The "Google memo" versus reality for women in tech
One day earlier this month, I woke up to several alerts from friends and acquaintances sharing with me articles about a Google software engineer, James Damore, who had written an internal memo called “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” In the memo, Damore criticizes Google’s diversity efforts and argues that the low number of women in tech is due to biological and psychological differences that pin us to two opposite sexes, a notion that has been debunked by science and years of work by activists. He also claims that Google is intolerant of differing (i.e., conservative) views that do not conform to what he believes are the company’s left-leaning biases. Unfortunately for him, the science he cites in his memo is either misinterpreted or greatly exaggerated.
Damore claims that women’s disposition to neuroticism; agreeableness as opposed to assertiveness; and preoccupation with feelings is what makes them unsuitable for high-stress careers in STEM.
Most of those sharing the articles with me asked me if I could believe he had said such things. The reality is that I expect that type of mentality from men in STEM. If I had not read the author’s name, I could have attributed the memo to countless individuals that I have come across in my professional career as a civil engineer. The belief that women are just not biologically equipped for careers in STEM is considered common knowledge, and even the most well-meaning people fall prey to the stereotype. In fact, this stereotype and the consequences it had on my career and mental health led me to leave what should have been my dream job earlier this year.
I still remember my hands shaking when, after nine years of working at my engineering firm, I quit in a fit of exasperation. I started working at my firm right after college, and initially felt supported and valued. However, a few months into my job I began to realize that I was not treated like the men in my office. I was constantly asked to make copies, write meeting minutes, book conference rooms, set up meetings, and even order lunch. When I was entrusted with projects, I felt watched over, and even after successfully completing projects and satisfying our clients I was rarely given credit for my work.
After asking my supervisor numerous times over the course of several years to entrust me with more challenging projects, I was finally assigned to a project that would allow me to further expand my skills. I was frustrated that it had taken so long, but felt like I was finally being heard. Unfortunately, the first tasks that I was asked to perform were to write meeting minutes and follow up on the work of several younger and male engineers. I begrudgingly performed the task, but when the project manager was not happy with me not delivering the meeting minutes before the end of the day, he yelled at me in front of my peers and demanded that I deliver them that instant.
I kept thinking “This is it, the last straw” as he yelled at me, and as soon as he was done, I furiously typed a letter announcing my intentions to quit and marched into my supervisor’s office. Once in his office. I couldn’t hold my composure and started to cry, but I told him anyhow, and even after being asked to rethink my decision I remained steadfast. It was a shock to everyone, including myself, and to this day I wonder if I made the right decision because of the financial toll that it has taken on my family. But being away from an environment in which I didn’t feel appreciated or respected is worth it.
I’ve been a science and engineering diversity activist for years, writing and speaking across the United States about implicit and explicit bias, racism, and stereotype threat as they are experienced by women, and specifically by women of color. While I always used my personal experience as a woman of color and engineer, I always felt that being too honest would lead my employers to retaliate, so I always spoke using abstract examples and was very careful not to overshare. My place of employment was not like Google, which has a robust intranet that encourages all employees to communicate and openly voice their concerns. But even if this had been available to me, I wouldn’t have used it. The repercussions of speaking too openly about the actions of my coworkers scared me, so I never shared with my employers the fact that male coworkers had asked me out on dates and talked openly about women’s inferiority, and that several colleagues had made racist comments about my ethnicity and my accent.
Damore’s memo doesn’t address any of the real experiences that women in male-dominated STEM fields face. It’s a lot easier to claim that my anger and stress are just a side effect of my gender’s penchant for neuroticism than to address the many ways in which people like me are not welcomed in STEM. And even more troublesome are Damore’s suggestions to correct this so-called ideological problem at Google. He believes that diversity training that centers women and people of color is discriminatory toward white men (although men make up 80 percent of the tech workforce at Google, of which 53 percent are white people) and calls for the elimination of crucial diversity programs. Damore also suggests that Google stop diversity training, including microaggression training, because according to him it “incorrectly and dangerously equates speech with violence,” as if sexism and racism have no real and negative effects on those who experience it.
It’s no coincidence that James Damore is a white man, because only someone who has never been belittled simply because of their sex, gender, or race would be OK suggesting that any of these characteristics makes one unsuitable for careers in STEM. The rest of us have to work in environments where, regardless of how much we have studied and achieved, others just see us as either the exception to the norm or a fraud, never thinking that many of us do our work while also battling sexism and racism, and unlearning harmful stereotypes that we have internalized from our environment and upbringing.
As one of two women in my engineering department, and the only person of color, I was made to feel like I was a constant distraction to others and far too different from the norm to be taken seriously. After years of dealing with people just like James Damore and an environment that refused to specifically address sexism and racism, I gave up. It’s not the story of perseverance through the odds that we’re accustomed to, but it’s the reality of a lot of women in STEM.
I continue to be an advocate for women in STEM, and will continue my activism because I know that if women and people of color who experience bias in STEM do not speak up, there will be no change in the industry. My experience is personal, but it’s not unique, and I hope it serves as a way to make the industry a safer and more welcoming place for marginalized people.
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