Tom MacWright

tom@macwright.org

I read Brotopia by Emily Chang on

Review

It’s fine. It’s not great.

Directionally, of course, it’s right. Tech is a boys club, sexism runs rampant, discrimination is commonplace, companies would be better if they were more diverse.

But Brotopia leads with a description of the tech industry, which is dominated by rank & file employees: developers, designers, managers, human resources, sales.

And then it delivers a lot of content about the tech elite: VPs at Google, founders, and CEOs. It retells the stories of Marissa Mayer, which you can read about in Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo (2006), Sheryl Sandberg, which you can read about in Lean In (2013), Susan Fowler, whose story you can read in Whistleblower (2020), and the context in Super Pumped (2019). Or Katrina Lake, CEO of StitchFix. If you’re not following along, these are all white women and, with the exception of Fowler, executives.

She hosts a party to hear from individual contributors and they immediately bring up intersectionality, for the first time in the book. Then there’s a brief interlude about intersectionality, and then we’re back to elites: let’s talk about cuddle puddles at the homes of venture capitalists.

Which – I mean, it’s not wrong – but why? Why not interview some folks who left the industry, or interview more than one person from an additional underrepresented group, or more thoroughly examine some of the industry-wide failures?

The emphasis on these giants of industry is matched on the side of men: we hear from Chris Sacca, hear a whole lot about the PayPal mafia, hear about VC dust-ups. And certainly this behavior trickles down, but, let’s be real: a lot of individual male programmers need no cue or approval to do sexism. The emphasis on these people has a certain “original sin” strategy - implying that Trilogy created bro culture and the PayPal mafia was its second wave - that in my opinion gives these folks both too much credit and too much blame. Chang’s good vs. evil moral system works with this characterization, and shows its flaws in the interviews: she’ll implicitly praise some men for vague aphorisms, then explicitly condemn others for not having a plan. Her heroes and villains are both out of scale.

Also, a lot of it heavily leans on gender essentialism. A whole chapter “Could women have prevented the dot-com bubble” repeats the idea of women being “more cautious” again and again. The only time she hesitates about gender essentialism is in the discussion of James Damore, when she quotes psychologists who say (correctly, in my opinion) that most gender-linked personality differences are inconsistent, small, and cultural in origin.

Her discussion of real name policies is… wrong: she briefly touches on ‘political dissidents’ as a reason for sites like Twitter allowing pseudonyms, but she never mentions the laundry list of other reasons that were heavily discussed at the time - the many naming systems that weren’t allowed by Facebook, the harm it causes to transgender people – as well as the simple fact that before Facebook’s real-name policy, pseudonyms were the norm on the internet.

The chapter about Stewart Butterfield & Slack was satisfying, because Slack is – grading on a curve, of course – a huge success story. But even there, Chang only interviews Butterfield and Erica Joy Baker, the two highest-profile people involved with the company, and essentially dictates what they have to say.

The prescriptive end of the book distills down into “stop doing sexism.” Which, yes, let’s. There’s very little substance there.

So what is Brotopia? I think it’s basically a Me Too book for technology. It’s a book about top-down culture, intended for, I suppose, CEOs. And there’s plenty of substance for that book: this industry’s dark secrets abound.

But how the book is often discussed – as a history of sexism, a diagnosis, a cultural analysis, a prescription – it falls far short. That book requires a broader lens. It wouldn’t dwell as much on fame. And it would probably be even sadder.

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