Google has been the subject of some new controversy recently, resulting in the firing of a software engineer named James Damore. James got into hot water for circulating a 10-page opinion piece around the company last month, in which he criticised their efforts to attract and recruit more female technical staff. At last report, just 20% of Google employees in technical positions were women, with other big tech firms like Facebook and Microsoft reporting a similar statistic.
In his article, James asserted that women are in a minority in such areas because they’re biologically less suited to tech jobs than men, and that therefore attempts to hire a more diverse workforce – both in terms of gender and ethnicty – are to the detriment of the company. In his words this ongoing effort is “as misguided and biased as mandating increases for women’s representation in the homeless, work-related and violent deaths, prisons, and school dropouts.”
He elaborates, explaining that women are more focused on “feelings and aesthetics than ideas” and have a “stronger interest in people than things.” His opinion piece makes a clear distinction between analytical and mathematical skills, and empathic and creative skills – first implying that software development is all about the former, then that men are better wired to think this way, hence should get the best tech jobs.
As a director in the same industry, I feel I have a duty to stand up to this kind of ignorant, sexist thinking wherever I find it – and find it I do. Whilst James does try to provide evidence his assertions, his attempt is far from scientific. He doesn’t really discuss what makes for desirable tech skills and ignores the industry’s long history of gender discrimination, instead proposing that – well, this is just how things are meant to be.
He’s certainly right about the industry being male dominated, but that doesn’t mean it should be nor does it have to stay that way. Having just read the fascinating Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari – which analyses much of human social history – I’m reminded of the arguments made by my colonising ancestors as they put slaves to work, or scoffed at the idea of their wives and sisters getting the vote. When you’re in the position of power, the tendency is to resist change and argue that it’s part of the natural order.
Poor, misguided James is wrong both about women, and about what it takes to succeed as a software professional. This probably explains why he’s now looking for work himself. If anything, his ramblings have the air of one who feels threatened by the winds of change and needs to vent his frustrations.
Over the years I, like everyone else in here have found our industry to be overwhelmingly run and staffed by guys. This was noticeable in my early employment as an industrial designer, but became even more apparent when I stepped into digital experience and service design. The digital and high-tech industry has a long and uncomfortable history of gender discrimination which has made it much harder for women to win the work, and sometimes a pretty unpleasant place when they do. Whilst of course most of my colleagues have been men, I’ve also worked with, for, hired and managed digital designers on many occasions who happen to be women.
In my professional experience, there is no noticeable difference between men and women, be it biological or sociological, that would make one better suited for analytical and mathematical work. Merely a tired, lingering old prejudice which continues to hang around unwanted. The designers, developers and managers I know are every bit as capable as the others around them who happen to be men. Even more likely, as a minority in the industry female designers and developers will be more driven, determined and productive people as they must constantly battle sexism and work harder to be recognised and accepted than the guys.
Uber – a company now as famous for its corruption as it’s financial success – lost its CEO and several other senior figures recently following months of scandals and high-profile court cases. It’s sexual discrimination problem really first came to light when former developer Susan Fowler published a blog article earlier in the year, detailing the sexual harassment she’d faced from her manager and colleagues, and how Uber’s HR department had repeatedly defended that behaviour. Their reasoning echoed James Damore’s – this was just the way things were in tech, and if Susan had a problem, perhaps she wasn’t cut out for the job?
It’s frankly embarrassing that gender discrimination should still be a widespread problem for us in 2017, and this in an industry which prides itself on breaking from tradition and shaping the future. Anyone who suggests women are poorer software developers could use a history lesson, too. Many of it’s early pioneers and key figures over the decades happen to have been women.
Watch the film Hidden Figures to learn about NASA’s mostly black, female teams of mathematicians who’s calculations made it possible to put men into orbit and eventually on the moon, and in particular Dorothy Vaughan, an expert FORTRAN programmer who climbed the ranks there to supervise one of their computing departments.
Also at NASA, Margaret Hamilton, wrote the source code used in both the Apollo missions and Skylab. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year in recognition of her achievements.
I could go on. I believe some people are naturally more capable at mathematical tasks, I just don’t believe they’re all men. Despite the heavy bias in the industry today, much of what we do was shaped by some remarkable women decades ago, and this continues to be the case despite the struggle for acceptance they so often face.
The assertion that software creation is just about analytical, mathematical skills is also woefully behind the times. Any company creating digital experiences with some degree of sophistication today is employing people with a broad range of skills, and recognising more and more that without a grasp of empathy, psychology, artistry and yes, aesthetics, they stand no chance of competing in the market.
As anyone who’s seen the Apprentice or Dragon’s Den TV shows will tell you, having crazy ideas and building new software or hardware is one thing, but unless your ideas stem from insights into people other than yourself, and answers their unmet needs, it’s unlikely you’ve built anything of value. You need to balance not just technical feasibility, but value both to customers and to business in order to successfully innovate. As an industrial designer who was regularly approached by garden-shed entrepreneurs, I’ve had to explain this risk to many people over the years – that the technical aspect is just one aspect of a new business venture, and it means little by itself.
Companies often want that ‘wow factor’ from designers that will help them stand out in the market. However, unless you include customers in the design process and know how to interpret and design creatively for subjective factors like usability, surprise and delight, you’re not to ‘wow’ anyone. Creating software in a bubble simply leads to more mediocre offerings in the App Store. Modern development practice – including that in some departments at Google – is more collaborative and people-centric than ever before, and requires the empathic, artistic skills of researchers and designers in order to deliver products which people really want to use and which companies get a return from.
As an industry we are moving steadily away from the old idea that a cohort of nerdy men coding whatever they believe in is a good investment. Instead, teams comprised of very different people are successfully mixing in the same skills James’ cited as unsuitable for the job, delivering more valuable work in less time than would be possible without.
I’ve worked in places that still place value on a lab full of nerdy men coding, but in reality when a team of conforming people work in isolation, they’re more likely to fail or be overtaken by a competitor, because they didn’t consider their customers well enough. Many times I’ve seen development teams extrapolate their own experiences and assume their customers are just like them, missing the real opportunity to innovate – that which their employers are doubtless hoping for. They needed to empathise with their customers and understand the needs and desires of people different to themselves.
More diverse teams, in background, skills and mindset, are more likely to avoid this pitfall and deliver valuable software because they have a wider range of shared experiences, and can more easily empathise with a wider range of users and needs. For example, a team building an app for booking childcare services would do well to have parents involved who understand what it’s like when the babysitter is late. A group innovating around a new healthcare service will need to anticipate the difference in needs between genders, and this is far more likely to happen with female team members on board.
Researchers and designers in the team will help work out who customers are, and ensure their needs are met by the software being built. However, when team members have more empathy, and have personal experience of the problems to be solved, they’re off to a stronger start and are more likely to get the details right. More and more, it’s the empathic and creative skills from the worlds of research, design and psychology that make the difference.
The hiring of diverse software teams is a very worthwhile pursuit for any company and Google is right to put effort into this. More diverse teams immediately increase your chances of success, raising empathy and understanding of your customers’ needs – people of different genders, different backgrounds and with different skills. Analytical and mathematical work will always be a key ingredient, but today it’s just a part of the puzzle.
It’s the responsibility of those of us in senior positions in tech to recognise the need for diverse skills and teams, stand up to sexism wherever we find it, and always hire the best people for the job, whomever they may be. Hiring people with diverse skills helps us create better quality products and services, and hiring people with diverse experiences – male, female and everything in between – helps us empathise better with our customers.
As an industry we’re gradually leaving the culture of the solitary male nerd behind, and that means ignoring those like James Damore who feel threatened by this change. Our companies are evolving into places where more people want to work, where they’re recognised for their talents, and where we’re successful because we think about people as much as we do technology. We all benefit from this, and must keep working towards that future.
Freelance design consultant with 15 years’ experience in digital interaction /UX design, product /industrial design, service design, research and workshop facilitation, packaging design, graphic design and illustration.
Currently London based and available for work anywhere in the world.
View all posts by Matt Corrall