Jordan Peterson has HR in his crosshairs with his strident criticism of efforts to close the gender pay gap and to tackle unconscious bias. With a vast online audience for his views, the sector needs to respond with hard facts and strong arguments, writes Adam McCulloch.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the forthright Toronto university psychology professor as an “alt-right” blowhard; he is a fluent advocate for his views and uses research as evidence. But then there are comments such as this: “CEOs should wake up and understand that HR is becoming an anti-capitalist fifth column in the middle of their organisations.”
Peterson’s philosophical positions – informed by thinkers such as Jung, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche – have led him to question many contemporary HR policies.
Many might think he’s being horrible and unfair, but perhaps he’s just spotted a chink in HR’s armour” – Rob Briner
In January, Peterson discussed the gender pay gap with Channel 4 News’ Cathy Newman, an interview that has been watched more than seven million times online. In it he argues that the gender pay gap is largely a natural reflection of differences between men and women, differences explained in the Big Five personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
He tells Newman that multivariate analysis of the gender pay gap shows that prejudice is only one small factor in the pay gap, one that’s much less than “feminists claim”. Other factors include women’s tendency for neuroticism – their likelihood to experience stress, depression and unpredictability – and their high level of agreeableness, to be cooperative and compassionate.
Eradicating the pay gap could work against women’s true interests, he says, by interfering with their preferred choices, such as less demanding careers.
Newman presses him on why there are only seven women running FTSE 100 companies. Peterson responds by asking why women would want to, adding that men are more likely to want to work 70-80 hours a week. “Men and women are not the same and won’t be the same, but that doesn’t mean women shouldn’t be treated fairly.”
Women face family ‘crises’
There are other reasons why equality is unattainable, Peterson explains: “Many women around the age of between 28 and 32, have a career-family crisis that they have to deal with. And I think that’s partly, because of the foreshortened time-frame that women have to contend with. Women have to get the major pieces of their life put together faster than men.”
As an example he uses his work with law firms in Canada where many of the best performers are women yet the firms are unable to make many of them partners because they so often leave in pursuit of a better work-life balance.
These fundamental gender differences mean that “equality of outcome is undesirable”.
“Men and women won’t sort themselves into the same categories if you leave them alone to do it of their own accord. We’ve already seen that in Scandinavia. It’s 20 to one female nurses to male… and approximately the same male engineers to female engineers,” he explains.
“That’s a consequence of the free choice of men and women in the societies that have gone farther than any other societies to make gender equality the purpose of the law. Those are in ineradicable differences. You can eradicate them with tremendous social pressure and tyranny. But if you leave men and women to make their own choices you will not get equal outcome.”
Gender pay surveys’ flawed methodology
In another YouTube video, Peterson feels that gender pay surveys often produce a predetermined result: “The co-variates you include in the equation determine the outcome of the equation.” Referring to gender pay inquiries in the academic sphere in the US, he says that the goal is to conclude that systemic discrimination is at work, “and they gerrymander statistics until they find a regressive equation that supports their initial claim”.
Men and women are not the same and won’t be the same, but that doesn’t mean women shouldn’t be treated fairly (Jordan Peterson)
Sheila Wild, founder of the EqualPayPortal and former Director of Employment Policy at the Equal Opportunities Commission, published a blog critical of Newman’s Peterson interview for heightening division. She writes that the distinction between fairness and equality was not explored satisfactorily in the exchange. “We all understand fairness, or think we do, but very few of us understand equality. And, sometimes, in order to achieve equality, it’s necessary to be unfair – that’s because much inequality derives from past unfairness.”
She adds that Peterson “was selective with the facts, and I don’t agree with his conclusions, but I meet with that every day of the week”.
According to Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University of London, Peterson makes several points that HR leaders should heed. But Briner feels there is a danger the Canadian’s persuasive style and selective use of science could lead to a “halo effect where people accept what he says without looking at the evidence.“ He fears his views could appeal to those “who feel some resentment and who don’t like to see other people gaining more power”.
Peterson, James Damore and Google
Last year, Peterson’s criticisms were thrown into sharp relief by the debate over Google software engineer James Damore, who had attacked the internet giant’s “flawed diversity agenda”.
Google, like other tech firms, is acutely aware of the lack of women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds among its teams.
Peterson fully endorsed Damore’s views, interviewing him at length on his YouTube channel.
Damore wrote in an internal – but leaked – manifesto: “When it comes to diversity and inclusion, Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence.”
These could have been the words of Peterson himself: so it’s unsurprising when Damore acknowledges he is a big fan of the professor.
He adds that the abilities and choices of men and women differed in part because of biology and this was why “we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership”.
During the YouTube discussion Damore alleges that Google held meetings to “pressure people to increase the diversity of their team”.
Peterson responds: “It’s distressing to hear that there’s an acceptance of the idea that diversity can be mapped onto race and gender, especially with regard to performance – there is no evidence of that [improved performance] whatsoever.”
This seems to be a direct challenge to the idea that increasing diversity enlarges the pool of available talent, and so has a positive effect on the bottom line as well as being fairer.
Danielle Brown, Google’s vice president of diversity, rejects Damore’s “incorrect assumptions about gender” and confidently asserts Google’s commitment to its employee policies: “Diversity and inclusion are a fundamental part of our values and the culture we continue to cultivate. We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company.”
Damore was fired in August last year and has subsequently accused the company of discriminating against “white conservative men” in a class action claim.
Professor Binna Kandola, partner at occupational psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola, goes further: “Peterson has a myopic view of research and uses it selectively for his purposes.”
He adds that objective data shows there are very few differences between men and women in terms of the roles they can fulfil.
Peterson often misses the historical context, says Kandola, ignoring the fact that men and women have taken on very different roles in different eras – men dominating nursing roles until Florence Nightingale helped to create a profession that was soon considered “women’s work”. And in the First World War women enthusiastically took on manufacturing and manual tasks, completely altering perceptions of their competence and potential as workers.
However, for Briner, Peterson does score some hits in his criticism of equality and diversity in organisations: “HR must ask itself whether it is confusing the business case with a moral case. Let’s be clear: are we doing this for business or for moral reasons?”
He argues that Peterson offers a springboard for helping professionals question and justify their policies: “Many might think he’s being horrible and unfair, but perhaps he’s just spotted a chink in HR’s armour”.
Practitioners, he adds, need to be aware of the risk that CEOs will tune into the Canadian’s ideas and want to know “why HR is wasting all this money”.
As might be expected, Peterson is not a fan of the growing desire to test and train in the area of unconscious bias. He says: “The HR equity people are mucking about with people’s unconscious bias.
“They want your perceptions to fall into accordance with their demands. Your involuntary unconscious perceptions have to be retrained.”
Again, he is careful to ground his scathing criticism in some kind of evidence: “People are categorised by novelty aversion. You can’t distinguish racial [or any other kind of] bias from novelty aversion. We can’t distinguish stereotyping from perceptual habit.”
He describes implicit association testing (IAT), developed by psychologists in the US, as deeply flawed because, he claims, they can’t reproduce results with the same individuals, so are unreliable.
The whole unconscious bias agenda, he says, is part of the “broader corruption of social psychology”.
But are Peterson’s criticisms really just skating across the surface, failing to take account of the true nature and potential of such work?
Harish Bhayani, senior partner at PRM Diversity Consultants, thinks so, but concedes bias testing and training is ineffective if not continuous. He says: The best solutions recognise that it is not a one-off fix but a constant battle against our unconscious brains’ ongoing tendencies to stereotype.
Testing without a commitment to follow-up support for individuals is another serious issue to be dealt with. For example, in cases where test results for an individual show significant bias, a lot of one-to-one support may be required to help the individual deal with processing the test outcomes.”
Kandola says that Peterson has misrepresented IAT, which has proved useful, particularly in racial stereotyping.
He amplifies Bhayani’s point that testing without action is pointless, adding that fairness has become an important goal: “Fairness means a lot. Peterson may have reservations about one method – the IAT – but that doesn’t mean bias doesn’t exist. There’s an abundance of research carried out using CVs. Basically if you change the name on the application form you change the outcome.”
Kandola questions Peterson’s understanding of core issues. He says the concept of race based on skin colour was developed in the West for the purpose of justifying the slave trade, so there is nothing “natural” about such bias, which Peterson implies when he talks about people’s preference for their “in” as opposed to “out” group and novelty aversion.
“You can reduce bias by some fairly simple means: getting people to evaluate several CVs at the same time taking each criterion in turn; taking the names off CVs; when conducting appraisals setting an objective of accuracy.”
Another stout defence of unconscious bias work comes from Jane Farrell, chief executive of the EW Group. She says: “I am disturbed by the tenor of some of the debates. It distracts from the real challenges of building more inclusive organisations where leaders know they are doing everything they can to recruit the best, rather than inadvertently cloning themselves.”
She says Peterson’s fears about employees being labelled biased are groundless, stating how during work with clients over a long period of time “nobody was called racist or sexist, and nor should they have been. We worked through the practical things that could be done differently to ensure they recruited the best. This approach is so far from the people being ‘marched to re-education by their employer after they have been diagnosed as racist’, as Peterson described recently.”
The ‘hostile workplace’
One of the more striking criticisms of Peterson/Damore’s stance over Google’s HR policies (see panel) has come from another former Google employee, Yonatan Zunger, who responded to Damore’s manifesto in a blog last August. He claimed that the meritocracy as described in the Damore memo “does not represent a radically conservative path to business success; it is merely a fresh defense of a socially acceptable version of a hostile workplace”.
Gender and bias
In other words, Peterson and Damore are simply arguing against change. Zunger adds: “Engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration and empathy for colleagues and customers. All of these traits in your [Damore’s] manifesto described as female are the core traits that make someone successful at engineering.”
The concensus view among specialists in the diversity field seems to be that Peterson is only explaining certain facets of the here and now. They say he has failed to take account of the historical changes in gender roles or business’ and employees’ desire for fairness through equality of opportunity. Dianah Worman, co-director of Inclusive Talent and an adviser to the CIPD, says: “The concept of success is changing. Peterson seems to assume that the status quo will remain the status quo. Increasing globalisation means more co-operation.”
Wherever the debate goes, Peterson’s is a voice that is being absorbed by a youthful generation online – tomorrow’s employees. HR practitioners should listen to his arguments and be prepared to defend their corner with the best evidence they can find to support the view that fairer recruitment policies make business sense and benefit us all.