Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

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

Revulsion of the Nerds.

Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley

Portfolio Penguin, 2018, 320 pages

Silicon Valley is a modern utopia where anyone can change the world. Unless you're a woman.

For women in tech, Silicon Valley is not a fantasy land of unicorns, virtual reality rainbows, and 3D-printed lollipops, where millions of dollars grow on trees. It's a "Brotopia," where men hold all the cards and make all the rules. Vastly outnumbered, women face toxic workplaces rife with discrimination and sexual harassment, where investors take meetings in hot tubs and network at sex parties.

In this powerful exposé, Bloomberg TV journalist Emily Chang reveals how Silicon Valley got so sexist despite its utopian ideals, why bro culture endures despite decades of companies claiming the moral high ground (Don't Be Evil! Connect the World!)--and how women are finally starting to speak out and fight back.

Drawing on her deep network of Silicon Valley insiders, Chang opens the boardroom doors of male-dominated venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins, the subject of Ellen Pao's high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit, and Sequoia, where a partner once famously said they "won't lower their standards" just to hire women. Interviews with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, and former Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer--who got their start at Google, where just one in five engineers is a woman--reveal just how hard it is to crack the Silicon Ceiling. And Chang shows how women such as former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, entrepreneur Niniane Wang, and game developer Brianna Wu, have risked their careers and sometimes their lives to pave a way for other women.

Silicon Valley's aggressive, misogynistic, work-at-all costs culture has shut women out of the greatest wealth creation in the history of the world. It's time to break up the boys' club. Emily Chang shows us how to fix this toxic culture--to bring down Brotopia, once and for all.

Sigh. This is not a rigorous analysis of gender discrimination in Silicon Valley. It's a screed about nerds and rich dudes.

I found myself sighing throughout Brotopia, because it felt like the author was just going through a checklist of complaints. When Yahoo! tanked under Marissa Mayer, Chang says she was blamed because of sexism. In fairness probably nobody could have saved Yahoo! — it's been a dead brand walking for years. But Emily Chang doesn't really cite any "sexist" condemnation of Meyers, just notes that she got a lot of flack for failing to save Yahoo!, and speculates that a man would have gotten less.

Most of the topics Chang covers are familiar ground for anyone who's aware of the various gender-related controversies that have roiled the tech industry the past few years. Chang touches on it all: the James Damore memo, GamerGate, a long list of venture capitalists, tech moguls, and other bigwigs in Silicon Valley caught in some kind of scandal (usually banging an employee). There is of course much to legitimately complain about, but here is my problem with Brotopia: Chang does what many critics of "the tech industry" do, and lists all the historical grievances women have had (which are are numerous and real) and attributes them as if unique, or uniquely bad, in the tech industry. Even when she makes a nod to the historical reality, like, "Well yes, rich men have always had young, pretty mistresses," she still indicts the tech industry for being somehow worse. The closest she comes to substantiating this is with one study claiming that Silicon Valley's numbers are worse than Wall Street's when it comes to women in top positions.

Chang uncritically presents ideas that have permeated popular culture from the Implicit Association Test (whose credibility, much like the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, has been shown to be extremely dubious despite being a mainstay of workplace studies for two decades) to Stereotype Threat (which likewise has been largely debunked, during the psychology field's recent replication crisis) to that mythical 72 cents on the dollar that women make, which is often quoted as if companies tell Software Engineer I Emily that she'll be making $72K while Software Engineer I Edward will be making $100K. The gender disparity in incomes doesn't work like that: almost no company, in the 21st century, simply pays women less for the same job. (Exceptions being at the upper end, where it's actually very hard to do an apples to apples comparison of Hollywood actors or corporate CEOs, and at that point we're basically complaining about a woman who "only" makes $72M when her male counterpart makes $100M. It is hard for me to see this as a compelling feminist issue.) The disparity is the end product of a complex chain of social influences and yes, institutional sexism, which affects everything from who gets into which classes to how long women stay in a career.

But Chang lost me a bit with her starting premise: that right from the beginning, the computer science field "deliberately selected" for anti-social men who were good at solving puzzles, leading to a particular type of sexist man who's hostile to women (just say it, Emily: nerds) who then kept women out. Besides this dubious theory that such selection was by design, she never even considers that maybe computer science actually does attract a certain type of personality and a brain wired for certain types of thinking (note: not necessarily a "male" brain!).

This, incidentally, was a shorter version of the much-maligned James Damore's infamous memo, who Chang, like most people, claims said that women are neurotic and biologically unsuitable to be engineers and programmers. He didn't say that. He did say that there was evidence that there exist biological differences between men and women that extend to their brains, and that it was possible that the sort of brain that's good at certain tasks, like programming, is more often found in men. Agree with this or disagree with it, his actual point was more nuanced and a lot less misogynistic than Chang and others have represented.

The "myth of meritocracy" is another topic that has become controversial in the tech world, and Chang takes this one on as well. Traditionally, tech companies have had a policy that says essentially "hire the best and brightest regardless of sex, race, etc." It sounds very egalitarian and makes sense on the surface, but Chang rightly brings up all the ways that this perception of "merit" can be biased, and what a disadvantage women and minorities have had to obtain signifiers of this merit, such as degrees from prestigious universities. It's quite reasonable to question why your "meritocracy" just happens to be almost entirely white men. On the other hand, she gives very little consideration to the question of whether the representation of women and minorities is proportionate to the available pool, other than acknowledging that the pipeline is a problem and more effort must be made to get people other than white dudes into it. That "diversity is better" is an article of faith in HR companies today, but this is for the most part a moral argument that is presented as a logical one; actual diversity studies have given indifferent results so far.

But Chang really, really hates meritocracies, almost as much as she hates nerdy men. When she starts talking about Silicon Valley high-rollers and their "cuddle parties," the venom really spills out. The most salacious portion of her book was excerpted in Vanity Fair, telling tales of sex parties and rich venture capitalists and their harems as if this was a shocking thing. Chang acknowledges that rich guys using their wealth to get with beautiful women is a tale as old as time, and yet she seems offended and outraged that this happens in California too, even when the rich guys are supposedly modern, enlightened progressives. She interviews attractive young women who date these rich guys and are very upset that getting a rich guy to settle down and marry you is sometimes difficult. Ahem.

I'm going to be a tad uncharitable here, but from the tone of Chang's comments and the words of her interview subjects, it was hard not to read a lot of resentment at wealthy nerds who should be grateful for scoring women out of their league. Like, sorry, you can't chase rich nerds because they're rich and then get pissed off because they have actually realized that being rich means hot women will chase them. Does this make relationships seem pretty transactional and reinforce a lot of very cliched old stereotypes? Yes, but it takes two to tango, babe.

It's not that I don't think sexism exists, or that I am against diversity, or that I think girlz cant code. Quite the contrary. But this was just a weak, polemical book, and while it may be a little unfair to compare a journalist to a neuroscientist, I think Cordelia Fine does so much better addressing this topic. Brotopia has very little insight or original thought; it's mostly outrage strung together with anecdotes.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, non-fiction, reviews

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