REVIEWED: Brotopia


Brotopia by Emily Chang (Nonfiction, 2018).

The author is an experienced business reporter and TV host specializing in the high tech world and this is a steady, relentlessly focused piece of investigative journalism. It’s already a national bestseller, so it probably doesn’t need my help in gaining attention.

Nonetheless, I feel like adding my voice to those proclaiming it a highly topical, disturbing and thoroughly readable account of the way the Silicon Valley “Bro-culture” has systematically marginalized, disrespected and often excluded the talents of female engineers (and to a large extent non-white males as well).

Chang begins with a thoughtful account of the beginnings of modern computer-oriented industry and shows how mistaken and narrow-minded ideas of what sort of people made successful program writers. The personality types the nascent industry began searching out (socially awkward, technically skilled but obsessive, even somewhat anti-social workaholics) early on excluded most women. This despite the fact that the early days of ‘computing’ work used to be considered “women’s work” (see the fine book Hidden Figures and movie based on it).

From this irrational and incomplete notion, a self-fulfilling and self-sustaining stereotype took hold. Early computer pioneers who fit this viewpoint naturally gravitated to hiring people like them and this exclusionary subculture arose.

Then the tech world’s finances exploded, producing the of the 80-hour-a-week/work-till-you-drop/life-as-work-and-nothing-else fanatic turned instant billionaire image took hold. It became, in fact, the industry ideal.

Ideas of entitlement on the part of the suddenly powerful industry leaders only further excluded any other sort of person and, in the case of women, led to damned-if-you do/damned-if-you don’t situations—much of it tied to sexual activity.

The book is not a hopeless screed about unfairness, however. Chang profiles people in the industry (including some men, but especially those women who have overcome or are struggling to overcome the exisiting barriers) who give hope for the future.

A fine look at at a (slowly/reluctantly) evolving subculture that prides itself as being unconventional, but is too often a more extreme and self-serving variation on old-style male-dominant conventionality. For the sake of all those directly involved (and all of the rest of us, since we’ll inevitably be effected by how this industry matures and what it produces), I hope the cautiously hopeful course Chang charts for its future comes to pass.




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