FILE - 19 JULY 2012: Google, the world's online search leader, reported that second quarter net income rose to $2.8 billion, up 11 percent from 2011. SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 06: A Google employee works on a laptop before the start of a new conference about Google Maps on June 6, 2012 in San Francisco, California. Google announced new upgrades to Google maps including a feature to download maps and view offline, better 3D mapping and a backpack camera device called Trekker that will allow Street View to go offroad on hiking trails and places only accessible by foot. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

James Damore, who worked as an engineer at Google until he was fired two days ago, bears one of the most prominent, if not most villified names on the internet at present. Damore informally circulated a memo headed “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” in which he criticised the company’s diversity programme as “authoritarian” and a form of “arbitrary social engineering”.

This was not a matter of a few Trump-like tweets fired off in a fit of exasperation; the memo is a 10-page document describing what Damore sees as the left-wing ideological bias driving the company’s efforts to promote the interests of women and people of colour in its workforce (it is under investigation by the US Department of Labour for routinely paying women less than men in comparable roles), and the stifling of a conservative point of view that gives weight to biologically based differences between men and women.

Men are more likely to value “things” whereas women value “people” and have more openness to “feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” the software engineer wrote. Men, by contrast, have a “higher drive for status” and the male gender role is “inflexible”.  “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.”

Damore accepted that Google could make itself more attractive to women – and suggested some ideas for doing so – but without turning the workplace into a micro-aggression re-education camp. Whatever you think of the views in his so-called “manifesto” it is not a rant but a thoughtful and moderately worded piece of work.

And he is right at least in this: differences between men and women do manifest themselves in the world of work, and the campaign for strict gender equality is doomed to frustration.

Of course, any mention of biology outside of climate change and species extinction brings a significant section of the population out in a rash, and more become indignant by contagion. Thus the public in general may be convinced that Damore is perpetrating sexist stereotyping and that’s all there is to it. In support, specialists can point to facts about differential pay rates for the same work and glaring absences of women from top jobs. But like it or not, differences between men and women in the field of work are very persistent, and not all of them can be attributed to male oppression.

These perspectives come through in a roundtable at the Institute for Family Studies over the last couple of days.

In a brief survey of workforce statistics and polling data IFS director of research Wendy Wang that shows public opinion on the whole aligning with “gender equality” although not matching what is actually happening on the work front. Regarding the latter:

  • Women account for about half of the U.S. labor force and have been increasingly moving into previously male-dominated professional fields. And yet…
  • 87% of engineers in the U.S. are men, and only 5% of the CEOs of S&P 500 companies are women.
  • According to data compiled by the National Science Foundation, close to half of biological and life scientists (48%) are now women, up from 40% in 2006. (So, thumbs up for gender equality.)
  • But the share of women in the mathematical or computer science fields has actually gone down slightly, from 27% in 2006 to 25% in 2015. (Thumbs down.)
  • And the share of women getting a bachelor’s degree in computer science fell from 23% in 2004 to 18% in 2014. (And down again.)

Women are forging ahead in the biological and life sciences, but slipping back in tech. Why?

It’s not that the public in general thinks women are less intelligent than men, less able at maths, or lack relevant qualities like innovativeness. However, a minority (21 percent) in a 2005 Gallup poll thought men were better at maths and science than women and about half of those thought the reason was biological. Moreover, only 40 percent in Pew Research Centre poll thought men and women could do an equally good job of running a tech company – 29 percent said a man would do a better job than a woman, and only 18 percent said a woman would do it better.

Wang also points out: “When it comes to what’s holding women back, work-family balance is not viewed as the top reason. There is an obvious gap between what the public thinks women could do and what they actually do in the workplace.” The Pew poll showed that the public believes “women are held to a higher standard than men”, and that many businesses “don’t seem to be ready for women leaders.”

For New York University sociology professor Paula England, lack of readiness translates into outright discrimination against women (and people of colour) in the workplace. In the second contribution to the IFS roundtable she highlights evidence which includes:

  • A study of a large company by MIT Business Professor Emilio Castilla which shows that, “On average, women and minorities got raises of a lower percent—even when their supervisors had given them identical performance evaluations!”
  • In a statistical analysis of data ranging from 1950 to 2000, we found that when the percent of women in an occupation goes up, the pay relative to other jobs goes down. We concluded that employers start seeing a job as worth less when women enter in large numbers.

England concludes: “Of course, I am not claiming that all gender and race disparities are caused by bias in the workplace—there are many other factors at play. But this body of research convinces me that companies are doing the right thing when they implement programs to safeguard against gender and race bias.”

Damore’s insistence on biological differences, however, finds strong support from the third contributor to the roundtable, David C. Geary, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri who takes an evolutionary approach to sex differences. Indeed, Damore’s language coincides with Geary’s on critical points. He writes:

“Sex differences in occupational interests have been known for decades, and a recent aggregate analysis of the interests of more than 500,000 people shows that some of these differences are quite large.1 The most relevant finding here is that about 15% of women have the same level of interest in engineering as the average man; 50% of men, by definition, would have stronger interests in engineering than the average man.”

These interests are in turn influenced by more basic interests that have an evolutionary foundation.

“Among these is a person's interest in people versus things. The gap here is also large, with only about 20% of women showing the same level or a higher interest in things than the average man…

In any case, individuals—men or women—with an interest in things generally prefer working in technical and engineering occupations, including computer science. On the other hand, individuals with an interest in people gravitate to fields that involve working with living things, which is one reason why women who are interested in science are much more likely to pursue a career in biology or veterinary medicine than computer science.

(See the statistic above that shows near gender equality in the biological sciences.)

These choices are also, of course, influenced by individual strengths and weaknesses.

Now here is the really interesting part: it’s in the wealthy, democratic and gender-equal societies, where women have most freedom, that sex differences are most strongly expressed in occupational choices.

While you might think that the most progressive countries (think Scandinavia) would have the greatest degree of gender equality in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), that is not the case. In Finland, for example, adolescent girls outperform their male peers in science, and since Finnish students are amongst the highest educational achievers in Europe, that country should be on the cusp of eliminating educational and occupational sex differences in STEM.

“Yet Finland has one of the largest college-degree gaps (< 25% are obtained by women) in the world for STEM fields, and Norway and Sweden, also leading in gender equality rankings, are not far behind. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as this general pattern is found throughout the world: Women’s participation in STEM fields, at any level (from scientist to technician), declines as national levels of economic development and gender equality improve.”

The fact is that Finnish girls on the whole are even better at reading than science or maths, while Finnish boys are relatively better at science and maths than reading.

“Individuals with the latter pattern are likely to enter STEM areas, whether as researcher scientists or technicians, and there are more boys than girls with this pattern worldwide.”

To get more women into STEM professions it would therefore be better to target the girls who are better at those subjects than reading, rather than run anti-bias programmes in the workplace, Geary suggests.

He also argues that the different trade-offs men and women make regarding work-family balance are “not simply a reflection of cultural norms or expectations, but rather have a deep evolutionary history.”

Whether one agrees with his emphasis on evolutionary imperatives, it is foolish to ignore the occupational and family choices women and men make when they are culturally and economically free to pursue their actual interests. James Damore’s central point is valid: men and women are different, and trying to force them into the same mould serves no-one’s real interests.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet