Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Discussions of diversity and equality are generally very depressing

Somebody at Google circulated an opinion piece on Google's diversity efforts, which was ultimately published by Gizmodo. A public discussion ensued. And as always with what is called "cultural" issues I find the way it goes very depressing. Perhaps surprisingly that is not because of some particularly backwards or intolerant position taken by this or that participant (although that too, see #6 below), but rather because much of what goes on in these kinds of discussions seems so futile.

One of the most fundamental problems is that there is not actually one controversy, there are numerous controversies going on at the same time, and people mix them all up. Just checking out two articles or posts and following their links to perhaps another three, it seems to me as if at least all of this is being discussed at the same time, in no particular order:

1. Whether there are psychological differences between men and women.

2. If such differences exist, to what degree they are genetic/developmental or socially conditioned.

3. Whether there are cognitive differences between men and women to the degree that the average man is objectively better at abstract problem solving and thus more suited for being a software engineer than the average woman.

4. Whether there are cognitive differences between men and women to the degree that the average man is objectively better at abstract problem solving than the average woman, but because software engineering is really a collaborative and thus people-oriented activity, at which women are said to excel, the average woman makes a better software engineer than the average man.

5. Whether different levels of representation of men and women in different fields of work are now largely due to job preferences as opposed to discrimination, meaning that trying to achieve parity in all fields is futile.

6. Whether women are, and I quote, "inferior" in sports. Yeah, I have no idea what that has to do with anything either, but I believe the choice of terminology speaks volumes.

7. Whether Google (and by extension many other companies) now has been captured by "the left" and has adopted "political correctness" to the degree that nobody dares to speak their mind for fear of being shamed, ostracised, and fired.

8. Whether Google was justified in firing the author of the memo for being disruptive and/or violating its code of conduct.

9. Whether circulating this memo to colleagues falls under the Free Speech guarantee of the US constitution.

And I am sure I have missed some. For what it is worth, the way I understand the original memo it was clumsily trying to argue mostly #5 and #7 and potentially #3, or at least it is widely read as arguing the latter.

In light of this it is unsurprising that so little is achieved and that so many people are at each others' throats. Of course there are many other topics where people will have heated discussions, but it is because their opinions differ very strongly (e.g. economic policy, environment, energy), not merely because they are completely talking past each other.

But with these equality / diversity issues I regularly see people go ballistic at each other who seem to pretty much agree on policy goals (e.g. better representation of currently underrepresented groups), general political outlook and acceptance of empirical reality (e.g. differences in mean innate cognitive abilities between groups of humans are negligible compared to variance within those groups) and should consequently be able to hash their differences out in a more rational manner.

One person says "maybe it is mostly job preferences now" but the other hears it as "I want to excuse under-payment and harassment of women"; or one person says "what he wrote could be read as if women don't make good engineers, and that creates a hostile work environment" and the other hears it as "nobody is allowed to have a different opinion than me; burn, heretic!" Makes me despair of political discourse.

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