In “Brotopia,” sex parties are the least of Silicon Valley’s problems

Two years ago, Bloomberg TV journalist Emily Chang set out to write a book about gender discrimination in Silicon Valley. It wasn’t specifically prompted by that now-famous post of former Uber engineer Susan Fowler, wherein Fowler calmly recounted the many ways that Uber’s internal controls were either very messed up or nonexistent. But the national movement that Fowler unwittingly kicked off certainly gave more urgency to Chang’s work, and today, the product of that effort, Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, hits bookshelves.

Vanity Fair was first to run an excerpt of the book, featuring Chang’s reporting about “exclusive, drug-fueled, sex-laced parties” where female founders are preyed upon. What we learned, once we had the book in our hands, is there’s far more to it than that. We talked with Chang about Brotopia this past weekend. Our conversation has been edited for length.

TC: Reading about these sex parties in Vanity Fair, it was hard to discern the scale of what you were describing and how much attention these nights should be paid — in part because no one was named. How big are these gatherings, and how frequent are they? 

EC: I talked with more than three dozen people about these parties and more since that excerpt was published — people who’d either gone and felt they couldn’t escape or else risk access to the powerful people there, and people who were shut out of them. And I was told they happen every week.

TC: In the Bay Area?

EC: San Francisco. Napa. Malibu. Ibiza. New York. Women entrepreneurs will get invited and they aren’t sure if the gatherings will be shady or not. They don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into. This includes young women who’ve come from other countries and immediately wonder: ‘Is this something that I need to get used to? Is this Silicon Valley?’ You can imagine how alienating that might be for someone new to the U.S.

TC: We’ve already seen a number of VCs leave their firms. Do you think we’ll see more fallout from these parties?

EC: People who are part of the scene have told me it has taken a bit of a pause since the excerpt was published. But the problem is not just sex parties. We all know how much work bleeds into personal life in this industry. I’ve talked with female Uber engineers who were routinely invited to strip clubs and bondage clubs in the middle of the day. As I recount in the book, I went to the famous San Francisco strip club Gold Club and it was packed with tech workers eating lunch.

What we’re talking about is bad behavior that’s not just tolerated but that’s been normalized.

TC: Do you regret that this bit of reporting was the first excerpt published? It grabbed the country’s attention, but Elon Musk, who was in attendance at one of the parties included in the book, has called your conclusions “salacious nonsense.”

EC:  The Bay Area has a long traditional of sex exploration, but women can’t participate in it without becoming victims of a double standard. I realize that the territory covered in the book may make people uncomfortable. But I don’t have an axe to grind. I’m just reporting what I’ve observed, and there is much more to the book.

TC: There is a lot of of reporting having nothing to do with these parties, which takes up just six pages. I wasn’t aware, for example, that the earliest software programmers were women and that they were later elbowed out of the field because it was becoming so lucrative. There’s reporting, too, about the cofounders of Binary Capital I hadn’t seen before. When did you know that you had a book on your hands?

EC:  I’ve been covering Silicon Valley for eight years for Bloomberg TV and whenever I’ve had women on the show, there’ve been whispers about sexism and how bad it is and about this grave inequality in one of the most progressive places in the world.

Then, in late 2015, I interviewed [the famous venture capitalist] Mike Moritz where he commented that his firm, Sequoia, wasn’t going to “lower our standards” to bring in a female partner to its U.S. team. And for the next few months, everyone wanted to talk with me about what he’d said. There were these visceral debates about why women are so underrepresented in tech — with some saying it’s pop culture, or a pipeline problem, or that women don’t want these jobs. And the more people I talked with, the more I realized that there were a lot of false myths that have combined with economic and cultural forces to bring us to this point.

TC: Among some of the details in “Brotopia” is an awkward conversation you have with Moritz at a Vanity Fair dinner following that on-screen interview, where he teasingly calls you his “nemesis.” Moritz more recently penned a controversial column for the Financial Times that seemed to flatter the firm’s constituencies in China while making his partners’ job more difficult here by suggesting Americans may lose to their Chinese peers. Do you think he has become a liability to the firm?

EC:  That op-ed was completely tone deaf. I spent two years in China, where I quickly discovered the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. And his remarks that women have more freedom to pursue careers there is completely misleading. China’s one-child policy was in place until two years ago. Women were forced to have abortions to avoid breaking the law.

Obviously, you can still be a hard worker and have compassion and want to see your family. Success doesn’t happen overnight, and no one needs to choose between being a great worker and being a great mom or dad to achieve it.

TC: In a separate chapter, you say you found it discouraging to see two venture firms, Benchmark and Bessemer, compete over the same female VC: Sarah Tavel, who joined Benchmark last year. You said you would have preferred to see the overall pool expanded, and I agree. Are there any women who you think VCs would be wise to recruit in 2018?

EC: There are so many talented women working in technology. They just need to be given the chance. And investors need to expand their idea of who would be good at this job or they will miss great opportunities. They may have already.

TC: One of the first women VCs, Kathryn Gould, the founder of Foundation Capital, once told me that the number of women in venture capital won’t rise through traditional firms hiring women, but because women-led firms like Cowboy Ventures will grow up around them. What do you think?

EC:  We need to see both. I’m so proud of  women VCs like Aileen Lee and Kirstin Green and Theresia Gouw and Jennifer Fonstad, whose strong and diverse portfolios are already proof that who is making decisions matters. But we also need male dominated firms to hire women. I think they will, too; I think they understand that time is up.

By the way, hiring one woman isn’t going to lead to cultural change anywhere. You need two, three, four women at the table to make a culture change.

We also need more women-led companies to received funding,  and for more companies whose primary audience is women to receive funding. Moral obligations aside, overlooking 50 percent of the population isn’t smart for business on any level.

TC: I tend to believe that as women accrue more financial resources, they’ll launch more venture firms. Toward that end, I worry that women are missing out of the newest wealth-producing wave: cryptocurrencies, which are predominately owned and used by men. Is this a trend you are watching? 

EC: Absolutely. The Bitcoin industry is mostly male and young and the whole cryptocurrency industry is at risk of re-writing the gender disparity that has defined tech. There’s money to be made here and a lot to be lost, and we need people of all risk types involved — including and especially women.

TC: In the book, you recall asking attendees at a conference if they had their own Susan Fowler stories. I left a job owing to a sexist boss. Do you have any horror stories, or are you in that lucky 10 percent of women who do not?

EC: I’ve been put in uncomfortable situations, including as a journalist in my career. In another job, like you, I just quit rather than trying to explain what’s happening. But I think both pale in comparison to what women in tech are having to endure day in and day out, often as the only woman in a room.

TC: Having talked with so many of them for this book, how are you feeling about the future?

EC: I’m an eternal optimist and I do think that if people can change the way that we communicate and shop and transport ourselves around, they can make this change, too. It’s time.

When women have an equal number of seats at the table and they are VCs and engineers and CEOs and movie directors and running the country as president and we’re no longer talking about these things as “successes” but it’s completely normal, that’s when I think we’ll really have achieved success.