Dudes being dudes sums up bro culture in a nutshell. There’s a whiff of the locker room, but the subculture isn’t limited to sports. It exists everywhere young men gather and spend time with other like-minded bros, from fraternities and parties to startups and even legacy businesses. The atmosphere is competitive, with much wisecracking and banter, fueled by testosterone and often misogyny.
A little bro culture history
We asked leadership development consultant and coach Kate Peters how bro culture came to be in society.
“Bottom line here,” she tells InHerSight, is that “bro culture is the modern manifestation of the patriarchy. When you go back through history, the corporate world was created by men, for men. The structures, supports, unions, benefits, standard work week, OSHA, everything was built for men and predicated on the assumption that the woman would stay home with children.”
So now, when women work in that world, they “must yield and conform to organizational hierarchies that have been in place for hundreds of years, and formed without women's voices,” she explains. “If you don't align with the conformity bias of bro culture, you're an ‘other,’ and you're excluded. Simply put, women are salt water fish swimming in a freshwater tank—they can't survive unless the tank adjusts.”
Prevalence of bro culture in the workforce
According to the 2021 Women in Tech Report by TrustRadius, bro culture is rife in tech companies, with 72 percent of women in tech reporting having “worked at a company where bro culture is pervasive.”
Interestingly, “only 41% of men say the same,” according to the report. “This indicates that the discrepancy is due to a difference in perception. It can be hard for those in power, or those not negatively affected, to recognize problems within the dominant culture.”
The tech industry isn’t the only one affected by bro culture. Manufacturing, finance, consulting, and energy are also known for their bro culture, says Peters. “It's basically the highest paying roles in the marketplace, where those with ego and prestige and entitlement flock to. These industries are also the hardest for women to break into, and for women to remain at.”
And in this case, size doesn’t matter. The behemoths are as rotten as the two-man firms. Software engineer Loretta Lee, who worked at Google for seven years before being fired in February 2016, sued the company, writes Kate Conger at Gizmodo. In her lawsuit, Lee said Google’s bro culture led to continuous sexual harassment. Incidents included everything from male coworkers spiking her drinks to one hiding under her desk and intimating that he’d installed a camera there.
“You can have entitlement and bro culture at a small locally owned farm, and you can have it at a Fortune 30 multinational,” Peters explains. “Bro culture comes from what is tacitly accepted at an organization.”
Bro culture can exist, too, no matter the written culture, mission, or values of a company; it's about what behaviors are allowed. If it is culturally acceptable to act poorly, without consequences, then bro culture lives in that space.
Read more: What Is a Male Feminist, Anyway?
Heads up bros: Bro culture is bad for business
Verkada, a security solutions company that sells internet-connected cameras and surveillance devices to organizations worldwide, found this out the hard way.
Those devices were hacked, exposing “lax safeguards at a company selling powerful surveillance tools that include facial recognition technology and that promised security and privacy protections to go with them,” write Bloomberg reporters William Turton, Ryan Gallagher, Sarah McBride, and Brody Ford.
Current and former employees have said “that the inattention to data protection was emblematic of a larger ‘bro culture’ that was sophomoric and sales-obsessed, and which tolerated the harassment of women, frequent partying, and misleading marketing claims,” Turton et al. write.
Andrea V. Brambila, deputy editor at Inman News, says the atmosphere at Remine is equally bad. There, the real estate technology company’s CEO Mark Schackniew wrote “I must fire one person per week to live. It’s my fuel,” in the company’s Slack channel, accessible to employees. The loss of nearly 120 employees in 16 months made the tasteless boast a reality, boosted by employees who made statements like: “One of the most unprofessional environments I’ve been a part of. As far as the way they conduct themselves, it’s more fratty rather than ‘Hey, I’m a CEO of a company and I should run it like I’m a CEO of a company.'”
Examples of the kind of language Schacknies and other executives used in their Slack discussions included “boners” and “dick pics.” They also referenced cocaine use in some Slack messages, Brambila reports.
In a comment on the article, Lindsay Dreyer, owner of City Chic Real Estate in Washington, D.C., wrote: “Not specific to this situation, but bro-ism is all too prevalent in the real estate and tech industry. As a woman-owned brokerage, who has had meetings and attended many networking events, there are numerous times I've encountered sexist, bro-ey, chauvinist, and inappropriate comments/behavior. While I don't have specifics on the Remine situation, I'm glad that situations like this are being made public. For far too long it has occurred unchecked in the shadows.”
Read more: 9 TED Talks That Will Make You a Better Ally
What, if anything, can be done about bro culture?
Reaching parity in the workplace will go a long way toward displacing bro culture.
One way to achieve that is for men to invite women, says Minehub Technologies General Counsel Rieke Smakman, specifically with respect to getting more women into tech and blockchain. The approach could work in any industry.
“I think it’s very much a person-to-person issue,” she explains. “If every guy in blockchain would explain to one of their female contacts how great it is to be involved in this industry, I’m sure this will get more women in the door and in leadership roles. I think that the crypto industry still has somewhat of a ‘bro culture,’ with guys inviting their male friends, and I’d like to see them invite their female friends to meetups and events as well.
Coupled with this is changing hiring practices, says Peters. “We need to hire less mediocre white men who rely on networks, affiliations, conformity, and entitlement. We need to replace that with hiring women and BIPOC people.” If you’re met with the argument that there isn't an adequate talent pipeline if we hire only diverse populations, she says to build it. And in order to “build the pipeline and talent pools to recruit from, you’ll have to recruit from different places, and hire new recruiters who know where to find this talent.”
Another approach is to bring your conscience to work, says Richard Shell, Chairperson, Legal Studies and Business Ethics at The Wharton School, and author of the The Conscience Code. Part of being a person of conscience and acting on your values is “owing the conflict,” which means not rationalizing inaction. He recommends not going it alone, saying “the power of two gives you that confidence to move forward.”
The next thing we need to do, Peters says, is “put our male allies out in front. Not all white men are inherently bad, and some of them have even seen their privilege. They need to lead the change.” Women should no longer be forced to adapt to somehow exist in a toxic environment, she stresses.
Companies need to be educated in order to engage change and focus on empathy, inclusion, calling in, and behavior modification, Peters explains. Structures in place that hold marginalized groups back must be identified and then torn down. Transparency and oversight, with zero tolerance, are the keys to making work psychologically safe.
About our source
Kate Peters is an executive coach and leadership pioneer for high-performing women in Corporate America. She spent 15 years in the trenches in Big Tech before deciding she was done feeling miserable and playing a game she couldn't win from within. Now she teaches women how to not only play the game, but play it on their terms so they reach their goals without compromising their whole lives. Kate can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at BrightVoyage.