Biological Essentialism and Scholarly Debate

Jennifer Love, Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Senior Advisor to the Provost on Women Faculty
Sara-Jane Finlay, Associate Vice President, Equity & Inclusion

Recently, Google Engineer James Damore emailed fellow employees a document in which he claimed, amongst other things, that gender gaps in technology fields exist in part because of psychological and biological differences between men and women. The publication of Damore’s document on Gizmodo has led to significant disagreement between people who support the claims in the document and people who disagree with those claims.

We would like to present some commentary about Damore’s document, as well as the ensuing discussions. We would first like to reaffirm UBC’s commitment to equity and diversity, as well as a commitment to maintaining a respectful workplace.[1] A broad definition of diversity includes people from diverse backgrounds, with diverse characteristics, and ideas. We believe that universities flourish with diverse students, staff, faculty, and ideas, and that diversity drives innovation and excellence. Universities should embrace discussion of this issue, in accordance with UBC’s respectful environment statement. In fact, it is timely to have such a discussion at a university, given that universities have become substantially more diverse in the past few decades. At UBC, students come from over 150 different countries; 56% of graduate students and 55% of the undergraduate students on the Vancouver campus are female. This increase in diversity has thus substantially changed the profile of the workforce at universities, as well as the student body, but was not accompanied by similar changes in the working model of the university to meet the needs of modern society. Universities still operate on a ‘breadwinner’ model, in which one adult family member (almost always a man) works long hours and their partner (almost always a woman) stays at home and raises children. Such a model is at odds with how most people in Canada now live and work in the 21st century. This discrepancy brings an additional element of tension to university communities. Google and other companies are also struggling with this tension.

As part of this discussion at UBC, we would like to focus on what we consider to be the most salient parts of Damore’s claims: that women are not choosing careers in technology (as opposed to sexism preventing their inclusion) and that this choice is because of biological or psychological factors, rather than patriarchy. Many of Damore’s supporters point to his citation of peer-reviewed research. While citation of peer-reviewed studies is a necessary part of developing a hypothesis, the citation of peer-reviewed studies does not alone constitute a rigorous, scholarly analysis. A rigorous, scholarly analysis needs to discuss particular results in the context of other studies in the field. This necessarily includes contradictory studies, if they exist. Many studies exist that contradict those reported by Damore. He fails to acknowledge these studies. His analysis would not pass peer-review, as it does not properly substantiate his position. Instead, Damore selects only those studies that back up his perspective. Damore accuses others of confirmation bias, but this is exactly what his document reveals about him. It is useful to conduct meta-analyses of published studies. Many such studies on this topic exist, yet Damore did not include these in his document. Consequently, the document does not constitute a scholarly analysis and thus should not be treated as such. This point obviates much of the supportive commentary for his assessment. Given the lack of scientific rigour in the document, Damore’s premise of women’s lack of suitability for careers in tech cannot be substantiated.

The use (or mis-use) of academic studies to suggest that women (or any group of people) are inherently unsuited to a particular role is deeply flawed. The suggestion of biological or psychological differences has been used throughout history to justify gaps in diverse representation. Indeed, the same types of arguments have been used to justify discrimination against other under-represented groups, including people of colour, members of the LGBTQ community, Indigenous and Aboriginal people, and those with disabilities. In the case of Damore’s document, the focus is mainly on women, which provides the framework for the following discussion.

Women were long seen as unfit for careers outside the home – especially after marriage. Such policies changed in the mid-20th century. Women were told that they were unsuited for careers in medicine, law, and physical sciences and were discouraged from entering university programmes in these and many other fields. The reason they were unsuited was attributed solely to being women; their brains were considered inferior to men’s brains for studying these topics and working in these fields. As the 20th century progressed, and systemic barriers to women’s inclusion in these disciplines began to erode, more women selected to major in these disciplines in universities. Nowadays, women have reached parity in these disciplines in enrolment at universities across Canada and the US (we have not checked in other locations). At UBC, the 2016/2017 enrolment numbers are as follows:[2]

Discipline # female (%) # male (%)
Medicine 584 (52.2%) 535 (47.8%)
Law 275 (48.5%) 292 (51.5%)
Faculty of Science[3] 4132 (52.5%) 3737 (47.5%)

At UBC, the data for these degrees show that women routinely have slightly higher grades than men, including in computer science.[4] Given that the same reasoning is now being applied to women choosing careers in tech fields (the first step being to obtain a degree in a relevant discipline), it is difficult to take this line of reasoning seriously, yet that is what Damore contends.

A number of people at Google stated that Damore’s document created a hostile work environment.  We agree with this position, particularly given the attempt to position the document as a scholarly work and the inclusion of a number of inflammatory comments with no citation (mostly, but not exclusively, in footnotes).  Strong opinions, academic debate and free speech are not antithetical to a respectful environment.  ‘As a university community, we place a paramount value on the free and lawful expression of ideas and viewpoints […] At the same time, we are a community that values respect for all others, even those with whom we disagree fundamentally’.  When some members of our community feel that they are being attacked personally, because of their sex or their gender identity, ‘not for their ideas but for their very identity’, then a respectful environment has been breached and robust debate is silenced.[5]


[1] http://www.hr.ubc.ca/respectful-environment/files/UBC-Statement-on-Respectful-Environment-2014.pdf

[2] http://www.calendar.ubc.ca/Vancouver/index.cfm?page=appendix1

[3] Includes Computer Science

[4] Data obtained for the last ten years from UBC’s Planning and Institutional Research for JD, BSc and Computer Science. No grades are given in the MD degree.

[5] Toope, Stephen. (3 March 2009) President’s Message to the UBC Community on Respectful Debate.  http://president3.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2015/01/Respectful-Debate-2015-Jan.pdf