Path to a New World Order: How to Value Work?

The hullabaloo over one Google engineer James Damore’s leaked internal memo and consequent firing would have been far more amusing if such scenes hadn’t played out dozens of times before. As in the prior instances, what primarily set people off was Damore’s suggestion that there are certain tasks men tend to be better suited for and, more importantly, desire to do more than women. Damore’s piece had quite a lot going on within it, some of which I disagreed with, but the core issue underlying his screed is worth touching upon: the true value of work.

The consumerist, pseudo-market-worshipping nature of our current world order completely misses the point when it comes to work. Markets tend to be inefficient, which cannot be forgotten, even if they are still the least worst system humans have been able to devise. But it is very easy to forget that when we assess the value of work.

Such valuation necessarily depends upon the nature of the occupation. And therein lies the rub and relation to Damore’s piece, as many grew infuriated when they read his piece and rushed to their keyboards to denounce what they perceived to be his subtle contention: Men are simply better at many of the engineering tasks – in Damore’s line of work as he saw it – than women, and it would always remain that way as long as biological differences and accompanying tendencies remained intact.

The key issue here is that the nature of the occupation is what many failed to remark upon. Namely, I suspect many only grew so infuriated because his job is what is perceived currently to be very high status and demanding, with a consequent scarcity of supply, lucre resulting. If a janitor had written such a take, I highly doubt many would be up in arms (although it seems people are looking for more ways to gripe than ever before nowadays). And thus, to those same folks, the importance of ensuring equal representation of women in such roles and clarifying that women are fully capable of what Damore does was paramount.

Such intrinsic equality of capabilities between men and women is obvious. The proportion of such abilities amid populations that results in sector skew is not the scope of this piece; rather, what I find absurd is that inherent even in so many critiques of Damore’s piece was an implicit suggestion that unless women WERE doing the type of work Damore was doing, their work was of less value.

The true value created by any given occupation is difficult to measure. Is the cumulative psychological wellbeing created by an efficient therapist equivalent to, say, the peace of mind generated by a small business owner employing a dozen people? To return to my point about labor markets, they simply can’t go beyond the most basic of schema: supply and demand curves. Consequently, they perform rather horribly on any sort of long-term horizon – hence the curious occupation of motherhood, which may be the most important job in the world, hallowed by many and yet completely beyond the purview of labor markets – and also are very affected by biases.

With such imperfect measures, it is simply not safe to keep on ascribing more cachet and “value” to the hundreds or thousands of lines of code that an Amazon software engineer creates than the thousands of square meters of floor a janitor scrubs, predicated solely on the differing economic values assigned to that labor by the market. What must be done is to only compare the efficacy of their work in their respective occupations – how well they actually do their job.

Why? Because that is the crux of the problem, is it not? James Damore opines that women simply don’t wish to do his type of work in the same numbers to ever ensure equal representation among the sexes – and understandably there is a frenzied response to the contrary, but both arguments take it for granted that whatever else many women are doing that isn’t such a tech job simply isn’t as worthwhile. And that is not true at all. It may not create as much value – a graphic designer may not be paid as well – but what truly matters is how well someone does their job, however “lowly” it may be rated by the market or by popular opinion.

That sense of mutual respect may never have been as rampant in society as typical human nostalgia would like to think, but in times of heightened income inequality and increasingly pervasive mass media – without any ameliorating religious influences – it is only scarcer than ever before. And without it, furor over representation in sectors and occupations and C-suites will only continue, with likely increasingly negative consequences. Hopefully some positive effects may occur – namely, one major point Damore hinted at but did not make was that the traits in which women tend to best men could very well be highly needed but not perceived to be needed as of yet in certain areas. For example, would more women UI/UX designers contribute to the advent of responsible design, as we seek to wean consumers and companies off of the currently addictive nature of notification-based apps? Surely the uglier side of male-dominated cultures such as that of Uber would be mitigated.

Whatever those outcomes may be, it is clear that in an era of increasing income inequality, with no end in sight, emphasis of the intrinsic value of quality of work, whatever kind of work it may be, is important. Recognizing that whatever work someone chooses to do, as long as they do it well, is valuable in and of itself, will remove the implicit judgments underlying much debate about equal representation. Consequently, we will be able to better determine the actual necessity and value of improving diversity with regard to gender, race, viewpoint and more in every facet of life.