Silicon Valley is the birthplace of some of the most innovative companies in the world — Apple, Google and even Facebook among them. But these days, it’s also become infamous for something else.
Emily Chang, the Bloomberg Technology host and executive producer calls that something “Brotopia,” a culture that has built technology giants but has also made the industry toxic — sometimes even dangerous — for women and other minorities.
In the past year, the pain points of Brotopia have come to the forefront. Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer, tore open the veil of secrecy around toxic culture when she publicly detailed sexual harassment and discrimination she experienced working at the company. Prominent men including Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, 500 Startups founder David McClure and others have been ousted after scandals related to misconduct in the workplace.
Chang details the history of Brotopia and how it is shaping the tech industry today in her new book by the same name, delving into everything from early stereotypes that shaped our idea of a “good” programmer to practices at companies big and small that can force women out of the workplace.
Chang is our guest on this episode of the GeekWire Podcast. Listen to the episode below or subscribe in your favorite podcast app, and keep reading for an edited transcript of our conversation.
Todd Bishop, GeekWire: First, what is Brotopia? How do you define it?
Emily Chang: Brotopia, in my mind, perfectly encapsulates this idea of Silicon Valley as a modern utopia where anyone can change the world, make their own rules — if they’re a man. But if you’re a women, it’s incomparably harder. And it shows in the numbers, and I feel like we should just get these out there. Women account for 25 percent of jobs across the industry, seven percent of venture investors and women-led companies get just two percent of funding. In no world is that a utopia. I know that it’s a strong phrase and it really makes a statement. And initially when we started talking about the title and this word came up, I felt like maybe it was taking it too far. But I was surprised as I was doing my research, over and over again, and I believe it perfectly captures the fact that it’s just not a level playing field.
Clare McGrane, GeekWire: You start the book by talking about some of the stereotypes that have led to Brotopia. Can you walk us through a couple of those?
Chang: Many people, when they think of a computer programmer, think of the anti-social, mostly white male nerd. In fact, that stereotype didn’t come from movies and television shows. In my research, I make the argument that the tech industry created this stereotype. So if you go back to the 1940s and 1950s, women actually played vital roles in the computing industry. They were programming computers for the military and programming computers for NASA. It was sort of like “Hidden Figures,” but industry-wide. And then in the ’60s and ’70s, when the industry was desperate for new talent, this idea that programmers were born, not made, became ingrained. And these two psychologists were hired by a tech company to develop a personality test to identify people who might make good programmers, and they decided that good programmers “don’t like people.”
Well, if you look for people who don’t like people, you’ll hire far more men than women. That is what the research tells us. There’s also no research to support this idea that people who don’t like people are better at this job than people who do, or that men are better at this job than women. But these tests were widely used for decades by companies as big as IBM and they perpetuated this idea of the antisocial, mostly white male nerd stereotype that survives to this day. And we’re talking about people like James Damore, the engineer at Google who wrote a memo to the entire company in which he argued that men are more biologically suited to this job than women. In fact, he was making the same lazy argument that those psychologists made decades ago. He was citing Wikipedia pages. Even the researchers he did cite disagreed with how he used the data. And unfortunately, that stereotype shuts out half the population and much more.
Bishop: James Damore, the Google researcher, was giving voice to an undercurrent, a behind-the-scenes feeling among some people — primarily men — in the tech industry that men are just inherently better at technology and developing technology. But it’s clear from the data, from the research, that is just not the case. You interviewed him as a journalist on Bloomberg TV. I remember watching that at the time, and you played it straight. And then the beginning of your book just destroys his argument. How do you square these two roles, as journalist and author?
Chang: As a journalist, over the course of my career, I’ve been so trained to be objective and not bring my opinion into the situation. I think that’s still very important, that objectivity — to tell the truth. I mean, we’re telling stories and we aim to tell the truth. With James Damore, I wanted to give him a chance to say what he had to say and afterwards, as I was digging deeper and looking at the analysis and looking at the papers that he cited and talking to a lot of people who worked at Google — the argument just didn’t hold water. Most people who believe [what Damore believes] aren’t going to write it in a memo to the entire company, but I believe that his opinion is more widely held by people — especially men — in the tech industry than we would like to believe. And that’s why we need to shine a light on it and sort of shake people and tell them that this is not the case. We need people who do like people making these products. We need people who have empathy, because they’re solving problems for users that they need to understand.
Bishop: How do you do this without creating more stereotypes? One of the examples you used was the idea that software development was suited to women in part because they were good at party planning. How do you not perpetuate stereotypes?
Chang: Well, it was Grace Hopper who said that women are naturals at planning a party and good programmers do good planning, and that planning is a very important part of actually what programming is. You know, I think that’s a really good point. My argument isn’t that women alone should be building these products. My argument is that people of all backgrounds should be building these products. Men and women do bring different things to the table. So do people of different colors and different sexualities. Silicon Valley is literally changing our lives every day. But often, I think, we take the people who are making the things at Facebook and Google and Apple for granted. It’s even more reason why the people who are making these products should be of all different kinds of backgrounds, because billions of people are using them. So it’s not just a work issue, which I believe it is. Silicon Valley, the culture, needs to be a better place to work, but this isn’t just the tech industry’s problem. This is everyone’s problem.
McGrane: To that end, and getting at a slightly different demographic than just women who are in the workplace — you point out that companies have all of these perks. Apple’s new campus has yoga classes and things like that, but companies rarely offer daycare at their offices. And that really can be tough for parents — women as well as men. How much of what we’re talking about today with respects to specifically women also applies to parents in general?
Chang: So much. I know plenty of men who work in tech who are dads and feel like they’re old and the expectations of them to attend social events or drink after work are just not appropriate, or not something that they can live up to as a working dad. These campuses, which are amazing in so many ways — I mean you can get a massage, get a haircut. You can go to the dentist on campus. They’re set up for young, single people right out of college and they absolutely skew male. But if they’ve put enough thought in that you can take your dog to work, I think they can put some more thought into how they build a place that is good for parents. And I know childcare is hard, but it is done in other industries, and why not? Let’s talk about that, because I think it could change the game for a lot of people and parents and companies.
McGrane: And I think you get at something there that really is integral to a lot of the things in the book that you go into, and that’s the way that work and home life are blended in ways that one might not expect. So business happens at parties on the weekends and you meet important people at social events. Work goes beyond the boundaries of your office and the nine-to-five. How has that impacted everything?
Chang: Absolutely. I do think, in Silicon Valley, work lives and social lives are blended more than ever. You might leave the office and go to a bar and work discussion continues and maybe if you’re a mom or if you’re a dad, you don’t want to go to that bar after work. You want to go home and see your family. I talk a lot about what is happening inside the office, but you’re right, that so much business is getting done at the bar or in the hotel lobby or on the sidelines of a conference or at a party of various kinds — and in many of these situations, women can be put in uncomfortable positions. But it’s almost the exclusion that matters more. It’s kind of like the modern-day golf course. Sometimes women aren’t even being invited! And so, I do think there are a lot of ways that the behavior that has been not just tolerated but normalized is shutting women out.
Bishop: I was shocked by Chris Sacca, the investor — his reaction to just bringing up this whole notion of the extracurricular activities. He would have hot tub parties. You wrote about multiple kinds of parties, and it sounds like his parties were more tame than the other parties you wrote about. That said, it seemed tone deaf that anybody would think that was an appropriate place to network. I struggled with that. I don’t think it’s a very Seattle thing. Can you imagine that going on in Seattle, Clare?
McGrane: No, we don’t have the weather for it, for one thing.
Chang: It’s interesting because he talked about these parties on television, and he was proud of them as a way to show that he opened his home to up-and-coming entrepreneurs. But then he went on to brag about people like Travis Kalanick, a founder that he had invested in, who had the staying power and could last up to eight hours in a hot tub. And then I spoke to Katrina Lake, the CEO of Stitch Fix, who heard him talking about this at a conference and in that moment thought, “I’m never going to get an investment from Chris Sacca.” Because what woman is comfortable getting into a bikini and pitching an investor while holding a beer in a hot tub? Not many. Totally tone deaf.
Bishop: And that is probably one of the biggest examples in the book of how the structure and the perpetuation of this culture that started with men, essentially, and just implicitly excludes women. There are times when I think men are aware that they’re doing it, and Chris apparently was not.
Chang: And part of it is because it is just so male-dominated. There are no checks and balances. Imagine six men around a dinner table. If you swap in one woman the conversation changes slightly. If it’s half and half, it’s a completely different conversation than it would be if it was all men. And so I think we really need more women at the table at these companies for organic cultural change to happen. I do think there is a lot of ignorance and it’s not always malicious, but at this point — I mean, I’ve written 300 pages about it. Ignorance can only be willful. We know there is a problem. Now we need to talk about how we fix it.
Bishop: You talk a lot about Silicon Valley in the book. It’s interesting, I’ve followed Microsoft over the years from our perch up here in Seattle, and a lot of the cultural things — just the subtle cultural things that you talked about — man. They were very typical of Microsoft, especially in the Bill Gates era. Gates would arrive and he’d check the parking garage to see whose car was first in line. Amazon obviously has a culture of its own. You didn’t really address the Seattle tech giants. Do you see some characteristics at those companies that you also see at the Silicon Valley companies?
Chang: Oh, absolutely, and I could have written for years. The problem is that they’re all about the same. The numbers are all about the same. They have their own particular cultural nuances, but I certainly had to pick and choose where I was going to dive deep, and Google was one of those places. But I certainly could’ve written similar things about Microsoft and Amazon. Obviously what’s interesting about Microsoft is it’s been around such a long time. One of the interesting things that I learned when I walked into it is: I expected that startups would be worse than big tech companies. But what I found in talking to people is that it really depends on your manager. So if you have a good manager, you can have an amazing experience no matter how big your company is. If you have a horrible manager, you can have an awful experience whether your company is big or small. So this is something that obviously all companies need to look at.
But interestingly, being in Seattle, I’m speaking at Microsoft and speaking at Amazon and I’m very heartened that they are bringing me in and that they’re willing to have this conversation, which is the first step. I mean, I think we need to create safe spaces for people to talk about these things. And in our Twitter-happy world, it can be hard to have a conversation like that. But I think we all need to listen and I’m open to listening when people disagree with my ideas. … Nothing’s going to change if we don’t talk about it. And obviously, we need to make sure that talk is followed by a lot of action.
Bishop: Let’s talk about Google, because this was one of the most fascinating examples in the book. They do some things so well and then in other cases, they just fail spectacularly. One of the things that they did very well was they brought on Susan Wojcicki to do some of the key initiatives on the advertising side early on. And then she went on to be the head of YouTube. Tell us what they did right in that case and how it influenced Google’s trajectory.
Chang: I found this fascinating. So in the early days of Google, Larry and Sergei tried very hard to hire and promote talented women. And they got people like Susan Wojcicki, who pushed for the acquisition of DoubleClick and YouTube and now is the CEO of Youtube. In fact, she conceived their ad business, basically. Then Sheryl Sandberg came in and scaled that ad business. And Marissa Meyer designed the minimalist homepage that we all use when we go to Google to this day. And those women, in a way, didn’t get enough credit for what they did contribute. We look back on Google and think its success was a sure thing, but in the beginning, there were 14 search engines competing to be Google and success was far from a sure thing. And the Google example proves that hiring women isn’t just the right thing to do. It is the smart thing to do.
But unfortunately … over the years they lost focus and they were just trying to fill the seats as fast as possible and they defaulted to industry standard recruiting methods. The same job fairs, the same schools as everybody else. And when they pick their heads back up at the end of the financial crisis, one human resources executive told me, they looked up and said, “My God, where are all the women? What happened?” And it just goes to show that this needs to be a priority year after year after year. And it can’t just be the 15th thing on the list. It needs to be one, two, or three. We’re talking about building a diverse workforce and a strong team for the good of the business. This is not just about equality, because I think equality is important, but this is about building an unassailable business.
McGrane: Let’s talk a little bit about something that gets kind of tied up in that recruiting and hiring effort a lot. The meritocracy. What is the meritocracy, in your mind, and why do you say in the book that it is a myth?
Chang: Silicon Valley fancies itself as a place — as I say, a utopia — where anyone can succeed if they deserve it, and the best and brightest will indeed rise to the top. And in reality, a meritocracy or perfect meritocracy is impossible to achieve, because at no stage of the game is anyone on a level playing field. We all come to the table with our own sets of privileges and the escalator is moving far faster for some than it is for others. And, unfortunately … if you believe you truly are operating a meritocracy, it can actually make you behave more anti-meritocratically. Because you assume people are in the positions that they’re in because they deserve it or that they work hard or everything’s working, when in fact it completely belies all of the privilege at play that leads people to be in those seats. And so, I do think this idea of meritocracy has been completely misleading and if women are getting two percent of funding, you cannot possibly call that a meritocracy.
Bishop: So as we’ve been discussing, obviously you’re a journalist day-to-day and you are an author in this scenario. How has the process of writing this book changed your approach to covering the tech industry day to day?
Chang: You know, it’s interesting. You mentioned James Damore, and I want to stress that I came into this process as a journalist and my goal is to report the truth. But I also knew that it wouldn’t be worth writing a book at all if I didn’t write what I really believed. And, ultimately, I do take a strong stand. Brotopia makes a strong statement. And that was after hundreds of interviews and a lot of research and years of reporting. Women’s issues and the representation in the tech industry is something that I’ve always cared about and I would get progressively more bold in terms of asking executives about it when they would come on my show, but no one would ever say exactly what they thought in an on-camera interview. In fact, they’d get off set and then they’d say what they really had to say. And women especially would complain or were so beaten-down by how they felt the system was unfair. And so, I sort of realized that the only real way to cover this issue was in a book. And then, at the end of 2015, I interviewed an investor — Michael Moritz, the chairman of Sequoia Capital — and at the time, Sequoia had no female investing partners in their U.S. business. And I asked, “What is your responsibility to hire women?” And I totally thought he was going to give me some canned answer, like everybody else, and talk about how important women were and they were trying hard. But instead, he talked about the pipeline problem and how not enough women are electing to study the sciences and that they’re looking very hard— but what they’re not prepared to do is to lower their standards.
And it just hit me like a ton of bricks. I was like, “Did he just say that?” And he later clarified that he thinks there are many talented young women out there who could be in the venture business. And, by the way, he’s a former journalist, he doesn’t have a STEM background. But in a way, I felt like that was a moment of truth and a moment that shined a light on what many people in the industry probably believe is the real problem and what is holding women back — and it’s attitudes like that. And even if you judge Sequoia only on its actions and not by what he said, this is a firm that didn’t hire a single woman in 44 years. You can’t tell me that the best venture capital firm couldn’t find a single woman to hire in 44 years. After that interview, they did hire someone. But as we’ve discussed, one is not enough, and it’s going to take a lot more than that to convince me that a real culture change has been made there.
McGrane: I’m curious how writing the book has changed your view of yourself and your day to day of interacting with the tech world and walking through this world as a woman. I know reading it, I had several reflective moments and in the book you give us some really wonderful insights into what it was like to be researching this, writing this and kind of reflecting on your role.
Chang: I mean — it was fascinating, and in my day-to-day job, I don’t get to spend an hour or two with people. I’m seeing someone for five minutes in a live on-camera interview and then they’re gone. And, you know, I have meetings but these were very intimate conversations with people and so in many ways, it strengthened a lot of the relationships that I already had. It forged new relationships. And certainly, I learned so much just about how the industry operates. Of course, I was worried about how it would impact my career because I rely on these people wanting to be on my show to do a show essentially. And ultimately, I decided that I know that I would make some people uncomfortable. No good change comes without some people feeling uncomfortable, and hopefully, the people that I am a little harsh on will respect me more for it, down the road.
Bishop: Toward the end of your book, you offer some concrete steps. You called them the bare minimum of what we can do, at an individual and a systemic level, to start to break up this Brotopia that’s out there. Give us your thumbnail sketch of what can be done.
Chang: So first of all, treat one another with respect and dignity. I think that’s a given and we should be doing that all the time, every day and unfortunately, the bare minimum — and this is the bare minimum —hasn’t been getting done in Silicon Valley. I do think change needs to come from the top and CEOs need to be explicit about this as a focus and a priority and to communicate that throughout different levels of the organization, and also to talk about why we are doing this. Someone like James Damore may have seen diversity initiatives at Google and not understood why we need those initiatives. I think understanding that we all have biases and we all come to the plate with our own set of privileges, et cetera, is really important. Also, start early, because the longer you wait, the harder it is to change. And I talked to so many executives who learned the hard way that this is really important and trying to fix it when you’re already a large company is like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around.
Bishop: Because nobody wants to be the first — like the first woman to join — at anything.
Chang: Absolutely. People want to join teams where they feel like they’re going to be included. And so, I do think the longer you go without hiring women or people of underrepresented backgrounds, the harder it is to attract those people. By the way, there are bright spots in the book. There are people who are doing this well. One company is Slack and the CEO, Stewart Butterfield, who has been very explicit about how he feels about this. And every time he tweets about hiring women and underrepresented minorities, they get a spike in inbound interest. So just saying that you care attracts people who also care. There’s some very detailed solutions in there that I think can apply across industries, but it’s things like diversifying your recruiting teams. Maybe you don’t even start an interview process until you have a qualified female candidate or two, or underrepresented minorities.
Pay people fairly. I mean, the pay gap in Silicon Valley is five times the national average. And I think it’s also — when you are starting out, when you do have that blank slate, writing down your values. What’s important to you as a team? In Silicon Valley, we often hear this term “culture fit,” which I think can be used to exclude people who don’t fit your culture. I like the term “cultural addition.” Maybe you like your culture or you feel good about it and you want people who are going to expand that culture. And thinking about: “What is the company you want to be?” Amazon is starting a new headquarters somewhere in the United States. Why couldn’t that new headquarters aspire to be 50/50? They’re starting from scratch. I think that’s a huge opportunity for them to take a look at: “What do we want to be? What is the campus and the culture that we want to create?”
Bishop: I know you’re speaking there. Maybe you could challenge them on that.
Chang: I was thinking about suggesting it, we’ll see.
McGrane: So I want to ask maybe a pessimistic question. How much hope do you have that this could actually happen? That this would happen in the next 10 years? Fifteen years? In our lifetimes? Because there are some instances in the book that really just make it seem like it would be a challenge to get some people on board.
Chang: I am very hopeful, and I couldn’t have written this book if I wasn’t optimistic about it. Because you’re right, there are some depressing statistics in there. And obviously, some of the things we’ve heard from the people who are leaders in the technology industry don’t measure up. But I believe that the people who are changing the world and taking us to Mars and building self-driving cars — they can hire women and pay them fairly. This is an industry that does not shy away from hard problems. So if we can connect the world and organize the world’s information and revolutionize how people shop, we can do this. And it’s not just for the people who work here, again, it’s for all of the people who use these products. These companies should want the products that they create to be accessible to people of all backgrounds. And by the way, women drive 70 to 80 percent of consumer purchases. So they’re buyers, they’re users, they have children — they care about the future of these companies and the culture that we’re all a part of. I know there’s a little bit more urgency right now. There’s a lot of talk. I’m heartened by the conversations that people are having. But I do think that significant action needs to be taken.
Bishop: And, to your point, it’s not just the products of today, but it’s the technologies of tomorrow. Wow, that sounds very buzz-word-ey, but you’re thinking about AI and robots. I mean, these are things that are going to impact us decades — centuries — from now. The human race and humanity and the Earth. Shouldn’t everybody be involved — all genders, all races — in determining the future like that?
Chang: If we don’t do this now, all of these biases and discrimination will be rewritten into the algorithms and AI and machine learning that is powering the tech of the future. Already, facial recognition technology is basically sexist and racist. It doesn’t recognize women and people of color the same way that it recognizes white men. That’s a big deal. Ev Williams, the co-founder of Twitter, told me that he thinks if there had been women on the early Twitter team that online harassment and trolling wouldn’t be such a problem. Imagine if online harassment and trolling weren’t a problem on the internet today. It’s impossible to know “what if?” If women had been present 20 years ago, how would things be different? Of course, I think about the woman who could have started the next Facebook or Google or Apple who never got a chance. But what if online harassment wasn’t a problem? What if porn wasn’t so ubiquitous? What if video games weren’t so violent? What if we had better parental controls? Think about how different the world could be. We can’t go back in time, but we can certainly start now to build the future that we want for all of us.
McGrane: Another “what if” you raise in the book: Could women have prevented the dot-com bubble?
Chang: What if? Again, people of different backgrounds have different risk profiles. It’s been raised with respect to the financial crisis. Could women have stopped the financial crisis? It’s been raised with respect to war. Would we have been in as many wars if women were making the decisions? And I think we could apply that same article to the dot-com bubble. If women had been more involved at these companies and leadership, would so many companies have been built on hype and no revenue? Maybe not.
This is something that needs to happen now. There’s so much data that proves that diverse teams have better results. Diverse teams are more innovative. If you add a woman to a board or an executive team, profitability goes up by three to eight percent. Let’s talk about this. It shows in the numbers and I really think the time is now. I mean, we’ve never been in a more hospitable cultural moment for real change and I think for the first time people are feeling more safe speaking up. Let’s take advantage of this moment and make sure it’s not a moment, but it’s a movement.