Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley
by emily chang
portfolio, 320 pages, $28
Near the end of Revenge of the Nerds, one of the pustulous underdogs, disguised as Darth Vader, tricks an attractive co-ed into sleeping with him. Upon removing her lover's helmet and discovering that the Dark Lord of the Sith is not her quarterback boyfriend, the co-ed masters her shock and asks breathlessly, “Are all nerds as good as you?”
“Yes,” says the nerd. “’Cause all jocks think about is sports. All we ever think about is sex.”
When I watched Revenge of the Nerds for the first time, I was too young to recognize this encounter as rape. (The screenwriters—adults, presumably—have no such excuse.) My only takeaway was that since I, too, was a nerd, I, too, would be good at sex one day, provided I thought hard enough about it.
Brotopia, an exposé of Silicon Valley’s corporate culture by Bloomberg Technology host Emily Chang, chronicles what happens when socially maladjusted, sex-starved nerd-bros are given the keys to the kingdom. In the Revenge of the Nerds franchise, everyone gets a happy ending: The nerds get rich and the attractive co-eds get rescued from traditional masculinity, and all that rapey stuff seems consequence-free. But for women in Silicon Valley, the consequences are real.
Chang has cultivated a strong network of insiders during her tenure at Bloomberg, and the access provided in her book is intimate and detailed. She narrates how early recruitment of privileged anti-social temperaments—possessed by men, producing the gender “pipeline problem”—created the conditions for sexism to flourish. Today that sexism affects everything from hiring and retention to who gets venture funding. Many women feel themselves to be part of an underclass. The problem is systemic, bred in the industry's bones, belying the progressive virtue-signaling of companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Salesforce.
Women are held to higher standards in job performance; for instance, code written by women is more highly scrutinized. And they are subject to appalling amounts of sexual harassment. One study Chang cites found that 60 percent of women in Silicon Valley reported “they had been sexually harassed or received unwanted sexual advances, most of the time from a superior.”
The heart of Brotopia is the controversial sixth chapter, “Sex and the Valley.” Chang paints a picture of Neronian decadence, exploitation, and unfettered male ego. One gets the impression that all the men in Silicon Valley (and a few women) were imported from Brave New World. Writes Chang:
Much of the troubling behavior that marginalizes or excludes women happens outside the office, including lavish, drug-fueled, sex-heavy parties hosted by some of Silicon Valley's most powerful men, who cast the odds in their favor by inviting twice as many women. The attendees speak of overturning traditions like marriage and monogamy and claim to be reinventing social mores, just as they are reinventing the future within the companies they found.
As a former Google executive tells Chang, “Morality has largely disappeared.”
Chang describes a corporate party hosted in June 2017 at the home of venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson. Her anonymous source describes participating in a “cuddle puddle” (allegedly commonplace at Silicon Valley parties) and—her inhibitions lowered after she accepted the party drug MDMA from a man in a rabbit costume—making out with a male founder in front of his wife, who was “okay with it.” The source became uncomfortable and left the cuddle puddle, but the founder pursued her until she fled the party.
Chang's source was not the only person troubled by the nature of the party. Female members of Jurvetson's venture firm, DFJ, were critical, and some accused Jurvetson of a pattern of sexual harassment. He was pushed out of the firm in November.
Elon Musk, who attended the party “wearing a black armor-like costume adorned with silver spikes and chains,” contests the account. “Emily Chang’s article was salacious nonsense,” Musk told Wired. “She conflated what happens in SF sex clubs in the Tenderloin, which have been around long before Silicon Valley was anything, with boring VC parties on the Peninsula. That is misleading to the public and she should be ashamed.” Others have chimed in to confirm or deny Chang's account. A Facebook photo is alleged to show a cuddle puddle from the party, depicting “a group of men and women lying close together, kissing and massaging one another.”
“What's making this possible,” one founder tells Chang, “is the same progressiveness and open-mindedness that allowed us to be creative and disruptive about ideas.” He insists that just because someone crossed the line at Jurvetson's party, “that's not an indictment of the cuddle puddle.” When asked about why certain men feel obligated to “tear down traditional sexual expectations,” the founder is even more candid. “You build your own team and you get to build your own reality. Why wouldn't that mentally spill over into your sexual life?”
This may be well and good for a cretinous man. But the same standards do not apply to women. One female entrepreneur sums it up: “If you do participate in these sex parties, don't ever think about starting a company or having someone invest in you. Those doors get shut. But if you don't participate, you're shut out. You're damned if you do, damned if you don't.”
Polyamory has come to be regarded as normal even among rank-and-file tech workers. And it has consequences. Openly polyamorous women are treated differently by male coworkers, who feel licensed to flirt aggressively (or proposition women outright) at work. The new norm also affects women who reject the lifestyle in favor of monogamy. Elizabeth Sheff, who studies polyamory, explains: “You can't assume that people will understand that you're off the market because you're married.” This becomes exhausting, for obvious reasons, but it also leads to monogamous women being judged as “parochial and prudish.”
For some companies, professional boundaries are nonexistent. Uber's Travis Kalanick famously took a group of Uber executives, including one woman, to an escort-karaoke bar in Seoul—a decision that contributed to his ouster. More mundane are the daily visits made by hundreds of Silicon Valley tech workers to the Gold Club's lunch buffet, where one can devour all-you-can-eat fried chicken while getting a lap dance. Yelp employees refer to the strip club as “Conference Room G.”
Would equal representation of the sexes transform the culture of Silicon Valley? Chang seems to take for granted that the answer to all deep-seated problems of worldview and behavior is DIVERSITY!®. She lauds “woke” companies such as Slack, which places a premium on “empathy” and strives to hire as many “Earthtones” as possible.
Unfortunately, the cultural problems of Silicon Valley run much deeper than its lack of diversity. Take Esther Crawford and Chris Messina, a high-powered “monogamish” couple whose company Molly—named after MDMA—is building a “non-judgmental, artificially intelligent friend who will support your path to more self-awareness.” Crawford believes that “the future of relationships is not just with humans but AI characters.” One can easily believe that machines will replace the human bonds of friendship, if one already views humans as machines subject to the manipulation of others.
Nothing about being non-white, non-straight, or non-male makes a person immune to the dehumanizing influences of power. The most troubling thing about Silicon Valley is not its misogyny. Rather, it’s the nihilistic orientation that is prior to misogyny and sanctions it: the belief that human beings are raw material, to be shaped by the will.
Justin Lee teaches undergraduate writing at the University of California, Irvine.