Features & Columns

Emily Chang's 'Brotopia'

New book details sex, drugs and sexism in Silicon Valley
The party's over, bros, as women speak up and the rules change.

It's the stuff of nerdy programmers' dreams: make enough money in Silicon Valley, and the invites to secret sex parties will roll in. The soirées are the 21st-century version of dotcom-era trips to Vegas, where you might see a polyamorous venture capitalist dressed like a bunny before he splits off to have druggy sex with a few women at once. The ratio of women to men is 2-to-1, the opposite of a typical tech sausagefest, and the molly takes many forms: mixed into a coconut, pressed into a Snapchat logo-shaped tablet, passed around in big plastic bags. The motto is "no voyeurism," so everyone basically has to participate, and what starts as a "cuddle puddle" often turns into a full-on orgy.

It's totally sick, bro.

Even household names like Tesla founder Elon Musk and Google co-founder Sergey Brin have been photographed at parties like these, in spiky armor or "safari chic" costumes. Everyone goes, just like everyone goes for $5 fried chicken and strippers at the Gold Club in San Francisco—nicknamed "Conference Room G" for its popularity as a lunchtime meeting spot. The club, located near Yelp and LinkedIn headquarters by Union Square, typically rakes in $15,000 a day, and that's before the night shift starts. The Bay Area is known for being sexually progressive; this is just the latest manifestation, or so say the bros.

But for women in tech, there's nothing progressive about it. The double standard is an old one: if you skip the parties, you're a prude, and if you participate, "don't even think about starting a company or having someone invest in you," a female entrepreneur tells journalist Emily Chang, who chronicles tech industry sexism in her new book, Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley.

The sex parties and strip clubs are symptoms of a problem. In Brotopia, Chang, an anchor for Bloomberg TV in San Francisco, paints a picture of a Silicon Valley culture so devoid of a moral center and so hostile to women that it seems almost unsalvageable.

"Bad behavior happening inside the office is one thing, but in Silicon Valley, a lot of business is happening outside the office as well—at the bar, in the hotel lobby, at the conference, sometimes even in the hot tub," Chang wrote in an email interview with Metro. "I think a lot of it goes back to just how male-dominated the tech industry is, which has created a lot of norms that are putting women in uncomfortable positions," she says.

Misogyny in tech is not new. "Silicon Valley's #metoo movement started long before Hollywood's, going all the way back to Ellen Pao, who sued her venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins, for gender discrimination in 2012," says Chang, followed by Susan Fowler's memo about discrimination at Uber in 2017 that led to founder Travis Kalanick's ousting in June.

What is new is the scope of industry's reach into our politics and our daily lives. As Silicon Valley has boomed, bro culture has leveled up, and the guys who were publishing "How to Avoid Sexual Assault Charges" in the Stanford Review, the conservative student paper they founded in the early '90s, are this century's titans of industry. Mark Zuckerberg is probably running for office; last year he posted corny observations from a 50-state tour of the country, and Facebook hired a full-time personal pollster to keep track of his approval rating. Peter Thiel has the ear of the White House and enough money to crush any journalistic outlet he doesn't like, as he did with Gawker, which outed him in 2007. Twitter and Reddit allow rape and death threats to proliferate, enabling fringe trolls who brought actual Nazism back to public discourse.

There are economic implications, too. Chang argues that arrogance and groupthink destroyed a number of dotcom-era companies. And tech's newest speculative market, cryptocurrency—whose investors are 97 percent male and insist it's not a bubble—could fall to next to nothing, since there are no assets behind it and large amounts of electricity are required to make it work. "I do worry that the industry prizes a certain kind of risk-taking, bravado and arrogance that doesn't always set companies up for long-term success," Chang says.

It wasn't always this way. In 1967, Cosmopolitan highlighted Grace Hopper and other female programmers, encouraging women to check out coding jobs that paid $120,000 in today's dollars.

But as the industry grew and tech jobs increased in prestige, recruiters sought out antisocial "lone wolves" who wanted to stay up all night writing code, and nerd culture took over. "There's no evidence that proves antisocial white men are better at computers than women," Chang says, but the percentage of computer science degrees awarded to women dropped from a high of 40 percent in 1984 to 22 percent, where it's held steady for the past decade.

Then, with Apple and Microsoft's home computer success in the '80s, money started to flow, and in came the bros. The "PayPal Mafia" started with a group of campus conservatives at Stanford, none of whom had computer science degrees but all of whom believed in free speech over anything else. (Keith Rabois, a co-founder of PayPal who shouted "Faggot! Hope you die of AIDS" at a school administrator in 1992, defended himself at the time with language that could have come straight out of a Gamergate subreddit. Or out of the White House. Rabois later came out as gay and apologized.) After PayPal was sold to eBay, that same group of men founded some of the valley's most successful companies, including Uber, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube, all influenced by the same principles: hire people like you, since it's easier to make money fast without internal arguments; work hard and play hard, since no one has kids at home to worry about; forget about an HR department, since no one wants their behavior policed.

What those principles led to, Chang argues, is a toxic environment for women, who are hired infrequently, harassed often and leave in droves. Startup founders love to make excuses for their low diversity numbers—"We'd hire more women if more of them came to us qualified!"—but job interviews that end at strip clubs don't encourage young women to join the candidate pool.

Plus, what the industry has decided are ideal personalities for hire—the supernerd and the risk-taking egomaniacal bro—are the types of guys women tend to politely endure, not emulate.

'Brotopia,' a new book by Bloomberg TV anchor and Silicon Valley journalist Emily Chang, airs salacious details of sex, drugs and misogyny in the male-dominated world of tech.

We hear about lone wolves in another context, too: when there's been a mass shooting by a white guy. Thiel once bragged that four of the six co-founders of PayPal had "built bombs" in college. He was implying that he hired only outside-the-box thinkers, but he also revealed an underlying comfort with violence that looms large for women in tech.

That's not a comfort that women in the industry share. Nobody wants to go to work with people who joke about gang-raping you, or who choke you at a work party when you try to leave, or who actually rape you in the bushes at an off-site work meeting, all of which happened to women Chang interviewed. The female head of trust and security at Twitter, a.k.a. the head troll cop, used a pseudonym in the book, refusing to give Chang details about herself "expressly to minimize becoming a target."

Even little things carry the threat of violence. In the book, Ana Medina, a 23-year-old engineer at Uber, describes how she has to constantly navigate co-workers' interest: "You get sexual advances and people hitting on you 24/7."

And because polyamory is more common in tech, a wedding ring or the old "I have a boyfriend" excuse might not even fend off advances. "You can't assume that people will understand that you're off the market because you're married," Elisabeth Sheff, a polyamory expert with a doctorate in sociology, told Chang. "Now it takes more effort to patrol that boundary."

It's not just annoying when co-workers ask you out every day; it means you have to navigate rejecting your co-workers every day, and rejection can have consequences for women. Women get attacked for saying no to men all the time. In a recent gruesome example in Britain, Molly McLaren's ex-boyfriend stabbed her 75 times after she had broken up with him. The 2014 Isla Vista shooter killed four people and injured 16 others at the University of California at Santa Barbara, angry that girls had rejected him. Men are afraid that women will laugh at them, but women are afraid that men will kill them, and that includes men with poor social skills at work.

Reports emerged last week that Google and Facebook, which Chang credits Sheryl Sandberg with de-broifying, now prohibit their employees from asking out a co-worker more than once. Other industries don't need to make a big deal about an anti-stalking policy; the bar is low in tech.

But do men really not know they shouldn't stalk their co-workers, or does "socially awkward" cover up intentional boundary-crossing? Lili Loofbourow explained in an essay last year how the myth of the "male bumbler" has protected predators like Louis C.K. and Woody Allen, who claim ignorance of the harm they've caused. "He's astonished to discover that he had power over anyone at all," Loofbourow writes, even though it's an act, exploiting the common assumption that men are clueless; they knew exactly what they were doing all along.

The tech bumbler feigns ignorance, too. The nerd persona is a convenient cover for entitled bad behavior, and "I'm bad with women" is a convenient excuse to try misogynist pickup artist tricks. PayPal didn't hire women, according to co-founder Max Levchin, "because we didn't know any," though women made up 47 percent of Stanford undergraduates in 1993, just after Thiel left campus. Emil Michael, who exited Uber's executive team just before Travis Kalanick went down, told Chang, "I have learned a lot since those early days." He must not have known in "those early days" of 2014 that you weren't supposed to bring co-workers to a karaoke brothel, where women wore numbered tags for easy picking. The result, Chang says, is that Silicon Valley "systematically excludes women from the greatest wealth creation in the history of the world."

Bad for Everyone
Access to tech wealth and the perks that come with it might be a dream come true, especially for guys who never got a date in high school. But the unsustainable startup culture that Chang describes is bad for men, too, because it makes them disposable. Need to leave early to help put kids to bed? There will always be another guy who'll stay at work past midnight to replace you.

The workplace culture that makes life impossible for working parents and hemorrhages female employees is profitable. Sure, Travis Kalanick of Uber went down. But he ruined his own brand and became a liability for his investors. Thousands of socially awkward Kalanick wannabes who can basically live at the office? That's a workforce.

That workforce is isolated on tech campuses, with consequences for everyone else in the Bay Area. "Workweeks used to leave hours available that could be devoted not only to children but to community, church, volunteering and socializing," Chang writes. If you never leave your office and get fed at work, you don't support local food businesses, you don't know your neighbors, and you don't notice the people around you struggling to pay rent. You're unlikely to do much to reduce inequality in your hometown, either: 93 percent of private foundation money went to charities outside the valley between 2006 and 2013, and Google, Apple and Facebook were notoriously absent from the list of donors after last year's floods, which hit San Jose's low-income neighborhoods hard.

Some companies are trying to become friendlier to women, if only for the sake of profitability. Slack, for example, does not serve dinner at work like Uber used to, encouraging employees to go home to eat. The hope is that more family-friendly hours, more female employees and a longer view of success will prevent the company from flaming out like so many startups. But most of the cheerleaders of sustainability that Chang interviewed at Slack had already left by the time her book was published.

These days, a few former PayPal Mafia members talk a big game about diversity. Reid Hoffman, who founded LinkedIn and now works at the venture capital firm Greylock, started an earnest "Decency Pledge" in 2017, encouraging colleagues to commit to stopping sexual harassment. Max Levchin defended PayPal's early all-male hiring practices as recently as 2014, but at his new company, Affirm, he's "been known to wash his own dishes" and says he's become "much more women- and employee-friendly."

Chang credits Sheryl Sandberg with stabilizing Facebook, which some called a "frat" before she came along. But Sandberg's fix to Silicon Valley misogyny was to tell women to lean into it instead of pulling away—to be twice as good. Chang's sunny appreciation for Lean In doesn't feel like an answer to the extreme discrimination, constant harassment and sexual assault she chronicles in the rest of the book. She's convinced that young women, armed with the knowledge of what happens in techbro culture, will put up with less. But a year after Susan Fowler's memo dropped about discrimination at Uber, large-scale change in Silicon Valley still feels very far away.

Chang trusts that sunshine will help. "I know the truth might be hard to hear, but only if we understand the problem can we actually start to solve it," she says.

In the meantime, she advises young women in tech to shop around for inclusive workplaces.

"Look for companies and colleagues that will support you," she says. "Don't just choose the hottest company on the block but ask a lot of questions and look hard for a place that feels right for you."

Emily Chang will be in Silicon Valley to speak and sign books at a Commonwealth Club event on Thursday, Feb. 15 at the Santa Clara Convention Center Theater. Doors open at 6:15pm and the program begins at 7. Tickets are $10 for students, $20 for members and $30 for nonmembers.