clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Google engineer’s memo shows the stereotypes that keep women out of STEM

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Google engineer James Damore wrote his now-infamous memo criticizing the company’s diversity programs in response to a big question Silicon Valley is grappling with: Why aren’t there more women in technology and leadership jobs?

His memo inadvertently answered that question — not in his criticism of Google's diversity programs, but by perpetuating the same stereotypes that keep women from choosing careers in science and engineering in the first place.

Damore’s memo claims to be making an evidence-based argument about men and women’s representation in fields like computer engineering, which makes it notable that he ignores literally hundreds of studies that link gender stereotypes and biases to girls' negative views of their own abilities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) — stereotypes that it reinforces. The messaging that girls are not good at math and science has a powerful effect on them starting in middle school, research shows. So does the perception that liberal arts careers are more feminine while STEM careers are more masculine.

These studies suggest it’s not biology holding women back. It’s stereotypes like those Damore advanced in his memo. Attitudes like his are a major reason why so few women engineers work in Silicon Valley — not just due to their direct effect on his co-workers, but because of how they shape girls’ ambitions from an early age.

The problem starts in middle school

It's not really a big mystery why there are so few women in Silicon Valley, or why they are less likely to get degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math.

There has been much research devoted to analyzing whether women and men do have different traits that make men better suited to STEM fields. The most comprehensive study comes from researchers at Cornell, who analyzed evidence in more than 400 such studies.

The Cornell researchers concluded that female and male brains are physically different, but they couldn’t say how these differences translate into specific cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

But even if it were true that boys are born with a natural talent for math, that doesn't explain why girls' math grades and test scores have improved so much over the years. Historically, boys have performed better than girls in math, but in the past few decades the gender gap has narrowed.

Today, girls are doing as well as boys in math. When you combine their math and science grades in high school, girls have been getting better grades than boys for at least 25 years:

American Association of University Women (data: US Department of Education)

The American Association of University Women also analyzed hundreds of studies about men, women, and STEM fields. In their report, they summarize their findings this way:

The striking disparity between the numbers of men and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics has often been considered as evidence of biologically driven gender differences in abilities and interests. The classical formulation of this idea is that men “naturally” excel in mathematically demanding disciplines, whereas women “naturally” excel in fields using language skills. Recent gains in girls’ mathematical achievement, however, demonstrate the importance of culture and learning environments in the cultivation of abilities and interests.

Boys still do better on important math tests, such as the SATs, the ACTs, and AP exams. But over the years, the gap has been growing smaller. Thirty years ago, there were 13 boys for every girl who scored above 700 on the SAT math exam at age 13, according to the AAUW report. That ratio has shrunk to about 3 to 1.

That girls' math scores have improved dramatically over the past few decades suggests that some factor, other than their natural abilities, is responsible for historic gaps in their performance.

Social science researchers believe it has a lot to do with negative messages they hear about girls being bad at math, and that girls are expected to pursue people-oriented careers. This also helps explain why so few women are opting to major in STEM subjects in college, even though they are academically prepared for them.

Stereotypes and biases are powerful

One common argument is that women just aren't interested in math and science. And there's truth to that. Surveys show that girls in high school are much less interested in pursuing STEM degrees than boys. A 2012 poll by the American Society for Quality found that only 19 percent of girls in middle and high school believed engineering offered the most job opportunities for them, compared to 33 percent of boys.

But why is that? Over the years, researchers have shown the power of what is now called the "stereotype threat." It's the influence that gender stereotypes play in a girl's performance and interest in certain subjects.

More than 300 studies have shown that girls who are told that boys are better at math end up scoring worse on math tests than girls who aren't told that. A researcher from Stanford found evidence that such stereotypes could account for girls' scoring, on average, nearly 20 points lower in the math portion of the SATs than they would otherwise.

While 20 points may seem small, in 2016, boys scored an average of 30 points higher than girls in the math portion of the test. So removing the stereotype threat could eliminate a huge portion of the gender gap. The perception that girls are not good at math may lead many girls to decide they aren't interested in it.

Social science researchers argue that implicit biases may also play a role in a girl's decision not to pursue a career in science or engineering. The most powerful bias is the one that associates women with liberal arts degrees and men with science degrees.

Mahzarin Banaji, a social ethics professor at Harvard, helped develop the implicit association test, which asks participants to answer whether they associate certain words as female or male. Since 1998, more than half a million people from around the world have taken the "gender science" test, and more than 70 percent of test takers more readily associated “male” with science and “female” with arts, rather than the other way around.

Researchers believe this reflects a subconscious bias that people may not realize they hold, and could affect all their interactions with women and girls.

Getting more women into STEM careers is about more than just increasing workplace diversity. It's a matter of financial security and upward mobility for women. Workers in science and engineering fields are better paid and have more job security than most other workers in the United States.

It's also where the jobs are. The US Department of Labor expects STEM jobs to grow faster than all other occupations between 2012 and 2022.

The shortage of women in these jobs doesn’t start with hiring practices in Silicon Valley. It begins much earlier, when young women are making decisions about what to study. And the research suggests that stereotypes about women’s talents and abilities in science, technology, engineering, and math also start affecting them long before they would ever consider a career at Google.