Thoughts on the Damore Manifesto

I’ve shared a few articles on Facebook regarding the now infamous “manifesto” (available in full here) written by James Damore.  But I’m (finally) writing my own response to it because being black makes me part of a group even more poorly represented in computer science (to say nothing of other STEM fields) than women (though black women are even less represented in STEM fields).

One of my many disagreements with Damore’s work (beyond its muddled and poorly written argument) is how heavily it leans on citations of very old studies. Even if such old studies were relevant today, more current and relevant data debunks the citations Damore uses. To cite just two examples:

Per these statistics, women are not underrepresented at the undergraduate level in these technical fields and only slightly underrepresented once they enter the workforce.  So how is it that we get to the point where women are so significantly underrepresented in tech?  Multiple recent studies suggest that factors such as isolation, hostile male-dominated work environments, ineffective executive feedback, and a lack of effective sponsors lead women to leave science, engineering and technology fields at double the rate of their male counterparts.  So despite Damore’s protestations, women are earning entry-level STEM degrees at roughly the same rate as men and are pushed out.

Particularly in the case of computing, the idea that women are somehow biologically less-suited for software development as a field is proven laughably false by simply looking at the history of computing as a field.  Before computers were electro-mechanical machines, they were actually human beings–often women. The movie Hidden Figures dramatized the role of black women in the early successes of the manned space program, but many women were key to advances in computing both before and after that time.  Women authored foundational work in computerized algebra, wrote the first compiler, were key to the creation of Smalltalk (the first object-oriented programming language), helped pioneer information retrieval and natural language process, and much more.

My second major issue with the paper is its intellectual dishonesty.  The Business Insider piece I linked earlier covers the logical fallacy at the core of Damore’s argument very well.  This brilliant piece by Dr. Cynthia Lee (computer science lecturer at Stanford) does it even better and finally touches directly on the topic I’m headed to next: race.  Dr. Lee notes quite insightfully that Damore’s citations on biological differences don’t extend to summarizing race and IQ studies as an explanation for the lack of black software engineers (either at Google or industry-wide).  I think this was a conscious omission that enabled at least some in the press who you might expect to know better (David Brooks being one prominent example) to defend this memo to the point of saying the CEO should resign.

It is also notable that though Damore claims to “value diversity and inclusion”, he objects to every means that Google has in place to foster them.  His objections to programs that are race or gender-specific struck a particular nerve with me as a University of Maryland graduate who was attending the school when the federal courts ruled the Benjamin Banneker Scholarship could no longer be exclusively for black students.  The University of Maryland had a long history of discrimination against blacks students (including Thurgood Marshall, most famously).  The courts ruled this way despite the specific history of the school (which kept blacks out of the law school until 1935 and the rest of the university until 1954.  In the light of that history, it should not be a surprise that you wouldn’t need an entire hand to count the number of black graduates from the School of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences in the winter of 1996 when I graduated.  There were only 2 or 3 black students, and I was one of them (and I’m not certain the numbers would have improved much with a spring graduation).

It is rather telling how seldom preferences like legacy admissions at elite universities (or the preferential treatment of the children of large donors) are singled out for the level of scrutiny and attack that affirmative action receives.  Damore and others of his ilk who attack such programs never consider how the K-12 education system of the United States, funded by property taxes, locks in the advantages of those who can afford to live in wealthy neighborhoods (and the disadvantages of those who live in poor neighborhoods) as a possible cause for the disparities in educational outcomes.

My third issue with Damore’s memo is the assertion that Google’s hiring practices can effectively lower the bar for “diversity” candidates.  I can say from my personal experience with at least parts of the interviewing processes at Google (as well as other major names in technology like Facebook and Amazon) that the bar to even get past the first round, much less be hired is extremely high.  They were, without question, the most challenging interviews of my career to date (19 years and counting). A related issue with representation (particularly of blacks and Hispanics) at major companies like these is the recruitment pipeline.  Companies (and people who were computer science undergrads with me who happen to be white) often argue that schools aren’t producing enough black and Hispanic computer science graduates.  But very recent data from the Department of Education seems to indicate that there are more such graduates than companies acknowledge. Furthermore, these companies all recruit from the same small pool of exclusive colleges and universities despite the much larger number of schools that turn out high quality computer science graduates on an annual basis (which may explain the multitude of social media apps coming out of Silicon Valley instead of applications that might meaningfully serve a broader demographic).

Finally, as Yonatan Zunger said quite eloquently, Damore appears to not understand engineering.  Nothing of consequence involving software (or a combination of software and hardware) can be built successfully without collaboration.  The larger the project or product, the more necessary collaboration is.  Even the software engineering course that all University of Maryland computer science students take before they graduate requires you to work with a team to successfully complete the course.  Working effectively with others has been vital for every system I’ve been part of delivering, either as a developer, systems analyst, dev lead or manager.

As long as I have worked in the IT industry, regardless of the size of the company, it is still notable when I’m not the only black person on a technology staff.  It is even rarer to see someone who looks like me in a technical leadership or management role (and I’ve been in those roles myself a mere 6 of my 19 years of working).  Damore and others would have us believe that this is somehow the just and natural order of things when nothing could be further from the truth.  If “at-will employment” means anything at all, it appears that Google was within its rights to terminate Damore’s employment if certain elements of his memo violated the company code of conduct.  Whether or not Damore should have been fired will no doubt continue to be debated.  But from my perspective, the ideas in his memo are fairly easily disproven.