An Open Letter To James Damore, From A Female Engineer And Founder

 
GoldieBlox founder and CEO, Debbie Sterling

GoldieBlox founder and CEO, Debbie Sterling

I’ve been battling guys like you my entire life...the prejudices are there. They sting. And they sting even worse when you actually, deep down, wonder if they might be true.

 

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 six 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 below, 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.

Words: Debra Sterling, Founder/CEO at GoldieBlox
Images: Courtesy of Debbie Sterling

This piece was originally published on LinkedIn and reprinted with permission.