“Brotopia” by Emily Chang. Credit: Penguin Random House
Our April pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club is Emily Chang’s “Brotopia.” Become a member of the Now Read This book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.
Below are questions to help guide your discussions as you read the book over the next month. You can also submit your own questions for Chang on our Google form here. Chang will answer reader questions on the NewsHour broadcast at the end of the month.
What is your perception of the culture of Silicon Valley, and how has your perception changed over time, if at all?
“Brotopia” begins with some pretty striking anecdotes about the barriers to entry women have faced in Silicon Valley, including a Playboy image that became the benchmark for image processing quality, as well as the famous hot tub parties hosted by a prominent venture capitalist to test entrepreneurs. Which anecdote was most striking to you, and why?
Chang uses the story of Peter Thiel and his Paypal co-founders to debunk the idea of Silicon Valley as a “meritocracy.” Do you believe America at large is a meritocracy? Why or why not?
What does the term “brotopia” mean? Does the word “bro” have a positive or negative connotation for you?
Chang describes how early engineers were women and how companies like Google focused on bringing in women in its early years. Why didn’t either last?
Often, the numbers make Chang’s argument for her. The percentage of women earning computer science degrees held steady at around 18 percent for decades. Women represent 35 percent or less of the workforce at Facebook, Apple and Google; representation for black and Latinx workers is even worse. Do these numbers surprise you?
The book argues that Silicon Valley’s “brotopia” problem affects not only its employees but also the tech it creates, such as when gender and racial bias has been coded into facial recognition software. Are you frustrated by the presence of bias in any of the tech you use?
Chang cites science that suggests men (either because of nature or nurture) are more given to “the particular type of grandiose self-assessment displayed by many tech wunderkinder,” and that privileging this kind of “lofty self-confidence” in tech has excluded many women over the years. But the recent crash of blood testing company “Theranos” showed founder Elizabeth Holmes exhibiting many of the same qualities. What do you make of this?
Tech companies are increasingly under fire for data collection and invasion of privacy. Do you believe things would be different if women were in more leadership roles in Silicon Valley? Why or why not?
How did online harassment and trolling develop on social media, and what could have been done differently to prevent it? What could tech companies do now to tackle the problem?
The #MeToo movement has touched Hollywood, Wall Street and, yes, Silicon Valley. Chang cites a heartening example in which Google employees staged a walkout after learning Android creator Andy Rubin received a payout after an accusation by an employee of sexual assault. Does reading “Brotopia” make you think there is progress when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, or is there still a long way to go?
Chang focuses on Silicon Valley’s sexism problem, but touches on its racism and ageism problem too. After finishing “Brotopia,” what prescriptions would you give to shape a more equitable Silicon Valley?
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