Despite being heralded as the birthplace of today’s most world-changing ideas, Silicon Valley has an extensive and deeply problematic history of excluding women. Bloomberg TV journalist Emily Chang addresses this unsettling issue in her powerful new exposé Brotopia, which has been flying off the shelves since it was released in early February. From uncovering the specific ways in which young women are discouraged from studying technology and computer sciences in universities to the sexist “bro-culture” that’s causing female Valley employees to shoulder harrowing burdens, Chang’s unrelenting reporting reveals the toxic workplaces and misogynistic culture embedded in some of the most profitable and well-known companies in the world (think Uber, Google, and PayPal). We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Chang and chat about her exciting new book and the real reason why women are being shut out of Silicon Valley.
Brit + Co: Today women earn just 22 percent of computer science degrees — a number that has basically remained constant for a decade. You begin Brotopia by talking about the early days of computer science studies and specifically mention Lena, a now-famous picture of a nude Playboy model that computer science students used in an early project and which has now become a near-universal benchmark test for image processing quality. Why do you think that professionals still use this image today, despite its obvious sexist history?
Emily Chang: Lena’s photo has become so ubiquitous that, to many people who use it in their work, she is not a person anymore — she is just pixels. But it’s that very dehumanization of her that is so problematic. Some who continue to use her photo don’t even realize she’s a naked woman. An Apple engineer told me he’d seen Lena many times but then added, “I had no idea she was naked!” That said, the photo is still suggestive — a woman looking over her bare shoulder. Many women see the photo and find it alienating, while many men look at her and don’t notice anything out of the ordinary at all. It is that ignorance, or blind spot, in tech that hurts women more broadly.
B+C: As a part of Brotopia you interviewed venture capitalist Chris Sacca, a regular on the popular program Shark Tank, who boasted about having hot tub parties at his home to brainstorm and bond with up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Obviously, these parties exclude a key demographic of entrepreneurs. (I don’t know many women who would feel comfortable having a business meeting in a hot tub.) What did you think when you first heard of these meetings?
EC: When Chris Sacca first told me this, I was torn. Here was an investor who was opening his home to entrepreneurs and trying to set up opportunities for them to better get to know each other. But I also instantly thought that this was not an environment I would feel personally comfortable in. I later spoke to Katrina Lake, the CEO of Stitch Fix, who heard Sacca bragging about his hot tub parties at a conference and instantly concluded that she would never get a check from him because there’s no way she’d want to get into a bikini in his hot tub. That’s when I realized just how alienating these kinds of parties can be — even when the intentions may be innocent, it’s just another result of the blindness that shuts women out of networking opportunities.
B+C: While much of Silicon Valley’s disturbing behavior happens on company grounds, you argue that an equal amount of troubling behavior that marginalizes or excludes women happens outside the office — including lavish, drug-fuelled, sex-heavy parties. Because of this post-work party culture in Silicon Valley, you feel that women face a double-edged sword: either they risk being objectified if they participate in the socializing, or they get shut out if they don’t. Can you explain this?
EC: The Bay Area has long had a tradition of sexual exploration and liberation, which should be celebrated. The problems arise when there is business getting done. I’ve spoken to dozens and dozens of people, men and women, including several who have come forward since I wrote the book, who shared stories about how this socialization can play out in troubling ways for women. While many men described themselves as challenging social mores and traditional morality, just as they do in the products they design, women described being held to a double standard. For men, participating in these events is cool, but women risk being disrespected and discredited and can lose out on funding and job opportunities as a result. There’s nothing new or world-changing about this behavior. In fact, it’s a tale as old as time. Some of these parties are a lot more about power than sex, and the power dynamic is completely lopsided.
B+C: In Brotopia you dedicate an entire chapter to the “PayPal mafia,” a group of former PayPal employees and founders — including Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Russel Simmons, and David Sacks — who have since founded some of the most profitable tech companies in the world. When starting the company, the founders wanted to hire and promote employees based on meritocracy (although, in reality, they ended up just hiring a bunch of their likeminded university buddies). Do you think the culture of meritocracy is still alive and well in Silicon Valley?
EC: While many in Silicon Valley aspire to be meritocratic, I don’t think Silicon Valley is a meritocracy. Just look at the numbers: Women hold 25 percent of jobs across the industry, and women-led companies get just two percent of funding. I find it hard to believe that opportunity has been doled out equally. In general, I think a true meritocracy is impossible to achieve. We all come to the plate with different privileges, and the escalator of life is moving far faster for some of us than it is for others. The research shows that simply believing you operate in a meritocracy can lead you to be more anti-meritocratic, because you assume everyone is in their right place and ignore the larger systemic factors at play.
B+C: One problem with the PayPal mafia is the dynastic privilege that occurred after the company was sold — basically, those within the PayPal mafia were able to lean on their collected resources to fund projects more easily than their competitors (think SpaceX), while those without the connections were at a disadvantage. How is the culture of dynastic privilege harmful for female entrepreneurs?
EC: The most powerful networks in Silicon Valley have historically been almost all male, and PayPal is one of them. Simply being part of the PayPal mafia led to so many different opportunities that proliferated for a select few and made them only richer and more powerful. It can be very hard for women to break into these networks, especially when they don’t fit the stereotypical idea of what an entrepreneur should look like. Oftentimes, raising money depends on relationships, and when women don’t have as many of these relationships, it’s a lot harder for them to raise money. I find it hard to believe that women-led companies get just two percent of funding because only two percent of companies are worth taking a chance on.
B+C: Despite being groundbreaking in female hires at the onset of the company, Google’s reported numbers are much like the rest of the industry, with women accounting for just 31 percent of employees overall. In your opinion, why do you think Google stopped being an industry leader in hiring women?
EC: In the early days of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin put great effort into hiring and promoting talented women like Susan Wojcicki, Marissa Mayer, and Sheryl Sandberg. They helped turn Google into an unassailable business and don’t get enough credit for it. But they are a perfect example of why building diverse teams isn’t just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. As Google exploded in size after the IPO, however, the company was more focused on filling seats as fast as possible and defaulted to industry standards for hiring, going to the same job fairs and colleges as other tech companies did. As a result, their numbers are no better today than the paltry industry average. It’s a lesson that building diverse teams needs to be a priority that comes from the top and is communicated throughout the organization — and needs to remain a top priority year after year.
B+C: One of the most documented sexist bro cultures in Silicon Valley can be found at Uber. In fact, in Brotopia you interview a woman who was solicited for sex from her boss on her very first day and document strip club outings and outrageous party behavior. Why do you think that the industry turned a blind eye for so long to the sexist culture in this multi-million-dollar company?
EC: Some of this bad behavior has been not only tolerated but normalized, and after a while, it may be hard to see a problem with it. If engineers are “brilliant” and getting their work done, it can be difficult to explain why this kind of behavior shouldn’t be tolerated. Silicon Valley has given too much leeway to “brilliant jerks” along the way, which has led to a sense of entitlement and moral exceptionalism. But I think we can easily hire many people who are just brilliant and not jerks and be even more successful.
B+C: Throughout the book you tell many shocking stories of sexual violence and sexual misconduct happening within both Silicon Valley start-ups and big, well-known companies like Uber. In your opinion, was it common knowledge that these incidents were taking place at the time? Do you think that the #MeToo campaign is helping bring these Silicon Valley stories to the forefront of our attention?
EC: I think it depends on what circles you run in how everpresent this kind of behavior is for you. For some women I spoke to, they could not escape the invitations to strip clubs. But for others, it’s the little things that are more difficult to pinpoint and call out that pile up and can make getting through the day unbearable. Now that I’ve written an entire book about it, it’s hard to say it isn’t “common knowledge.” We now know that these things happen — and far too often — and so ignorance at this point can only be willful. The #MeToo movement has been an incredible catalyst to force awareness and change, and I am so grateful to all the women who have had the courage to come forward and share their stories, and to the women and men who are listening.
B+C: You mention that there has been a recent call for an industry-wide HR function that would presumably govern interactions between investors and entrepreneurs and keep individual companies from burying allegations. Can you explain this?
EC: Behind the scenes, many founders and investors have been discussing the possibility of an independent third party that would privately field complaints about bad behavior and act on them. Right now that third party is the media, and it can be a very difficult calculation for victims to come forward knowing that it could become public. As a journalist, I’d add that these stories require great effort and are very time-consuming, and it is impossible to bring all of them to fruition. That means a lot of bad behavior is going unchecked. Some have expressed concern that this would give a third party too much power, but I think the industry could explore different ways to structure it. That said, I’m heartened by a lot of other initiatives like the #FoundersforChange movement and #MovingForward, where investors are pushing founders to consider building diversity into their companies and founders are pushing for investors to do the same at their firms. Some VCs are even baking “inclusion clauses” into term sheets, and I’ve heard some cases where it’s actually working.
B+C: When asked why there is a disparity in female hires, many tech CEOs and C-suite employees you interviewed said that the problem was simply that there aren’t enough women studying computer science, which, while true, is an extreme oversimplification of the problem. Why do you think these company leaders get away with this response?
EC: It’s so easy to blame the pipeline. But in my book, I argue that the tech industry created the pipeline problem by having such a narrow idea of who can be good at tech jobs, and that the tech industry is only reinforcing the pipeline problem today. At the end of the book, I interviewed several young girls who have all learned how to code. They are so excited to change the world. But they read the news. They know about the toxic culture at Uber. They know that Sheryl Sandberg is one of few women who have cracked the Silicon Ceiling. They can’t be what they can’t see, and the industry has a responsibility to change that.
B+C: You end the book on a positive note, sitting down with a handful of young girls who’d graduated from the Girls Who Code program and sharing their big professional goals for the future. If you had the chance to give young women who are just starting out in the industry one piece of advice, what would it be?
EC: Know your value. We all have a tendency to underestimated ourselves — especially in an industry where women are so outnumbered — but Silicon Valley needs talented women, and you have so much to offer. Don’t just choose the hottest company on the block, but look for a place with people who support you where you can really learn. Once you get there, find your allies and your team. There are some great companies out there that are trying hard to build inclusive environments and products that are changing the world. You can join those companies or start one of your own and really make a difference.
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(Photo via David Paul Morris)