Debbie Chachra in Nature:
Late in the afternoon of 6 December 1989, a man walked into the École Polytechnique in Montreal, Canada, carrying a hunting rifle, a knife, ammunition and a grudge against women in non-traditional roles — in this case, engineering. He went from class to class, targeting female students. Fourteen women died. It remains the worst mass murder in modern Canadian history. At the time, I was an 18-year-old studying engineering at the University of Toronto. The shooting was a harsh lesson that some men don’t think women belong in science and technology. As I persisted in the field and became a faculty member, I heard this message again and again, albeit expressed less violently.
The latest instance comes in a ten-page memo written by James Damore, a Google employee who has now been fired by the company. He argues that women are biologically less suited for technical roles than men are, and that Google’s diversity efforts are therefore misguided. The flaws in his arguments (mainly cherrypicking and over-extrapolation) have been much discussed, but his biggest lapse was in not questioning his own assumptions and motivations. I have lost patience with arguments from people who think they are saying ‘what everyone is too afraid to say’ without recognizing that they are simply repeating what women like me have heard throughout our lives. When my colleagues and I do outreach to support women in engineering, we start with two arguments. The first cites social justice: women deserve the same opportunity to work and succeed as men do. The second is utilitarian: diverse teams of engineers do better engineering. After all, harnessing science and technology for the benefit of everyone demands an array of perspectives. These alone are solid reasons to reshape educational and professional environments in engineering to make them more welcoming. But there is a third argument that I make for people with scientific and technical backgrounds: if you value rationality and objectivity, you need to engage with gender bias. That’s because bias is part of us: we live in a world steeped in conventional gender roles. To borrow a metaphor from computing, biases have root privileges in our brains.