Just how common are the views on gender espoused in the memo that former Google engineer James Damore was recently fired for distributing on an internal company message board? The flap has women and men in tech — and elsewhere — wondering what their colleagues really think about diversity. Research we’ve conducted shows that while most people don’t share Damore’s views, male engineers are more likely to.
Engineers are taught that “engineering work can and should be disconnected from ‘social’ and ‘political’ concerns because such considerations may bias otherwise ‘pure’ engineering practice,” to quote a 2013 study by Erin A. Cech. This viewpoint — let’s call it engineering purity — means engineers believe they need to protect the purity of their profession from extraneous considerations that threaten engineering’s rationality and rigor. Damore’s memo is an exemplar of this kind of thinking. “De-emphasize empathy,” Damore advises. “Being emotionally unengaged helps us better reason about the facts.” Students are taught engineering purity, Cech found, so their commitment to public welfare declines significantly over the course of their engineering education.
In the nationwide study of engineers cosponsored by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), we found robust levels of both gender and racial bias. To cite just one example, 61% of women engineers reported having to prove themselves repeatedly to get the same level of respect and recognition as their colleagues, as compared with 35% of white men.