Here’s the thing – while the backlash against James Damore’s “Anti-Diversity Manifesto” has been fast and furious this week, I think many weighing in are missing something really important.
Damore’s memo was very long (10 verbose pages) and elicited many strong responses. Most of these were not favorable (other than those from the alt-right, which is very rarely a good thing.) But in addition to it covering a lot of different material, it actually had TWO main points – and one of them is being completely ignored.
The main point garnering the most attention in Damore’s email was his proclamation that “biological differences in the genders” were one of the reasons we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. That‘s the main thing infuriating most people off the bat, which I get. The reality is, those theories have been properly debunked for quite some time now and just don’t hold weight. So I’m not even going to spend time on that here. On the most basic level, his assertions on this are simply inaccurate. Most educated individuals recognize that when it comes to ability in intelligence, skill, or work ethic, there are no real, biological differences between men and women.
But that’s not to say there are no differences between the genders. And this is where things, in my opinion, have started to go awry. In the last few years, somehow the idea of men and women being “equal” became equated with men and women being the “same”. And they’re just not.
There are actually many differences in the way men and women act, react, communicate, motivate, and lead – but these are related to style, not ability. More to the point, these differences are due far more to long-ingrained societal factors than biology. There are both benefits and disadvantages to each of these differences, and part of the work we need to do is to recognize the strengths in leveraging different attributes, rather than trying to make them all conform to one type. Unfortunately, when we get so defensive and caught up in different agendas, it becomes easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.
That’s the sentiment being missed in Damore’s other (more valuable) point. His main objective was to point out that perhaps the current tactics being used to help enhance diversity are actually not the most useful. I think his goal in writing this memo was to try and open up the conversation to other, alternative ideas. Now to me, this part of the discussion is extremely interesting.
The crux of Damore’s thoughts on this is that in our noble attempts to enhance gender and racial diversity, we’ve isolated ourselves in an ‘echo chamber’ and excluded any ideas that may seem contrary to our mainstream views. While I didn’t agree with everything he said on this, there were certainly some compelling parts worthy of further discussion.
But that wasn’t allowed.
Instead, the reaction to the parts of his memo erroneously speaking to the “innate differences” between men and women) completely over-shadowed the other part which simply called for a more open discussion. And the reaction was so aggressive and so defensive and so angry, that he was actually proven right! Damore complained that those with a contrarian view would be publicly shamed and silenced – and in effect, that is exactly what has happened.
The drama of the last few days got me thinking on a bigger philosophical question – are there any viewpoints that are justified in just not being tolerated, period? My take? Yes. Antiquated thoughts about an ideal race or the earth being flat – these seem like appropriate examples. There are certain things we’ve scientifically and yes, morally, moved pass as a society, and revisiting them – giving them any type of weight or credibility – is not a valuable exercise.
But that’s not what happened here. Instead, the fury over this man’s gender comments – however inappropriate – have given people an excuse to dismiss his other ideas about diversity in general, and to me that seems very hypocritical. Diversity is not really about gender or color or ethnicity or age. Those are just the logical starting points. At its core, diversity is about different perspectives and alternative viewpoints. And disagreeing with a person’s viewpoint on one thing, doesn’t render everything they say worthless or irrelevant. When we become so enraged toward one viewpoint that we refuse to engage or tolerate any contrarian part of the conversation – that’s a huge problem.
The benefits – and challenges – around diversity are very real and important topics. In business, there are also big stakes at hand. Limiting the discussion is not the answer. Look at the numbers. For all the passion we’ve poured into this topic in the last few years, very little has actually changed. Damore made a lot of inaccurate assertions, to be sure. But those are relatively easy to point out and correct. There are other pieces of his memo, however – especially those revolving around opening the discussion to alternative ideas – that make a lot of sense. It’s time to expand the conversation.