Better Together

A recent survey indicated that the publishing industry in which I work is 78 percent female. I don’t know what the numbers were when I started out 40 years ago, but in my experience, there were always more women than men.

I worked for a small subsidiary of a major company, the only male in a department of six editors. We all reported to the editorial director, who was a woman.

Back in those days, at least, a lot of men in business had problems working for women, but I can honestly say that I never did. Perhaps it was the fact that I grew up around strong women, most notably my mother, and no one ever questioned their authority.

Other divisions of the corporation also had females in high editorial positions, but rarely did a woman advance very far in other capacities. Sales managers, financial officers, manufacturing managers and senior executives were almost always men, which also seemed to be the case with our competitors.

On balance, that still made publishing more female-friendly than any other industry that I know of. Coming from that background, in fact, it was sometimes quite a shock when I was exposed to a different corporate culture.

Take the toy industry, for example. The first time I went to Toy Fair, in 1985, I expected the toy business to be similar to educational publishing, only friendlier and more lighthearted. It was all about kids and play, right?

Not exactly. The industry was far more serious than I had anticipated, and much more heavily male. Moreover, the males in question were not particularly friendly or playful. I’ll never forget the first time I walked into a showroom in the old “toy building,” where they used to have many of the exhibits. A gentleman asked me what my company did and I told him we were a trade magazine, to which he responded with two words, “Get out.” Nice to meet you as well.

A lot has changed in the toy business since then, and now there are plenty of businesses owned by women, including manufacturers, retailers and rep groups. I can’t find any statistics regarding the percentage of females in the toy industry, but my guess is that it is at least as high as that of men.

There is even an association for women employed in the industry, called Women in Toys. Its stated mission is to “support, promote, educate, and empower women working in the toy, licensing, and entertainment industries.” The fact that there is a need for such an organization tells you that we still have work to do, but we have made significant progress.

The same cannot be said for certain other industries. Among them, ironically, is the technology industry, which is often referred to by its nickname of “Silicon Valley.”

The reason I call it ironic is that the tech industry is widely thought to espouse progressive values, including diversity and gender equality, but its payroll doesn’t look that way. Microsoft is 74 percent male, Google is 69 percent, Apple is 68 percent, Facebook is 65 percent, and Amazon is 61 percent. Among their programmers, the male representation is closer to 80 percent.

That imbalance, along with a lot of bad press around sexual harassment and pay disparity in recent years has caused the industry to take a hard look at its treatment of women. To their credit, tech leaders have tried to address discrimination, but like many others they have found that solutions can become very complicated.

In August, for example, a Google software engineer named James Damore wrote a 10 page memo intended for internal consumption at the company, entitled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” In it, he argued that much of the gender imbalance at the firm was the result of biological differences between men and women, and that company efforts to achieve equal representation were “unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”

The response from the company was rapid and unequivocal. It’s “diversity officer,” Danielle Brown, said that Mr. Damore’s assumptions about gender were incorrect. Google CEO Sundar Pichai fired Damore, writing, “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not okay.”

If you read the memo, however, you will find that it did not really say that. Damore, who previously studied computational biology at Harvard, Princeton, and MIT, was very careful to make clear that he was talking about women’s tendencies, not their abilities. He also stressed that his assertions referred to populations, not individuals, among whom there would be considerable overlap.

On the whole, he claimed, women are more interested in people while men are more interested in things. Men are driven more by a need to achieve status, and are more willing to tolerate stress in order to do so. Women empathize more than men, are less assertive and suffer more from anxiety.

Damore does not oppose narrowing the gender gap in Silicon Valley, but he suggests that there are non-discriminatory ways to address the problem. Functions could be restructured, for example, to take better advantage of women’s strengths.

Reaction to the memo was swift and loud, within the tech industry and throughout the culture. Pundits lined up on one side to praise Google for its rejection of discrimination, and on the other to condemn it for its surrender to political correctness.

I am not a scientist, and am not about to offer you my opinion on the technical merits of James Damore’s argument. Having lived quite a long time, though, I do feel qualified to make the subjective observation that there are differences between men and women (beyond the obvious one about bearing children).

I have never thought it was sexist to recognize those differences. We go wrong when we make value judgments about the differences, determining that some traits are good and others are bad.

I also believe that diversity makes organizations, communities, and nations stronger, because different groups bring different qualities into the mix. I choose to live in a diverse community, not through any sense of moral altruism, but rather because I think it makes for a better place to live.

Likewise, a mix of men and women makes a company stronger, and we bear that in mind whenever we are hiring. It’s not because I’m a feminist, it’s because I’m a capitalist.

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