While leaving this year’s inspiring Lawyers Club of San Diego General Counsel roundtable, I fortunately took home a copy of Emily Chang’s Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley. Chang’s exquisitely researched deep dive into women’s nearly complete exclusion from the modern technology industry is a must read for Lawyers Club members. Brotopia starts with the tale of male USC computer scientists in the 1970s nonchalantly using a Playboy centerfold portrait to develop the technology that digitizes images (the modern JPEG). This image became ubiquitous in computer labs and remains in circulation. When Chang questioned the team leader, William Pratt, about the propriety of using a Playboy centerfold photograph to develop this technology, Pratt responded that using the photo was not sexist because Playboy had “high quality photos” and since there were no women in the class, there was no one to be offended. Sound familiar?
From there, Chang takes her readers on an action-packed ride starting in the 1950s when computer programmers were predominately women! Not surprisingly, as programmers’ salaries rose and the computer industry grew lucrative, the industry pushed women out or excluded us by using a tragically flawed “programmer aptitude test” developed by two male psychologists who “determined” that good programmers 1) like to solve puzzles and 2) dislike people! Because women tested as liking people at a much higher rate than men, this pseudoscience concluded that women were naturally inferior programmers.
By selecting for an antisocial nerd stereotype, women were profiled out of the technology workforce. This industry composition contributed to the cultural designation that computers were for boys, compounding the growing scarcity of female computer engineers.
A technology community insider, Chang walks us through the making of Silicon Valley companies such as Uber, PayPal, Google, Twitter, Facebook and numerous VC groups that fund them. She brings to life the stories of how difficult it has been and remains for women to enter these rarified spaces. Once there, women routinely experience intense sexism, sexual harassment, marginalization, general hostility and crippling double standards. Their tenures are short lived. Still, Chang makes a convincing case that we can and must overcome these challenges. Chang’s access to the men (and the smattering of women) at the top of these ventures informs her thesis. Chang reminds us that technology shapes nearly every aspect of human life, yet it remains nearly exclusively male conceived and designed. Would these technologies be better and less destructive if women had helped to shape them? Chang emphatically answers “yes.” With punchy, insightful and humor-filled writing, Brotopia maps out a plan for a better, more inclusive future for this world shaping industry. I encourage you to read it.