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An Open Letter to James Damore

James, you’ve touched the third rail that is gender. I’m writing not to add to the abuse pouring down on you, but because I believe that third rail is hurting not just you but all of us. I’m writing an open letter because I know that there are a lot of others who believe what you believe but are remaining silent. I think this stuff is better out in the open.

I’ll admit as a liberal, a woman, and a former Googler who led a 700-person team, I can knowledgeably – and vehemently – disagree with most of what you wrote.

But, I’m also glad you wrote it. Seriously. When you say what you really think, you give others a chance to challenge your thinking. And in return I promise to be open to giving you a chance to change my thinking.

Let’s start with where we agree: “We all have biases which are invisible to us. Thankfully, open and honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow.” Amen!

I also agree that “Google has several biases and honest discussion about these biases is being silenced by the dominant ideology.” I have several conservative friends at Google. While I don’t share their politics, I hate the reality that they often feel invisible and unable to speak their minds. This shouldn’t happen at a global champion of free expression that prides itself on building a reasonable culture where people are expected to disagree and argue fiercely and respectfully. Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai and pretty much every leader I know there is deeply committed to making sure everyone has a voice at Google. But they’ve got a ways to go; I have total confidence openness to diverse views will continue to improve there. Conservative Googlers have both Sundar and you to thank for that.

If you have views but can’t give voice to them you don’t have a sense of psychological safety. Getting fired certainly didn’t contribute to your feeling of psychological safety. I care about psychological safety in general, and your psychological safety in particular. I wish you’d had a boss or a mentor who could have helped you to find a more productive way to express yourself, and to challenge some of your views.

To that end, and in the spirit of Radical Candor, I’d like to explain where I think you mis-stepped, and to offer some ideas for how you can find a way to share your opinions more productively in the future. In general, it’s better to criticize in private, but when an issue is so public an open letter will scale. However, I’m also happy to have a private conversation.

Of course, you probably thought you wrote in the spirit of Radical Candor as well. But Radical Candor gets measured at the other person’s ear, not at your mouth.

When you make an argument that shows no concern for the people you’re talking to, and exhibits little awareness that your argument is more an ensemble of opinion than proven science or fact, others will experience your words as Obnoxious Aggression.  This makes them reluctant to engage in productive conversation with you—you’ve lost credibility and hurt your relationships all in one fell swoop.

In what you wrote, you didn’t quite come out and say that you thought the gender problem in tech is that women are stupider and more neurotic than men.  But you came pretty damn close–“the left tends to deny science concerning biological differences between people (e.g., IQ and sex differences)” and “Women, on average, have more neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).”

When writing about IQ, you alluded one body of research showing men have a higher IQ, but failed to acknowledge the other body of research that shows they don’t. More importantly, the real world suggests IQ doesn’t matter in the way you assert that it does. As EO Wilson wrote, “Isn’t the cutting edge a place only for geniuses? No, fortunately…in most fields most of the time, extreme brightness may be a detriment.”

When you imply that the problem with women in tech is the size of the female brain, you are ignoring both your intellect and your emotional intelligence. I have no doubt you are a rational thinker, and that you are a decent human being, but what you wrote about IQ/neuroticism and their role in the small percentage of female tech leaders was neither smart nor true.

Of course, you are far, far from alone in your assumptions. My own son asserted that boys were smarter than girls when he was six. He now understands that’s not accurate and the dangers of gross generalizations and prejudice. I just hope I’ve educated him with love, not by pressing his hand to the third rail. Perhaps you have some advice for me there?

I would be interested in having a conversation about whether or not it makes sense to mandate unconscious bias training for all promotion committees, and a number of other suggestions you make. BUT I’m not eager to have that conversation with a person who indicated, perhaps without meaning to or even really believing it, that I’m likely to be stupider and more neurotic than he is.

Not being obnoxious doesn’t mean you have to become Ruinously Empathetic, as you indicated in what you wrote. I agree that it’s a terrible mistake to be so concerned for somebody else’s feelings that you can’t point out a problem when you see one. But thinking you must choose between Obnoxious Aggression and Ruinous Empathy is just a false dichotomy. You don’t.

Of course much worse than caring so much we don’t challenge or challenging so hard we forget to care is Manipulative Insincerity, what happens when we neither care nor challenge but fume silently. And all too often the current climate of gender politics pushes both men and women to be manipulatively insincere on the topic. I am guessing that is in part what you were reacting to and why you wrote as you did. In today’s legal climate, it’s hardly surprising that Google fired you for writing what you did; if your words had gone unchallenged many people would have felt the company was not doing enough to prevent a hostile work environment. I’ll confess I wouldn’t want to work as your peer or your employee after what you wrote. However, my offer of coaching does stand if you’d like it. That’s because I believe the laws that have been put in place to protect women from discrimination sometimes make open conversations in which we explore ideas (and get some things wrong) too dangerous. That is a shame and I’d like to find a way forward. And get your thoughts on that as well.

You don’t have to become emotionally unengaged to avoid Ruinous Empathy. When you pretend the emotional factors that govern all of us–even you–don’t exist, you don’t become more rational, you just fall prey to self-deception and become a worse communicator. You don’t need to choose between your mind and your emotions. You can be the master of both. You can care and challenge.

Google’s founders showed how to do that at a company meeting in 2004 when an engineer asked why Google’s executives were spending so much time getting a daycare set up. Why was it such a priority? There were a lot of abstract reasons given, but the best answer was Larry’s. He said, to the best of my memory, “Well, Susan just returned from maternity leave. We love working with her, and if she wants to come back to work, we want to make it as easy as possible for her.” Susan figured out how to make brand advertising work at Google, a multi-billion- dollar business, and she’s now CEO of YouTube. I’d say that explaining the decision through an anecdote was more effective than stats, and that building the daycare center paid off, wouldn’t you?

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Kim Scott

Kim is a co-founder at Candor and author of "Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity". Kim has built her career as a leader at Google and Apple and as an advisor at numerous other Silicon Valley companies. Her goal is to help people love their work and their colleagues (appropriately of course).

This Post Has 30 Comments
  1. How you read the doc wasn’t quite how I read it. Statistical distributions don’t tell you anything about a specific individual, although they do imply likely trends.

    Anyway, you sound like an interesting person – although I’m not the guy you directed this at.

    I would expect that a sustained discussion between you could be fruitful.

    As for IQ spread… It’s perhaps more interesting that men and women score differently in different areas and that men vary more than women… But anyway, to be great in any field, you’re going to be a deviation from the norm.

    1. Thank you. I hope we will have a sustained discussion. I agree that statistical distributions don’t tell you anything about a specific individual. I was trying to make a point that by pretending he wasn’t having emotions, and by ignoring the emotions he was likely to arouse in others by not being more precise with his language, he was making communication and inquiry unnecessarily difficult. In some cases, men may feel they are not supposed to care that much about their own feelings; but they DO have them. I believe that when anyone, male or femaile pretends they are not having emotions, they actually cloud their ability to reason clearly more than they do when they acknowledge the emotions.

  2. I would also say that traditionally, men have not cared that much about the feelings of other men in intellectual conversation… It makes it too hard to be honest. Men are just not supposed to care that much about their own feelings.

    If you view someone not as an equal but rather as a student who has promise, then you might take a more long term teaching approach that focuses on understanding the pre-reqs that lead up to a certain understanding… But even male nurture isn’t usually about acknowledging feelings.

  3. You are wrong, Kim Scott. Google are against free speech. You and Google are commies. Can’ t believe Orvel 1984 is starting

    1. I may be wrong, but I’m definitely not a communist :) Check out my book, The Measurement Problem. I agree we would all do well to re-read Orwell at this point in history. I imagine you and I have different interpretations of what he said but if we could talk without calling each other names we might learn something from one another.

  4. Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai and pretty much every leader I know there is deeply committed to making sure everyone has a voice at Google. But they’ve got a ways to go; I have total confidence openness to diverse views will continue to improve there. Conservative Googlers have both Sundar and you to thank for that.

    Yeah, so much commitment to allowing diverse views that Damore got fired.

    1. I have been trained all my life–since before Google was founded even–that as a manager if I allow a hostile work environment to arise, then not only is my company liable, but I personally am liable. Challenging the hostile work environment laws may make sense. They may do more harm than good. We could have that debate. But it’s not debatable that those laws do exist. It seems to me and to lawyers I’ve talked to that this memo ran afoul of them. That’s why he got fired I think. If somebody who worked for me wrote a public memo like that, I would not want to fire him, but I would feel that I’d be putting my company and myself at risk if I didn’t.

      1. You dodged. When Bill challenged your claim that Pichai is helping conservatives feel more welcome, and you responded that he had to fire Damore because of the law. Your point might be correct, but it dodges Bill’s criticism. It feels insincere to me. I think you should admit your original assertion was hopeful thinking that lacking supporting facts.

        1. I may have dodged Bill’s criticism–though it was not a conscious dodge. Let me try again. My assertion was not hopeful thinking lacking supporting facts. I still have a number of close friends who work there and know of several steps being taken to make sure that the conservative point of view is welcome. However, these are internal initiatives and I am not going to betray confidences by describing them publicly.

  5. Who the hell has given you the right to speak about James,, he is entitled to his views and so are you,, Just kickyourself ass and get going

  6. Both the original letter and this response made my eyes glaze over. Your son is well on his way to a gender studies professorship at a small liberal arts college in the north east.

  7. Your article is very articulate. However, I have doubts that James has any interest in being educated on this topic. Sometimes, as much as we want to project onto others the values that we have, hoping that a good coaching session or talk will “help” them out, there are more self-serving reasons for the choices they made, than we know. I’ve learned to accept that it’s not our job to educate those that do not reach out to us because it disturbs their natural time-line and readiness to listen to new ideas. The world, in the same way they are constantly reacting to Trump, is giving this young man way too much attention and teaching him that the way he can gain infamy is to compile a few badly constructed arguments in intelligent language, make gross claims that his experience can in no way back and be rewarded with offers of help and support because those over simplified concepts appeal to those that benefit from a system in which women are treated as inferior. The Trump era is teaching young people that. When he joined Google, he signed an agreement to abide by their company policies that require him to honour the equality of this fellow colleagues. He has no expertise in biology and has only been coding for 4 years. His actions were deliberately counter to the agreement he made with Google and thus he was appropriately fired. He doesn’t deserve the public debate and attention for his ideology, which he did not properly research and has no basis whatsoever. If we were an enlightened society, we would have compassion for his delusions but ultimately ignore him. I don’t need to read Mein Kampf and debate its manipulative logic in public. Those that believe in it, want to believe in it because they want to retain their VIP seats and public debate just encourages more BS to be broadcast, demoralising amazing talents and confusing children. No thanks.

    1. I believe to my core that if we disagree with someone on something important, we must react with Radical Candor. He said what I think many, many people think. So he did us a favor to put it out in the open. If we react with silence, we retreat to a world of manipulative insincerity. If we react by calling him names and making a bunch of assumptions about who he is or what he wants, we reinforce a world of obnoxious aggression. But if we engage and talk, remembering he’s a person who makes mistakes just like we do, maybe we get somewhere. See my post today :)

  8. Damore is an idiot. He feels “shamed” by Google. He should be “a-shamed” of himself, the sexist pig loser. He lied about his education as well, claiming he has PhD. A-hole! Hope he is banned by tech industry and has to live a troll’s life under a bridge.

    1. I find your response to be obnoxiously aggressive. To disagree effectively, it’s important to remember you’re talking to (or writing at) an actual person and to show common human decency, not just hurl insults. He did not resort to such tactics, and you do not do your cause any good to stoop to them.

  9. I know this is long, but I took the time to read AND respond to your thoughts carefully and hope you give me at least half the same courtesy by reading this response.

    I appreciate your approach in disagreeing with James Damore’s words. While you can bet I’m not a leftist like you are, I like that you consciously made every effort to separate the person from the idea. I worded it like that because I don’t think you fully succeeded, but I give you huge props for the ten-fold improvement in your approach when the standard of comparison is the vitriolic tone possessing the media right now. If this is the approach you took in mentoring your child, I bet you are a not just a “kickass boss,” but also an enviable mother.

    I not only find your mode of expression refreshing, but also agree with your mentality on plenty of things. For instance, I could not agree more with your vision of what Google’s civil discourse environment should look like (fierce, yet respectful). I also appreciate the touch of realism you add when it comes to human fallibility, such that you know that Sundar Pichai definitely needs to improve his efforts to reach our shared vision of how Google’s civil environment ought to operate and that this failure is probably a consequence of inevitable biases.

    On that note, I will disclose my biases further: I’m sure I hate every political movement because I think they all get too many things wrong for me to associate with them. If I were to put a label on myself, I would say I’m closest to a Libertarian, but I wouldn’t be so quick to aspire to that label. Interestingly, a political leanings quiz I took on isidewith seems to support my view of myself politically: http://prntscr.com/g7sjjg

    It’s very hard to pin my biases without embedding an essay about it into what is already becoming an essay of sorts here. So I’ll simplify and hope you can subjectively understand I’m ultimately more nuanced: I care less about Damore’s words than his character and temperament. I think most of his opposition is wildly mischaracterizing his tone and temperament towards women, minorities, and diversity overall. That is the aspect of your opposition to Damore’s ideas that I think you share with the mainstream opposition.

    Like with Damore, I care less about your ideas than about how they are an expression of the idea-holder’s mentality. For instance, it’s more important to me to find out if Damore is a bigot than if his ideas are misguided. I want to focus on your idea that Damore is reducing individuals of groups into their biological predispositions. On a spectrum of social constructionism and biological essentialism, I think you probably fall more into the social constructionist side, which makes you view any shade of biological arguments as contrary to your tenants. That would explain why you, in my opinion, misinterpreted what he said about IQ differences between men and women.

    I 100% agree that men are NOT smarter than women. Literally could not agree more. However, I am certain this is not what Damore meant. In fact, regardless of what he meant, I don’t even think he expressed this in the slightest! All my research indicates the average IQ of men and women is the same, so I’m surprised that there might be even a single study suggesting otherwise! Anyway, despite the average being the same, the distribution of IQs is more spread out in men than in women. This means if you take the cross-sectional area of the IQ distributions at the extremes, the proportion of the area of the population by gender that falls into that cross-section is going to be heavily biased towards men.

    This means if you were to get all people whose IQ is lower than 70 (the threshold for the uncharitable, but technically used term of “retardation”), and divide the number of men who qualify by the number of women who qualify, that ratio would be greater than 1. If you were to gather all people whose IQ falls within the range of 95-105 and divide the number of men who qualify by the number of women who qualify, the ratio would be less than 1. And once you went back to the extremes at 130+, the ratio would again be greater than 1. Hence, somewhere between the average and the extreme, the ratio of men and women who happen to have that IQ score would converge to exactly 1. This means that there are more male “retards” and “geniuses” (I don’t like these terms but these are, or at least used to be, the technical terms) than women, but these effects cancel out to give the same average.

    Damore was trying to express precisely that view. Regardless of your view on the merits of IQ testing as a measure of intelligence, that was what he was talking about. You misrepresented it by saying that he believes women have lower IQs than men. Why did he even mention this complex view at all? Google is a corporation that tries to hire the most qualified people, and the appropriately qualified people for a position at Google need to be incredibly smart. Hence, if IQ testing is even mildly correlated with what you consider to be actual intelligence, the ratio of qualified men to qualified women is going to be greater than 1. So the reason Damore brought this up at all was to explain a possibility of why the percentage of women at Google is lower than the percentage of women in the population. Google effectively has an IQ cutoff at the positive extreme, so the differences in IQ distributions could explain part of the disparity.

    Your misrepresentation of his belief concerning IQ distributions worries me less for the actual misrepresentation itself than the underlying biases of the opposition to Damore (of which you are a part): that anyone who mentions anything biological is denying or severely downplaying the effect of social conditioning upon individuals, and is therefore advocating a kind of biological essentialism present in the most vile of bigots of a bygone era all too recent in our history. Biological differences need not be treated as biological essentialism.

    The reason I take issue with this rising mentality is that it prevents honest discussion because it automatically causes well-intentioned people to assume the worst of other potentially well-intentioned peoples’ beliefs. Damore was arguing precisely that point and extending the logic that this can and often leads to instinctive shaming. I believe this is exactly what we are seeing as the fallout of a memo that shouldn’t have been as controversial as it was had people not interpreted his arguments as a case for biological essentialism.

    I think that you are also a well-intentioned person who fell prey to some form of the kind of bias described in the paragraph above. Given this is how I think you think about how he thinks (whew, that’s a mouthfull!), you probably can now understand why I think you ultimately considered him to be a bigot, which would warrant the kind of tone I think subtly underlies your response. It would also explain why you are willing to mentor him, but not feel comfortable enough to either work alongside him or subject any other woman to work alongside him. That is where I think you ultimately did not separate the idea from the idea-holder as I so respect you for having done everywhere else, though. Hopefully, by outlining the flaw in your belief about what he said, I was able to help you consider the possibility that Damore is at worst misguided (rather than the worst-case scenario fueling the discomfort: that he is a bigot).

    I don’t expect you to change your mind about his arguments, but I hope to have changed your mind about his character.

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. I learned a lot from you. I didn’t intend to judge Damore’s character–but if my article gave the the impression I did, I failed to communicate clearly. I only intended to explain why his communication style failed, and how he might be more successful next time. Nor did I intend to represent (and certainly not to misrepresent :) what he thinks about IQ. I just wanted to explain how it sounded to me and to a lot of others, and why the way he said it made so many people see red rather than listen. Seems like I made some of the same mistakes Damore did in what I wrote…Thank you for pointing it out.

  10. Very nicely put. I was searching for commentary on James Damore’s memo and yours is the most rational I’ve found. You’ve got me intrigued about Radical Candour too. Thanks. If only the people at Google had been as wise as you in dealing with Mr Damore.

  11. This is different outlook to the memo. Very opinionated and well written. Thank you.

    But, I’m also glad you wrote it. Seriously. When you say what you really think, you give others a chance to challenge your thinking. And in return I promise to be open to giving you a chance to change my thinking – I thought the same when I read the memo.

    James Damore’s memo and the aftermath has left many questions unanswered. I have written about the arguments he presented, the history of women in CS and the experience of being a woman in CS. My opinions would seem quiet different from yours though. Do read and leave a comment with your opinion :)

    http://www.onmycanvas.com/2017/08/i-was-one-of-the-few-women-in-computer-science/

  12. I think you’re still giving Damore too much credit. Whatever his character may be, he is not a smart person. The biggest problems with his manifesto are:

    1) It is filled to the brim with pseudo-scientific nonsense. The sexism, while bad, isn’t even its worst aspect, Damore’s underlying general view of human nature as being the causal result of our biology is. (He thinks this makes him a rational and “scientific” thinker. He couldn’t be more wrong.)

    As far as the higher functions of the mind are concerned (i.e. anything that crucially depends on the use of language, such as abstract thought, a key requirement in IT), their material basis — our brains — are the result, not the cause, of the lives we live. Damore argues as if he was unaware that men and women alike perform according to what they have learned. There are no indications in any serious research in any field that humans are robot-like beings entirely or mostly defined by innate talents. (Damore tries to ameliorate this “DNA-is-destiny” view by allowing for probability distributions — SOME women MAY be as good as men in IT, but on average, they must necessarily fall behind. He simply treats the nature vs nurture question as settled, without giving any evidence whatsoever.)

    Damore makes a very common two part argument: First he claims that a) women’s brains are biologically different from men’s (still a very contentious issue among neuroscientists, which, again, Damore treats as settled — it isn’t). Then he goes on to say that therefore b) women are inherently less well suited for IT jobs. However, (b) is not even false but entirely devoid of sense. Even if the accuracy of (a) could be established beyond all reasonable doubt, that would merely establish a picture of a status quo and would not imply (b) in the least.

    In short, Damore uses the same bad logic that has pronounced women to be unfit for all manners of activities for centuries, using the societal results of said pronouncements as proof of their veracity.

    2) The manifesto does not contain a single original thought, conclusion, or recommendation. It is an exact copy of the ideologies and mentalities prevalent in the MRA and “Redpill” movements. It is not a coincidence that the first thing Damore did after having been fired was to give interviews to two of the most prominent exponents of those movements. In the interviews, particularly in the one with Jordan Peterson, Damore barely managed to utter a single cogent sentence, let alone a coherent argument. Yet Peterson lauded him for “obviously being an intelligent young man”. Damore is most certainly not intelligent in any meaningful sense of the word. He is a confused and probably frustrated young man who has been roped in by regressive ideologies pretending to give him a sense of direction in life, a direction he is quite obviously lacking.

    IT people have always tended to lived in bubbles and echo chambers (which makes it twice as ironic that this is precisely what he accuses Google of — if he has learned nothing else, he has definitely learned Redpill rhetoric). Inhabitants of such bubbles are notoriously susceptible to radicalization and indoctrination by cult leaders like Stefan Molyneux and conservative father figures like Jordan Peterson, especially when the latter manage to instill a sense of their own fears and paranoia into their disciples. This seems to be precisely what happened to young James.

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