Clearly, in light of recent allegations of sexual assault and harassment, the undermining of women in the workplace, and the subsequent #MeToo movement, tech isn’t the only industry guilty of sexism and misogyny.
However, given the huge influence of technology on our world, the many barriers to women working in the industry take on even more resonance, suggests author Emily Chang in her new book Brotopia: Breaking up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley.
Brotopia is remarkable, not least because of its expansive account of the chauvinistic male behaviour in Silicon Valley. For the book, Chang, a Bloomberg TV journalist, interviewed hundreds of women working across the tech industry and found a profoundly misogynistic working culture. She may have set out to expose gender discrimination in Silicon Valley, but instead what she found was more rotten and pandemic.
Rather than celebrate women for the skills they bring to the workplace, Silicon Valley is rife with sexism, misogyny, sexual exploitation and practices that shut women out. Chang cites the examples of a venture capitalist who vets entrepreneurs for start-up investment by hanging out with them in a hot tub, companies with office drinking cultures that encourage long hours, boozy interactions and ‘grabby hands’ and company socials where women are commonly subjected to come-ons by co-workers – everyday practices in the Valley, according to Chang, that put women at a professional disadvantage.
The book is full of stories from hundreds of women working in tech companies, including Google, Uber, Pinterest and Facebook. They tell of a lack of respect in business meetings, misogynistic comments, unwanted sexual advances and even assault, and also detail how a critical mass of men in California’s tech utopia are creating all sorts of barriers to the progression of women’s careers.
So who are the perpetrators? Chang suspects they’re guys that are making up for lost time. She maintains that Silicon Valley is run by geeks who had no hope of a date through high school and university, but have created a ‘nerd mythology’ that repositions them as technological, social and sexual mavericks – and crucially power players. As we now know, the geek shall inherit the earth.
A good question, of course, is why some of the world’s cleverest and most forward-thinking businessmen, working in the most lucrative, exciting and progressive industries, are behaving in ways that would make their grandfathers wince?
And if women were once well represented in the early days of the computing industry, they’re not now – holding about 25 per cent of US computer jobs, and less when it comes to major companies or start-ups.
In Brotopia, Chang takes us through the early years of the tech industry and the pioneering role that women played before the ‘bro-culture’ shut them out of ‘the biggest opportunity for wealth creation’ in our times. This ‘staggering inequality’ has led to a toxic working environment for women, but even more significantly, until Silicon Valley is more inclusive we won’t realise the technology for our world that we all deserve.
She argues that such a male-dominated industry means there is an inherent gender bias in tech products and emerging technologies – think Siri or Alexa, which are programmed to advise you if you’re suffering a heart attack but not if you’ve been raped. A fairer representation of gender would mean a greater diversity of input for technology products resulting in better products for everyone.
One of the most important points made by Chang is that AI, and particularly robots, will be fundamentally important in the future – like it or not – and woman need to be part of that. Chang argues that the lack of women working in an arena that will so radically restructure humankind’s future “can’t be allowed to stand.”
Far from being a book for women working in the tech industry, Brotopia is for anyone that uses tech, which is to say, all of us. Unfortunately, it’s a book for our times and an important read for anyone – male or female – who wants to better understand what on earth is going wrong in this most modern of workplaces.
Changing the dial in Silicon Valley
1. Getting to a 50/50 gender ratio in the tech industry won’t be easy, says Chang – it will be a complex process with solutions that will take years to play out. However, there are ways that progress can be made. Change needs to start at the top, she says, with CEOs prioritising the recruitment and retention of female employees. They can do this by creating comprehensive short- and long-term plans for how to get to a fairer representation of women in the workplace. Tech companies need to tackle the problem and use the spirit of innovation, that it prides itself on, to create a more inclusive culture and workforce.
2. For a work culture to change, says Chang, companies need more women on their boards. Boards, in turn, need to hold company leaders to account on promoting a better ratio – ideally 50/50 – at every level, from executives all the way down.
3. The way that venture capital companies work needs to change, too, says Chang. They can do this by hiring more women partners and investing in more women. Limited partners, who supply capital to venture capitalists, should stop funding the same kinds of partnerships and instead fund female venture capitalists, who can find new types of firms with different working cultures.
Brotopia: Breaking up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang (Portfolio/Penguin) £20.99, Amazon.