Brotopia by Emily Chang: About Coders, Male Coders and the History of Nerds
At Boxcryptor, we strive to build the best encryption software you can think of. We achieve this by building on a diversified team, ever since the company was founded. Women, parents, foreigners, career starters, cyclists - the more perspectives we cover in the team, the better our code is - we are convinced of that.
If you look at other companies in the tech industry, you notice - more often than you’d think - a strong gender imbalance. The book Brotopia examines precisely this imbalance and explains why our society needs various perspectives on software. As most of the time in the IT industry, we look to the US, to Silicon Valley, the throbbing heart of digitization.
Brotopia – Breaking Up the Boy’s Club of Silicon Valley
American journalist and TV producer Emily Chang has taken the trouble to take a look into the history of Silicon Valley. She spoke with founders from the early days of IT systems and asked women about their work with the tech giants of our time. With her book Brotopia - Breaking Up the Boy's Club of Silicon Valley - she has presented a worthwhile stocktaking.
Chang's questions are: How did it happen that programming is primarily seen as a male occupation? Why is it problematic when IT systems are mainly designed by men? What are the consequences for the people who use these systems?
The History of Nerds: Is the White, Antisocial Male the Perfect Programmer?
It was not always the case that a majority of code-writers are male. At the beginning of the IT age in the 1960s, women and men were employed equally in this industry. Maybe you remember Margeret Hamilton, who wrote the code for the Apollo 11 moon landing with her team? At the time, that was nothing unusual.
But as the industry grew and as companies needed more and more people to do more and more programming, there was need for an improved application process. At this crucial point in 1966, the two scientists William Cannon and Dallis Perry made a momentous decision: they defined the ideal personality profile of a programmer. An integral part of this profile were qualities attributed to loners. With a personality test designed specifically for this purpose, companies started looking for new programmers from then on. The antisocial nerd stereotype was born.
Today, the term “nerds” is used almost lovingly. At that time, they seemed to be the future of the IT industry. From then on, graduates from colleges were searched for such characters and these graduates were primarily found among male students. The reason is: If you look specifically for antisocial behavior, you will find it more often in men than in women. Important in this context: There was no scientific basis for the assumptions of Cannon and Perry. They simply decided that satisfied programmers all share a particular trait: they do not like other people.
This sealed the status of imbalance. One thing led to another and suddenly you are the only woman in the office, after the company founders have bartered away the first 50 positions among their buddies.
It may not matter to all women, but many find it uncomfortable to work in such an environment - especially as it encourages sexist behavior. For example let’s take a look at Yelp, the platform for recommendations of restaurants and bars. This tech company held so many meetings in the nearby striptease bar "Gold Club", that the Yelp staff came up with the nickname "Conference Room G”. Numerous other reports and studies in Brotopia prove the beer-loving buddy culture in the largest and most important technology companies of our time.
The danger is that women leave these companies after a short time, maybe try again with another employer, but make experiences to the same end there and as a result start looking for a job in another industry, eventually.
Systematic Discrimination and Structural Preference in Silicon Valley
There have been many minor and major incidents that have further hardened the gender imbalance in Silicon Valley.
As an example, the company Trilogy (in the 90s as important as Microsoft today) drove a large recruiting program at universities. Future workers were attracted to parties. The recruiters, who gave away champagne and computers, were “all twenty-two and hot women” – says former Trilogy Director John Lilly. Understandably, these hostesses brought mostly male applicants to Trilogy.
In PayPal's founding years – around the turn of the millennium – the most important hiring criteria was that the founders worked well with the employees. Peter Thiel of the founding team said: "It's always, you know, this is somebody that we want to work with and could become friends with a long time?"
In 2007, as the magazine Fortune portrayed the PayPal management - by this time it was already referred to as a mafia - one simply forgot to invite the few women, which had made it to a top management position despite the prevailing company culture, to the photo shoot. Emily Chang attaches great importance to this photo, quoting Roger McNamee, investor and venture capitalist, who notes that many see the founding story of PayPal as a template. From then on, the world expected successful tech companies to be founded by cigar-smoking college buddies. The women in the company: erased.
The examples that describe Chang's almost 70 years of history in Silicon Valley range from the systematic cover-up of sexual assault at Google to the structural disadvantage of women in venture capital firms and with investors. The importance of venture capitalists cannot be stressed enough: they are the heart, the pump of the Silicon Valley system. They decide where the dollars go and thus have an enormous impact on the design of our everyday lives.
Emily Chang exposes the preference for white, young men in Silicon Valley and addresses the issues that arise for women, people of color, homosexuals, disabled, and those with children. But her book also shows the stories of successful female founders and managers. She talks about women's networks and states ideas for solutions to these issues.
There are, for example, the startups Winnie and Quip, whose founders have managed to reconcile family and company, not only for themselves. They have worked hard to create a family-friendly corporate culture. This also means that there is no (as commonly done following the example of the industry role model Google) free dinner served at 20:15, because that builds up pressure to stay every evening at work until then.
About the Author
Emily Chang began her career in television journalism as an international correspondent at CNN and has been working as a presenter and producer on the US business channel Bloomberg TV since 2010. In her daily show, she speaks with major figures in the technology industry. As part of this activity, she repeatedly dealt with the phenomenon of high male quota, but always received only unsatisfactory answers to her questions.
It is well worth mentioning that Emily Chang has positioned herself with Brotopia in a way that is not without danger. The book tells the story of Gamergate. Zoe Quinn, a game developer, had dared to publicly speak out against the sexism of the gaming industry and has now faced over three years of rape threats online and even attacks in real life - Quinn now lives anonymously at an unknown address. There seems to be a critical mass of gamers who constitute it is unbearable for a woman to point out abuses, that they commit crimes in order to silence her.
My Conclusion: Worth Reading, but no Light Fare
Amongst the many books that I read, there is rarely one that looks as repulsive, wrinkled, and stained as Brotopia. I carried this book around with me for a long time. During holidays, in the tram, at the playground – Brotopia was always there. The reason is that I had to read this book in small portions. On the one hand, it was so interesting that I kept taking notes and googled the examples that Chang lists. On the other hand, the anecdotes that she tells are often really hard to bear, so that I sometimes had to put the book away for a while.
Brotopia opened my eyes – I now do understand the historical background of the IT industry and how deeply rooted discrimination, exclusion and prejudice are in it. It is not only about discrimination against women and minorities, but also against prejudice against the typical coder.
But Chang does not leave us completely depressed. She also shows us how many young people are working on a diverse future of programming, training each other and developing admirable plans for the future. The offspring of programmers is joining the race.
One positive example is the company Slack that provides a professional collaboration hub for team work. Slack shows that you can maintain an open corporate culture in which all employees feel comfortable. From the start, both, the founders' personality and the company's policies, established that diversity is one of the company’s core elements. Because whoever develops a tool that helps the most diverse teams to work together effectively, has to have the most diverse group of people work on their product, too. Slack has never had a hard time keeping a quota of nearly 50% of women. An important instrument is the recruiting team, which is made up of people of different ages, skin color, and gender. Additionally, it includes some LGBTQ folks, as well. Read more about diversity at Slack here.
Diversity at Boxcryptor
We at Boxcryptor, actively seek to work against deadlocked role models. Our founding team consists of a woman and a man. Among the employees at Boxcryptor, the female quota is 45%. Our founder Andrea Pfundmeier, has made it her mission to inspire students for working in the IT industry and helps them envisioning themselves as founders, too. Therefore, Andrea speaks multiple times a year in schools, and invites students to workshops.
But we are by no means resting our head on the objectives we have successfully reached so far. We question ourselves, address prejudiced behavior in the team and specifically recruit employees of all ages, regardless of skin color, style of dressing, marital status or sexual orientation. At Boxcryptor we sincerely mean what we say, when we say: Come as you are.