An Interview With James Damore
The former Google employee and author of a now notorious memo about the company's diversity culture chats with Reason.
James Damore, a former software engineer at Google, was suddenly propelled to fame after an internal memo he wrote criticizing diversity policies at the company leaked to the media. The document, sometimes labeled a "manifesto" (and, less kindly, a "screed" and a "rant"), asserted that the gender disparities in tech jobs are at least partly the result of innate differences between the sexes (primarily of women being more people-oriented and less attracted to such work) and that the diversity programs intended to boost the number of women at Google are counterproductive and possibly illegal.
While the document proposed alternative ways to make the workplace at Google more female-friendly, it was widely labeled "anti-diversity" and "anti-woman." After 28-year-old Damore was identified as the author of the memo, he was fired for "perpetuating gender stereotypes."
Since then, the controversy has raged unabated—perhaps unsurprisingly, since it touches on many hot-button, polarizing issues from gender equity in the workplace to freedom of speech. A few days ago, I wrote about the debate for USA Today. I interviewed Damore via Google Hangouts text chat on Friday. The transcript has been lightly edited for style, flow and clarity.
Cathy Young: All this must be a little overwhelming?
James Damore: Yes, especially since I tend to be pretty introverted.
CY: Did you think when you wrote the memo, that it could become public at all, let alone as such a huge story?
JD: No, definitely not, I was just trying to clarify my thoughts on Google's culture and use it to slowly change some of our internal practices.
CY: You've mentioned in other interviews that you decided to write this memo after attending a staff meeting on diversity at Google.
JD: Yes, I decided to write my thoughts down after attending a particular "Diversity and Inclusion Summit," although I had seen many of the problems in our culture for a while.
CY: Who was this summit for? All employees, or employees at a certain level?
JD: It was generally for high level employees in my organization that were interested in diversity efforts.
CY: Does Google have a lot of diversity events? Do any of them have mandatory attendance, or is it primarily for those interested in the issue?
JD: Google has many diversity events, including many during our weekly company-wide meeting (TGIF). They've also recently made "Unconscious Bias" training, which is ideologically similar, mandatory for those that want to evaluate promotions, all managers, and all new hires.
CY: You've mentioned that the summit that prompted the memo had some material that you found disturbing and offensive. I don't know how specific you can be, but any examples?
JD: They outlined some of the practices where employees were being treated differently based on their gender or ethnicity at Google and during the hiring process. For example, there's special treatment during the interviews (like more being given) and there are high priority queues for team matching after an employee gets hired. Also, there were calls to holding individual managers accountable for the "diversity" of their team, which would inevitably lead to managers using someone's protected status (e.g. gender or ethnicity) during critical employment situations.
CY: More interviews being given, as in women and underrepresented minorities being given a second chance?
JD: Yes, and I, of course, don't have anything against women and underrepresented minorities, but I think that we need to rethink these practices because they may be illegal and actually increase intergroup tensions, as we've seen in academia, which is exactly what we don't want.
CY: Do you think practices like that amount to "lowering the bar," as you suggested in the memo? Some would argue that it may be a good idea to give "diversity candidates" a second shot, since they may have been unfairly prejudged in the initial interview due to hidden biases.
JD: Yes, I do think that some of these may amount to "lowering the bar." Google's hiring practices are currently optimized to have a really low false positive rate [i.e. hiring someone who turns out to be underqualified or ill-suited for the job—CY] and high false negative rate (i.e. we reject many unlucky, highly qualified candidates). If someone only gets one chance, then their interviews have to be really good for us to be confident enough to hire them.
CY: You also mentioned the policing of "microaggressions." In the published responses to your memo in internal Google discussions, someone mentioned people being shamed for using the phrase "guys" for a mixed group. Was there a lot of that going on?
JD: Yes, "microaggressions" are being taught and compared to actual violence. There's also a weekly email that goes out to about 20,000 Googlers where people submit examples of these.
CY: I gather the "offenders" aren't identified, at least?
JD: Sometimes they are, and other times it's obvious to whoever reads it (which is a large portion of the company now).
CY: Any particularly egregious examples of innocuous things being blown out of proportion?
JD: I only really remember one, but that's because my memory is failing me. One was complaining about someone suggesting to use a picture of an attractive person on an ad to increase the number of clicks. Which is apparently a case of "lookism."
CY: By the way, backtracking a bit, when did you start working for Google?
JD: I interned in summer of 2013 and joined in December 2013.
CY: Were the diversity initiatives already in place when you joined, or did they begin (or intensify) sometime after?
JD: I think they intensified.
CY: Did you give a lot of thought to gender and diversity issues before that summit? Some of your citations suggest that you did a fair amount of reading on the subject.
JD: I had been thinking about it for a while, and had many personal discussions in addition to research.
CY: Who are some of the authors or commentators you've followed on gender issues?
JD: Sheryl Sandberg, Warren Farrell, Christina Hoff Sommers, Camille Paglia, Rebecca Solnit.
CY: Who do you think comes closes to your point of view?
JD: It's hard to say because I think they all have legitimate things to say and sometimes just talk about different areas. Maybe Christina Hoff Sommers, but obviously, I don't have 100% agreement with any of them.
CY: So, back to the memo: you wrote it and then you circulated it and edited it based on the feedback you received?
JD: Yeah, I started sending it out to the diversity programs and some select Googlers about a month ago and continuously edited it based on their feedback.
CY: I assume some of the people you sent it to were women?
JD: Yes, of course.
CY: What would you say was the gender ratio of the people who read it and gave feedback? And were there any noticeable differences of opinion between the men and the women?
JD: I don't know about the actual ratio, but there were positive and negative responses from both men and women. In my experience, it largely depended on how much the reader was in the "progressive echo chamber" that I described in the document.
CY: So, among the women who work at Google, there are many who don't agree with the standard progressive view of women in tech—i.e. that all disparities are due to sexism?
JD: Correct, and many of them are tired of being made to feel like victims by that narrative.
CY: What were the negative responses you received?
JD: Most were just name-calling or public shaming. I did get a few personal threats, though.
CY: Of violence, or retaliation within the workplace?
JD: There were some threats of violence and many public displays of retaliation within the workplace—i.e. internally public posts stating that they will never work with me and will sabotage my projects.
CY: Even before the memo went public?
CY: Did anyone speak out in your support when those threats were made?
JD: Some brave souls did.
CY: Both men and women?
JD: Yes. But no one in upper management, because it would have been career suicide to defend me.
CY: Did you start feeling even then that your days with Google might be numbered?
JD: No, I was honestly surprised when they called to fire me. I thought that we had a right to discuss and try to improve the terms and conditions of working environment, especially when bringing up the possible illegality of some of our practices.
CY: I think you've mentioned that the management ostensibly had a stance encouraging discussion of company policy…
JD: Yes, that's what they would claim. By the way, I like Noam Chomsky's quote from The Common Good: "The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum."
CY: A lot of the criticism has focused on charges that you were essentially telling the women in tech jobs at Google they're not as good or well-suited to those jobs as the men. What's your response?
JD: The purpose of my document was mainly to discuss the ideological echo chamber. As for the gender things, I was trying to explain why we might not expect 50/50 representation in tech largely due to differing interests, and I don't say anything about individual women, especially those in tech.
CY: Another part that I think a lot of people saw as incendiary was the reference to women being "higher in neuroticism," which once again was seen as a swipe at your female colleagues, or even a suggestion that Google shouldn't hire women because they're too neurotic. What does that research actually imply?
JD: The reaction seems to mostly be pointed at the negative connotation of the word "neuroticism," which is the technical term used in psychology. "Neuroticism" is in part a measure of how prone someone is to anxiety and how sensitive they can be to stress. I was mostly stating this as a possible reason why women report higher anxiety on our Googlegeist (internal company-wide survey) and why we should try to control for people's personality traits before assuming that this disparity means that women are mistreated at Google.
CY: It could also be a matter of women being more willing to verbalize anxiety because of social norms, no? It's ironic that many of your critics accuse you of ignoring the role of social norms in shaping people's self-reports, yet they ignore that factor here.
JD: I don't think it can be explained just by that because the gap widens in more gender-egalitarian societies.
CY: Were there any valid points that you think your critics made?
JD: Not that I'm aware of; I'd very much like to see a valid point, though! I had been working on the document for a while and took in feedback before it was leaked. There were some possible differences between men and women that could contribute to the differences in representation that I didn't include because I didn't think that had as much scientific evidence—for example, [mathematically gifted girls having more varied interests] and men having higher variance in traits.
CY: This is probably a cliché question, but would you have done anything differently if you could, and would you do it again?
JD: I guess I would avoid the term "neuroticism." But it's hard to regret anything major because I'm afraid that if I didn't speak up, then the echo chamber would have only gotten stronger with time.
CY: In terms of the responses, you've received quite a bit of support from the alt-right. You've also been criticized for going on an alt-right podcast—that of Stefan Molyneux. How do you navigate a situation like that where you obviously cannot control who supports you, but the controversy can draw some unsavory characters [including white nationalists]?
JD: Hmm, I guess I'm not an expert in controlling public opinion, but I only hope that people judge me by what I say and do. I don't think I've said or done anything that could be honestly classified as "white nationalist." [I hope people understand] that "one-way" endorsements are inevitable.
CY: How would you describe your politics?
JD: Generally centrist/"classical liberal"/libertarian in philosophy, although I think individual policies and decisions need to be looked at individually and not through the lens of one's party.
CY: Do you plan to continue speaking out on these issues, now that you have a very public platform?