This week our chief correspondent Arvind Venkataraman interviewed ex-Googler James Damore to discuss diversity in the tech industry, the issue of gender equality, as well as a few other topics.
Check out the video of the interview on YouTube, as well as the transcript from their discussion.
The full text of Damore’s document can be accessed here.
Arvind: I’m glad that we could chat today and thanks again for taking the call. Just wanted to kind of discuss with you–I’ve got some questions from my end and then also some questions from some of our viewers that wanted to touch base with you.
Just to get the story across, because I just read the full memo a few days ago, and it seemed to be–
Arvind: had some differences between kind of what you wrote and what the media had portrayed–
Arvind: Thought I’d get the full story, but I guess how are things in the Bay Area, and with you in general?
James: They’re ok.
Arvind: that’s good. Really, though, the first question I wanted to ask was what prompted you to write the memo? Because it seemed like it was something that you had observed that was going on. And then I guess the first question is what prompted you to write it, and what do you think went wrong with how it was disseminated?
James: I’ve been at Google for four years, and I saw a lot of problems in our culture, and then I’d been going to a lot of these diversity programs over the last few months and they specifically asked for feedback. And so I wanted to really clarify my thoughts on some of these things. So I wrote this document…and I sent it to them, and they just ignored it–they looked at it, but they ignored it. And then I went to some more programs, I sent it to them, they again looked at it, but just ignored it.
Arvind: So what was the time span from when you wrote it until when it started kind of blowing up?
James: I wrote it at the end of June, beginning of July. And then, after discussing it with some more colleagues, I sent it to some e-mail lists on August 2nd, just to see, like “please, point the holes in my argument.” Because if I’m right, then there are some bad things happening, right? And then it exploded from that e-mail list, actually.
Arvind: Wasn’t it somebody from Google that kind of leaked it out to social media, or– how did that happen? Because it seemed like there were just certain screenshots that initially came out and then it became the whole crapstorm from there.
James: Yeah, so there were these people on Twitter that were complaining about it. So I think that’s how it initially got leaked– people saw that people on Twitter were complaining, and then Gizmodo contacted those people, got their thoughts on things, got a screenshot of the document, and then later Gizmodo got the whole document. So it was likely through those people that it got leaked. No one related to me ever leaked it, because they would have asked.
Arvind: Interesting. The whole crux of the argument comes down to whether there is a discrepancy in tech with your gender, ethnicity, and then how meritocratic is it. So from your experience, how accurate is that assessment of, you know, this perceived inequality with gender and ethnicity? Are there people that are being discriminated, or is it just kind of–is that the distribution of people that are in the space?
James: At least in my experience– and this is true for a lot of the things that I’ve pursued in my–like, I used to play chess a lot, used to play Magic, the Gathering…
Arvind: oh yeah, me too–
James: yeah, like I mean everyone wants the girl to play. There is huge encouragement for girls to play these things. And– same thing, for Computer Science now–there’s a huge amount of encouragement. And there’s just less interest. They don’t find it as compelling as a lot of the men do. While I always–I would spend hours on the computer, just looking up magic sets, and constructing the perfect deck, and also just reading through chess books, for like eight hours a day. And I was obsessed with these things. There’s just– some women just don’t find that…a good use of their time.
Arvind: But on the flip side, are there women that do show that tenacity, and do find their ways in these kinds of software engineering positions, or in leadership positions in tech?
James: yeah, there’s– so, what I was saying was mostly just, like, averages, and it’s just a distribution. So there are some women that do have these proclivities. It’s just that there are fewer of them.
Arvind: Another corollary that I was wondering.. you always see in the TV show, Silicon Valley— or even just all those articles that people write about in the Silicon Valley elevator– just kind of, the “bro-grammers,” per se– just how people have these attitudes in the industry. Is that an accurate characterization? Or again, is that just on average? How does that work? Are people in Silicon Valley toxic towards people of these minorities, or is that kind of a mischaracterization?
James: Yeah, I think it’s largely a mischaracterization. I mean, obviously, once you get a ton of guys together that are nerdy, they’re gonna talk about nerdy stuff. But there’s– at least I saw in Silicon Valley a little bit, like there’s these Nerf-gun fights and– like fraternity house type things, which isn’t really that prevalent. And it’s mostly just nerdy things that happen, and then… again– of course, these people are socially not very cognizant of how to necessarily interact with people. And the women generally are better at socializing. So they can see that difference, and they can feel isolated because of that. Many of these awkward guys don’t even know how to necessarily interact with girls, so that’s some of what some of the women in Silicon Valley are feeling. But I think that’s far from what the media has been portraying it as–you know, this total “bro culture” where women are totally disrespected. And I haven’t really seen that at all.
Arvind: In your memo you compared the different OCEAN personality indicators– openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism– for men and women. You had that one chart where you showed the two overlapping bell curves of traits, and how there was significant overlap. And then you had that other chart that showed two vertical lines, where there is no overlap. Why is it better to look at traits and populations on a spectrum, versus the black-and-white? Do you think that that type of thinking is prevalent in HR and in recruiting? Are people looking at these indicators on a spectrum, or do we tend to boil it down to the black and white?
James: There are many things that cause us to just look at it– or many programs at Google that essentially just reduce it to that– the vertical lines. There are some programs at Google that basically make the same assertions that I do, that women are more cooperative, or that maybe they feel more anxiety, or are more prone to anxiety. And therefore, they have some programs that are only for women, and they specifically address those two aspects. While there are many men who have those same traits, and they don’t get any support at all. So they are the ones who are stereotyping, and I’m really just saying, “OK, there is this distribution– there are some things that we may expect from this distribution, but we should still be treating people as individuals, and maybe there are some men that have these traits, too. So we should support them.”
Arvind: These programs that you mentioned a couple times–could you or just anyone else that’s a googler go to these trainings or these additional programs, or are they limited to where if you’re not in that category, you don’t have access to those?
James: If you’re not in the category, you can’t really get in. It says, “for women.”
Arvind: Wouldn’t it [be a] benefit to have open discussions about those types of topics versus– you know, it’s almost like a reservation type system seems like.
James: Yeah, there’s a lot of aspects at Google where they think that open discussion is actually harmful. I mean, that’s why they were trying to silence my document, right? They thought that this was actually harmful to people. That seeing scientific studies is harmful to people.
Arvind: What is the goal of Google– are we trying to reach 50% male, 50% female, or to have 10% each of 10 different types of ethnicities? What is the ideal of diversity?
James: I think they want exact representation from the population.
Arvind: Oh, so how it’s distributed normally? It kind of reminds me– my family is from India, and one of the reasons why they left India was– and ostensibly why Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai also left– was they have a very strict caste-based quota where there’s certain percentages limited, so if they already took in 10% of this one group, then, sorry, you’re not going to be able to get into the college that you wanted. And while that could be considered “equal”, that also seems like it’s even more discriminatory because it’s limiting those kinds of opportunities. Is that what you saw at Google? I mean obviously not as strictly, but in principle, did that seem similar to what they were trying to reach?
James: Yeah, I mean, it’s a very similar thought process, where they thought that anything that wasn’t representative of the population was bad. Even though, obviously, Googlers aren’t really representative of the population. We’re all “perfect” people who are presumably smarter than normal, and stuff.
Arvind: That’s true. One question that one of our viewers had was– you consider yourself to be a classical liberal, is that right? — and leaning on some issues towards that sense of how prevalent is your viewpoint or a similar viewpoint at Google, and how openly are they able to express it? Or is that type of thinking suppressed?
James: It’s hard to say exact percentages. I think there’s a lot of left-leaning people at Google, but then also— and there aren’t many conservatives at all I don’t think, but there are a decent number of libertarians, or classical liberals– I mean, I’m lumping all those together, right– so they, just because that type is very logical– I don’t know if you know the Myers-Brigg types?
Arvind: Yeah, they’re kind of like the– the ENTJ’s, that’s what mine is.
James: Libertarians are -NT-. They have the highest prevalence of -NT-, which is what is most prevalent in tech, so I think they are over-represented in tech, relative to the population.
Arvind: Did you ever find other cases where the political aspects of Google came through, whether it was in a project or in interaction with a team?
James: I guess one thing that kept coming up for me– I worked on images and videos in “search,” and one aspect that we were just completely blind to is porn– and that is a huge percentage of our queries, actually– like 20% of image searches are porn-seeking, and even more for videos. And it’s something that we’d just completely take out of our analysis. So we don’t optimize for the users that are searching for that, at all. Because we see pornography as some sexist thing– and obviously there are some moral questions about it, but to just completely ignore it is likely not the best thing, when it’s 20% of your queries– and there’s like billions of those a day.
Arvind: And could that benefit the efficiency of image search? I mean, I’m sure that whatever your queries are searching have attributes to the pictures that people might be looking for that you might want to categorize.
Arvind: That’s really interesting. I guess going back to the whole liberalism thing… one goal of libertarians is always smaller government, let corporations/companies take a stance– but then, at what point to companies start resembling governments?
James: yeah, that’s an interesting question that I don’t have a very good answer for, but it is something that people are starting to look at, where Google has become such a monopoly in our information-seeking lives… and so some of the practices that it’s doing are pretty scary, like if it’s going to start censoring results that it doesn’t find politically accurate, or politically it doesn’t agree with, then that’s gonna have huge societal effects.
James: So do you think we should be more careful about how we use Google products, because of this politicization? How would you recommend to me, as a user– am I able to find whatever I want to, openly, from the product, or is that type of thinking something that’s mainly within– I guess, internally versus what’s customer-facing?
Arvind: There have been cases for YouTube, for example, where for right-wing commentators, they’ll de-monetize them and sometimes de-platform them, which also takes them away from the “trending” home screen and stuff. And they do this even for– pretty centrist people, now. Just people that talk about controversial topics. They start getting this de-monetization. So yeah, if you know the exact link to go to, then you can still find it, but you won’t be finding it as easily, through their recommendations.
Arvind: So basically delisting anything that could be considered to be controversial.
James: Yeah, although it’s only controversial on one end of the spectrum. They are generally fine with anything that’s extremely left-leaning, but they’ll censor things that criticize the left in some ways.
Arvind: One thing I found very interesting in your memo was that you talked about how, with natural sciences and social sciences– how– they’re not political in themselves, but they kind of tend to be. Could you explain that a little more of how you see that working? Because that was really interesting and I really just wanted to learn more about it.
James: Yeah, so we all have these biases, and because of your political biases that you’re largely blind to, you may– and there’s a lot of motivated reasoning that goes behind what your scientific beliefs are– so, like: people on the left will deny, you know, any difference between people– and anything that attacks a victim in some ways, or blames a victim. And so, that whole concept of IQ is often just denied by the left– and also, as we’ve seen, any innate sex differences is also denied. Any aspect of evolution, as it applies to people, is often ignored. The whole field of stereotypes and stereotype accuracy is also something that is ignored. But the right also has its areas where it denies things– like evolution, and climate science or climate change, and also even like war crimes– the right is more likely to deny war crimes. So we should be really cognizant of these biases, because– especially since 95% of the social sciences now lean left, they are starting to deny biology in many ways, and just deny stereotype accuracy, and just look for only social reasons why certain groups are currently– there are disparities between groups. So, “oh– all of this must be because of sexism.” And they only look for sexism against women, actually– which is another one of their biases. Because they’ve identified women as victims, so they can’t blame them at all. There’s this whole idea of agency, as it applies to gender. Men are the active agents, and women are the ones that get acted towards. So, when a man fails, it’s his personal fault, but when a woman fails, it’s some external fault. And that goes into a lot of why we’re denying some of these aspects.
Arvind: Uh-huh, it’s like having the categories of victim and not-victim, then you begin to assign morality from there. So what is next for you, are you attempting to take any action against Google, (are you allowed to tell me that ?) (chuckles)
James: Haha, I’m still figuring out things for myself. I’m obviously interested in ideas and stuff and I like that my voice is now being heard at least. I’d like to expand that beyond this one subject. This is just one document I wrote and it wasn’t like my life’s passion, biological sex differences or something. I will be trying somehow to change Google for the better. But especially with some of this political discrimination that we see where there are actual blacklists where people will say, “I won’t hire you, I won’t work with you, I will sabotage your work because of your political views.”
Arvind: And you’re an academic as well, correct? You were a grad student at Harvard, what are some other areas that you study outside of gender discrimination– is psychology something that you research? We’ve talked at some length about psychology. Just curious what, from an academic standpoint, that you’re looking at.
James: Well historically I was looking at a lot of game theory stuff and then evolution as applied to that, and mathematical biology, and yeah psychology is another field that I really like. I’ve dabbled in economics but not too deeply. The general sciences I like but it’s hard to make significant progress in those fields.
Arvind: Yeah I guess with the processes and the bureaucracy of it.. Is there anything that you’d like the world or the internet to know about you, or about your situation, is there anything that you want to convey to our viewers, or people or general?
James: One instructive thing I’ve noticed is how much this illustrates people’s biases. You can look at 2 different sites and see a different story of this [event]. Especially for an event like this where you can see the full text of the document online, you can see that they’re interpreting the exact same issue differently. Its tough to see how much of it is pandering, and how much they believe in what their writing. I think some do actually believe what they’re writing and believe that, no, the science doesn’t show this –as all– and that I’m cherry picking, when there have been hundreds of studies that show this. Yeah I don’t know…
Arvind: Yeah- it’s like writing for clicks versus writing for truth.
James: Yeah the incentives aren’t really there.
Arvind: Do you have any questions for me, those were all the points i want to cover.
James: Well what is your take, what have you noticed from the whole event?
Arvind: Well I initially looked at it from what Gizmodo reported, and I’m active on Twitter so I kinda saw all the tweets go through. A lot of my friends on Facebook tend to lean left, although i’ve got friends on both sides. At first I didn’t really know what to think– you know– is it another bro-grammer doing his thing?– but the more that I read into it, it didn’t seem like a one-sided issue– is there more going on that has not been conveyed? The more that I started reading into it, it became more evident that what Gizmodo, what the mainstream media was conveying was not the whole story. We just started this news site (Nasty Politics) a few weeks ago and we wanted to see the actual story of what was going on. I don’t know if there is a clear cut answer to what diversity is, what the difference is between equality and fairness, and so that was something that I learned a lot from our conversation. It really reminded me of what my parents were complaining about when they left India; people seek opportunity from a meritocratic standpoint but that’s not always the case within organizations.
James: mhmm, I think that most people would agree that equal opportunity is what we should shoot for, but then they disagree whether or not we truly have equal opportunity so they see a disparity in outcome and conservatives are more likely to believe that that the disparity in outcomes is natural and just, while progressives see disparities and think that there’s some injustice being done. It’s hard for them to look at the gender gap and believe that there isn’t some sort of sexism happening.
Arvind: And I don’t know where on average it leans, if there is some natural predispositions, but I’m not gonna deny that there is repression of certain groups– not only in tech, but in employment in general. People boil it down to vertical lines instead of looking at it on a distribution. Speaking of Magic the Gathering, what deck did you play? My favorite deck back in the day was a Black and Blue Counterspell Deck.
James: oh yeah? I like those. I moved around a lot– I had a goblins deck, which I liked.
You could play it aggro, but there were also some combo elements so that against an aggro deck you could be more controlling so it was not a super-mindless aggro deck. I liked that aspect.
Arvind: Did you ever play allies or was that past your time of Magic the Gathering?
James: Oh, allies, hmm–
Arvind: It was back when I was in high school, like 2011 or 2012.
James: That was Zendikar right? I think I wasn’t playing then. I started during Urza’s saga and then played from then.
Arvind: I started in Zendikar and then also got a bunch of Ravnica cards because my neighbor gave me a huge box. Really old cards, but I enjoyed the deck-building aspect of putting cards together, play-testing, then you figure out it sucks and then make the tweaks and swap the cards.
James: Yeah i definitely have spent a lot of my life on Magic….
Arvind: That’s awesome, it’s always good to see a fellow MTG fan. Last question I’ve got for you- outside of software engineering, you mentioned chess, that you’re a MTG player, what are your other hobbies? Do you spend most of your days cranking out projects, do you game? I see you got a bike.
James: Uh-huh, if you see over there there’s a lot of board games.
Arvind: What’s something about James that we can’t learn from the internet and that you want people to know? I’m sure you’re a genuine and nice guy and not the bro-grammer that Gizmodo and others made you out to be-
James: Yeah I have a very strong ethic of not wanting to waste my time so that influences a lot of the things i do. I read a lot of books and feel guilty when i play video games, but somehow Magic, the Gathering feels like it’s intellectually stimulating enough to where it’s not a waste of time.
Arvind: What books are you reading right now?
James: Someone just gave me this book, it’s about like autism and like how autism is just a very extreme form of systematic brain, so manipulating systems– and so Magic is essentially just a large system with a lot of logic, versus empathy and understanding people’s emotions and intentions. That is interesting to me–to understand systems in general and have this framework, kinda like the Meyers-Brigg thing where you have this framework to understand human psychology. I like those types of things.
Arvind: That’s really interesting to think of.. That’s ultimately what computers, what software is trying to do is emulate / measure human interactions, so finding ways to put a circular peg into a square hole– or how do we determine what pegs and holes to measure– that’s fascinating, I will have to check out that book.
James: The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism, that’s what it’s called.
Arvind: Awesome, well I won’t take up any more of your time this morning, I know that you’re a busy guy— Thanks for taking the time to speak with me!