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Take (The Big) Five: A Lack of Understanding of the Google Diversity Memo

As a leader, it is not just a suggestion to try one's best to have a full understanding of a situation before making a decision. It is a necessity.

If you've even been glancing at the news lately, you've noticed that there has been a Google engineer in the hot seat when he made the claim through an internal (now leaked) memo, according to Gizmodo, "women are underrepresented in tech not because they face bias and discrimination in the workplace, but because of inherent psychological differences between men and women." While there is certainly more to the argument than that (see almost every other news article out there), this section of the memo brought up points that have left many seething with anger, including saying that on average when compared to men, women have:

  • More openness towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas

  • Higher levels of agreeableness

  • Extraversion expressed as gregariousness instead of assertiveness

  • Higher levels of neuroticism.

Many people see words such as these and think, "Who is this man trying to tell me that women are more neurotic than men? This is sexist and unwarranted." This isn't just the feeling of any one person, but the feeling of Google CEO Sundar Pichai. In a letter to employees, Pichai wrote:

"The memo has clearly impacted our co-workers, some of whom are hurting and feel judged based on their gender. Our co-workers shouldn’t have to worry that each time they open their mouths to speak in a meeting, they have to prove that they are not like the memo states, being “agreeable” rather than “assertive,” showing a “lower stress tolerance,” or being “neurotic.”

Pichai is right to say that no one should have to prove anything. However, some of the opinions expressed in the "anti-diversity" memo are in actuality based up a body of personality psychology research known as the "Big Five" personality traits. The purpose of the rest of this article is not to judge or critique, but to inform, to help advance the conversation around this memo and gender diversity as a whole.

1. Understanding the Big Five

The Five Factor Model, otherwise known as the Big Five, uses Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness (to Experience), Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness as a way of measuring personality on a continuum based upon each of these five traits. In the 1970s, Costa and McCrae conducted extensive research and testing, finding that these five broad dimensions encompass nearly every personality trait.

2. The Big Five and Gender Differences

A quick search on the internet will elicit thousands of academic articles on the topic, including more than a few on the relationship between gender difference and Big Five personality traits. In a well known 2001 study of over 23,000 individuals (1,000 of whom were US adults), it was indeed found that "women reported themselves to be higher in Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Warmth, and Openness to Feelings, whereas men were higher in Assertiveness and Openness to Ideas"(1). A more recent study sought to replicate the study at a deeper level, as each of the Big Five categories are separated into sub-categories. Even with this slight change, results were entirely consistent with past studies(2).

3. The Importance of Self-Report

In personality psychology, many studies are based upon self-report, where answers to the various questions on the inventories and surveys are subjective. In some cases, perception is not the same as reality. Even though it was found that women self reported that they were more open towards feelings rather than ideas or intellect, other studies show that men tend to overestimate their intellectual abilities more than women(3), meaning that with this self-reported format, the difference found between scores could very well be because of an overconfidence in abilities.

4. I'm Not Mean, But Conclusions Are

When drawing conclusions in these studies, the results were mean-based, meaning that the average score of one group was higher than the average of the other. The conclusions of the studies did not show that all women scored higher on Neuroticism than men. While women on average were found to score higher on Neuroticism than men, there were still plenty of men who scored higher than women. Also, even if findings are significant, that means they are statistically significant, or simply meaning that there is greater than a 95% chance that the findings are true. What this does not measure, however, is effect size, or how large the differences are. Further examination of the studies reveal that differences range from small to moderate, or to think about it another would, would have a minor (or at most moderate) impact on the work environment.

5. Speaking of Mean...

The language used in the Five Factor Model certainly is not one that translates well into the public sphere, as seen through Pichai's letter regarding the memo. There is more to Neuroticism than being unstable, and there is more to Agreeableness than being a pushover. While not clearly defined in the memo, Pichai also did not seem to make the effort to understand the concepts behind the language utilized and the underlying research behind this piece of the memo, which is a problem in itself.

While this article may not give you a full understanding of personality psychology or change your mind about the memo, it is important to seek and embrace the more complete bigger picture first. Before commenting, judging, or critiquing, make sure to be informed. Do the research, find the background, then make your informed opinion known.

1) Costa, P. J., Terracciano, A., & McCrae, R. R. (2001). Gender differences in personality traits across cultures: Robust and surprising findings. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 81, 2, 322-331.

2) Weisberg, Y. J., DeYoung, C. G., & Hirsh, J. B. (2011). Gender Differences in Personality across the Ten Aspects of the Big Five. Frontiers in Psychology, 2, 178.

3) von Stumm S., Chamorro-Premuzic T., Furnham A. (2009). Decomposing self-estimates of intelligence: structure and sex differences across 12 nations. Br. J. Psychol. 100, 429–442.


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