small talk and background music to remain in the zone, it doesn’t mean that either surgeon is more or less equipped to achieve a perfect medical result.

Cynthia Lee suggests that the memo’s “quasi-professional tone” is a big part of what makes it “so dangerous”. She says that although the writer cites science with groundings in peer-reviewed research, his conclusions are not justified by the findings and fail to adequately account for sociological and other factors. And this is the problem with arguments that begin with “on average”.

The memo says that “on average” women have (relative to men):

  • more openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas
  • a stronger interest in people rather than things
  • a preference for jobs in social or artistic areas
  • a greater degree of extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness
  • a higher degree of agreeableness
  • a higher degree of neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance)
  • a higher drive for work-life balance

And men? Men have a higher drive for status. This combined with their greater capacity to be assertive, manage anxiety, tolerate stress and eschew work life balance makes them far better suited to important prestigious jobs. Okay?

Of course, this is so offensive to both men and women. For every woman that desires a high status job and who thrives in a high stress environment, there is probably a man who wants greater flexibility at work to enable him to pursue other interests and spend more time with his family. At present, society is geared against both of these things. Of course, “on average” and at present, there are more men in high stress jobs than women, and more women working part time than men. This is indicative of where we are in the timeline of the work / family dynamic. While there are still barriers to entry for women and barriers to exit for men, statements about how things are “on average” tell us little about social, economic and workplace ideals.

If we continue to prosecute gender stereotypes, society’s expectations of men and women will continue to persist along gender lines. Rizvi explains that parents tend to treat little boys and girls differently, which can have the effect of entrenching stereotypical behaviours from a young age. Quoting Reshma Saujani, CEO of Girls Who Code, Rizvi calls this raising generations of “brave boys and perfect girls”.

So if you haven’t read the Google memo, perhaps refrain. Read something that actually examines statistics and averages in the context of the historical, structural and cultural factors that shape them. “Not Just Lucky” is a good place to start.

Thought Leader(s): Pichai, S; Rizvi, J

Book(s): Rizvi, J (2017) Not Just Lucky, Penguin Random House Australia.  

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