Sexism has been rampant for decades in Silicon Valley, where the uphill battled faced by women in technology is becoming more widely known through a number of books and articles. Emily Chang, a television journalist with Bloomberg News, is adding to the narrative with her new book, Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley. Chang exposes stories of eye-popping sexism in the industry while also revealing a surprising fact: Silicon Valley wasn’t always so dominated by men. She discussed her recent book on the Knowledge at Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: The male-centric culture of Silicon Valley is not a hidden story, yet you bring out some amazing details in this book that capture attention. Are people wondering why this environment persists there?
Emily Chang: When I started doing my research, I thought this is how the tech industry always was. But when I went back to the early days of computing, I learned that women actually were vital parts of the computer industry. They were programming computers for the military and for NASA. Think about it like the movie Hidden Figures, but industry wide. In the 1960s and 1970s, the industry was exploding and they needed good programmers so desperately that a software company hired two psychologists to develop a personality test to identify good programmers. They decided that good programmers “don’t like people.”
If you look for people who don’t like people, you’ll hire far more men than women. That’s what the research tells us, and there’s no evidence to support this idea that people who don’t like people are good at this job. But those tests were wildly influential and used by tech companies for decades. They’ve perpetuated this stereotype of the anti-social, mostly white, male nerd as somebody who is the only kind of person who can be good at this job.
Knowledge at Wharton: So, this one test from 40 years ago set the path for an entire industry?
Chang: A lot of things became self-perpetuating. At about the same time, you had women charging into computer science and getting 37% of computer science degrees. That has since plummeted to 18%, a number that has remained flat for a decade. This stereotype was then repeated in pop culture and repeated by investors who were looking for the new entrepreneurs to fund. They want people who look like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Unfortunately, none of them look like women. All of these things combined reinforces this idea of who can do this and what that person looks like, and it persists to this day.
“If you look for people who don’t like people, you’ll hire far more men than women.”
Knowledge at Wharton: You talked with a number of Silicon Valley executives for this book. What did they say needs to change?
Chang: Unfortunately, a lot of people believe that this is a pipeline problem, so they blame the number of women studying computer science. They say that there’s just not enough women to choose from. But the argument I make is that the tech industry actually created the pipeline problem by having such a narrow idea of who can do this job. That said, there are people like Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, who told me, “It’s not just a pipeline problem, it’s a retention problem. And we have a lot of work to do to make our companies more hospitable and welcoming to women.” There are people I interviewed, like Sheryl Sandberg, who make the obvious point that we need more women in leadership. You cannot be what you can’t see, and that’s when culture will start to change.
What you’re seeing some companies reckon with is this idea that they really need to change their hiring practices to make sure they’re sourcing candidates from a wide variety of backgrounds. But they really need to change their culture. There are so many examples in the book of cultural issues that are so deep-seated that have become toxic to women and put them in uncomfortable positions.
Knowledge at Wharton: Can you give us some of those examples?
Chang: Susan Fowler, a young female engineer at Uber on her first day on the job, was propositioned for sex by her manager over the company chat system. She had screen shots of this. She tells human resources and they say, “We’re going to let that slide because he’s a high performer.” I spoke to other female engineers at Uber who were invited to strip clubs and bondage clubs in the middle of the day. There were kegs open on the floor. You go to these social events outside the office and work is getting done. You might decide who gets to lead that project or which feature to pursue. This is not a level playing field.
A lot of these companies look like college dorm fantasy lands, and that is in part because they’re trying to attract the best young people. But we don’t need only young people making these products, we also need people of all ages and backgrounds. There is alcohol on demand. There is free breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can bring your pet to work. You can get your gym clothes washed. It gets to a point where the company’s doing so many things for you that you can sort of abdicate your responsibilities about everything else. These aren’t children. These are grown people who are working. I don’t understand why you need to have alcohol on demand at work, and you can certainly see the potential for that to be used in the wrong way.
Knowledge at Wharton: What is the reaction of the highest executives and the boards of directors to what is happening?
Chang: I’ve definitely heard from my sources that in board rooms, directors are asking more questions about what is going on. The #MeToo movement that we’ve been seeing happening in Hollywood and in Washington has been happening in Silicon Valley, too. There is a sort of reckoning.
At the same time, I do think that there are some people who don’t believe that things are so bad. When you accrue such gigantic amounts of wealth and power, it’s easy to become disconnected from real people and to think that the ends justify the means. That’s why I wrote this book. A lot of people don’t realize how and why we got here. They think it must have always been this way. In fact, it wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not too late to change. I fully believe that the people who are going to take us to Mars and are building self-driving cars and who have given us rides at the push of a button, they can change this, too. They can hire more women and pay them fairly.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do companies realize there is a business impact from not hiring women?
Chang: I think some of them do, but not everyone. It becomes a matter of time, and there’s not a lot of patience when you’re building a company that’s growing very quickly. I think people are thinking too short term. They just want to fill the seat and move on and get the product out. But there is a certain amount of short-term thinking here that I think can be very dangerous to the long term.
“A lot of people believe this is a pipeline problem — they blame the number of women studying computer science.”
I have a whole chapter on the history of Google and how founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin focused on hiring and promoting women in the early days. As a result, they got people like Sheryl Sandberg, who scaled the entire ad business; Susan Wojcicki, who convinced them to buy YouTube and is now running it; and Marissa Mayer, who became the CEO of Yahoo. She built Google’s minimalist home page that we use every single day. Those women are among the very few standouts of women in Silicon Valley and were critical to the company.
But somewhere along the way, they just stopped focusing on hiring women as a priority and focused on scaling the business and getting those seats filled as fast as possible. Now Google’s numbers are simply average, and we know that the average is fairly depressing. It just goes to show that this needs to be a priority not just in the beginning but at every stage of a company’s lifecycle because if you lose focus, the bigger you get the harder it is to change.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also spend time in the book on venture capitalists, whose money is important for startups. What role do the VCs play? Are they trying to set a different tone or following along?
Chang: Venture capitalists are the king-makers of Silicon Valley. These are the people who have billions of dollars to give to entrepreneurs and offer them a shot at being the next Mark Zuckerberg or the next Facebook. The vast majority of them are men who are already incredibly wealthy. It makes you wonder whether these men should really be the ones deciding alone what gets a chance to be the next Facebook.
Unfortunately, the firms are very male dominated, and women entrepreneurs that I spoke to feel that they have a completely uphill battle, especially when they’re shopping ideas that cater primarily towards women. I interviewed a young woman named Katrina Lake who is the CEO and founder of Stitch Fix, which is an online personal styling service. When she brought her idea to investors, 50 of them said no before one said yes. Well, she’s just taken her company public at a $2 billion market cap. It just goes to prove that the venture capitalists who are making these decisions don’t always know what the next big thing is going to be, which means it is incumbent on them to make sure they have people of a diversity of backgrounds at the table.
Knowledge at Wharton: Is part of the need to have these companies do a better job of supporting STEM education for young girls?
Chang: Definitely. Some of these companies are investing a lot of money in the pipeline, so there are young men and women who will become future programmers. But you can’t simply throw money at the problem and think things will get better. These companies have a lot of work to do to create environments that are more inclusive.
Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of abdication of responsibility on the part of companies as big as Google and Facebook, where recruiters have told me it’s a lot more talk than action. We need to see action. They can’t change who went to college five years ago, but they can change the way that they’re doing business right now.
“We are at risk of rewriting all of this discrimination and gender desperately into the algorithms of the future.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Is there a link between Silicon Valley and the #MeToo movement?
Chang: A lot of people don’t realize that the #MeToo movement in Silicon Valley started with a woman named Ellen Pao, who was an investor at a venture capital firm called Kleiner Perkins. She sued Kleiner in 2012 for gender discrimination. She lost in court in 2015, but she won in the court of public opinion. I think it started a dialogue that simply wasn’t happening. No one had dared to speak up about these kinds of behaviors.
Fast forward a couple of years, we had Susan Fowler and a number of other women entrepreneurs coming forward about investors and tech executives who had put them in uncomfortable positions. This was months before Harvey Weinstein. So, it is happening in Silicon Valley, but we don’t have Reese Witherspoon and Rose McGowan to speak up for that kind of behavior. I think there is a much more sort of industry-wide reckoning that needs to happen in order to stop it.
I would argue that Silicon Valley is just as, if not more, powerful than Hollywood because they are making products that we use every single day. Silicon Valley is changing our lives, and we are at risk of rewriting all of this discrimination and gender disparity into the algorithms of the future. Artificial intelligence and augmented reality and virtual reality — we are at the cusp of a whole wave of new technology that, if we don’t change something, is going to be entirely built by men. But if robots are going to run the world, they can’t be programmed by men alone. We need to have men and women making these decisions.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think that it is an abuse of power by people who maybe didn’t have much power before they started running these companies?
Chang: I do think that an incredible amount of wealth and power has been amassed here in such a short span of time. When that happens over the course of a long career it comes with a certain socialization. When that happens very quickly, you can be thrust into this role where you don’t quite understand what your responsibilities are. Yet you have warped sense of self-importance and your power simply because the product that you’re making has exploded or taken off. That is why you have these massive companies being run by incredibly young people, and it has led to a sense of entitlement and arrogance and disconnection from the real world.
Knowledge at Wharton: You have laid out a story that is very sad, but it’s also hopeful for what the future can be. Is that the theme that you would like readers to take from this?
Chang: I do believe that the people who change the world can do this, too. They can hire women and pay them fairly. Simply just look at the pay gap, which is five times the national average in Silicon Valley. That’s easy. Just look at the data and smooth it out. Pay people what they deserve or pay women what their male peers are getting.
There are some people here who are doing incredible work. There are entrepreneurs who are breaking down these walls brick by brick. There are female investors who are challenging the stereotype of what an investor should look like. There are companies run by women and men who are making hiring and promoting women a priority and instituting various systems to get them there. But it is not going to happen overnight. There needs to be a great attention to these issues because the numbers are obvious. Ignorance can only be willful. Saying, “I had no idea” — that’s an unacceptable excuse anymore. I’ve written a whole book about it. This cannot be dismissed.