He was fired from Google for arguing that men may be more suited to working in tech than women. Now James Damore opens up about his regrets and how autism may have shaped his experience of the world
James Damore conforms to the stereotype. Hes happy to admit he fits the mould of an awkward computer nerd and the moment we meet in a Silicon Valley coffee shop, he knocks a display stand of metal flasks that fall clattering to the floor. The commotion draws curious glances at the 6ft 3in software engineer, but Damore is used to strangers identifying him; hes the guy who was fired by Google this summer after he argued that men are more psychologically suited to working in technology than women.
No one recognises the woman standing beside him. She is Damores girlfriend: a feminist and a data scientist who works in tech.
The couple make a surprising pair, as I discovered when we sat down and talked about some of the issues they usually avoid: the gender pay gap, whether boys are more suited to board games than girls, and the 10-page memo that turned Damore, almost overnight, into a pariah in their industry.
The document he circulated, titled Googles Ideological Echo Chamber, argued that psychological gender differences could explain why 80% of Googles engineers, and most of the companys leaders, are men. In one of the most inflammatory sections, Damore wrote that women, on average, have higher levels of neuroticism, something that may contribute to the lower number of women in high stress jobs. The purpose of the memo, he said, was to question Googles approach to improving diversity, and to argue that the companys leftwing bias silences alternative views.
On 7 August, two days after his memo was leaked, Damore was fired for advancing harmful gender stereotypes. I definitely didnt think that it would explode like it did, the 28-year-old says now. I lost a lot of sleep and didnt eat much.
We are in Mountain View, home to Googles headquarters. Damores girlfriend has agreed to meet only after being assured that, like her, I disagree with her boyfriends views. She does not want to be identified or directly quoted: she is keen to remain in the shadows. Damore, meanwhile, has appeared to bask in the attention; in the months since he left Google, he has become a commentator on political issues that extend well beyond the tech industry, becoming one of the most polarising figures in Silicon Valley.
At the same time, the experience has prompted some introspection. In the course of several weeks of conversation using Googles instant messaging service, which Damore prefers to face-to-face communication, he opened up about an autism diagnosis that may in part explain the difficulties he experienced with his memo.
He believes he has a problem understanding how his words will be interpreted by other people. Even now, still out of work and coming to the conclusion he has in effect been blacklisted from any major tech company, Damore finds it hard to comprehend how his opinions sparked such intense controversy. My biggest flaw and strength may be that I see things very differently than normal, he tells me. Im not necessarily the best at predicting what would be controversial.
Words were never James Damores strong suit. As a child growing up in Romeoville, a suburb of Chicago, he took longer than usual to speak in complete sentences. His parents were concerned; it was several years before they discovered that their sons verbal difficulties were accompanied by some extraordinary talents.
By the age of about 11, Damore was coding adventure games on his TI-83 calculator. He also discovered chess. Within a year he was able to compete in four games of chess simultaneously while wearing a blindfold. He came second in a national chess tournament at 14, and in his teens became the worlds highest-ranking player in Rise of Nations, a computer strategy game.
It wasnt until his mid-20s, after completing research in computational biology at Princeton and MIT, and starting a PhD at Harvard, that Damore was diagnosed with autism, although he was told he had a milder version of the condition known as high-functioning autism.
Psychiatrists, he says, assured him it didnt matter. Yet one incident around that time suggests otherwise. Damore was on a two-day retreat for PhD students, which involved an annual tradition of inviting students to perform skits that lightly poked fun at professors. Damores performance included an awkwardly delivered masturbation joke that offended some female students. Two professors later wrote to students apologising for the uneasiness, embarrassment or offense he had caused. Damore still finds it hard to see why his skit was objectionable, but accepts he may view it differently, because Im on the spectrum.
I ask if he finds interacting with people difficult. He replies: Its hard for me to say whats difficult because I dont know what the average is. But he finds small talk tiring and can see behavioural traits in himself that may be linked to the condition, such as having fewer friends due to maybe social awkwardness.
It was Damores outstanding performance in coding puzzles that attracted Google recruiters. He was offered a summer internship on a salary of more than $100,000 and, in December 2013, dropped out of Harvard to join the tech giants army of 25,000 mostly male engineers.
Damore excelled at Google. His performance reviews were excellent, and he was promoted twice in two years. By early 2017, he was a senior engineer at the company, helping lead projects related to Googles search engine. It is a role that, once stock is taken into account, can come with a salary of as much as $300,000. Then in June, on a work flight to China, Damore opened his laptop and started typing. Google has several biases and honest discussion about these biases is being silenced by the dominant ideology, he wrote. What follows is by no means the complete story, but its a perspective that desperately needs to be told.
The idea that any employee can challenge company orthodoxy is important in Silicon Valley, which eschews the hierarchies that dominate in other parts of corporate America. Nowhere is this more the case than Google, which cultivates open debate on thousands of internal discussion groups and online forums. Google also vigorously promotes a culture of psychological safety among its staff, believing it imperative that employees feel empowered to voice ideas without feeling embarrassed or judged.
Company insiders say most employees are savvy enough to know it is unwise to take that mantra too literally. But when the organisers of internal meetings about Googles policies on diversity and inclusion invited feedback, Damore decided to relay his thoughts.
For some months, he had been harbouring grievances over the way Google was seeking to increase the number of minority and women employees, with mentoring schemes and hiring practices that Damore felt could be tantamount to reverse discrimination.