Did you know James Damore is on the autism spectrum? I was unaware of this fact until yesterday, when I listened to the first three episodes of Wrongspeak, a new podcast from Quillette. Quillette, for those of you who don't spend all your time lobbing tweets in the culture wars, is, in its own words, "a platform for free thought." Or, more practically, it's a website, one that publishes essays that might not get published anywhere else. Most of the contributors are academics but the site reads more like a well researched opinion section than an academic journal. Founded by Claire Lehmann, a former academic in Australia, Quillette is not afraid to publish controversial ideas, at least if they are grounded in science, and the site got a boost in attention last year after publishing responses from four different scientists to Damore's infamous Google memo on the gender disparity in tech. "The author of the Google essay on issues related to diversity gets nearly all of the science and its implications exactly right,” one of the scientists began. Soon after, the site was subjected to a DDoS attack.
Quillette survived the attack, and since then, has become a preeminent space for heterodox thought, winning praise from both Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins. Of course, it also has its detractors. On Wednesday, Vox's Matthew Yglesias tweeted about the site, which gets 3 million views a month: "Patreon-funded conventional wisdom repackaged as bold contrarian thinking is really 2018’s greatest hustle." I and others pointed out that Vox is funded by billionaires and ad sales, which doesn't seem all that superior to taking small donations, but Yglesias, like much of Media Twitter, is not a fan.
Quillete is not partisan, but I doubt the podcast will earn the site many new fans from the left. The show is hosted by Debra Soh, a writer and former sex researcher with a PhD in neuroscience, and Jonathan Kay, a Canadian journalist who has also worked as both an engineer and a lawyer. In the first episode, “James Damore's Inconvenient Brain,” they interview Damore himself, and despite the narrative pushed by much of the media that Damore is a conservative misogynist who thinks that women aren't equipped to work in tech, he comes across as something else entirely: a slightly dweeby but well-meaning dude who (perhaps due to his autism) couldn't fully grasp the implications of voicing his thoughts, even when his thoughts were actually invited. And invited, they were: Contrary to the widely spread narrative that Damore randomly emailed all his colleagues at Google to tell them what he thinks about gender, the memo was written in response to a “Diversity and Inclusion Summit" Damore had attended at Google. The company asked for feedback; that's what the memo was. Still, as the story went viral and people read about the memo rather than the memo itself, Damore morphed into a woman-hater, a misogynist, and he was compared to mass murderers Elliot Rodger and Marc Lépine. Then, of course, he was fired.
As for the science behind Damore's memo, the podcast delves into that thorny territory as well. And Damore, they conclude, got it right. Soh wrote about this last year in the Globe and Mail, explaining: "gendered interests are predicted by exposure to prenatal testosterone—higher levels are associated with a preference for mechanically interesting things and occupations in adulthood. Lower levels are associated with a preference for people-oriented activities and occupations. This is why STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields tend to be dominated by men." This idea is supported by studies of girls with a genetic condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which causes exposure to high levels of testosterone in the womb. Girls with this condition, according to Soh, "prefer male-typical, wheeled toys, such as trucks, even if their parents offer more positive feedback when they play with female-typical toys, such as dolls. Similarly, men who are interested in female-typical activities were likely exposed to lower levels of testosterone."
This, of course, is sticky terrain. But should it be? Damore wasn't arguing that women can't succeed in tech; he was arguing that they are more drawn to people than to things, and that, more than discrimination, is why there are more men in tech and more women in human-centered fields, like, say... social work or even writing. According to the Boston Globe, women make up nearly 63 percent of writers. This largely squares with my own experience working in media for the past eight years, and even in newsrooms with more men than women; the males, generally speaking, aren't exactly what you'd call "masc." (The butchest man at this publication is Dan Savage, and I'm barely even kidding.)
Now, biological differences between men and women doesn't mean that inequality doesn't exist. It clearly does, from the White House to our own homes, where women still do the bulk of household chores and child-rearing. I don't think there's anything genetic keeping men from doing their share of the laundry (and if there was, biology is no excuse to sit on the couch while your wife vacuums around your feet). But, the point is, by looking at the science behind certain phenomenon, we can actually help make the world more equal, not less.
Take the wage gap: In the U.S., raw wage gap data from the Bureau of Labor shows that women's lifetime earnings are roughly 74 percent to 77 percent of men's lifetime earnings. There are many reasons for this, including childbirth, a financial cost many women never recover from, but it's also true that jobs historically thought of as "women's work" just don't pay as well as jobs traditionally held by men. I first realized this in the '90s, when a group of Russians came to my school one afternoon to speak. They said two things that I've never forgotten: One, Levi's, at the time, were as good as gold in Russia; and, two, doctors over there were working class. Both were shocking facts. Doctors were the top of American society, both in terms of prestige and in terms of pay (this, clearly, was before the Internet age). How could the same not be true everywhere? As they explained, in the former USSR and Russia, most doctors were women, and so, medicine just wasn't a highly valued career. An Associated Press article from that era backs this up: "About 70 to 75 percent of all Russian doctors are women and medical practice is stereotyped as a 'caring' vocation 'naturally suited' to women," it reads. "Soviet men shun medical school despite the fact that medical school entrance standards are deliberately lower from men than women in order to lure more males into medicine."
There are parallels in the U.S. as well: Researchers looked at census data in the U.S. from 1950 to 2000 and found that when women enter a field, salaries drop, including for men. It's a damning statistic, but one we can learn something from: Instead of refusing to acknowledge that there may be some inherent differences between males and females and what we are interested in, if we accept that these differences exist, we can try to adjust things like compensation accordingly. So, instead of trying to close the wage gap by directing women into tech, as many STEM programs are currently doing, perhaps we should start to value "women's work" as much as we do men's, and start to pay teachers and writers and social workers and health care providers what they actually deserve.
These are the sorts of issues you hear about Wrongspeak. The second episode is about Lindsay Shepherd, a post-graduate student at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada who became a free speech advocate after being censored on campus. The third episode broaches an even more controversial subject: trans kids and how best to treat them. This is an issue Soh has experience with first hand: She was a dysphoric kid herself, albeit one who did not grow up to be trans. And this, contrary to the current recommendations that parents affirm their childrens' transgender identity and support a social transition, is true of most gender dysphoric kids. As Soh wrote in the LA Times last year, "Currently available research literature—including four studies published in the last nine years—suggests that 61% to 88% of gender dysphoric children will desist and grow up to be gay adults." (Some, but not all, trans activists and their allies dispute the research, but most sex researchers agree that a majority of dysphoric kids desist, as I wrote in my own piece about the subject last year. The data aligns with my own lived experience as well: As a kid, I dressed like a boy, peed standing up, and was truly devastated to hit puberty because menstruation made it impossible to deny that I wasn't going to wake up one day with a dick. Today, I would likely be diagnosed with gender dysphoria, but, like the majority of dysphoric kids, my unease with my natal sex dissipated as I got older. When I started dating women, it disappeared.)
Wrongspeak is going to make people mad. Thus is life circa 2018, when acknowledging biological differences in the sexes in some circles is treated as hate speech and citing research on rates of transgender desistance is enough to get you labeled a bigot. These topics are nothing if not loaded. But they are also interesting and important and aren't so dangerous that they shouldn't be discussed. In fact, I would argue that the opposite is true: By sticking our fingers in our ears and refusing to engage with difficult topics, we're ultimately causing more harm than good. So, I'm thrilled that Quillette has the balls and the ovaries to take on these subjects. I suspect that pushback is coming, but I, at least, will be listening.