Cracking The Brogrammer Code

Sexism is strong in the technology sector. In this article, we describe brogrammer culture, the impact of gender diversity on the bottom line, and how we can work together to create an inclusive, equitable workplace.  


My #MeToo Moment

Let me tell you a story about sexism at work.

In 1989, I was working in Japan for a global consumer goods company based in the U.S..  They soon acquired another American company, with lots of fanfare. Everyone was very excited. There was a big party for the employees to celebrate the coming together of the two powerhouse companies.  For an organization where who you know matters, it was a great opportunity to network. In Japan, you can’t just walk up to someone; you need to be introduced by a person of equal status. So I asked my HR Senior Vice President, a Japanese man, to introduce me to his peer, also a Japanese man. He introduced me as follows: “This is Monique, the pretty foreigner who works with us in HR. Her breasts are smaller since she lost weight recently.” I was shocked and didn’t quite know how to respond. (Okay, I'll admit that a few unsavory replies did cross my mind!) Since I didn’t want my HR SVP to lose face, and since there was no strong reaction from his peer, I stayed polite and above-board. By the time I got home that night, though, I was livid. The next day, I told the HR SVP’s Chief of Staff about it. He was a Taiwanese man with a U.S. MBA who spoke perfect English. I told him I was upset, and I insisted that he tell the HR SVP that he had done something highly inappropriate. I underscored that our company was based in the U.S. and that those kinds of comments should not be tolerated. I was expecting sympathy from him, given that he'd spent time in the U.S. His response was: “Let me tell you Monique, it won't do any good for me to bring it up with him. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You're better off just forgetting about it.” He was condoning the guy's behavior! Other things happened over the years in this company. When we rolled out a sexual harassment awareness program, a male employee told me: "You know what harassment is? It's when a woman wears a short skirt to work." At a company conference, a high-powered American manager cornered me, put my hand on his crotch, and asked if I wanted to have sex with him. An Australian manager gave me gifts, commented on my body, and invited me to go swimming with him. A European executive invited me to sit in his lap at a company party. Those days, I was afraid of saying anything and being blamed. I swallowed my fear and moved on. No more.

Sexism is Still Alive

Many years have passed since then…and sexism is still very much alive. I participated in one of the hundreds of “Pussy hat” marches happened across the world in January 2017. It felt good to speak out. Last fall, female celebrities sparked a movement that resulted in very public consequences for a plethora of Hollywood directors, newscasters, actors, and politicians. The #MeToo movement blasted the door even wider. Time Magazine made their 2017 Person of the Year a group of women who spoke up and spoke out against harassment. We’re finally talking about the elephant in the room. This is a conversation whose time has come. 

Brogrammer Culture– Sexism Born in Silicon Valley

In 2017, I started my leadership and team effectiveness consultancy with a focus on the technology sector.  I've received the help of many generous people, including a friend who owns a tech marketing agency. When I asked her which areas in tech could use my services, she introduced me to the term "brogrammer culture”, a phenomenon born in the programming pods of well-known Silicon Valley companies in the early 90s that features a male-centric bias. It describes  a band of brothers (literally), a group of savvy male software developers working together to build the applications that power our iPhones, Instagram feeds, websites, etc.   Its main feature is an attitude that comes with a certain swagger, arrogance, lifestyle and a fraternity mentality that can, and often does, result in the exclusion of others who don't fit the image. Women, unfortunately, are the most obvious choice for "odd man out”.   My friend told me how this culture has become pervasive in the technology industry and has had a negative impact on women pursuing software development careers.  She suggested that I encourage leaders, especially male leaders, to focus on creating work environments where women feel welcome and thrive.  

Curious to learn more, I attended a panel discussion on ''brogrammer culture" sponsored by PDXWIT, a non-profit serving women in technology based in Portland, Oregon. Female software engineers talked about being interrupted or talked over ("mansplained"), having their ideas be dismissed or appropriated, being the butt of sexist jokes and being expected to laugh; overhearing comments about their bodies, and being marginalized and minimized. Some even didn’t want to go to the restroom, afraid of the razzing they might get on the way. In 2017? Really?!? 

Why Should I Care? 

Just look at the statistics. In a 2017 article, Melinda Gates acknowledged that tech companies still struggle to attract and retain talented women, and venture capital funds still underinvest in their ideas.  According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology,  women held only 26% of professional computing jobs in the 2016 U.S. workforce. At Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Apple, women make up less than 20% of employees.  

Sexism is bad for business - ask anyone at Uber. Or Fox News. Or Harvey Weinstein. Or the brogrammer that Google fired. states that 27% of women cited workplace culture as a reason for leaving jobs in the technology industry. With brogrammer culture in place, companies are missing out on the creativity, passion and technical prowess of half the population. This ultimately leads to offering less to customers (half of whom are women) and creating cultural barriers that keep an organization from being its best.  

Let’s not forget -- this is part of a broader cultural phenomenon that starts long before women join the workforce.  A New York Times article talks about young girls getting teased or considered unattractive for liking math and science. Until recently, there has been a lack of support and positive reinforcement for women in technical tracks in college. After they get jobs, women still get paid less than men, and motherhood is  still frowned upon as being  detrimental to productivity and career advancement. 

The Upside of Gender Diversity in the Workplace

Positive things happen when a company makes gender diversity a strategic and cultural imperative. 

  • Gender diversity in leadership is strongly correlated with higher returns, profitability and share price.  Diverse groups simply perform better. (HuffPost, 2017) 

  • McKinsey found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.
  • McKinsey  also found that, in a group of publicly traded European companies, those with gender diversity in leadership experienced higher return on equity, operating profit, and stock price. 

So the bottom line is this: gender balance is good for business!

Okay, You Have My Attention. Now What? 

When it comes to gender equity, we’re at a turning point in history.  You might be asking yourself: “What can I do about this?” The solution is in the old saying: “It takes a village.”  We all have a part to play.   Here are some ideas: 

  1. Get involved in groups that attract and support women in tech

    Women Who Code envisions a world where women are proportionally represented as technical leaders, executives, founders, VCs, board members, and software engineers. They empower women with skills needed for professional achievement, educate companies to better promote, retain and hire talented women, build a global community where networking and mentorship is valued, and develop role models and support this generation of engineers. I attended a Women Who Code event recently. There were many people there - both men and women. It was energizing and inspiring.

    ChickTech is a national organization dedicated to retaining women in the technology workforce and increasing the number of girls pursuing technology-based careers by building community and providing networking opportunities, mentoring, and empowering women and girls to see themselves as leaders in the rapidly growing  tech  industry.  They reach out to girls in high school to spark their interest in the world of tech.

    - The Technology Association of Oregon recently launched a major talent development initiative focused on diversity and inclusion.  

    PDX Women in Tech now boasts 5000 members,  has four to six events a month, and has a mentorship program.  

    - At a large company in Beaverton where 11% of software engineers are women, there is a 300-person community devoted to addressing the issues faced by women in tech. They have “lunch and learn” sessions, a VP speaker series, and technical learning forums. They have social media software that invites discussions, idea-sharing and resources related to diversity, equity and inclusion. 
  2. Be intentional about your organization’s culture.  Since culture flows from the top, leaders need to examine (and potentially revise) the values, norms and unspoken expectations they model and reward.  Justin Rosenstein, co-owner of Asana, a company that received a rare perfect rating on Glassdoor and was among Glassdoor’s Top 10 Best Places to Work in 2017, says: “Even if companies are just out there to make money, they should still invest in culture.  Treating each other well, being respectful to each other, building a culture you actually want to live in, these are all things that make people happier, and in the end, more productive.” 
  3. Next, equip leaders to model and reinforce desired behaviors.  Ellen Pao, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist who experienced discrimination, says: "It’s all superficial until we see leaders…having difficult conversations and firing those who are unwilling to include everyone.” Intel Chief Diversity Officer Dannielle Brown says: “Moving into 2017, we will…foster an inclusive culture.  Key to that culture is ensuring we focus on continuously improving our manager capability, which includes managers who are effectively trained in building and leading diverse and inclusive teams.”   Some leaders at a large Beaverton, OR company screen candidates for teaming qualities, encourage and reinforce an environment of mutual respect.  and push their teams to leverage people’s diverse backgrounds, perspectives and strengths.

  4. Revamp your HR policies and processes.  Leaders in tech have an obligation to their employees, customers and shareholders to examine their hiring, on-boarding, development, workforce planning, talent management and compensation policies and processes to ensure that they are designed to build and sustain a diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce.  I know an executive in the digital world of a sports apparel industry who focuses on making the hiring and managing process warm and welcoming. She makes the language in job postings less competitive and ensure the interview process is as welcoming as possible (i.e., no inquisition-like panel interviews). Intel has recently been using hiring targets and implementing career support programs to ensure more women join and stay in their workforce.   In 2016, the company achieved pay parity and promotion parity for women and underrepresented minorities.  

  5. Provide implicit bias training – not diversity training - to all your employees.  Joanne Lipman, author of That's What She Said: What Men Need to Know About Working Together, says diversity training can lead to defensiveness in men, can strengthen stereotypes, and can make things worse for women and minorities. Instead, she recommends implicit bias training, which normalizes implicit bias and provides everyone with an opportunity to become aware of their own biases and explore ways to be more respectful and mindful when interacting with others.  

  6. Help men become aware of how they can stop sexist patterns.  

    - Get men involved in the conversation by exploring how gender bias limits men tooSociologist R.W. Connell writes that men in Western cultures are socialized according to an authoritative, hyper-masculine, heteronormative and heterosexual ideal. To be masculine (something most men desire), men must reject everything feminine. Such men cannot express their emotions by crying, must show physical dominance over other men (and sometimes women), and are told to speak up and seize power. In  its worst form, masculine gender roles have the potential to destroy a man by encouraging a tendency toward violence. Having a conversation about this can help men more easily relate to the gender expectations women experience.

    - Grow men allies. Some companies set up and support groups of male allies who have a no-tolerance policy around sexism. Jessica Lipman encourages men to do certain things when working with women:  When someone makes a sexist or locker-room remark, call them on it. If a woman’s comment is overlooked in a meeting, make sure to go back to her during that meeting to hear her point again. Encourage women to negotiate when they’re getting a promotion. Encourage women to apply for higher positions. This increases the number of women that get qualified, and thus the number of women in higher level positions.

  7. If you’re a woman, change some of your own behaviors

    - Speak up. Over the past year,  at least a dozen women in technology have publicly shared their stories of being discriminated against and harassed by their managers, investors or board members. In 2017, with a clear and powerful blog post  about her time at Uber, Susan Fowler blew open the doors on bad behavior in tech.  Her clear and precise retelling of the harassment and retaliation she suffered — and the failures of management to fix it — are now widely known.   Ellen Pao says that things have changed: women telling their stories are believed, for the most part, by the public and by the press,  and the public and leaders in tech are finally starting to take notice.  She says: “CEOs lead the transformation from the top, and they need individual employees to focus efforts on change as well: speak up, help others speak up, build bridges to those who are interested in changing and learning.”

    - Lean in and stand tall.  As women, we have to lean in, stand in our power, and speak proudly of our knowledge, experience and accomplishments. This means breaking a pattern of being humble, needing to put others' needs before our own and not “bragging”, based on deeply ingrained gender role expectations.  This means assertively advocating for our ideas and actively influencing others.  It means talking about salaries with others and demanding pay parity.  (Carrie Grace shamed he BBC by quitting when she saw the gap between her salary as China editor and those of men she considered peers.) It means applying for jobs even if we don't qualify for 100% of the requirements. (Many men have an attitude of "fake it till you make it".)  We can be mentors and advocates for other women. We can build coalitions of both women and men who want to change the world. 

Eradicating Sexism In the Workplace Requires Courage and Commitment 

It's been almost 30 years since my incident with the Japanese HR SVP. The good news is that the tide is beginning to turn. In today's political and social landscape, both women and men are publicly decrying the current state of gender inequity, and more people are joining in to make things better. This requires courage and commitment - and a lot of patience.  We need to have the courage to put the elephant on the table and educate our leaders, peers, and employees on the impact of diversity and inclusion on the cultural - and financial - bottom line.  

I hope that by shining a light on  brogrammer culture, I can help other women - and men - advocate their ideas and build coalitions to make work environments more welcoming for everyone. We can work together to understand the negative impact of sexism, acknowledge the benefits of gender diversity, and take action to create a more vibrant, productive workplace.  

Will you join me to help this cause? 




Monique Breault