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Let us hear no more whining about 'disparate impact'

If women are overrepresented in some , they will be underrepresented in others.

The idea that in a perfect world men and women would be identical in every respect, save those annoyingly persistent physiological differences, is not just wrong but destructively wrong. It has produced many victims, the most notorious in recent months being a young Google engineer called James Damore.

The Economist is a prestigious weekly journal with excellent coverage of politics, national and international, science, even books and arts. It is also highly opinionated. Almost every news article leaves the reader in no doubt about the correct view: Brexit is bad, globalization and free trade are good, sexual equality is good, and discrimination bad.

But outside editorials, opinions are usually muted. Not so with an extraordinary three pages (I thought at first it was a reprint from The Onion) in the August 19, 2017 issue: “The e-mail Larry Page [Alphabet boss] should have written to James Damore”– Damore being the hapless Google engineer who took literally Google’s support for “the right of Googlers to express themselves” in a laborious 10-page internal memorandum. After a month in limbo, the piece went viral. Google CEO Sundar Pichai accused Damore of “advancing harmful gender stereotypes” and fired him.

How about those gender stereotypes! Let’s do an experiment. Imagine 1,000 people, 500 men and 500 women, of employable age, chosen at random from the U.S. population. Next, ask each person (identified by a number) a few questions. From those data, make a list for each person of their top five interests, ranked in order. Group these data into two folders labeled “A” (women) and “B” (men). Now ask a randomly selected group of, say, 20 people, to identify which folder contains the male data and which the female. Is there any doubt that at least 18 or 19 of the 20 would identify the folders correctly? In other words, there are statistical (group) differences between men and women in the current U.S. population.

Are these differences related to biology? Are they cultural? Could they or should they be changed? It doesn’t matter. The fact is, they exist. The populations of males and females in America differ, in many hard-to-specify ways, in their interests and skills. Whether the causes are biological, cultural or a mix of both is absolutely irrelevant.

But these differences do have a consequence: Men and women will not be equally attracted to, or represented in, every profession. And so it is: Only 31% of Google’s staff and only 20% of their tech people are female. There are similar disparities at most other tech companies. On the other hand, more than 90% of nurses, 70% or more of psychology doctoral recipients and between 95 and 56 percent (depending on grade) of school teachers are women. Men and women are equally represented in almost no profession.

Some fraction of these disparities may be due to actual discrimination. But it is unlikely that all are due to discrimination. Since it is very difficult indeed to assign a weight – discrimination vs. gender differences – these statistics should be irrelevant to any discussion of gender unfairness.

These obvious facts were not enough to save Mr. Damore from The Economist’s wrath. The great philosopher David Hume famously wrote “reason is a slave to the passions” – all reason, not just Mr. Damore’s. The Economist's letter accuses Damore of “motivated reasoning” and “profound prejudice” not to mention “missing links” (unspecified) in a “chain of reasoning.” They begin simply by calling Damore names, not by contesting his arguments. The letter equates Damore’s disclaimer that he is not sexist to “I am not a racist” which apparently shows that he in fact is one. (Can this be the “motivated reasoning” of which the letter speaks?)

The Economist seems to be especially upset by Damore’s alleged claim (“At least that’s what you seem to be doing” – since he does not claim it directly) that women are not able to code as well as men. But of course women’s ability or inability is largely irrelevant to the statistical disparities that so distress the The Economist. As is the possible biological origin for some male-female differences. It doesn’t matter. It is women’s interest in coding, as opposed to other occupations, that probably matters most.

The Economist, like Mr. Pichai, is very upset by any aspersions on women’s technical ability. But its other beef is social: Silicon Valley women are excluded from networking; they are harassed; they are barred from the best jobs: “…we know there is sexism! We don’t need to infer it from the existence of gender gaps” the article reads. So why the constant quoting of numerical disparities? Yes, the numbers are irrelevant. So why mention them at all?

Why not just deal with actual discrimination? Well, it’s tough to prove. If most of the people in a business are male, and if men and women are different, then it may well be difficult for some women to hang out with the men. And vice versa in a female-dominated profession like nursing or midwifery. The core problem seems to be that men as a group and women as a group are different.

Take every possible step to make sure that women are treated decently in a male-majority workplace, and vice versa. Be as sure we can that competence is rewarded equally. But don’t use statistical disparities, the poisonous “disparate impact,” as an excuse to rearrange human nature to fit your own “motivated reasoning.” James Damore’s rather earnest, slightly nerdy memo has been called “shocking,” “a tirade” and “a rant,” not to mention “reductive, hurtful and laced with assumption” by The Washington Post, mainly because it offers arguments that are sometimes questionable for something that really is not: Men and women are different.

Get over it: They are!

More from John Staddon, Ph.D.
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