The slights that come with that question

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki has thoughts on Damore’s memo. She starts with her daughter asking her if it’s true that there are biological reasons why there are fewer women in tech and leadership. Thanks, James Damore, for re-planting that seed of doubt in millions of girls and women. Nice job, 28-year-old dude – no doubt you eliminated a lot of competition with your memo.

That question, whether it’s been asked outright, whispered quietly, or simply lingered in the back of someone’s mind, has weighed heavily on me throughout my career in technology. Though I’ve been lucky to work at a company where I’ve received a lot of support—from leaders like Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt, and Jonathan Rosenberg to mentors like Bill Campbell—my experience in the tech industry has shown me just how pervasive that question is.

Time and again, I’ve faced the slights that come with that question. I’ve had my abilities and commitment to my job questioned. I’ve been left out of key industry events and social gatherings. I’ve had meetings with external leaders where they primarily addressed the more junior male colleagues. I’ve had my comments frequently interrupted and my ideas ignored until they were rephrased by men. No matter how often this all happened, it still hurt.

And here’s the thing. That itself is a huge part of the reason there are fewer women in tech. Women don’t feel welcome or respected because of that kind of thing, and many of them just decide it’s not worth it. People do that you know. We all have our lives to live, and yes we’d love to help make things better but we’d also love to be reasonably happy at work, so not all of us are willing to put up with a lifetime of sexist bullshit as the penalty for working in a field full of James Damores.

That’s the first thing we should be looking about when talking about the percentages. Not the last, the first. There’s plenty of time to talk about small differences in averages and whether they exist, but first we should make damn sure there are no stupid spiteful block-headed barriers like the entrenched belief that Women Just Happen To Be Better At Baking Cakes.

So when I saw the memo that circulated last week, I once again felt that pain, and empathized with the pain it must have caused others. I thought about the women at Google who are now facing a very public discussion about their abilities, sparked by one of their own co-workers. I thought about the women throughout the tech field who are already dealing with the implicit biases that haunt our industry (which I’ve written about before), now confronting them explicitly. I thought about how the gender gap persists in tech despite declining in other STEM fields, how hard we’ve been working as an industry to reverse that trend, and how this was yet another discouraging signal to young women who aspire to study computer science. And as my child asked me the question I’d long sought to overcome in my own life, I thought about how tragic it was that this unfounded bias was now being exposed to a new generation.

Yet another discouraging signal – that’s what we object to. I’ve seen men (mostly men) agonizing about free speech, no one should be fired for expressing an opinion, free speech, free speech, free speech – but their “free speech” is our yet another discouraging signal. Discouraging signals do their work, all the more so when they’re pervasive and endlessly repeated and defended by free speech publicists.

Wojcicki gets to that.

Some of those responding to the memo are trying to defend its authorship as an issue of free speech. As a company that has long supported free expression, Google obviously stands by the right that employees have to voice, publish or tweet their opinions. But while people may have a right to express their beliefs in public, that does not mean companies cannot take action when women are subjected to comments that perpetuate negative stereotypes about them based on their gender. Every day, companies take action against employees who make unlawful statements about co-workers, or create hostile work environments.

It is an issue of free speech, as well as other things, but it’s far from a slam dunk free speech violation. Damore’s memo is not a disinterested general opinion on an abstract subject – say, free will, or free trade, or gun control. It’s a highly political “opinion” about the abilities of women in tech, and thus of the small percentage of women who work at Google. The freedom to say women are too stupid to work in tech is not absolute.

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