James Damore conforms to the stereotype. He’s happy to admit he fits the mould of an awkward computer nerd and the moment we meet in a Silicon Valley coffee shop, he knocks a display stand of metal flasks that fall clattering to the floor. The commotion draws curious glances at the 6ft 3in software engineer, but Damore is used to strangers identifying him; he’s the guy who was fired by Google this summer after he argued that men are more psychologically suited to working in technology than women.
No one recognises the woman standing beside him. She is Damore’s girlfriend: a feminist and a data scientist who works in tech.
The couple make a surprising pair, as I discovered when we sat down and talked about some of the issues they usually avoid: the gender pay gap, whether boys are more suited to board games than girls, and the 10-page memo that turned Damore, almost overnight, into a pariah in their industry.
The document he circulated, titled Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber, argued that psychological gender differences could explain why 80% of Google’s engineers, and most of the company’s leaders, are men. In one of the most inflammatory sections, Damore wrote that women, on average, have “higher levels of neuroticism”, something that may “contribute to the lower number of women in high stress jobs”. The purpose of the memo, he said, was to question Google’s approach to improving diversity, and to argue that the company’s leftwing bias silences alternative views.
On 7 August, two days after his memo was leaked, Damore was fired for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes”. “I definitely didn’t think that it would explode like it did,” the 28-year-old says now. “I lost a lot of sleep and didn’t eat much.”
We are in Mountain View, home to Google’s headquarters. Damore’s girlfriend has agreed to meet only after being assured that, like her, I disagree with her boyfriend’s views. She does not want to be identified or directly quoted: she is keen to remain in the shadows. Damore, meanwhile, has appeared to bask in the attention; in the months since he left Google, he has become a commentator on political issues that extend well beyond the tech industry, becoming one of the most polarising figures in Silicon Valley.
At the same time, the experience has prompted some introspection. In the course of several weeks of conversation using Google’s instant messaging service, which Damore prefers to face-to-face communication, he opened up about an autism diagnosis that may in part explain the difficulties he experienced with his memo.
He believes he has a problem understanding how his words will be interpreted by other people. Even now, still out of work and coming to the conclusion he has in effect been “blacklisted” from any major tech company, Damore finds it hard to comprehend how his opinions sparked such intense controversy. “My biggest flaw and strength may be that I see things very differently than normal,” he tells me. “I’m not necessarily the best at predicting what would be controversial.”
Words were never James Damore’s strong suit. As a child growing up in Romeoville, a suburb of Chicago, he took longer than usual to speak in complete sentences. His parents were concerned; it was several years before they discovered that their son’s verbal difficulties were accompanied by some extraordinary talents.
By the age of about 11, Damore was coding adventure games on his TI-83 calculator. He also discovered chess. Within a year he was able to compete in four games of chess simultaneously while wearing a blindfold. He came second in a national chess tournament at 14, and in his teens became the world’s highest-ranking player in Rise of Nations, a computer strategy game.
It wasn’t until his mid-20s, after completing research in computational biology at Princeton and MIT, and starting a PhD at Harvard, that Damore was diagnosed with autism, although he was told he had a milder version of the condition known as “high-functioning autism”.
Psychiatrists, he says, assured him “it didn’t matter”. Yet one incident around that time suggests otherwise. Damore was on a two-day retreat for PhD students, which involved an annual tradition of inviting students to perform skits that lightly poked fun at professors. Damore’s performance included an awkwardly delivered masturbation joke that offended some female students. Two professors later wrote to students apologising for the “uneasiness, embarrassment or offense” he had caused. Damore still finds it hard to see why his skit was objectionable, but accepts he may view it differently, “because I’m on the spectrum”.
I ask if he finds interacting with people difficult. He replies: “It’s hard for me to say what’s ‘difficult’ because I don’t know what the average is.” But he finds small talk tiring and can see behavioural traits in himself that may be linked to the condition, such as “having fewer friends due to maybe social awkwardness”.
It was Damore’s outstanding performance in coding puzzles that attracted Google recruiters. He was offered a summer internship on a salary of more than $100,000 and, in December 2013, dropped out of Harvard to join the tech giant’s army of 25,000 mostly male engineers.
Damore excelled at Google. His performance reviews were excellent, and he was promoted twice in two years. By early 2017, he was a senior engineer at the company, helping lead projects related to Google’s search engine. It is a role that, once stock is taken into account, can come with a salary of as much as $300,000. Then in June, on a work flight to China, Damore opened his laptop and started typing. “Google has several biases and honest discussion about these biases is being silenced by the dominant ideology,” he wrote. “What follows is by no means the complete story, but it’s a perspective that desperately needs to be told.”
The idea that any employee can challenge company orthodoxy is important in Silicon Valley, which eschews the hierarchies that dominate in other parts of corporate America. Nowhere is this more the case than Google, which cultivates open debate on thousands of internal discussion groups and online forums. Google also vigorously promotes a culture of “psychological safety” among its staff, believing it imperative that employees feel empowered to voice ideas without feeling embarrassed or judged.
Company insiders say most employees are savvy enough to know it is unwise to take that mantra too literally. But when the organisers of internal meetings about Google’s policies on diversity and inclusion invited feedback, Damore decided to relay his thoughts.
For some months, he had been harbouring grievances over the way Google was seeking to increase the number of minority and women employees, with mentoring schemes and hiring practices that Damore felt could be tantamount to reverse discrimination.
He had also been doing a lot of personal research about politics. He knew he was a centrist with libertarian inclinations but, he tells me, he “wanted to understand the world and why people seem to have such different perspectives and opinions”.
He had been reading writers such as Jonathan Haidt, the psychologist who argues people’s political beliefs derive not from reason but from their instincts and intuitions, and says more effort should be put into understanding opposing views. Damore also read more about evolutionary perspectives in psychology and anthropology, in books by academics including Steven Pinker and Avi Tuschman.
The Google engineer bought a copy of William Farrell’s controversial 1992 book, The Myth of Male Power, known as the bible of the men’s rights movement. He watched The Red Pill, a documentary released last year in which the presenter Cassie Jaye abandons her attachment to feminism after being persuaded by Farrell and other men’s rights activists.
But it was Jordan Peterson, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, who seems to have been particularly influential. Notorious in Canada for refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns for students who don’t identify as male or female, Peterson has acquired a huge following online by railing against political correctness. Damore watched his YouTube lectures and admired the professor. “He’s very good at articulating his thoughts,” he says. “Which I need to improve at.”
Damore’s memo was a jumble of ideas and proposals for Google, which he argued should “de-emphasize empathy” and be more accepting of conservative viewpoints. The document contained citations that led to Wikipedia entries and opinion articles, as well as several peer-reviewed psychological papers. His principal argument was about gender. He did not argue that men were better at maths or coding than women, as others have done. Instead, he wrote that men and women “on average” have different psychological traits, and these might explain why so few women choose engineering, and why so many men rise to the top of Google.
Women, Damore argued, are generally more interested in “people rather than things” and have “more openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics”. Both of those factors, he said, could account for why women prefer jobs in “social or artistic areas” rather than, say, coding software.
Damore also described women as more agreeable and less assertive than men, which he said results in women “generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading”. Men, on the other hand, care less about work-life balance, he wrote, and are more likely to be motivated by status, driving them toward “higher-paying, less satisfying jobs”. Damore said these differences were “exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective” and played down the idea that they were the result of cultural or social influences.
He seemed at least somewhat aware he was entering a minefield, stressing he was only talking about average psychological differences: “So you can’t say anything about an individual … I hope it’s clear that I’m not saying that diversity is bad, that Google or society is 100% fair, that we shouldn’t try to correct for existing biases, or that minorities have the same experience of those in the majority,” he wrote. “My larger point is that we have an intolerance for ideas and evidence that don’t fit a certain ideology.”
Damore emailed his memo to the organisers of Google’s diversity meetings in early July. When there was no response, he started sending the document to Google’s internal mailing lists and forums, eager for a reaction.
The document spread like wildfire. Some Google employees supported Damore’s ideas, and some defended his right to voice them. But many staff were simply aghast. “You’re a misogynist and a terrible human,” one colleague emailed him. “I will keep hounding you until one of us is fired. Fuck you.”
Leaked posts from Google’s internal message boards show that some of Damore’s most vocal critics were mid-ranking managers. “It has cost me at least two days of productivity and anger, and I am not even the target of its bigoted attacks,” said one manager, declaring he would never work with Damore again. Another said: “I intend to silence these views. They are violently offensive.”
Many women who work elsewhere in tech were appalled by Damore’s memo, written from the heart of an industry that is notoriously male dominated. It came amid a cascade of reports about sexual harassment in Silicon Valley and a class-action lawsuit brought by women employed at Google alleging the company systematically pays women less than men for similar work.
Damore’s girlfriend was overseas on 5 August, the day she received text messages from friends urging her to click on a link to the tech website Gizmodo, where the memo had been leaked under the headline “Here’s The Full 10-Page Anti-Diversity Screed Circulating Internally at Google”.
Damore had not told her about his document, and her initial impression was that it was horrible. But after reading it a few times, and discussing it with him, her position mellowed; she even came to agree with one or two of his points. She maintains Damore was, for the most part, naive and wrong, but in the process of defending him she lost friends. She believes there was no need for Google to fire him; they could just as easily have taken corrective action.
Damore is pursuing legal action against Google and has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. He points out his document was circulating for weeks, but he was only fired after the leak caused a public relations crisis.
Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, told staff that Damore was dismissed because parts of his memo violated the company’s code of conduct. “Our job is to build great products for users that make a difference in their lives,” he said. “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”
What do psychologists make of the memo? Richard Lippa of California State University, whose work the engineer cited, tells me it contained a “reasonably accurate” summary of the research on psychological differences between men and women. “I think there are ways of arguing against James Damore, from political viewpoints, for ideological reasons, and you can criticise the science, too,” he says. “But the immediate response – ‘This is fake science’ – I don’t think that is doing any of us justice.”
Lippa argues there is compelling evidence that women on average tend to be more “people-oriented”, whereas men are more “things-oriented”, a difference he believes could be highly relevant to career decisions.
His research is similar to the “empathising-systemising theory” created by Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University. He argues the female brain is “predominantly hard-wired for empathy”, whereas “the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems”.
These differences, he says, may explain why more men choose professions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Baron-Cohen also proposes people on the autism spectrum have an “extreme male brain”.
However, the methodologies and assumptions underlying these claims have proven highly controversial. Many psychologists would take issue with Damore’s interpretation of personality traits he associates with women, such as “agreeableness” and “neuroticism”.
“Part of the issue is, he’s a software engineer,” says Janet Hyde, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin. “He attached himself to what is actually a relatively small chunk of the psychological research literature and was unduly influenced by it.”
Hyde is the author of a widely cited review of 46 meta-analyses of gender differences, which found that men and women are in fact similar on most, but not all, psychological variables, and concluded overinflated claims of gender differences “carry substantial costs in areas such as the workplace”. She adds: “There’s every reason to think these gender differences in interests are caused by socialisation factors.”
Unfortunately for Damore, even some of the academics cited in his memo take issue with the context in which he used their research. Catherine Hakim, a British sociologist based at the thinktank Civitas, says that while her research on gender preference theory was correctly referenced, she feels his attempt to link career outcomes to psychological sex differences was “nonsense”.
Jüri Allik, an experimental psychologist from Estonia’s University of Tartu, says Damore went too far in making extrapolations from his own study into personality variations across countries; it is risky, he says, to link average personality traits to issues like career choices. Besides, Allik adds, the gender differences in his research were “very, very small”, if not “microscopic”.
Damore also applied arguments in evolutionary psychology to explain why men outnumber women in senior roles at Google. He cited a paper arguing that men place more importance on the physical attractiveness of a potential mate, while women value a potential partner’s earning capacity. Hence, he wrote, men may be motivated to seek higher-paying jobs.
Michael Wiederman, a psychologist at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine who conducted that research, tells me that Damore made a reasoned argument about why men could be more attuned to “climbing the hierarchy”: “The idea for evolutionary psychologists is that this is in our cognitive software.”
But it is not hard to dismantle this line of argument. Cordelia Fine, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, tells me these ideas fall into the common bias of assuming that “whatever we tend to see more often in males is what the job needs”. And while it is true, she says, that women tend to attach more importance to a partner’s resources, there are obvious reasons why. “Given that, not so long ago, women could be legally fired when they got married or became pregnant, it’s hardly surprising that women have historically cared more about a partner’s wealth.” Neither is it clear, Fine says, that any such psychological traits will be “set in stone for the rest of time”.
Despite authoring two acclaimed books on gender, Fine, a leading feminist science writer, feels “torn in many different directions” by Damore. She believes his memo made many dubious assumptions and ignored vast swaths of research that show pervasive discrimination against women. But his summary of the differences between the sexes, she says, was “more accurate and nuanced than what you sometimes find in the popular literature”.
Some of Damore’s ideas, she adds, are “very familiar to me as part of my day-to-day research, and are not seen as especially controversial. So there was something quite extraordinary about someone losing their job for putting forward a view that is part of the scientific debate. And then to be so publicly shamed as well. I felt pretty sorry for him.”
I tell Damore what the psychologists told me about his memo: that there is no agreement among the experts about the extent to which men and women have different psychological profiles; nor is there any consensus about whether any differences can be attributed to nature, nurture or a complex mix of the two. The psychologists do not agree on what, if any, impact these differences might have on career outcomes.
Damore bristles when I accuse him of cherry-picking studies that support his view and ignoring the mountains of evidence that contradict it. “Even if I presented both sides equally, the very fact that I presented the ‘evil’ side would have caused controversy.” He still stands by the empirical claims in his memo, but regrets using the word “neuroticism”, a personality measure often used in psychological research but a term he now realizes has derogatory connotations. The psychologists’ critiques of his memo “have definitely added nuance” to his views, he adds.
If he could go back in time, would he write the memo differently? “Yeah,” he replies. “Probably.”
Damore also seems to question some of the decisions he took in the weeks after he was fired. One of his first moves was to take part in a YouTube interview with Jordan Peterson, the controversial Canadian psychologist who informed much of his thinking. Peterson dominates the conversation in the video, which mostly consists of long monologues from the professor punctuated by nods and short answers from Damore. Peterson urges Damore to take on a public profile to become a spokesperson for the cause. “Stick to your damn guns,” Peterson tells him. “You’re well-spoken, you’re quiet, you’re convincing, you’re rational, you come across as a decent guy.” He adds: “There’s no reason not to let people see who you are.”
Two days later, Damore went to meet Peter Duke, a photographer who had offered him a free “professional shoot” to replace the poor-quality images being used by the media. Duke brought a T-shirt on which Google’s logo had been rearranged to form the word “Goolag”, which Damore put on; he also posed with a cardboard sign Duke gave him, with the slogan “Fired for truth”.
It was only later, Damore says, that he discovered Duke is known as “the Annie Leibovitz of the alt-right” for his sympathetic portraits of far-right activists and conspiracy theorists. Duke circulated the photos on social media under the caption “not all heroes wear capes”, fuelling a cascade of far-right memes and favourable Breitbart stories. Within a matter of days, the Washington Post had anointed Damore “one of the biggest celebrities on the conservative internet”. That reputation was compounded when, taking Peterson’s advice, Damore took part in interviews with several other YouTube stars, variously associated with contrarian, anti-feminist and “alt-right” movements.
Watching these videos, I notice that Damore has a strange habit: when he disagrees with something an interviewer says, he does not interject but instead moves his head silently from side to side. His girlfriend noticed the same thing, and feels Damore’s interviewers were often using him to project their own opinions.
Damore concedes now that he “wasn’t really skilled enough to push back on anything” in some interviews. It’s frustrating, he adds, that he’s now associated with the “alt-right” when he’s “more of a centrist”. He admits he did not look too deeply into Duke’s background when the photos were taken, and asks me not to publish the image of him in a “Goolag” T-shirt with this article. “I can definitely see how it was damaging, but it was a free professional photo shoot and I wasn’t really familiar with politics then,” he says. “I was pretty busy and ignorant.”
Was his interview with the “alt-right” personality Milo Yiannopoulos an error? “It’s hard to say,” he replies. “I don’t really know what the long-term consequences of any of my actions are.”
In September, Damore tweeted: “The KKK is horrible and I don’t support them in any way, but can we admit that their internal title names are cool, e.g. ‘Grand Wizard’?” The tweet was accompanied by an online poll in which Damore invited other users to express their views.
There was an immediate outcry amid headlines such as “Fired Google Memo Guy Also Has Bad Opinions About KKK”. Damore deleted the tweet and acknowledges he badly misjudged how it would be viewed but has not stopped tweeting about controversial issues such as race relations and cultural appropriation. Wary of making another mistake, he now keeps a document of draft tweets that he refines before posting. His girlfriend implores him to show her these drafts, but he does not like to be told what to do and values using his 91,000 followers as a sounding board: “I try to leverage my Twitter following to hear other perspectives and correct me when I’m wrong.”
His tweets are not always provocative; sometimes they are more reflective. Recently, he posted: “Laughter is often used to show that even though a norm was broken, things are OK.” Another declared: “Like a bird, society needs a functional left and right wing. If one is too dominant, our trajectory will be biased and we’ll inevitably fall.”
Like many people in technology, and like technology itself, Damore explains a complex social world through seemingly logical systems, patterns and numbers. It can seem like a rational way of thinking but it can also lead to conclusions that lack subtlety or sophistication. The same cognitive patterns underlie the algorithms that power social media, where complicated issues around gender and psychology are reduced to simple shorthand.
Damore believes technology shaped the way he was judged. “Journalists and commentators were incentivised to distort facts to generate outrage,” he says. Meanwhile, on social media, Damore believes users wanted “to hear certainty, causing the most extreme voices to be the loudest”.
Platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter can be perilous places for anyone wanting to express a view on a sensitive topic. Damore’s experience suggests they may involve particular challenges for some people on the autism spectrum.
He does not once, however, use his autism to excuse his actions. He is fiercely resistant to portraying himself as any kind of victim, and says he never informed Google of his autism diagnosis. “I’m not sure you’re expected to,” he says, “or how I would even do that.”
One in 68 children in the US has autism spectrum disorder, according to federal estimates. And while there are no reliable figures on the prevalence of autism in Silicon Valley, anecdotally, people in the industry say it is common.
Experts are wary of the harmful myth that all people on the spectrum are geniuses, not least when research in the UK indicates only 16% of autistic people are in full-time paid work. But there is no doubt that some autistic people have exceptional abilities and strengths that can attract companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft.
Bryna Siegel, a psychiatrist who runs the not-for-profit Autism Center of Northern California, says she has come across many engineers who have been fired by big tech companies after misunderstanding social cues or unwritten norms in an office.
“Employers need to be accommodating when they hire people who are on the autism spectrum,” she says. That includes, Siegel says, being more forgiving of autistic employees who inadvertently offend people. Company-wide debates of the kind Google encourages, she adds, can be especially difficult for some autistic people to navigate.
One such discussion appears to have contributed to the downfall of another autistic Google engineer who does not want to be identified because, like Damore, he is still looking for work.
He was fired last year in the wake of a dispute with a female colleague and unrelated comments he made at a company-wide gathering themed around LGBT rights.
The engineer queried the use of non-binary pronouns during the meeting and bluntly questioned whether gender is on a spectrum. After complaints from several employees, the engineer was given a disciplinary warning and banned from future gatherings. He alleges his dismissal is explained by Google’s failure to understand how autism causes him to talk or act in ways that others misinterpret. Google declined to comment on his dismissal.
“Fellow employees need to be educated that being on the spectrum means we’ll occasionally step on people’s toes,” the engineer tells me. “Being on the spectrum gives some of us unique experiences that lead us in unusual directions, ideologically. If Google can’t handle that, it needs to depoliticise itself.”
Damore argues that Google’s focus on avoiding “micro-aggressions” is “much harder for someone with autism to follow”. But he stops short of saying autistic employees should be given more leniency if they unintentionally offend people at work. “I wouldn’t necessarily treat someone differently,” he explains. “But it definitely helps to understand where they’re coming from.”
I ask Damore if, looking back over the last few months, he feels that his difficult experience with the memo and social media may be related to being on the spectrum.
“Yeah, there’s definitely been some self-reflection,” he says. “Predicting controversies requires predicting what emotional reaction people will have to something. And that’s not something that I excel at – although I’m working on it.”
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