Google: The Male Female Thing

April 10, 2017

I have fond memories of my high school’s science club. My hunch is that some Google-type companies do too.

I look back and remember the days of Donald Jackson, who with his brother Bernard, published an article in a peer reviewed astronomy journal. Those guys were fixated on the moon. Go figure.

There was a canny lad named Phil Herbst, who shifted to fuzzy science with his interest in anthropology. Misguided. Anthropology. Who cares about that?

There was Steve Connett, who was into electrical engineering and the goodies which that required his parents to provide.

And the others?Males. Every one of them.

I don’t recall any females in the science club. Super smart Hope Davis, one of the females in my advanced physics class, had perfect pitch, a knack for mathematics, and a well founded disdain for the males in the science club.

My experience with her as a lab partner is that she was smarter than most of the fellows who gathered a couple of times a month to discuss explosives, corrosive chemical compounds, circuits which could terminate certain creatures with a zap, and the other nifty things the dozen or so regulars found fascinating.

Why was science club in the rust belt in 1958 a no go zone for really smart people like Hope Davis?

Image result for nerds

My favorite line from the motion picture “Revenge of the Nerds” is, “Nerds.” Poetic.

My answer is that the males in my science club were not exactly hot social items. Although I was the dumbest person in the club, I shared three qualities with the real brainiacs in the group:

  1. Zero awareness of females and their abilities. I was an only child, had zero exposure to females outside of class, and lived within my own weird little world of books and model airplanes
  2. My notion of conversation was my ability to repeat almost anything I read verbatim. (Alas, as I age, that wonderful automatic function does not work as well as it did. But when it was in high gear, absolutely no female in any of my classes wanted to speak with me. Who wanted a fat, nearsighted meatware audio book for a friend?)
  3. I was deeply uncomfortable around anyone not in the odd ball special classes my high school offered for students who seemed to get A grades and did not participate in [a] sports, [b] school governance, [c] social activities like parties and dances, and [d] activities understood by the high school administrators.

I thought of my high school science club when I read “Google Accused of ‘Extreme’ Gender Pay Discrimination by US Labor Department.” I quite like the word “extreme.” Quite charged and suggestive. I learned:

Google has discriminated against its female employees, according to the US Department of Labor (DoL), which said it had evidence of “systemic compensation disparities”.

Making a leap from the particular allegation against Google to a fuzzy swath of California, the real journalists who are struggling with their own demons, states:

The explosive allegation against one of the largest and most powerful companies in Silicon Valley comes at a time when the male-dominated tech industry is facing increased scrutiny over gender discrimination, pay disparities and sexual harassment.

Does the word “extreme” up the ante?

I have never been an employee of Google or any Silicon Valley outfit. I did work for two or three years in  San Mateo, commuting from my home in Harrod’s Creek, Kentucky. The Manhattan-based outfit which paid me to flounder on its behalf seemed to be concerned about generating useful digital products.

Why is my recollection skewed to recall lots of males in technical fields and not so many females? In the early 1970s, I left a PhD program at the University of Illinois to join Halliburton’s nuclear energy unit. I was not surprised to find that the majority of employees in that nuclear unit was male. The nuclear crowd was a Photoshop rubber stamp function of my high school science club. My best friend, Dr. James Terwilliger and I wondered why nuclear energy was the magnet for Rickover loving technology polymaths. Our conclusion: “It” was ” that way.”

Neither Dr. Terwilliger nor I were social gadflies. We preferred those “like us.” Weird but that was life in the 1970s.

I asked my immediate superior, a fellow named James K. Rice (son of the founder of the highly regarded Cyrus Rice Laboratories, about the number of females in the company’s engineering departments. I recall that he told me:

Not too many women stick with engineering, particularly nuclear engineering. If we learn about a female nuclear, electrical, or chemical engineer, we try to hire them. The problem is that other companies compete for these individuals.

The message to me was that the educational programs did not pull lots of females. The women who did graduate from these science, technical, and related fields could have their choice of excellent jobs. Recall that my nuclear work took place in the 1970s.

In the late 1980s, Ziff Communications had a diverse group in its San Mateo offices. The technical folks were males. The senior vice president  of publishing who happened to be a New Yorker , often joked with me about the wizards in Ziff information technology department. This was in the late 1980s.

Since that time, I have been exposed to many high technology outfits, and most of them were quite similar to my high school science club. There has been remarkable consistency in the make up of technical units and in the bemused attitude some folks take when dealing with their idiosyncrasies. Some of these IT professionals could have been clones of the nuclear boffins.

When I set up my own business (Arnold Information Technology), the majority of my clients over the last 40 years have been males. I worked primarily in techno-centric sectors with science club types. At least in my experience over the last half century, females have not been the majority in the companies about which I have first hand information. It was not a question of pay. Females were either not employed or if working at the company, females were in the minority.

Are schools to blame? Sure.

Are the males who join the science club to blame? Sure.

Are their other cultural forces one can blame? Sure.

The problem for outfits like Google is that certain behaviors may be deeply embedded or just consequences of the three sources of blame I just identified.

Net net: It is far easier to talk about changing behaviors than to change behaviors. I am not defending Google or any other company. I am criticizing those who take a “do what we say” approach to what may be behaviors that are [a] difficult for males with a science club background to comprehend quite like a non science club type understands them, [b] reflect different facets of engineering educational practices, and [c] personalities shaped by peers, teachers, and employers.

Google is an easy target to hit with careless tosses of a lawn dart from the fingers of a real journalist. Maybe Google-type companies are science clubs earning money?

Detention hall, expulsion, or public vilification? Worth monitoring.

Stephen E Arnold, April 10, 2017


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