This Sunday’s New York Times contained an article by Claire Cain Miller about the “Tech’s Myth of the Nerd” discussing the Google memo’s assertions amongst other false assumptions floating around the tech startup community. The ideas surrounding the power of diversity, how to best advocate for it, the pros and cons of gender specific awards (ie. best female founder) and culture have been a topic of discussion amongst my friends for years. These same topics are now front of mind for many more with all the recent news coming out of SV.
After reminding us that computer programming was originally considered a woman’s job (Eniac, NASA), one of the points made by Miller is that programming for some becomes a way to express masculinity. That many males who aren’t playing sports or doing physical labor come to see programming prowess as the field of battle. Perhaps this point stuck out to me because of my own youth. I was reminded of that kid last night, as the world stopped to watch Game of Thrones and I recalled how much taunting I had received for rolling polyhedral dice and imagining worlds of dragons and warriors. No girls allowed.
I don’t code, although I hear my COBOL skills are in demand again. I like to think that the teams I have been part of have been inclusive. Regardless, awareness of self is a powerful elixir and I try to get my dose on a regular basis.
UPDATE: Rob Usdin (@robusdin) called me out on twitter for using the graphic I chose for this topic. The graphic is simply a reflection of my own personal experience, cited above, and in no way is meant to lump all RPGers into the “bro” problem. Apologies to anyone who was offended.
I asked Rick Harris and Gloria Bell to give me their thoughts on bro-culture.
Q: With all the current talk about Bro-culture and diversity in Silicon Valley what role can women play in improving the culture for the women that will come behind them?
Gloria Bell: The best advice I can give women in this industry is – Be brave. Be strong. Know your own limits and be willing to stand up for them. Be open and honest. Speak up.
When women share their stories and stand their ground, action happens. It is hard, but it is necessary. Bonus, you will be amazed at the army of women (and men) who will surround you and support you when you do.
Don’t play into the “us vs them” mentality of men and women in tech. There are many more amazing, thoughtful men in this industry than there are “bros”. Find them and encourage their attempts at being our allies. There are even more men who want to help but don’t know how to. Or worse yet, feel that their efforts are not wanted or appreciated just because they happen to male. Listen to them, engage them, show and tell them how they can help. Men still out number women in this industry (at least for now!), we need to use that to our advantage whenever possible.
Women need to stop waiting or expecting to be asked and they need to start asking and demanding – equal pay, respect, better positions, board seats, opportunities, etc… Even with our conference we occasionally receive feedback about not having asked someone to speak or a perceived lack of diversity in our speakers. We work very hard to identify speakers and to promote diversity, but we need more women to help us by raising their hands and submitting to our, and other conference, calls for speaking proposals. Don’t buy into the “if I just work hard and keep my head down, I’ll be recognized” mentality. That is not how it works. Work hard yes, but also work to be recognized. Own the responsibility for that. And be willing to make a change if a particular environment is not working for you. There are more tech jobs than there are technologists so take a stand for your worth.
The changes and the ripple effects these actions will make are some of the biggest contributions the current crop of women in tech can make for future generations.
Q: With all the current talk about the “bro-culture” in Silicon Valley, what role does leadership play?
Rick Harris: Any time something bad happens inside an organization, you can usually trace the cause back to the leadership. I’m sure that holds true for the emergence of the bro culture. However, in my experience most co-founders do not set out to create a culture where some people are bullied by others or where people with more power feel they have the right to extract sexual favors from people with lesser power.
Q: So what can you do about it?
- Look in the mirror. Some CEOs (and partners in venture firms) actually are misusing their power. Are you?
- Unintended consequences. Let’s say that you and a co-founder are male. You already know who your next five hires will be. You’re just waiting for funding. Are they also male? If so, you’re sowing the seeds of a bro culture. That is, you develop a bro culture when you only have bros…even if you don’t want to.
- Reward systems. Do your reward systems set up internal competition that can get pretty fierce? Bros like to compete. Is it turning ugly? What are you doing to reward teamwork?
- What do your values say and are you living them?
- Keep in mind that a bro culture with its emphasis on win/lose arguments is not a team culture. A bro culture directs energy toward achieving power internally and in the process losing the focus on customers and product/market fit…where the real winning needs to take place.
If you sense a bro culture starting to emerge, be aware that tolerance for bro behavior is waning in the business environment. Negative press could result in lost customers and investors before you have a chance to defend yourself (or apologize). And then there are the courts. Reputation is hard to rebuild, but a lawsuit could drive you right out of business.
And, one more thing: Just as a founding team of two technical co-founders does not reflect the discipline diversity that will be needed to become a growth company, a bro culture is too narrow a culture to help your company thrive in the complex marketplace where you will need to compete.
In 2017 we have seen several examples of the toxic effects of a bro culture. Think Uber. Knowing what we know from recent experience, it would be beyond too bad for bro cultures to continue to emerge. It would be fiscally irresponsible. Perhaps criminal.