I didn’t plan to write about James Damore, formerly of Google, because I considered him just another callow young man with more testosterone than wisdom and more opinions than experience.
Google fired him because those outspoken opinions about things that keep women from STEM jobs embarrassed the company and ran counter to its stated culture. He had the right to speak but freedom of speech does not protect one from repercussions. Google had the right to fire him because he was an employee at will. End of story.
Well, not so much.
The Women’s Rebuttals
Mr. Damore’s memo has been followed by several well-written and eloquent rebuttals from women engineers, both within and outside of Google. My favorite was written by Maggie Avant, a chemical engineer, corporate vice president, and mother of five.
In it, Ms. Avant details her experiences as a girl trying to become an engineer and as a woman working in engineering. Those of you who don’t understand the myriad ways in which men keep women from STEM jobs would do well to read the article in Patch.com.
What Mr. Damore misses—because he’s a white male who has never experienced any opposition to his career choice—is how girls and women are discouraged from pursuing STEM courses, degrees, jobs, and job opportunities. Sometimes the things men do to keep women from STEM jobs is intentional; sometimes the men just think they’re doing the right thing. Regardless, the consequences seldom turn our well for the female involved.
- “Let me ladysplain the Google memo to you,” by Cynthia Lee.
Ms. Lee lectures in the Computer Science Department at Stanford and holds a Ph.D. in high-performance computing.
Here’s my take on the five ways in which men still do their best to keep women from STEM jobs — but they apply to other areas as well. While I never pursued a technical career in science, math, or engineering, I worked in the high tech industry for most of my career. It pains me to see that Ms. Avant, who was born two years after I graduated college, still encountered so many flagrant obstacles in her life.
One — Discouraging:
Male guidance counselors persuade girls to follow programs that they think are better suited to female minds and bodies. This happened to me at Somerset High School when I was a junior. I had gotten As in biology because I relate well to concrete things like a heart or a nervous system. I did less well in the abstract discipline of chemistry and really sucked at algebra. Not only were they intangible, I could not see any practical use for them in real life.
That meant I had reservations about physics. So, when our guidance counselor called me in and suggested I take typing instead, I did not experience the same discouragement as Ms. Savant did. You can argue that he was simply doing his job and moving me into a course where I would succeed instead of one where I was likely to fail. Fair enough.
But I also think he was guiding me into a more “woman friendly” course “for my own good.” He did me a big favor, though. Typing came in handy starting in college when I typed other students’ papers to make tuition money and then afterward in my career as a writer and marketer. But, then, I didn’t want to become a physicist.
Someday, someone will figure out how to teach math and science in a practical way that engages people like me. Practical experience will help a lot of students — women included — to do better in STEM courses.
Two — Banning or Preventing:
Also, in high school, I was not allowed to join the Projectionist’s Club, which was a totally male enclave. The experience would have come in handy in my first job, working for Dow Jones, where I had to show a movie to the Board of Directors. No pressure. I burned the first frame but got it done.
The school flatly denied my request to take mechanical drawing because that course, which I would have loved, was reserved for boys. We girls could use the track and gymnastics equipment only when the boys were not. The gymnastics equipment was for male gymnastics, of course. The school did not provide the mats, horses, and bars for girls’ gymnastics. We got the message; girls are inferior and not worth investment in time or money.
The Invisible Brick Wall
When I graduated college, my brother suggested that I take a management training course. He did not realize that those programs did not admit women because they were wide open to him. He had never run into this kind of brick wall and didn’t know it existed.
Male privilege essentially means excluding females. That reserves the scholarships, the training programs, the good jobs, the choice assignments, the mentorships, and the fast track for males, regardless of whether they represent the best and the brightest candidates.
Think about how many white players would never have made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame if the Major Leagues had been integrated from the start. If some average white players had had to compete with superior black players, they would have retired in obscurity instead of being elevated as among the best. Discrimination results in promoting the mediocre above any level they ever might have achieved on their own.
Three — Protecting:
Outside of school I was not allowed to have a paper route because that was too dangerous for a girl. On my co-op job at the Fall River Herald News, I was not allowed to cover the police blotter because that was too dangerous for a girl. (I didn’t mind but any female student who wanted to be an investigative reporter would have hit yet another invisible brick wall.)
Men, some of whom have the best intentions, block the careers of women who want to do jobs that men think are too hazardous, too intense, or just plain unfeminine. I never wanted to box or to have a combat job in the military but some women do—and they should be able to pursue those careers.
(If you want to know what being a female cop was like in the sixties and seventies, watch Aquarius.)
I once read an article about a group of legislators at a dinner event discussing restrictions on the amount of weight women should be allowed to carry — to protect them from overwork. All the while they ignored the female waitresses in the dining room who were carrying their dinners on trays that were far heavier. Protection “for our own good” is just another way of excluding women from jobs that men want to keep for themselves.
Four — Double Standards:
Here men set up one set of rules, guidelines, privileges, benefits for males and a totally different one for females. At Northeastern University, the Dean of Women (they had such a person back then) told me about a black female engineer who had been forced out of the school because she ran out of money and Financial Aid office wouldn’t give her any support. This, at a school known for engineering.
At the same time I heard boys talking about how Financial Aid was giving them money they hadn’t requested and didn’t need. One used his to buy a motorcycle.
They almost did the same thing to me. Even though wasn’t a STEM student, I had met every criterion the school set for financial aid: GPA, co-op work, extracurricular activities, etc. Still, I faced having to leave school in the last semester of my senior year. Financial Aid refused to help until I broke down and cried, embarrassing the counselor. In five minutes, he gave me nearly all the money I needed in loans and scholarship. But the experience left a scar.
Five — Expecting Less:
Men who don’t think women have what it takes physically, mentally or emotionally, lower their expectations accordingly. That means they hold back opportunities, don’t offer assistance, ignore bullying, refuse standardized tests, or otherwise treat girls and women as if they should settle for something less. It’s the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
The Good Ol’ Boys Club has a lot of members and one of the ways they protect their own is by expecting little of the females around them.
In high school, I took the standardized IQ tests along with everyone else. And I thought they were a load of crap. They would give us 30 minutes to finish a section and I would complete it in 15 or 20. Then I would check my answers and wait for the timer to ring. It struck me that anyone who could get all the answers right in 15 minutes had to be smarter than someone who needed all 30 minutes—but the test didn’t account for that. That made test, therefore, inaccurate and misleading.
I got a very high score, way above average. When the guidance counselor (same guy) called me in to tell me what my score was I told him I didn’t want to know. He seemed quite surprised so I explained why and that I would achieve in life what I was willing to work for. He did know the score, however—and he did nothing.
I was never offered a special class, a fast track, or anything that could pull me along faster than the other kids around me. Perhaps such a thing did not exist—although Somerset had a pretty good and well-funded school system.
Outside Their Experience
Men like Mr. Damore don’t get this because it’s totally outside their privileged experience.
“I wouldn’t let that stop me,” you say. Well, maybe not the first time, or the second. But a lifetime of being marginalized, discouraged, left out, interrupted, criticized and misdirected can take its toll. We’ll never know how many girls have dropped out of STEM degrees or left jobs in Silicon Valley because of this insidious dynamic.
I have no great empathy for Mr. Damore. He’ll be hired quickly by one of the Silicon Valley “bros” who consider him a hero because he “took one for the team,” and “told it the way it is.” He already has a job offer from Julian Assange.
Men can’t see male privilege because it’s the defensive shield that has protected them and smoothed the way all their lives. Women experience a different reality than men do — one that men will never see even though they help to create it. This matters.