Silicon Valley’s very masculine year

Silicon Valley’s very masculine year

Silicon Valley is embracing a new era of masculinity. Its leaders are powerful, virile, and swole. They practice Brazilian jiujitsu and want to fight each other in a cage. They can do 200 push-ups while wearing a 20-pound weighted vest. They can spend $44 billion on a website as a sort of elaborate joke. They can do all this because if these tech executives are one thing above all else, it is this: They are men.

This renewed sense of masculine dominance hit a fever pitch in 2023. The softer, soulful leaders of Silicon Valley’s previous decades have vacated. Gone is the delicate, ascetic presence of Jack Dorsey and the laissez-faire leadership of Sheryl Sandberg. Gone are the girl bosses. In their absence, the richest, most powerful men in tech are leading Silicon Valley toward a more macho future, one in which strength can be measured in muscles, women are absent from the boardroom, and ruthlessness is a virtue.

“All of Silicon Valley reminds me of the first Top Gun movie: the abundance of testosterone, like 1970s, 1980s all over again,” said Manu Cornet, a cartoonist and software engineer who formerly worked at Twitter, now X. “It’s not even sarcastic or second degree.”

“It’s a very jacked up movement,” said Glenn Kelman, the CEO of Redfin. “The people I know are thinking about testosterone and eating 500 grams of protein a day. They are ravenous, carnivorous, and totally yoked.”

Only two decades ago, Silicon Valley’s expression of masculinity was at odds with the status quo. Tech champions were nerds and geeks: skinny outliers in hoodies armed with a nonconformist mentality — a mindset that would prove indispensable to the creation of dozens of companies that launched the digital age. Then came the Obama years, when tech companies were propped up as progressive bastions of diversity and forward-thinking corporate culture. Under the influence of Sheryl Sandberg, Silicon Valley ceded board seats and C-suite jobs to more and more women.

But more recently, these same Silicon Valley companies have begun to look like the conventionally bloated behemoths at the pinnacle of corporate culture. Their leaders, too, have adopted a performance of masculinity that’s strikingly conventional and includes angry rhetoric, muscular physiques, and a newfound interest in physical combat. The men responsible for building the products that touch the daily lives of billions of people display an increasing preoccupation with flaunting masculine bravado. It’s not just for show, either. The way these powerful men run their companies is impacting who is considered welcome in Silicon Valley.

Today, there are fewer women in tech leadership roles than only a few years ago, with women representing 28 percent of tech leadership (it was 33 percent at its height). And this number may only be decreasing: A 2022 McKinsey study found that women are leaving corporate roles faster than ever before and that they have less representation in technical roles than they did in 2018.

While it looks like Silicon Valley is regressing, there’s a chance this suddenly hypermasculine culture is just the next logical step in its evolution. Like Wall Street before it, the tech industry is ultimately hell-bent on making as much money as possible. And as economic conditions have shifted, preserving progressive values isn’t necessarily part of that mission.

“The truth is that, through these ups and downs, women and people of color haven’t made much progress,” said Kelman. “It’s been a tragedy. I’ve been doing this 30 years — I really thought we would be different by now.”

The vibe shift: “Now, no one pretends to include women anymore”

Only a few years ago, it was not so easy to be so unapologetically male in Silicon Valley.

These were the 2010s, when Silicon Valley outwardly championed diversity. At the time, having an all-male executive team was considered regressive and slightly embarrassing. Companies introduced diversity initiatives, venture capital firms loudly backed startups led by women and people of color, and the media wrote glowing profiles about female CEOs.

“When I started working in this space [a decade ago], it was very male dominated, but everyone pretended to include women,” said Joelle Emerson, CEO of Paradigm Strategy, a Silicon Valley consulting firm that specializes in diversity and inclusion. “Now, it’s still very male dominated, but nobody feels the need to pretend that it’s true. ”

These years of PR-friendly progress were only heightened by the pandemic, which ushered in growing awareness surrounding social injustice, racial inequity, and income disparity. Tech employees, suddenly with ample time on their hands and without access to the office’s free-flowing kombucha, began questioning their role not just at work, but in society.

“I got to this point pre-Covid where I was hustling, and then Covid hit and I had this awakening,” said Brent Boeckman, a coach for the men’s wellness community Evryman who worked in sales at startups and enterprise tech companies for more than a decade. “You’re working but for what?”

Such personal revelations were highly inconvenient to the bottom line of Silicon Valley’s many corporations. Tech employees began putting in minimal effort at work or quitting their jobs to pursue passion projects. The media wrote about “quiet quitting,” “the Great Resignation,” and labor rights. The status quo was shifting, and tech executives felt it. To appease their employees’ demands, they adopted a meeker stance.

“I would talk to CEOs — all men — who would say, ‘I’m not really enjoying my job. I’m the king of the jungle, and yet I’m tiptoeing around my employees,’” said Kelman.

By the end of 2022, FTX collapsed and the crypto bubble burst. An uneasy pall fell over the valley. There was a sense of “Holy shit, there’s nothing there!” said Ed Zitron, founder of the consumer tech PR firm EZPR. It was a revelation that made people insecure: One of the most buzzworthy technologies Silicon Valley had produced in decades appeared to be nothing more than hype. As the economy tightened, the venture capital frenzy cooled, and many of the unprofitable companies of Silicon Valley drew their last breaths.

“There was something that cracked in them,” said Zitron. “They saw the world they loved going away, while at the same time making more money than they ever made.”

Buff Bezos and the rise of swole entrepreneurship

To fully understand how we reached this moment of hypermasculinity, you must look farther back, before the pandemic, to 2017, when a pair of arms were first photographed emerging from the sleeves of a snug black polo shirt at a conference in Sun Valley. The arms were tanned and vascular, and they belonged to Jeff Bezos, a formerly reedy bookseller whose public image up until that point had embodied a sort of endearing, sexless twerpiness.

Bezos’s new appearance signaled a shift in the tech executive’s aesthetic makeup. Previously, the male costume of Silicon Valley was one of studied nonchalance: rumpled T-shirt, messy hair, anemic build — an appearance meant to convey that what actually mattered was the merit of a man’s ideas, not his physical strength.

But as Silicon Valley generated the richest men on the planet, these men, in turn, were deploying their millions to become more closely aligned with the prototypical image of masculine desire, whether by employing Tom Cruise’s personal trainer or purchasing a full head of hair.

Jeff Bezos wears aviator sunglasses, a quilted black vest with a laminated name tag, a fitted, black polo shirt, and black, slim-fitting pants. His arms are noticeably muscular.

Jeff Bezos shows off a new physique at the 2017 Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It was an inflection point that slowly rippled through the ranks of Silicon Valley. Soon, venture capitalists were posting shirtless photos of themselves on Twitter, flaunting their gains and dropping fitness routines. The message was clear: Physical strength and stamina were necessary prerequisites to building a massive tech company. The more you demanded of yourself physically, the more you could demand of your company.

There was also the reality that many tech companies’ leading executives, Bezos included, had reached middle age. Mortality’s inevitable creep was closing in. It seemed unfair — cruel, even — that people who had acquired all that the material realm had to offer might be forced to face a fate so pedestrian as old age and, eventually, death.

Soon, the notion of living a healthy life for as long as absolutely possible became a core component of Silicon Valley dogma. A new cohort of health and longevity influencers emerged. Among them is Andrew Huberman, a buff, straight-talking Stanford professor of neurobiology who recommends HIIT workouts and cold baths on his popular podcast, Huberman Lab. And there is Bryan Johnson, a former venture capitalist, who is attempting to achieve his mantra, “Don’t Die,” through a longevity regime that involves a strict diet, going to bed at 8:30 pm, and tracking his nightly erections.

When it comes to the Bezos effect, there are some very “boring economic issues” at play, said Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a business psychology professor at Columbia University. “There is a cycle in which innovation leads to growth, and then growth hinders innovation.” If the leaders of big tech companies are performing an expression of masculinity identity that feels infinitely more traditional compared to what was championed only a few decades ago, it might be because their companies have become infinitely more traditional.

The original founders of today’s tech juggernauts — people who were once “anarchic and rebellious” — have become the institution, according to Chamorro-Premuzic. “These startups matured and started getting lawyers, HR people, sales people,” he said. “They became corporations. They’re more interested in maintaining the growth than being creative.”

Mark Zuckerberg learns to fight

No company signifies the shift from scrappy startup to corporate establishment more than Meta, a company that’s better known for ripping off other companies’ ideas than producing its own. And so far, its most original innovation in years — a $10 billion bet on the metaverse — has come up mostly empty. Meanwhile, Meta’s primary strategy to keep growing has been sputtering, posing an existential threat to the company. In February 2022, for the first time in history, Facebook was losing users. Its stock plunged by 26 percent, wiping out $230 billion in market value.

It makes sense, then, that Zuckerberg seems to be searching for new ways to transform not only his company’s public image but his own. During the pandemic, Zuckerberg, a self-improvement hobbyist whose wide-ranging interests include learning Mandarin and slaughtering his own meat, discovered the combat sport Brazilian jiujitsu. Immediately, he was hooked. “Like five minutes in, I was like, ‘Where has this been my whole life?’” Zuckerberg told Joe Rogan in a 2022 interview. “It really is the best sport.”

Soon after taking up the new hobby, Zuckerberg was posting about it on Instagram — everything from photos at UFC games and sweaty, shirtless selfies with professional kickboxers to videos sparring on a barge to the theme of Mission Impossible. One of the most iconic images of Mark Zuckerberg following the Cambridge Analytica scandal was a photoshopped portrait on the cover of Wired’s March 2018 issue: Zuckerberg, badly beaten, with two black eyes and a bloodied brow, his face made up in an expression of weary introspection.

Now, plenty of pictures of Zuckerberg’s bruised and beaten face grace his Instagram, but this time, the beatings are genuine and hard-won. “Sparring got a little out of hand,” a caption reads beneath a selfie in which he is pictured with bruises beneath his eyes.

Zuckerberg’s infatuation with MMA has swept through Silicon Valley, too. “MMA isn’t just a sport, it’s the sport,” an effusive Marc Andresseen wrote in a July 2023 newsletter entitled “FIGHTING.” The prominent venture capitalist added, “It’s important to understand how important — how primal — MMA is in the story of our civilization. MMA is the original combat sport.”

Zuckerberg’s interest in MMA also happened to coincide with the 2022 departure of Meta’s most public female executive, Sheryl Sandberg. For years, Sandberg’s leadership had come to signify the advent of corporate feminism, bolstered by her bestselling book, Lean In, in which she encourages women to relentlessly pursue their ambitions. But in Sandberg’s absence, Meta has become unrelenting in its own right after Zuckerberg launched his so-called “year of efficiency.”

The company laid off 10,000 employees in the first few months of 2023, and its stock has rebounded.

Zuckerberg, in turn, has succeeded in reforming his public image. In a recent interview with the Information, Khai Wu, a professional mixed martial artist who has trained with Zuckerberg, described his impressions of the Meta CEO: “This nerd is a silent killer.”

Elon Musk’s ruthless rhetoric

But even as tech executives flaunt their undisputed dominance, dealmaking in Silicon Valley has become increasingly cutthroat. In August, the Wall Street Journal declared: “Startups Are Dying, and Venture Investors Aren’t Saving Them.” Only a few years earlier, these investors had sparked a financing hysteria so frenzied that it was compared to the dot-com boom, but now they were closely guarding their capital. Total venture spending slowed by 48 percent in the first six months of 2023.

Today’s rocky market has given tech executives plenty of opportunities to flex their newly acquired muscles. Or as Kelman, Redfin CEO, puts it, “Capitalism — tooth and claw — will always come out when there’s volatility in the market.”

Nowhere is this tone of ruthlessness made clearer than in the rhetoric of Elon Musk, who has spent a good part of 2023 focusing on X, formerly known as Twitter, where he’s been harassing his own employees, posting conspiracy theories, and entreating his competitors to a “literal dick measuring contest.”

“Elon Musk is pushing back, saying, ‘You literally can’t take me down,’” said Kevin Gibbon, CEO of the e-commerce infrastructure marketplace Airhouse. “Behind closed doors, people are saying the same things that Elon Musk is saying, but he’s one of the only people who can get away with it.”

Elon Musk pictured holding a sink inside an industrial-chic office with concrete pillars and floor-to-ceiling windows.

Elon Musk carries a sink into Twitter headquarters just a few days before taking over over the company.
Twitter account of Elon Musk/AFP

There is the aggressive way in which Musk runs his companies, too. Cornet, the former Twitter engineer, describes it as mayhem by design. In the days following Musk’s takeover at Twitter, Cornet experienced this firsthand: Musk issued orders with urgent deadlines, threatening to fire employees who didn’t meet them. In Cornet’s view, it was a matter of strategy: These impossible-to-meet deadlines ensured that employees would be incapable of questioning Musk’s decisions. The approach seems to make his companies especially difficult for women.

“After Musk hired a bunch of people it seemed like a disproportionate number of women retired,” Cornet added. “It seemed clear that Twitter had become this really bro-ish place.”

This kind of abrasive management style has become the new norm in Silicon Valley. In the past year, Rajkumari Neogy, a Silicon Valley executive coach, has been asked to intervene on behalf of companies whose executives exhibit a bullish management style.

“I’ve had to tell very senior leaders, ‘You can’t keep acting like this,’” said Neogy. “It’s all about bullying, micro-managing, reprimanding — it’s always the stick and the carrot.”

As we enter 2024, it’s clear that Silicon Valley’s masculinity phase is far from over. While the pendulum may eventually shift toward a climate that’s slightly more welcoming to women and minorities, it seems unlikely that social progress will become a priority anytime soon within the tightening tech economy.

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