This week I hosted an UPFRONT Book Club on Brotopia by Emily Chang (buy the book) We discussed what our human future might look like if technology’s rules continue to be set by rich white men.

The issue is important because technology impacts all of us. We’re seeing big tech merge with big finance – another wealthy, male-dominated sector. And artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming ubiquitous in daily life – it needs to work for everyone.

Chang is a technology reporter for Bloomberg and Brotopia is her insider’s guide to the “Boys’ Club” of Silicon Valley. Before our Book Club (following Hanna Andersen‘s excellent advice), I read through my notes and pulled out 4 key themes:

1. Talent and leadership

  • Were you aware of women’s key role in the history of computing?
  • Brotopia depicts two types of computer programmer – the “antisocial nerd” and the “uber-confident tech hero”. Both these types can go on to a leadership role. What might a female-friendly “type” look like?
  • The tech industry used elaborate brainteasers in interviews for years before recruiters realised they didn’t indicate anything “other than chutzpah”. What other recruitment techniques could be dropped – or included – to make the hiring process work better for women?

2. Work hard/ play hard culture

  • Brotopia describes how the startup Trilogy pioneered a work hard, play hard “brogrammer” culture in the 1990s. Do any of those stories resonate with you or reflect workplaces you’ve been in?
  • Is the hubristic confidence exemplified by Trilogy staff still valued today? (For example, we talked about Elizabeth Holmes, former CEO of Theranos – described in Arwa Mahdawi’s Strong Female Lead)
  • Google put huge effort into hiring women early on and trying to create a female-friendly workplace. But in the end they settled for “average”. Why do you think it all went wrong?

3. Sex, porn and the internet

  • Brotopia starts with the story of Lena – the 1970s model whose photo was shared all over the web – and the Internet’s “original sin”. Did you know about Lena before you read the book? How significant or prescient is her story?
  • What did you think of billionaire investor Chris Sacca’s “hot-tub test” where startup founders are invited to spend hours drinking beer in their swimwear? Chang later describes how business gets done at sex parties and strip clubs. How can we show that these types of venue aren’t appropriate?
  • Tech’s #metoo was started by engineer Susan Fowler in 2017. Her memo led to a company-wide investigation of Uber’s culture – and CEO Travis Kalanick was forced out. In your experience, is sexual abuse in tech worse or about the same as other industries? How can we support each other to call it out?

4. Design and the future

  • Brotopia cites violent and sexist video games, health apps that don’t track menstruation, facial recognition technology working more accurately for white men, social media hate disproportionately targeting women and girls. Do you have any examples of tech that hasn’t worked as well for women?
  • What do you think of the PayPal Mafia and especially of Peter Thiel’s belief that capitalist democracy is impossible and that freedom and democracy are incompatible? Thiel says the new frontiers are cyberspace, outer space and “seasteading” (building self-ruling island communities – already happening here and here). How does this make you feel? 
  • What did you think of Chang’s praise for Sheryl Sandberg and Facebook? (Feels a bit dated).

How to break the cycle

“We have an ethos here: ‘work hard and go home”!” That motto is written on posters that can be seen hanging all round the office, which is generally empty by 6:30pm” – Anne Toth, Slack.

It was great to get together with a group of women and talk through some of these issues. But it’s hard to know the best action to take. One participant (a lawyer) found the stories in Brotopia predictable and depressing, but she was also impressed to know more about the history of computing and how women had played a key role.

We all agreed that Slack‘s corporate doctrine of “diligence, curiosity and empathy” indicated good progress from earlier Silicon Valley values (like Uber’s “Always be hustlin'” or Facebook’s “Move fast and break things”). One thing we promised to do as a result of reading the book was follow and amplify more women leaders in tech. Thank you Tricia Radica for this useful list.

Photo by Austin Distel (

Ooh look: an all male panel at a tech conference!