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Debbie-Sterling-GioldieBlox-Engineer

An Open Letter to James Damore

James,

As a female engineer, entrepreneur, CEO and mother who has devoted her life to getting more girls and women into engineering through my company, GoldieBlox, I felt I needed to say something about your manifesto and stand up for what I believe in.

First of all, I want you to know that I read your manifesto in full, and it’s clear you are an intelligent and curious person looking to engage in real, candid conversation about important issues. There’s nothing wrong with that. What you did wrong is propagate gender stereotypes that are overblown, inaccurate and hurtful not only to your former female colleagues at Google, but to a far broader audience than you probably ever imagined.

Now you’re probably wondering, who is this woman and why should I listen to what she has to say? Well, I’ve spent the last 6 years fascinated by the question of how to encourage more girls and women to get into engineering and technology. I’ve obsessed over the question of whether or not there are biological factors at play. I’ve personally interviewed neuroscientists, pediatricians, parents, teachers, female engineers, male engineers, kids, non-profit educators… the list goes on and on. I’ve read every research study I could get my hands on the topic – including some of the research findings you included in your manifesto. You want to engage in real debate about this topic? You’ve met your match.

So let’s start with the research. I’m a huge proponent of leveraging insights from research studies like the ones you cited in order to better understand issues and come up with novel solutions. In fact, when I first started my company, which creates toys and media to get little girls interested in engineering, I found some fascinating studies that suggested girls have strong verbal skills and love reading. Those studies led me to an “aha!” moment that became a foundational principle of GoldieBlox: using storytelling as a way to get more girls interested in STEM.

However, given how well researched you seem to be on the topic, it’s interesting that you neglected to cite or comment on the many studies that run counter to your arguments. Adam Grant did a nice job of summarizing a few of them in this article – showing research evidence in the following critical points:

  1. When it comes to abilities, attitudes, and actions, sex differences are few and small.
  2. In the U.S., boys aren’t better at math than girls.
  3. Where male advantages in math ability exist, they’re heavily influenced by cultural biases.
  4.  There are sex differences in interests, but they’re not biologically determined.

By ignoring those findings, you’re really not fully exploring the issue; rather, exaggerating one side – which, speaking of echo chambers, is an unfair and inaccurate way to discuss a highly sensitive topic.

Another big problem I have with what you wrote was how you wrote it. Even though you said you “value diversity and inclusion, you are not denying sexism exists and you don’t endorse using stereotypes,” the matter-of-fact way that you wrote about your research findings does the exact opposite!

For example, when you talk about “men’s higher drive for status” and how leadership positions “require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life…” can you imagine how offensive that sounds to any woman who wants a leadership position, has already put in years of long stressful hours, yet still can’t break the glass ceiling? I suggest you supplement your biological research with real-world research to get the full picture of what’s going on.

I’m the first to admit I learned the hard way that how you say something really matters. For example, in my TEDx talk linked above, I discussed one of my research findings in a very matter-of-fact way: “Boys like building, girls like reading”. Today, I cringe whenever I watch that part of the video because while there are some interesting studies behind that statement, they are far more nuanced than that. When I said it that way, it frankly isn’t true and propagates a stereotype I would never want my newborn son to hear! The more knowledgeable I’ve become on the topic, the more careful I’ve become with how I communicate my ideas because it matters! Not just to “overly politically correct” people, but all people.

Unfortunately, most of your manifesto reads this way and what makes it worse is that you are a very privileged white male who has no idea what it feels like to go to work at your engineering job every day worried that your colleagues, your boss, potential investors, partners, etc. might be thinking in the backs of their heads that you don’t have what it takes because of your gender. The reason girls and women aren’t going into engineering and technology isn’t biological. It’s because guys like you make it an unwelcome environment.

I’ve been battling guys like you my entire life – whether spoken or unspoken, the prejudices are there. They sting. And they sting even worse when you actually, deep down, wonder if they might be true and start second-guessing yourself.

Well, to any woman who is still reading this, it took me many years to build enough self-esteem to discover those stereotypes that sting are completely untrue. Please don’t let this guy and his manifesto – even for a brief second – make you doubt your abilities, your opportunities or your worth.

And to James, if you’re still reading this, you have a choice to make in these 15 minutes of fame you’ve found yourself in. Do you want to be the guy who defends his manifesto; refuses to acknowledge the pain it caused so many people and the hostile work environment it created? Do you actually want to be the guy who no woman is going to want to work with and no company who values diversity (and this is pretty much all tech companies these days) is going to want to hire?

In your manifesto, you said you “strongly believe in gender and racial diversity and believe we should strive for more.” If that is really true, then I think you have a real opportunity here to step up and apologize to all of the women you offended, (including me). If you just took a moment to get your nose out of your research papers and put your feet in someone else’s shoes, you could really make a name for yourself and redirect the conversation to something far more productive and empowering for all of us.

Source: LinkedIn

  1. An excellent riposte. Well argued and supported. We need to call out sexism and gender stereotyping every time we are able. What a great business you have, too!

  2. Debbie, your response to Mr. Damore is so well stated! If you are ever back in Lincoln, please let me know.

  3. In 2003, when I had my first job interview in US, I’ve applied as a system programmer in C’s, the interviewer, a very bright and smart young lady said to me in a very candid tone of voice “You are not from US, and here in US we respect women and we expect the same behavior from all our employees.” I was offered a position which I refused. And I’m sure Mrs. Sterling you would never understand why I did this.

  4. Thank you for responding to this person. I am a female engineer that has been in industry for over a decade and I still occasionally have to fight down these thoughts that you mention. It’s very frustrating, but I stuck it out because I wanted to be an example for the younger women looking to get into STEM. I’m also really excited to buy your products for my niece! Thanks again for everything you do!

  5. So well stated Debbie! You are moving mountains one step at a time for gender equality, thank you!

  6. I went in search of women talking about this issue today, after listening to (sometimes very loud) men talk all week about how it’s not a big deal and he’s just exercising free speech. Thank you for an intelligent and heartening rebuttle.

  7. I started my software-tech career in 1979. Back then, there were tons of women in programming jobs. In 1981 when I was hired away to Wells Fargo Bank, the group I was hired into ran the point of sale systems. We wrote in assembler, and did things like write assembler programs on paper, and hand compile them to machine code using a table. Then enter the test code into the POS terminal using the keypad and dip switches. I was the only man in the group. My boss, the project manager was a woman, her boss was a woman, and so was the next level executive. This wasn’t particularly remarkable, although I had worked in all male groups.

    Later, I worked in computer integrated manufacturing, (CIM). There were more men than women, but there were plenty of women, and they were very good. As a project manager, I literally never thought about it. Nobody I knew ever suggested women weren’t fit in any way. One woman I hired for a factory automation project (the first large scale integration of its kind in the world) was the fastest programmer, with the best code, of anyone I ever knew. In a later project contracted to Mastercard, they had a system for tracking lines of code (this was an assembler project). I was up there, I don’t remember exactly, but it was in the thousands of lines per month. This tracking system logged that performance from start date to integration test acceptance. This woman stuck in my mind because it was so far off the charts, around 30,000 lines per month. It was so high, they thought there was impossibld and double checked it. No, it wasn’t cut and paste, because they tracked that too. And no, she wasn’t subcontracting to a team in India while working from home. When she was told, she found it hard to believe because she always felt a bit slow. She thought she was a bit above average, but not extraordinary.

    Some time back there, maybe late 80’s it started to change I think. Women didn’t go into it as much. I read recently that Isaacson says girls went from 40% in CS programs at colleges to 17% by the end of the 80’s (IIRC).

    I’ve thought there could be multiple reasons, and I really don’t know exactly why. But one of them is that I wonder if girls growing up with the feminist message, unconsciously absorbed its opposite. Because if they are constantly given the message that they should be as good, the implication is that maybe they really aren’t – a “doth protest too much” backhanded putdown. I have wondered if this generated anxiety about it.

    Another reason may be that the value of the jobs rose, both socially and monetarily, at the same time as demand got met. At the start of the computer age, the demand was so high that most people who wanted to try got a chance. I rarely met anyone with a computer science background, even in CIM. In fact, most didn’t have college degrees and nobody cared. Up until 2000, a degree in computer science was not viewed positively for the most part, and in many cases, the CS grads were just not as good. It was very merit based.. As one manager I worked for said, “I don’t care if you have green feelers. I need the work done.” But that changed. Managers could be more picky. More resumes for each job meant people who were “wobblers” wouldn’t even get called in.

    If you look back in history at instances where women did major work, quite often it was because they were just thrown into it. That’s what happened with Eniac. Two women stayed up late into the night and made it work for the demo in the morning. Perhaps this is also why there aren’t as many women in tech these days. They aren’t tossed over the side to sink or swim anymore, because that work is now higher status and better paid. The history of our species is that women have had to step up and do incredible things, over and over, that require intense logistics up to and including fighting a war while raising children. Kids are a demand that must be met – now – without fail.

    These days I am a biologist. I went back and got a doctorate and changed over. But I’ve stayed connected through friends and once in a while direct contact. Frankly, my assessment of Silicon Valley and the programmer-bro culture is quite negative. It tends to be snotty, arrogant, sexist, and ageist. It is full of itself, and nearly incapable of self-reflection.

    As I said, I’m a biologist. I have a biologist’s view of our species, and there are serious differences. But I know, absolutely, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that this matter of math, technology, programming, etc. is not something that is biologically based in the sexes. Period. Our recent history says it. I lived it. That idea is just flat wrong.

  8. GREAT! Well said and explained. Hope James is wondering if he can now get a job.

    Barbara Kanto

  9. I teach CS. Only 20% of the CS grads are girls, even though girls account for more than half of the students overall. Compared to the supply, Google is already gender balanced.

    James is right. Discrimination is not the reason, and you would do well to side with him to try to understand what is.

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