Why autism and gender in IT are just tips of the iceberg
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Why autism and gender in IT are just tips of the iceberg

CAUSES of the disparities in the makeup of the IT industry’s workforce are so much more complex than the perceived differences between men and women.

The outcry and eventual sacking by Google of one of its own staff members have caused worldwide interest and dissection of many of the issues raised. Google engineer James Damore postulated that the reason why Google employed fewer women was that men and women are made differently and that men are better engineers because their brains work differently.

In short, men are better engineers, programmers, scientists, and researchers etc., because they can work more logically and systematically, being undistracted by emotions, empathy and all that right-brain stuff that women seem to be good at.

Positively discriminating in favor of women, according to Damore, is pointless. And if his theories are correct, the eventual outcome would be a lowering of standards of Google’s products.

SEE ALSO: Why businesses should pay attention to Google’s diversity problem

A common conception about programmers, engineers, systems administrators etc. is that they can be, well, a little bit difficult, socially. “He’s not very good with people – prefers his computer”, or words to that effect.

In today’s modern parlance, many workers in the computing industry are felt to be, “on the spectrum” of autism.

“Half of the people in Silicon Valley are on the autism spectrum undiagnosed. Thomas Edison would probably be labeled autistic today. Albert Einstein had no speech until the age of three,” according to Dr Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University and consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior.

“Then there is Steve Jobs. He was a weird loner who brought snakes to school. It shows that a person with autism can grow,” Grandin, who is also autistic, said at a talk held at the Cork Institute of Technology recently.

This impression was originally given credence in 2010 with Simon Baron-Cohen‘s publication of a theory concerning the brain’s possible Empathizing/Sympathizing capabilities (E-S theory). The theory states that people who are good at being systemic are not as good at being emotional or empathetic, and this was a cause of differences in male and female behaviors.


Jobs was a weird loner who brought snakes to school. Source: Reuters/Kimberly White

E-S theory was then extended to postulate that those with extreme systemizing brains presented symptoms of autism, which had been linked to overexposure to testosterone during gestation. There are, empirically, more autistic males than females.

In California’s Silicon Valley (for instance), systemizing parents had children who were often ultra-systemizing, thus explained why autism was ten times more prevalent in Silicon Valley than in the US average at the time.

As it turned out, there were several repudiations of Baron-Cohen’s findings.

The overrepresentation of engineers in Baron-Cohen’s subjects could have created a bias in his original findings, and a further analysis of autism in California in 2010 found that the condition tended to occur in areas where parents were older and educated to a higher level, rather than in IT professionals’ families.

While the autism-prevalence-in-Silicon-Valley theory seems to fit in with what we think we already believe about difficult colleagues with specific IT skills, it is probably time to reject these notions.

What is anomalous, at least to this author’s untrained eye, is that having empathizing tendencies in abundance should somehow prevent an equal or greater amount of systemic tendencies. The idea that there’s a finite amount of capability in the human brain and the brain is somehow skewed one way to the detriment of another, goes against everyday experience.

Can humans not be wonderful empathizers, emotional beings and, at the same time, program in C++, or figure out the material stresses on an I-beam used in bridge construction?

If we believe brains can’t possess both traits, we believe that humans are designed, largely, to be a particular way, as determined by their genes and that environmental change is pointless.

And if we believe that people’s nature is designed by genetic makeup, shouldn’t we all be harking back to theories of eugenics? If women aren’t systemizing because of small genetic differences, perhaps people of a different race are better at one thing or another. That theory doesn’t sit happily in today’s age, we would hope.


Does quoting genetic differences imply a certain intellectual weakness? Source: Shutterstock

No one would want to accuse Google of promoting gender or racial discrimination on the grounds of genetics. But why is Google’s staff largely male and white, or male and Asian? And why is this makeup so common in IT departments the world over?

In Asia, there is a great deal of differences from country to country with regards gender imbalance. At the roots of the issue is material imbalance: the old story of wealth and power equalling education, in turn equalling opportunity. Until the cycles of inequality stop being repeated through generations, not much will change.

The longer we all blame societal imbalances on genetics and avoid the more difficult questions of wealth distribution, access to education, and equality, the longer we’ll all be poorer.

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