Editor's Choice

Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley

February 09, 2018


Emily Chang explains how Silicon Valley became dominated by a certain male stereotype, how it has excluded women, and the promise inherent in changing the culture.

Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang, Portfolio, 320 pages, Hardcover, February 2018, ISBN 9780735213531

I love industry narratives and histories, and my job here at 800-CEO-READ has afforded me the opportunity to read a lot of them. Emily Chang’s Brotopia is, among its many other great qualities, one of the best histories of an industry that I’ve ever read. It tells the story of programming as a profession, provides a quick history of venture capitalism, and is a deep investigation into the culture in Silicon Valley, examining both its origins and bringing us up to the present day. It is a human history that details, in the midst of the Valley’s great financial success, one monumental failure:


Silicon Valley has long celebrated failure, encouraging founders to aim big and fail fast, pick themselves up, and try again. In that spirit, there’s one big failure to add to the list: Silicon Valley has failed women, period, and it’s time for the industry to own it.


The ethos of Silicon Valley has always been about changing the world and shaping the future of humanity. And it is doing so. Unfortunately, rather than the digital, democratic utopia that was envisioned, it has spiraled into a pseudo-libertarian, faux meritocracy that not only perpetuates many of society’s underlying ills, but pushes them to new extremes. This is no more true than in its exclusion of women:


In the larger American workforce, women make up almost half of all employees and are majority owners of nearly 40 percent of businesses. But women-led companies received only 2 percent of venture capital funding in 2016. … Of nearly seven thousand VC-backed companies surveyed in a study at Babson College, just 2.7 percent of them had a female CEO. All this despite research that shows women-led companies outperform their peers.


As most of the professional world has made (albeit very imperfect) progress in the last three decades, Silicon Valley has gotten worse in this regard:


In 1984, the year the Macintosh was unveiled, women in tech reached a high point, receiving almost 40 percent of computer science degrees. Unfortunately, that’s when women’s progress in tech suddenly stalled.


Chang explores why that happened, exploding the many myths and half-truths of “empty pipelines” and “leaky buckets” that are bandied about offhandedly in the valley, showing how the tech industry has created and perpetuated such problems, and what can be done to reverse the decades-long slide backward in gender equality in the place that is most shaping the future of humanity. It was a problem that was perpetuated by the power dynamics that came out of the first dot-com boom and bust, which ironically put even more power into the hands of those that presided over it:


While many midlevel employees were hurt when the bubble popped, some founders walked away with millions. Many became the the venture capitalists … and because they had emerged from the economic rubble as winners, their idea of who should be running tech companies (young men) did not change. As VCs, their influence in the industry only grew stronger, while women’s position languished.


Of course, considering that these were many of the same people who were at the helm of the dot-com boom when the bubble burst, in which $5 trillion disappeared, perhaps we should question this arrangement. Citing a study that companies whose leadership was at least 30 percent female were not only less risky, but 6 percent more profitable, Chang wonders if:


Had more women participated in the first dot-com boom, we might have had fewer make-it-or-break-it “unicorns,” and instead had a healthier herd of bust-resistant work-horse companies.


Last week, we reviewed Joanne Lipman’s That's What She Said, in which she discussed how women have been forced to recalibrate their behavior to exist in a professional world that was created of men, by men, and for the benefit of men. Do the same issues apply in a digital world being created overwhelmingly by men? “When you write a line of code,” Sheryl Sandberg told Chang in an interview, “you can affect a lot of people.” Not only can, but do:  


Apple’s first version of its highly touted health application could track your blood-alcohol level but not menstruation. Everything from plus-sized smartphones to artificial hearts have been built at a size better suited to a male anatomy.


There are countless other, even more disturbing examples, and there are bound to be ever more as technology becomes more deeply embedded in our lives.

So why has the number of women engineers dropped so much, especially when “in tech’s early days,” Chang reminds us, “programmers looked a lot different” than the stereotype we have of them today. “In fact,” she writes, “they looked like women.” Because they were women. As we know from the book and popular film Hidden Figures, the first “computers” were human beings, and most of them were women. They were also helping humanity solve larger and more complex problems than hailing a ride or sharing a photo online. “A woman, Margaret Hamilton,” Chang reminds us, “headed up the team that wrote the code that plotted Apollo 11’s path to the moon.” In fact:


In the 1840s, a woman and brilliant mathematician named Ada Lovelace wrote the first program for a computer that had yet to be built. A century later, women were among the pioneers who worked on the first computing devices for the military during World War II.


Women also programmed the computer that helped design the atomic bomb, and the first computer requisitioned by the U.S. Army. In 1967, Cosmopolitan even ran an article touting programming as ideal “women’s work,” noting the salaries women senior systems analysts were earning at places like IBM. But, what was once viewed as a more “feminine,” secretarial position began to be viewed differently as it became more lucrative—“less clerical and more intellectually rigorous … taking on the prestige of a professional job.” Desperate to fill the positions that were opening as the field expanded, vocational aptitude and personality assessments (performed mostly on men) became popular. One of the more dubious findings that came out of such assessments was that programmers “dislike activities involving close personal interaction.” Used by as many as two-thirds of employers through the 1980s, these assessments and the hiring practices that resulted from them gave rise to the “antisocial nerd stereotype” (popularized by Hollywood) and work culture in programming that persists to this day. It is a stereotype that not only does not fit the women who pioneered the field, but that has created an environment in which women no longer feel welcome.

The stories told to Chang by female engineers that have persisted in spite of this are harrowing, as is the situation women entrepreneurs often find themselves in when they approach the overwhelmingly male world of venture capital for funding. Even when the behavior isn’t predatory in these settings, the power dynamics are so skewed that it is still incredibly problematic. (Vanity Fair published an excerpt from the chapter on “Sex and the Valley” that takes the reader Inside Silicon Valley’s Secret, Orgiastic Dark Side that explores just some of that dynamic.) And the penalty for speaking out can be severe. Brianna Wu and her husband have been forced to flee their home and adopt aliases after she was threatened with rape and murder. Her crime? Defending women in the gaming industry who were calling out sexism in video games and in the video game industry. Even after they went into hiding, someone found their new address and threw a brick through their window, which was still broken when the author visited to interview her.

Of course, not only is there no evidence to support the idea that men—let alone antisocial men—are better at math or computers than the women engineers Chang talked to:


It is also important to remember that “computer talent,” when it comes to complex software development, almost always involves social skills such as being able to work in a group, sharing in decision making, and empathizing with users.


Yet the myth persists that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy that simply promotes the best talent. But even the term “meritocracy” was originally coined in a 1958 satirical novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy by Michael Young, which warned such a system would, in Chang’s words, “still be accessible only to a select few,” and “would produce a new social stratification and a sense of moral exceptionalism.” Social stratification and moral exceptionalism are, of course, two of the most common critiques of Silicon Valley today. Chang explains not only why Silicon Valley is not a meritocracy, but why “meritocracy is impossible to achieve because as Young said, a meritocracy is always based on an imperfect definition of merit and often narrowly defined to favor training, connections, and education primarily available to the wealthy.”

No one is more convinced of Silicon Valley’s meritocracy than Peter Thiel, one of the most powerful and influential investors in tech. Yet, the “PayPal Mafia” that he is considered the don of is made up largely of people he started a conservative student newspaper with at Stanford. His cofounder, Max Levchin, pulled his recruits from people he knew in the computer science department at his alma-mater, the University of Illinois. (Of course, in Silicon Valley, dominated by its ties to the institutions of American aristocracy, Stanford and Harvard, a University of Illinois pedigree could itself be seen as somewhat “diverse.”) Thiel once also wrote that welfare beneficiaries and giving women the vote had “rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.”


Let’s pause for a second. The man who is one of the main architects of the culture of Silicon Valley in the last twenty years thinks giving women the right to vote has harmed democracy.


But surely the rise of Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube and one of Silicon Valley’s most powerful female CEOs, is an example of the meritocracy at play? Actually, she got to know Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page as their landlord. Her Menlo Park garage, rented to Page and Brin for $1,700 a month, was Google’s first office. A former consultant at Bain & Company and alum of Intel with an MBA from UCLA, she quickly realized the promise of her tenant’s technology and joined the company in her garage as Google’s first marketing manager, where she helped develop both AdWords and AdSense—“two critical revenue streams that bring in tens of billions of dollars for Google today.” Another early employee, Marissa Mayer, would build the algorithms that matched Google ads to search queries, and along with Wojcicki, helped define the minimalist user interface that still defines Google’s homepage. A third employee, an economics major from Harvard, alumni of McKinsey and Company, and former chief of staff to U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, worked closely with those two to scale the company up as vice president of global online sales and operations. That person was Sheryl Sandberg.


Sandberg’s first assignment was to manage the “business unit,” which at the time did not exist, so she built it.


Google, in its early days, made deliberate efforts to hire women. As the impact of these three women demonstrates, it paid off. Unfortunately, Google’s efforts have languished, and the company is as overwhelmingly white and male as the rest of tech today. There is a movement in the making that, if Silicon Valley embraces it, can offer Google and the rest of the industry a second chance. The last chapter is devoted to how those in leadership positions can seize it, and why they should:


Research shows that companies with more women represented in their leadership ranks make more money, and their employees, both men and women, are more innovative, diligent, and creative. … What’s good for women is good for men, good for companies, good for their customers, good for the products they produce, good for the economy, and good for our future.


Silicon Valley is the greatest money-making machine in human history in spite of its problems. Imagine what it can do, and how it can really change the world, rather than turn it back, when it solves them.


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