Does biology explain the sex ratio in tech?

Here’s what bugs me about James Damore’s recent anti-Google screed: it’s a terrible misuse of biology.

The question he addresses is: Why are there so few women in tech and tech leadership? In his memo to Google, Damore offered an explanation (note: I added the numbers):

On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because:

(1) They’re universal across human cultures

(2) They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone

(3) Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males

(4) The underlying traits are highly heritable

(5) They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective

I’ll assume, for the sake of argument, that points (1)-(4) are more or less true.

But here’s the thing: nothing here proves that the sex ratio in tech fields is unavoidable.

So men and women differ biologically, yes. That doesn’t mean that their differences are set in stone or unrelated to the environment. A songbird that lacks a tutor sings a garbled song. Solitary grasshoppers may – or may not – develop into voracious, swarming locusts, depending on their environment. Wrasses provide an especially good example of plasticity in response to the social environment: when a male dies, one of the docile females in his harem undergoes a series of physiological changes to develop into an aggressive male. Many scientists devote their careers to studying these changes. In neuroscience, they even have metaplasticity: the ability for synaptic plasticity to change.

On point (2), just because something is caused by a hormone – even testosterone! – doesn’t make it inflexible. Indeed, hormones often orchestrate phenotypic changes in response to the environment, including the examples above.

What about point (4), heritability? Phenotypic effects of the environment can be passed on across multiple generations in a variety of ways, including epigenetic marks, maternal effects, and learning/culture. Just because something is heritable (4) or observed in multiple populations (1) doesn’t mean it’s necessary.

We know that women have been at a disadvantage in STEM fields in recent history. We also know, thanks to many experiments, that common biases and stereotypes can have real effects on performance. A more rational starting point would be that maybe women can perform equally well as men, or better, but they just haven’t had the environment to express it yet.