SAN FRANCISCO — Emily Chang caused a mini earthquake in Silicon Valley last month when Vanity Fair published an excerpt from her new book, “Brotopia.”
With a headline that promised to bring us inside Silicon Valley’s “secretive, orgiastic dark side,” Chang laid out how drug-fueled sex parties were happening behind the scenes at the homes of wealthy tech executives and investors. One party she described was later tied to the home of Steve Jurvetson, a venture capitalist who left his firm last year amid an investigation into his behavior with women.
In “Brotopia,” which hits book stores Tuesday, Feb. 6, the secret sex parties are just a symptom of a much deeper problem that Silicon Valley’s tech industry has with its treatment of women. Chang’s examination of that issue coincides with the #MeToo moment and the broader debate about gender equality that it has sparked.
Chang, 37, who anchors a Bloomberg TV tech show, recently discussed the roots of Silicon Valley’s gender imbalance and the predominance of tech industry bros — you know, those cocky young men who swagger about. Edited excerpts follow.
Pui-Wing Tam: How did Silicon Valley become the land of the bros?
Emily Chang: It didn’t have to be this way, and it wasn’t always this way, importantly. Women played vital roles in the computing industry from the very beginning. Just think “Hidden Figures,” but industrywide.
What happened in the 1960s and 1970s was that the industry was exploding and was starved for talent. There just weren’t enough people to do the jobs in computing. So they hired these two psychologists, William Cannon and Dallis Perry, to come up with a personality test to screen for good programmers.
Those men decided, in screening about 1,200 men and 200 women, that good programmers don’t like people — that they have a complete disinterest in people. These tests were widely influential and used at various companies for decades.
What happens with that is that if you search for anti-social people, you will hire far more men than women. There’s no evidence to suggest that antisocial men are better at computers than women. But that stereotype has perpetuated to this day.
PWT: How intractable is the tech industry’s exclusion of women?
EC: It is systemic. Bad behavior has been tolerated and normalized for far too long. And people simply have a narrow idea of who can do these tech jobs. If you’re a woman in the tech industry, you’re the only woman in the room over and over again.
PWT: What did you find were some of the most egregious examples of how women in tech were treated?
EC: The party and social culture was really shocking. For two years, I interviewed dozens of people familiar with the sex party scene or who were shut out because of it. I was shocked. It was a lot less about sex than it was about power, and the power dynamic is completely lopsided.
PWT: What surprised you the most of the tales that women in tech shared with you?
EC: One of the most surprising things to me was that they weren’t surprised by what Susan Fowler (the former Uber engineer who last year publicly described sexual harassment at the ride-hailing company) wrote. This is their life, day in and day out. The women talk about performing this emotional labor all the time that men simply don’t have to do, and it’s exhausting. At the end of the day, they’re tired because they feel like they’re doing two jobs, not one.
PWT: After the Vanity Fair excerpt, you were criticized by some in the tech industry for describing the secret sex parties.
EC: I understand that this is new territory and that it might make people uncomfortable, but no good change comes without people feeling uncomfortable. These stories have to be told; otherwise, it perpetuates a culture of keeping women down.
PWT: You have been trolled on Twitter, as many women in tech have been. Did you experience other forms of harassment?
EC: As a journalist, I’ve definitely found myself in situations that have made me feel uncomfortable. But I’m sure it doesn’t compare to what the women in tech face every single day because they’re simply so outnumbered. I talked to women engineers at Uber who were getting invited to strip clubs and bondage clubs in the middle of the day. The middle of the day! And often they would go because that’s just what everyone was doing. It’s what you needed to do to fit in and be cool.
PWT: What are the chances that Silicon Valley really changes how it treats women?
EC: I’m encouraged because I see great examples. The same people who want to change the world — who are exploring the limits of outer space and building floating ocean communities and building self-driving cars — can do this. Change needs to come from the top, and CEOs need to make inclusion an explicit focus and priority and communicate that to people in the organization so that they, too, make it a priority
PWT: You have three young sons, who you dedicate the book to. What are the implications for them?
EC: When things got hard — because it’s not easy to report on sexism — I’d look at the boys and think “I’m doing this for them.” I really do think their lives will be better in a more equal world.
More importantly, Silicon Valley is controlling what we see, what we read, how we shop, how we communicate, how we relate to each other. This is not just tech’s problem. This is society’s problem. This is the industry that is having a greater influence on humanity than perhaps any other. And the same industry that changed the world can change this behavior.