A series of stunning revelations have been made in a book published early this year. Brotopia, breaking up the boys club of Silicon Valley was written by technology journalist Emily Chang. It covers sexism in Silicon Valley.
Designer-drug house parties, where eager and naive young female graduates are lured to engage in casual sex with older, wealthy men.
Male engineers pressured to work 16 hour days, then rewarded with strip joints and Las Vegas weekends.
And behind the scenes, old money keeping billion dollar opportunities in the hands of a wealthy elite.
This is not the ‘digital disruption’ that the startup world has promised.
Emily Chang is the anchor and executive producer of Bloomberg Technology where she regularly interviews tech executives, investors, and entrepreneurs.
Here are 5 major points that stood out in her book.
1. During the 40’s when the computer industry began, women worked alongside men and were treated as equals. Since then they have become a marginalized minority
During World War II, about 8,000 women worked at Bletchley Park, the central site for British cryptanalysts. Women constituted roughly 75% of the secretive workforce that housed the Government Code and Cypher School, which broke German Enigma and Lorenz ciphers.
Across the Atlantic, Grace Hopper, a mathematics PhD was programming the Mark I, a giant computer at Harvard University. During the war, the Mark I helped design the atomic bombs America would drop in 1945.
American women were also among the first to program the first computer ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) during the war.
In 1962, three black women working as NASA mathematicians helped calculate the flight paths that put John Glenn into orbit. Another woman Margaret Hamilton, also headed up the team that wrote the code that plotted Apollo 11’s path to the moon.
In the early years of computing, the work involved a lot of manual labor that was less like doing higher mathematics and more like running a telephone switchboard. During the fifties and sixties, computer jobs were openly advertised as being suitable for women.
In 1984, 50% of computer course graduates were women.
As the computer industry grew and companies realised how important it was, a serious shortage of computer programmers resulted. Wages rose. So did programmers social status.
As recruiters raced to train and employ more staff, psychology testing to quickly pick up suitable candidates become popular. Psychology testing identified traits as being male, anti social and loving puzzles and games. Women were screened out and their numbers in computing dropped.
Today women earn just 22 percent of computer science degrees.
2. The ‘meritocracy’ hype covers up a modern American divided by old world class structures
The startup community promotes the idea that success rests on merit alone. This philosophy has its roots in the concept of the self made man, a key tenet of the American dream.
Anyone can achieve anything, as long as they are prepared to work hard.
‘If your parents count themselves among the top 1%, you’re 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than your peers from families in the bottom 20% of the U.S.’ income distribution.’
Surprise: The 1% Is Overrepresented in the Ivy League
Many of close-knit group of wealthy startup founders, who became billionaires from technology companies like PayPal, have friendships that go back to their days at Ivy league Universities like Princeton and Stanford.
These social contacts, lead to friends hiring friends, success following success and millions turning into billions.
People are not always honest about the privileges their education had brought them. Some of the Silicon Valley millionaires see themselves as ‘outsiders’ who fought against great odds to achieve their wealth.
Others have ruthlessly exploited their family money and connections to raise millions of dollars, to fund unscientific products like Theranos.
Nobody can deny the achievements of great technology like Tesla, uTube, Linked In and Yelp.
However, numbers don’t lie.
According to a study by Crunchbase, graduates from Ivy League schools like Stanford and Princeton are far more likely to receive venture capital funding of 1 million or more.
3. Silicon Valley’s pursuit of profit at all costs, has created a culture of sleaze and chaos
In 2017, a young female engineer published a scathing blog about sexual harassment while working at Uber. It touched a nerve with other females in the tech scene. The post went viral.
Susan had joined Uber 2 years earlier and was immediately struck by the disproportionately low number of women to men. At one point, women accounted for less than 6 percent of her team.
On her first day on the job, her new manager made a pass at her; over the internal company chat system.
While shocked, she took screen shots of the electronic messages and reported the man to the human resources department. She was told it was his first offense and he was a ‘high performer’, so he’d only get a warning.
Susan then transfer to another department where she met more women engineers. It turned out many had a similar story to tell about the same manager. Sexism wasn’t the only problem at Uber.
“We all lived under fear that our teams would be dissolved, there would be another re-org, and we’d have to start on yet another new project with an impossible deadline,” Fowler wrote. “It was an organisation in complete, unrelenting chaos.”
Drinking and sex entertainment was encouraged during work hours by supervisors and management.
They would be like, ‘Oh, everyone, let’s go get drinks’ or ‘let’s go to a strip club.’”
Susan subsequently resigned from Uber. Many other female engineers had similar stories to tell.
Sexual harassment also occurs between female entrepreneurs and male investors, or Venture Capitalists.
Like the rest of Silicon Valley, investors operate in an unregulated environment.
The only people that investment firms are accountable to, are their Limited Partners. This is the group of wealthy individuals and groups like pension funds, who provide the money, in exchange for the promise of big returns over a period of time, usually 10 years.
“The only thing that VCs are measured on, their success, is 100 percent measured on returns… There is nobody who is holding them accountable to conduct business in a good way . . . They just need to make a lot of money for the LPs. How they do it matters less to the LPs.”
Part of the problem for these female entrepreneurs, is that Limited Partners are all competing with each other, to get their money into the best Venture Capitalist funds.
“I don’t care who they are; I just want the best returns. Some of the best VC’s aren’t the best people, but they drive the best returns.”
4. Imposing quotas on workforces to change demographics are well intended. But they lead to alienated groups and don’t solve industry-wide issues
Google had females on their management team from the start, and has made the most efforts of all the big tech companies to actively support women.
In 2008 Google established a secret practice to review all the cases of female engineers who failed interviews. It was called the Revisit committee and included women engineers to take a closer look at the candidate.
Sheryl Sandberg worked to build camaraderie among Google’s female employees by setting up a series of women’s networking events, as well as mentoring females in the workplace.
Google also offers scholarships, internships and a summer camp. The places are all reserved for women and other underrepresented groups.
However other Google employees did not feel comfortable with these top down directives.
In August of 2017, the tech world was rocked by Google engineer James Damore’s ten-page memo explaining what he saw as the root causes of gender disparities at the company.
He openly criticized some of the cultural issues and hiring practices at Google.
James argued that there were biological reasons that men were more likely to be hired and promoted at tech companies. He believed men had a higher drive for status which drove them to tolerate high stress jobs, whereas women were more prone to anxiety and had a stronger interest in people and empathizing.
He (James Damore) characterized Google as a “politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence.”
Within 24 hours one social media site had crashed due to a spike in traffic. One website that supported James’s point of view was crashed by a DoS attack.
Within a few days James was sacked from Google.
He subsequently went on conservative media channels where his opinions were widely broadcast.
5. Silicon Valley shows up the extreems in American society
If technology is here to make the world a better place, then you wouldn’t know it, after reading Brotopia.
The book reads more like a bacchanalia from the final days of the Roman Empire, than a celebration of innovation.
From the hookup culture, to polyamorous sex, to designer drugs and group sex parties; Brotopia paints a picture of small number of obscenely wealthy people, living in a moral vacuum.
The rich opportunities of Silicon Valley, are in stark contrast to outer suburban and rural poor of America, facing under-employment, outsourcing, poverty level wages and ‘the gig’ economy.
Ignoring this social divide has lead to political backlash.
In 2015 two Princeton University academics Anne Case and Angus Deaton, published a paper in 2015 called Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century.
It showed a marked increase in deaths of middle-aged white men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013. This increase for whites was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol abuse and suicide.
These deaths became known as the ‘Deaths of Despair.’
The following year, a populist businessman called Donald Trump, with no prior political experience, woo’d his followers with promises to making America great again, cut foreign imports and bringing back manufacturing jobs.
While Silicon Valley liberals went into meltdown, Trump used the same tools created by the tech titans to bypass, then mock the university educated media.
He called Washington ‘the swamp’, promised to lock up the Democratic opposition for corruption and held impromptu rallies in aircraft hangers, talking directly to his mostly male white audience with respect and encouragement.
Liberal elites snickered at his use of baseball caps as souvenirs in his political campaign.
Trump went on to win the USA presidency by a landslide. His main demographic are the same people picked up by Case and Deaton in their academic study; middle aged whites without college degrees facing collapsing incomes and social decay.
‘Real median income of these “demographically defined middle-class” households fell roughly 16% to $45,248 in 2013, from nearly $54,000 in 1989’.
Donald Trump is rising because the US middle class has crashed
This book is not the first critique of Silicon Valley’s excesses and won’t be the last.
It is also a timely reminder of the growing disconnect across Western countries.
Australia is now full of inner city, smug, tech-savvy liberals, pontificating about what a ‘lucky country’ Australia is. Attend any startup event and you will find a swamp of government officials and private lobbyists, eating quiche, while honing their politically correct patter, as they angle for their next promotion.
Just 20 kilometers away are suburbs full of unskilled men, facing a lifetime of casual employment, with high rates of broken families and a drug culture that is the ‘new norm’.
Technology is meant to be a tool to connect and improve people’s lives. We all need to work hard to keep it that way.
Wikihospitals October 2018.