Diversity in tech has become an even more important topic. Earlier this month, James Damore, a former software engineer at Google, internally circulated a memo, ironically titled “Google’s Echo Chamber: How bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion.” In it, he detailed how the biological differences between men and women account for the lack of women in tech. The public was outraged when the memo reached beyond Google’s hallowed gates. Ultimately, Damore was fired because the memo “violated Google’s Code of Conduct.”
Among other things, the memo said that diversity at Google is not only a pain, but also exclusionary to white men. He says that there are less women in coding because “more men may like coding because it requires systematizing and even with SWEs, comparatively more women work on front-end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.” The 10-page memo made the rounds in Google’s internal circuit for about month according to Damore, before it was leaked to the outraged public. Damore used biological determinism, a branch of science that has long been deemed invalid, to explain the reasons for the pay gap.
A history of women in coding
But this guy only did half the reading and never showed up to office hours. In his “research” for this memo, Damore forgot to look further back than 1984, the year that personal computers entered American homes. PCs were not as powerful then as they are now, but they were marketed mostly towards young boys and men. And women were no longer the primary creators and users of computer software.
Before 1984, women were at the helm of computer programming and coding. Most computer programmers at NASA were black women, namely Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson—women featured in Hidden Figures—and they were crucial to American success in the space race. There’s also Ada Lovelace, considered the first computer programmer. Grace Hopper, the first person to write English-based programming languages like Cobol. Margaret Hamilton, who developed onboard flight software for Apollo missions, were all integral to the software that is developed today. And so many more women.
Back in the day, coding was “women’s work”—much like sewing and typing—until it became prestigious and lucrative. Because male hypervisibility in the tech field supports tech’s current narrative, women have been ousted. And men like Damore feel like there is no place for women. Damore says, “girls aren’t interested in coding,” ignoring the fact that girls aren’t encouraged to code.
According to CEO of Palo Alto Software, Sabrina Parsons, “We still see girls shying away from math and science in middle school and high school. We still see company after company in Silicon Valley submit women to terribly hostile environments. We still see women “sucking it up,” thinking they have to put up with this and just need to put their heads down and deal with it.”
State of diversity in tech today
The Google memo reaffirms a lot about the state of diversity in tech in Silicon Valley. In 2014, Google shared its diversity report, which revealed its abysmal demographics. Today, the numbers are not much better: 69% of employees are men, and 56% are white. Women make up 31% of employees, only 20% are engineers and 25% managers. Also, 35% are Asian, 4% Hispanic, and 2% black.
If that wasn’t enough, Google is currently under federal investigation for paying its female employees less than male employees. Other articles have also highlighted the fact that some of Google’s racist and sexist algorithms. It also says a lot about the culture of Google that someone felt comfortable saying the things Damore did. Obviously, the diversity efforts, a black woman as head of diversity, and Sundar Pichai’s email to his employees are not enough to change the deeply ingrained culture of racism and sexism at Google.
And while Google is under a maelstrom of fire right now, the search engine giant is not alone. Silicon Valley in general is mostly made up of men, and white men at that. Many men who have also put their feet in their collective mouths. Men like Michael Moritz who says he wants to hire women, but doesn’t want to lower his standards. Uber’s CEO recently resigned because of allegations of sexual harassment. Two well-regarded VCs Dave McClure and Chris Sacca confessed to sexist behavior. And for the all the ones I’ve listed, several more exist. To them, diversity in tech is not much of a priority.
Therefore, Damore’s claim about his gender’s superiority is well within the culture of sexist discrimination in Silicon Valley. But it is unfounded in history. These efforts of leveling the playing field are just that—giving non-white men a chance to participate in this ever-growing industry. Damore did not do his homework about the history of women in coding. Nor about the benefits of diversity in tech and the invalidity of biological determinism. It is time for Silicon Valley and the tech sector in general to do their homework.