Book Review – Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, by Emily Chang

A few weeks ago, I finished Emily Chang’s Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, which came out in March 2019 (ok, I’m a bit late to the game). The Bloomberg Technology journalist wrote the book from hundreds of interviews of current and former tech workers, covering companies like Trilogy (a since-largely-forgotten glory child of the 90’s tech wave), Uber, and Google, to explore what women– and companies- are doing to redefine the demographics and social politics in a historically male-dominated sector.

A History of Bros in the Valley

Chang begins with a brief history of the male predominance in the computer industry which, early on, recruited women as programmers. This was a notable characteristic in ENIAC, what is generally thought of as being the first computer. Chang notes that in the coming decades, more men were involved in the hardware side of the business, while the rate of women in programming– what would become software– outpaced the growth of women as a share of other sectors of the labor force. But this eventually changed for a variety of reasons, and the issue congeals most prominently in the tech boom of the 1990’s, leading up to the dot-com bubble, and the rapid growth of Silicon Valley thereafter.

I was a little bit bummed that there wasn’t more on the development of Silicon Valley’s professional culture, which began with the creation of more lateral management hierarchies. These lent themselves to engineering-heavy professional workflows that valuably shaped the likes of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel (shoutout to Grinnell College alum Robert Noyce, who championed this professional setup), and echo in the present day in the form of agile development methodologies, which involve a team working in tandem to produce and improve iterations of a technical product. While agile remains popular, the lateral hierarchy has been abandoned in favor of the increasing prevalence of the cult of personality– which is hugely important in the context of understanding a deeply-ingrained culture of misogyny and heteropatriarchal power.

Sex and Power

The stories shared by women range from debatably sleazy behavior of colleagues to outright sexual violence, from mildly cringeworthy to utterly appalling. It should go without saying that we would likely not be having discussions about the mildly cringeworthy were it not for a deeply engrained culture of violence against women. Chang points out the grotesque manifestations of this culture in the likes of sex-and-drugs weekend parties (p337), but juxtaposes this with a well-established culture of progressive sexual norms– which seems to elude any single definition. Non-monogamous and what we might call post-monogamous– “monogam-ish” is the term Chang borrows- relationships define a complex culture of modernity, alongside socially acceptable and even encouraged drug use. “Modern” and evolving sexual norms aside, Chang looks at the prevalence of not only sex parties but also strip clubs. The two, she writes, are:

“…part of the background noise that women in Silicon Valley have to deal with. It’s a practice that often leaves women in an untenable position. There is no parallel problem for men. Work and private lives are mixed together in Silicon Valley and the new sexual adventurism inevitably informs how male dominated workforces perceive the few women in their midst.”

The modern family– or lack thereof- in Silicon Valley

What is really appealing about Chang’s journalism– beyond her penchant for storytelling that is at once vibrant, poignant, and often quite funny- is how she has covered every angle ranging from weekend parties to workplace politics to, importantly, the quest for family life in the age of Big Tech. She looks at a few examples of companies whose attitudes toward pregnancy or parenthood range from pluralistic and progressive to a draconian contemptuousness. The new, $5 billion Apple HQ? No childcare! Writes Chang:

“…child care might be hard to execute, but Silicon Valley has never claimed to be normal or shied away from hard problems. Large firms have basically reinvented commuting by running fleets of tricked-out buses around the Bay Area. Because child care has proven an effective way to retain female employees, it’s curious it hasn’t gained more momentum in an industry that prides itself on groundbreaking solutions. But perhaps that’s because Silicon Valley doesn’t realize just how much this industry is disrupting the families of those who work in it.”

I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that it’s well worth the read. It’s a quick read, but a fun one, though at times quite disappointing as far as thinking about how much money gets co-opted by such a messed up culture. Brotopia is full of rich illustrations of a world that, for the most part, I am quite thankful to never have to deal with. (NZ: ★★★★★)

Check out Brotopia by Emily Chang here.

 

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

Leave a Reply