The uncomfortable truth at the heart of the Google memo

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Earlier this week, the media, both mainstream and social, erupted in outrage at the leaking of a memo written by an engineer at Google, in which he questioned the diversity measures within the company and dared to point out that some of the reasons women are underrepresented in technology are down to biological and emotional differences between men and women.

Almost without exception, the mainstream media reported it as an “anti-diversity memo” and claimed that James Damore, the author, had argued that women are “biologically unsuited to technology”. Cue outrage from feminists who took great delight in denouncing these views as sexist – and who cheered when he was almost immediately sacked by Google for “perpetuating gender stereotypes”.

Never mind that he absolutely did not suggest that women are biologically unsuited to roles in technology. The outrage train had already left the station and was steaming along the tracks – nobody was going to try to divert or derail it with the truth.

The truth, of course, being that Damore’s memo did nothing more than regurgitate – admittedly not very well – a number of findings from social sciences research conducted over recent years. And raise a number of uncomfortable truths in the process.

In general, women ARE more interested in people, and men are more interested in things. Women ARE more interested in work-life balance, where men are more interested in status. And – though reading this point in his memo initially caused me to take a sharp breath at the baldness of the statement and almost immediately want to reject it – women are more prone to anxiety than men. In fact, when I Googled “are women more prone to anxiety than men?” I was astounded to find that, according to a recent study, women are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety as men.

It is a shame, then, that so many people, on reading this point, have clearly had the same instinctive reaction I did (“Oh God, not another sexist bloke claiming that women are neurotic”) and have immediately denounced his views on the basis of that instinctive reaction.

Because, speaking for myself (though I suspect if they’re honest, many other women may agree with me) – THIS is what every company, and every feminist, who truly cares about getting more women into technology and other high-powered jobs – and more importantly, keeping them there – should be talking about.

Because near-constant anxiety, if I’m completely honest about it, was one of the key reasons I decided a year ago that I needed a complete lifestyle change. And it wasn’t anxiety about my job – or even about any one thing in particular. In fact, the problem was, I couldn’t even identify what it was that was making me anxious – I remember going to my doctor in despair, explaining to her that I was experiencing what could only be described as panic attacks, that I was waking up in the middle of the night with my heart racing, or struggling to get to sleep in the first place due to the feeling of my pulse banging in my ear canals as I lay down, that I could sometimes be sitting completely calmly and suddenly feel my pulse start racing and get a feeling of dizziness that would make me feel I was about to pass out. During one particularly low ebb, when I was particularly sleep-deprived, I found myself on a few occasions spontaneously bursting into tears on the train on my way into, or home from, work – but if you had asked me why I was crying, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you; I just knew I suddenly felt desperately sad.

I was convinced it must be hormonal – but the blood tests all came back normal and the doctor sent me on my way with the usual platitudes about trying to relax, going to bed earlier and avoiding caffeine. I asked about the possibility that the symptoms could be due to pre-menopausal changes – but she dismissed that on the basis that I’m too young to be experiencing such symptoms. Though I’ve since come across a fair number of articles in online journals that suggest some women start seeing hormonal changes as early as their mid 30s, which can cause depression, anxiety, mood swings, and many of the other symptoms I was experiencing.

Colleagues and my manager at work noticed something was up – it would have been hard not to; I was increasingly turning up late for work, struggling to get out of bed in the mornings and often finding even once I did get out of bed, that I felt so dreadful I’d end up going back to bed for 30 minutes after eating breakfast, before I could summon up the energy to get dressed and leave the house.  On some days, after a good night’s sleep, I’d be full of energy and enthusiasm – other days I was irritable and snappy, and colleagues would give me a wide berth.  I was open and honest about the problems sleeping, and everybody was sympathetic and would ask if there was anything in particular that was making me anxious, to which I would always either answer no, or would sometimes admit to having been kept awake thinking about a particular project I was working on at the time, but I never felt comfortable admitting the extent to which anxiety was taking over my life.  The thought of all my male colleagues viewing me as just another neurotic female was always enough for me to try to shrug it off as hopefully just a phase of poor sleeping, which would correct itself once the particular work item I was preoccupied with had been completed.

A friend recently said to me, when I mentioned that I was giving up working in London partly because I could no longer face the commuting – “You’re quite claustrophobic, aren’t you?”

It brought me up short – because I’ve never considered myself to be claustrophobic, but I realised when she said it that actually, yes, I have become so. Twenty years of squeezing myself into crowded train and tube carriages, battling through crowds in busy stations and at busy intersections in London, and the general feeling of never being able to get to where I want to be at the pace at which I want to go, has made me rather claustrophobic.  And that undeniably contributed to the anxiety – when the alarm would go off in the morning, one of my first thoughts was always, “Oh God, I really can’t face the train journey in”.

I suspect the women, particularly those at Google, who objected to Damore’s memo, are primarily those of the younger generation – bright, energetic, with their futures and careers ahead of them, the thought that some arrogant man has seen fit to insinuate that they are neurotic, or that they are less ambitious than their male colleagues, is understandably abhorrent.

But I wonder how many women my age, who have spent 20 years working in a large corporate environment, dealing with a busy daily commute, have found that they don’t wish their jobs to be the centre of their universe and that they really do care more about work-life balance than about promotion and status.

How many of them feel that they never have enough time in the day to do all that they need or wish to do, and have found that for whatever reason, anxiety has started to dominate their lives as they lie awake in bed at night, unable to mentally switch off?

How many of these women would benefit from an open discussion around all of these issues?  And how many of those younger women, equally, would benefit from being made aware that while they may not identify with the points in the memo right now, in 10-20 years’ time they very well may do?

It is true that studies suggest one of the reasons women suffer more greatly from anxiety than men is down to hormonal differences. But I would argue, as have many other people before me, that the primary reason is that women feel under greater pressure than men to have it all – to be all things to all people. It is not sufficient for a woman in her 30s or 40s to simply have a great job – if she is single and childless she is also expected to have a welcoming home, a fabulous social life and a diverse set of interests, as well as ensuring she keeps herself looking good at all times (because how else is she ever going to get – and keep – a man?).  If she is married with children she is expected additionally to be the perfect wife and mother. And regardless of whether married or not, women, far more so than men, tend to find themselves caring for sick or elderly relatives.

I realise this is a massive generalisation – of course there are some men who take on the bulk of childcare duties instead of their wives, or who take a more prominent role in caring for elderly relatives, just as there are some single men who likely feel the same pressure and desire to have an active social life and to pursue interests outside work.

But let’s not shy away from discussing the very real issue of anxiety, particularly among women in the workplace. Damore, in his clumsy way of making a bold statement without considering how it might be interpreted, unwittingly hit on a vital issue that Google, and the whole of society, really should be paying a great deal more attention to. Understanding, and tackling, the reasons why women are so disproportionately likely to suffer from anxiety, could go a long way towards redressing the gender imbalance in the workplace. Far further, in fact, than firing a young man for daring to speak an uncomfortable truth.

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