Sunday, August 13, 2017

On Slippery Arguments and Equity at Google

You can read most of the infamous Google memo here, and for the record, I don't think opening up this discussion should be a fireable offence, but I'm just concerned with this one piece of the puzzle right now:
"the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and these differences may explain why we don't see equal representation of women in tech and leadership."
David Brooks calls this "championing scientific research."

But consider this analogy. Walk into an art gallery full of art by Picasso, Monet, Dali, Van Gogh...  It is the case that men and women have some inherent differences on average; that claim has some validity. There are certainly more differences among the groups that between them, but there's still a difference however slight. BUT it doesn't follow that that's why we don't see equal representation in an art gallery. It's clearly not the case that women inherently, evolutionarily, don't prefer the arts and don't have any artistic talent. We can see that so clearly and easily because we are well aware that over the past centuries few women were allowed near a book much less a paintbrush.

We're far enough away from that museum scenario to really shake our head at the blatant injustices that produced such disparate results. However, as a society, we're apparently not quite able to step back and recognize the profound level of inequity that has created current gender distribution in the world of high tech.

When we use statistical averages, we can only use them to discuss what is - like with the stats on millennials. We know from keeping track of behaviours of teenagers, that there has been a shift over time in that demographic on average. The 'on average' bit means that about a third of teens likely don't display some of the behaviours being marked, but enough do to warrant concern. But while we can agree that there are some differences between genders, on average, it doesn't follow that it's the determining factor affecting distribution in the workplace. There are just far too many confounds to draw that conclusion.

And even if we accept that it might be one reason there are fewer women in some fields, and, by corollary, fewer men in others, because it's just one of many reasons, it can't be used to accept the perpetuation of the uneven distribution. In his argument, Damore shifts from what we do see to what we should see when he implies we should do nothing to try to change this trend. This is a naturalistic fallacy, shifting from an is to an ought.

Mlodinow, in The Drunkard's Walk (168), cautions:
"Though in random variation there are orderly patterns, patterns are not always meaningful. And as important as it is to recognize the meaning when it is there, it is equally important not to extract meaning when it is not there. Avoiding the illusion of meaning in random patterns is a difficult task." 
And then there's this great piece by a lecturer in the Computer Science Department at Stanford, Cynthia Lee:
"I called the manifesto’s citations to findings about “average” women a “sleight of hand” for a very specific reason: While he dutifully includes that limiting language when making the citations, the policies he goes on to advance in the memo have no mathematically rigorous connection to those averages. He is deploying these dispassionate facts to argue for ending Google’s attempts at creating a fair and broadly welcoming working environment. The author was not simply listing various items of scientific news at random, for the reader’s information only. He was building a case for ending specific, real programs that affect very real people....Would defenders of the memo still be comfortable if the author had casually summarized race and IQ studies to argue that purported biological differences — not discrimination or unequal access to education — explained Google’s shortage of African-American programmers?"
Here's a case in point: once computer scientist Maria Klawe became the first president of a California college, female computer science majors there increased from 10% to 50% in only ten years after implementing "Operation Eliminate the Macho Effect" to stop males from dominating classroom discussions:
As part of these changes, professors would speak directly to such students, telling them: “You’re so passionate about the material and you’re so well prepared. I’d love to continue our conversations but let’s just do it one on one.” Nearly overnight, Klawe reports that the introductory class went from being one of the most despised required courses to one of the students' favorites.  
Since just a few techniques to reduce bias were able to make such a difference, surely it's clear that cultural bias is the primary problem, not biology. Check out this post of the exploits of a man mistaken for a female colleague for a taste of how that bias is expressed.

And then there's this cartoon:

It implies that ensuring women and minorities have equal access to the jobs won't lead to getting the best, and that we should ignore the forces keeping certain groups outside the fence and just choose from the ones that get through. But if we really want the best employees, let's make sure we're choosing out of the entire pool without any left out because of a hostile workplace or because they were never encouraged as kids or because any other of the subtle but pervasive barriers were impeding their progress.

Watch how Neil deGrasse Tyson responds to the question, "What's up with chicks and science?" (It starts at 1:01:32 if it doesn't do that automatically.)

"Before we start talking about genetic differences, you got to come up with a system where there's equal opportunity, then we can have that conversation."

Here's the really crazy thing: this argument has been going on for 2,500 years. Plato, at a time when women were just barely above slaves who were just barely above animals (and sometime below some more utilized and well-loved horses), recognized the need to be inclusive. The state that doesn't also make an effort to include women will lose out on some of the best and brightest, which isn't good for anybody.

I'm going to reprint an enormous bit of Book V of Plato's Republic here (it's a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon) - I've bolded the more pertinent bits, and it's not a difficult dialogue, but I'll summarize afterwards in a nutshell, so skip down if reading philosophy isn't your thing:
What I mean may be put into the form of a question, I said: Are dogs divided into hes and shes, or do they both share equally in hunting and in keeping watch and in the other duties of dogs? or do we entrust to the males the entire and exclusive care of the flocks, while we leave the females at home, under the idea that the bearing and suckling their puppies is labour enough for them?

No, he said, they share alike; the only difference between them is that the males are stronger and the females weaker.

But can you use different animals for the same purpose, unless they are bred and fed in the same way?

You cannot. 
Then, if women are to have the same duties as men, they must have the same nurture and education?

Yes. The education which was assigned to the men was music and gymnastic. Yes.

Then women must be taught music and gymnastic and also the art of war, which they must practise like the men?

That is the inference, I suppose. I should rather expect, I said, that several of our proposals, if they are carried out, being unusual, may appear ridiculous.

No doubt of it. / Yes, and the most ridiculous thing of all will be the sight of women naked in the palaestra, exercising with the men, especially when they are no longer young; they certainly will not be a vision of beauty, any more than the enthusiastic old men who in spite of wrinkles and ugliness continue to frequent the gymnasia.

Yes, indeed, he said: according to present notions the proposal would be thought ridiculous.

But then, I said, as we have determined to speak our minds, we must not fear the jests of the wits which will be directed against this sort of innovation; how they will talk of women's attainments both in music and gymnastic, and above all about their wearing armour and riding upon horseback!

Very true, he replied. / Yet having begun we must go forward to the rough places of the law; at the same time begging of these gentlemen for once in their life to be serious. Not long ago, as we shall remind them, the Hellenes were of the opinion, which is still generally received among the barbarians, that the sight of a naked man was ridiculous and improper; and when first the Cretans and then the Lacedaemonians introduced the custom, the wits of that day might equally have ridiculed the innovation.
No doubt. /   But when experience showed that to let all things be uncovered was far better than to cover them up, and the ludicrous effect to the outward eye vanished before the better principle which reason asserted, then the man was perceived to be a fool who directs the shafts of his ridicule at any other sight but that of folly and vice, or seriously inclines to weigh the beautiful by any other standard but that of the good.

Very true, he replied. / First, then, whether the question is to be put in jest or in earnest, let us come to an understanding about the nature of woman: Is she capable of sharing either wholly or partially in the actions of men, or not at all? And is the art of war one of those arts in which she can or can not share? That will be the best way of commencing the enquiry, and will probably lead to the fairest conclusion.

That will be much the best way. / Shall we take the other side first and begin by arguing against ourselves; in this manner the adversary's position will not be undefended.

Why not? he said. / Then let us put a speech into the mouths of our opponents. They will say: 'Socrates and Glaucon, no adversary need convict you, for you yourselves, at the first foundation of the State, admitted the principle that everybody was to do the one work suited to his own nature.' And certainly, if I am not mistaken, such an admission was made by us. 'And do not the natures of men and women differ very much indeed?' And we shall reply: Of course they do. Then we shall be asked, 'Whether the tasks assigned to men and to women should not be different, and such as are agreeable to their different natures?' Certainly they should. 'But if so, have you not fallen into a serious inconsistency in saying that men and women, whose natures are so entirely different, ought to perform the same actions?' --What defence will you make for us, my good Sir, against any one who offers these objections?

That is not an easy question to answer when asked suddenly; and I shall and I do beg of you to draw out the case on our side.

These are the objections, Glaucon, and there are many others of a like kind, which I foresaw long ago; they made me afraid and reluctant to take in hand any law about the possession and nurture of women and children.

By Zeus, he said, the problem to be solved is anything but easy. Why yes, I said, but the fact is that when a man is out of his depth, whether he has fallen into a little swimming bath or into mid-ocean, he has to swim all the same.

Very true. /  And must not we swim and try to reach the shore: we will hope that Arion's dolphin or some other miraculous help may save us?

I suppose so, he said. / Well then, let us see if any way of escape can be found. We acknowledged --did we not? that different natures ought to have different pursuits, and that men's and women's natures are different. And now what are we saying? --that different natures ought to have the same pursuits, --this is the inconsistency which is charged upon us.

Precisely. / Verily, Glaucon, I said, glorious is the power of the art of contradiction!

Why do you say so? / Because I think that many a man falls into the practice against his will. When he thinks that he is reasoning he is really disputing, just because he cannot define and divide, and so know that of which he is speaking; and he will pursue a merely verbal opposition in the spirit of contention and not of fair discussion.

Yes, he replied, such is very often the case; but what has that to do with us and our argument?

A great deal; for there is certainly a danger of our getting unintentionally into a verbal opposition.

In what way? / Why, we valiantly and pugnaciously insist upon the verbal truth, that different natures ought to have different pursuits, but we never considered at all what was the meaning of sameness or difference of nature, or why we distinguished them when we assigned different pursuits to different natures and the same to the same natures.

Why, no, he said, that was never considered by us. / I said: Suppose that by way of illustration we were to ask the question whether there is not an opposition in nature between bald men and hairy men; and if this is admitted by us, then, if bald men are cobblers, we should forbid the hairy men to be cobblers, and conversely?

That would be a jest, he said. / Yes, I said, a jest; and why? because we never meant when we constructed the State, that the opposition of natures should extend to every difference, but only to those differences which affected the pursuit in which the individual is engaged; we should have argued, for example, that a physician and one who is in mind a physician may be said to have the same nature.

True. / Whereas the physician and the carpenter have different natures? Certainly. And if, I said, the male and female sex appear to differ in their fitness for any art or pursuit, we should say that such pursuit or art ought to be assigned to one or the other of them; but if the difference consists only in women bearing and men begetting children, this does not amount to a proof that a woman differs from a man in respect of the sort of education she should receive; and we shall therefore continue to maintain that our guardians and their wives ought to have the same pursuits.

Very true, he said. / Next, we shall ask our opponent how, in reference to any of the pursuits or arts of civic life, the nature of a woman differs from that of a man?
That will be quite fair. / And perhaps he, like yourself, will reply that to give a sufficient answer on the instant is not easy; but after a little reflection there is no difficulty.

Yes, perhaps. / Suppose then that we invite him to accompany us in the argument, and then we may hope to show him that there is nothing peculiar in the constitution of women which would affect them in the administration of the State.

By all means. / Let us say to him: Come now, and we will ask you a question: --when you spoke of a nature gifted or not gifted in any respect, did you mean to say that one man will acquire a thing easily, another with difficulty; a little learning will lead the one to discover a great deal; whereas the other, after much study and application, no sooner learns than he forgets; or again, did you mean, that the one has a body which is a good servant to his mind, while the body of the other is a hindrance to him?-would not these be the sort of differences which distinguish the man gifted by nature from the one who is ungifted?

No one will deny that. / And can you mention any pursuit of mankind in which the male sex has not all these gifts and qualities in a higher degree than the female? Need I waste time in speaking of the art of weaving, and the management of pancakes and preserves, in which womankind does really appear to be great, and in which for her to be beaten by a man is of all things the most absurd?

You are quite right, he replied, in maintaining the general inferiority of the female sex: although many women are in many things superior to many men, yet on the whole what you say is true.

And if so, my friend, I said, there is no special faculty of administration in a state which a woman has because she is a woman, or which a man has by virtue of his sex, but the gifts of nature are alike diffused in both; all the pursuits of men are the pursuits of women also, but in all of them a woman is inferior to a man.

Very true. / Then are we to impose all our enactments on men and none of them on women?

That will never do. / One woman has a gift of healing, another not; one is a musician, and another has no music in her nature?

Very true. / And one woman has a turn for gymnastic and military exercises, and another is unwarlike and hates gymnastics?
Certainly. / And one woman is a philosopher, and another is an enemy of philosophy; one has spirit, and another is without spirit?

That is also true. / Then one woman will have the temper of a guardian, and another not. Was not the selection of the male guardians determined by differences of this sort?

Yes. Men and women alike possess the qualities which make a guardian; they differ only in their comparative strength or weakness.
Obviously.  / And those women who have such qualities are to be selected as the companions and colleagues of men who have similar qualities and whom they resemble in capacity and in character?
Very true. / And ought not the same natures to have the same pursuits?  / They ought. / Then, as we were saying before, there is nothing unnatural in assigning music and gymnastic to the wives of the guardians --to that point we come round again.

Certainly not. The law which we then enacted was agreeable to nature, and therefore not an impossibility or mere aspiration; and the contrary practice, which prevails at present, is in reality a violation of nature.

That appears to be true. We had to consider, first, whether our proposals were possible, and secondly whether they were the most beneficial?

Yes. / And the possibility has been acknowledged? / Yes. / The very great benefit has next to be established? / Quite so. / You will admit that the same education which makes a man a good guardian will make a woman a good guardian; for their original nature is the same?
Yes. / I should like to ask you a question. / What is it? / Would you say that all men are equal in excellence, or is one man better than another?

The latter. / And in the commonwealth which we were founding do you conceive the guardians who have been brought up on our model system to be more perfect men, or the cobblers whose education has been cobbling?

What a ridiculous question! / You have answered me, I replied: Well, and may we not further say that our guardians are the best of our citizens?

By far the best. / And will not their wives be the best women? Yes, by far the best. And can there be anything better for the interests of the State than that the men and women of a State should be as good as possible?

There can be nothing better. / And this is what the arts of music and gymnastic, when present in such manner as we have described, will accomplish?

Certainly. / Then we have made an enactment not only possible but in the highest degree beneficial to the State?

True. / Then let the wives of our guardians strip, for their virtue will be their robe, and let them share in the toils of war and the defence of their country; only in the distribution of labours the lighter are to be assigned to the women, who are the weaker natures, but in other respects their duties are to be the same. And as for the man who laughs at naked women exercising their bodies from the best of motives, in his laughter he is plucking a fruit of unripe wisdom, and he himself is ignorant of what he is laughing at, or what he is about; --for that is, and ever will be, the best of sayings, That the useful is the noble and the hurtful is the base.

Very true. / Here, then, is one difficulty in our law about women, which we may say that we have now escaped; the wave has not swallowed us up alive for enacting that the guardians of either sex should have all their pursuits in common; to the utility and also to the possibility of this arrangement the consistency of the argument with itself bears witness.
Yes, that was a mighty wave which you have escaped.

It was clear, even way back then, that there is a huge variation of abilities among the men, and, it follows, among the women. But between them, the only notable difference, even in that ancient culture, was childbearing and physical strength. And like then, it's still a big flipping deal to try to clarify that for people.

Some commenters on some sites out there are down to arguing that it's not sexist to insist that women have lower IQs than men because it's the same as saying they're physically weaker, on average, except that it's completely wrong! But it's important to know that those belief are out there, and that they continue to need to be refuted, and that the wave will not swallow us up alive for doing so, dammit!

ETA - This article which says (among other things),
"Neuroscientists have found few sex differences in children’s brains beyond the larger volume of boys’ brains and the earlier completion of girls’ brain growth, neither of which is known to relate to learning....there is “surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains....this narrative [of a significant difference] misunderstands the complexities of biology and the dynamic nature of brain show no meaningful differences in math performance among more than seven million boys and girls in grades 2 through 12....two-thirds of managers selected male job candidates, even when the men did not perform as well as the women on math problems that were part of the application process."
ETA - Johannes Kuhn of goes further into the opposing positions (Google-translated from German),
"The matter is complicated by the fact that it is also a matter of the self-understanding of the American economy as a meritocracy - a system in which the best is also the furthest....The consensus on the issue of diversity, affecting almost every major US company (often rhetorically) since the turn of the century, is crumbling below the surface, not just since the rise of Donald Trump....This also reflects the great debate that is raging between the two social poles in the country: conservatism, which blames individuals and not the existing social structures for their happiness. And progressivism, which recognizes historical injustices in these structures, which must be corrected in the sense of social progress. Both sides claim not only morality and rationality for themselves; They also see themselves as representatives of a social order, the sole validity of which will once prove history."

Hat-tip - long discussions with my daughter about it all - I actually started out leaning a little further to the other side.


Anonymous said...

What a great post! I had no idea that the ancient Greeks philosophers had come to the only philosophical conclusion that makes sense. Enjoyed the word play immensely. Thanks.

Marie Snyder said...

Thanks, anon.