What neuroscience can tell us about the Google diversity memo

Everybody seems to have an opinion about Google’s recent sacking of its malware software engineer James Damore for circulating a memo arguing that women and men are suitable for different roles because they are intrinsically different. The debate so far has centred mainly on the pros and cons of diversity programmes, which partly sparked Damore to construct his document, and whether Google was right to fire Damore.

While there have been some less vocal comments about the biological differences Damore referred to – ranging from finding them “spot on” to “wrong” – his assertions haven’t been challenged much on the actual neuroscience behind his basic assumptions. Is there any truth to the idea that we are all destined by our biology? To understand this, let’s take a look at the most recent advances in the field.

The memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber”, was sent to an internal company network and criticised the company’s diversity initiatives. It quoted psychological studies, Wikipedia entries and media reports to argue its case.

It claimed women are underrepresented in the tech industry because of biological differences, arguing that women have a “stronger interest in people rather than things”, and that they are prone to neuroticism and anxiety. Men, on the other hand, have a higher drive for status, according to the document. While the memo stopped short of actually spelling it out, it certainly implied that these differences are innate, fixed and unchangeable.

But this kind of thinking is changing at every level. Psychology’s go-to list of cognitive differences between males and females has been dismantled, with overwhelming evidence that women and men are more similar than they are different. Many alleged sex differences in skills, aptitudes and personality – including science-based interests – have been shown not to fall into two neat categories,but rather exist on a spectrum.

FMRI scan during…

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