How Do You Change a Bro-Dominated Culture?

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It’s getting harder and harder to separate the men from the bros. This week, Business Insider’s chief technology officer, Pax Dickinson, was ousted after tech blog Valleywag noticed that he’d been airing sexist, racist opinions on Twitter for years. Then a friend jumped to his defense, saying his buddy was actually a “frequently hilarious performance-artist who tweets with a faux-brogrammer alter ego.” And Dickinson attempted to channel all of the media attention toward a pitch for his real start-up. Sweet pivot, dude.

Perhaps the difference between parody tweeter and privileged twit would have been more pronounced if Dickinson’s account had surfaced any other week. Mainstream news has been dominated lately by stories lamenting “bro culture” — a term that used to be found solely on feminist blogs — everywhere from Silicon Valley to the U.S. military to the financial sector to pockets of academia. Last week, National Journal published an examination of the military’s fratty atmosphere under the headline “How the Military’s ‘Bro’ Culture Turns Women Into Targets”; and in Sunday’s New York Times, reporter Jodi Kantor examined Harvard Business School’s attempt to de-bro itself. Also over the weekend, at a TechCrunch-sponsored hackathon, two “grinning Australian dudes” got onstage and pitched a “joke” app called Titstare. (Yeah, it’s exactly what it sounds like.) “It’s as if,” wrote the Atlantic Wire, “the brogrammers seen here didn’t know their audience wasn’t all bros like them.” 

“Bro” once meant something specific: a self-absorbed young white guy in board shorts with a taste for cheap beer. But it’s become a shorthand for the sort of privileged ignorance that thrives in groups dominated by wealthy, white, straight men. “Bro” is convenient because describing a professional or social dynamic as “overly white, straight, and male” seems both too politically charged and too general; instead, “bro” conjures a particular type of dude who operates socially by excluding those who are different. And, crucially, a bro in isolation is barely a bro at all — he needs his peers to reinforce his beliefs and laugh at his jokes. That’s why the key to de-broing our culture just might be the straight white guys who aren’t bros.

The group dynamic is perhaps the most under-examined but important element of what it means when we cry “bro,” and why it’s become a way of describing cultures more than individuals. It is also why the bro presents such a vexing diversity conundrum. Because he’s used to enjoying a certain amount of financial and cultural privilege, he takes up a lot of space. A small cluster of bros at the top of the corporate ladder can make the entire business feel pretty unwelcoming to those who don’t share their demographic, even if women and people of color are proportionately represented on the rungs below. Not every straight white guy is a bro, but while you can screen for factors like gender and race and even sexual orientation, it’s far more difficult to screen for attitude. And while it’s unfair to assume that white men will laugh at a sexist or racist joke, it’s probably safe to assume that a he’s more likely to laugh than, say, a black woman.

Which takes us back to the Harvard Business School story. When it comes to de-broing various industries or cultures, many diversity advocates have long proposed quotas as a good starting point. The logic is simple: If you want to change a culture, you first need to change the people within it. But Harvard’s efforts show that moving from “more women” tomore woman-friendly” is hard. The deans “tried to change how students spoke, studied and socialized,” Kantor writes, doing everything from placing stenographers in classrooms (to prevent biased participation grading) to privately coaching untenured female professors (to combat student hazing). This herculean effort has had some concrete results. The grade gap evaporated. But the deans “did not know what to do about developments like female students dressing as Playboy bunnies for parties and taking up the same sexual rating games as men.” To paraphrase Jay Z, or perhaps Ariel Levy, ladies is bros, too.

Apparently bro-y elements can be tough to eradicate, even within the constrained environment of an Ivy League university. Even if you could eliminate the bros in business school, what happens when your graduates have to deal with them on the trading floor? Or what if you want to apply the Harvard lessons in corporations or the military, let alone male-dominated subcultures like, say, heavy-metal music or video gaming? There, without any academic rules or admissions committee, a top-down de-broing strategy is impossible.

The tech world presents an interesting case study. While some big employers and conferences could institute bro-deterring policies, it’s more like a culture than a corporation. It’s got a widely acknowledged race and gender problem: The Titstare dust-up is just the latest example in a series of sexist incidents. And, like so many college dudes who totally dug The Fountainhead, tech leaders tend to share a belief our culture is a meritocracy and that caring about diversity is antithetical to producing good work — which means that the industry’s bro problem is self-perpetuating. “The Valley,” said Gawker editor John Cook in a recent Times piece about the blog Valleywag, “is a target-rich environment for someone who is looking to expose profligacy, ego and self-regard.” All hallmarks of bro culture.

Adria Richards, a developer who was onstage at the TechCrunch hackathon and watched the Titstare shenanigans unfold in real time, says that the tech world gets a bad rap — even though, after she publicly called out bros who made sexist jokes at a conference earlier this year, many people in Silicon Valley leaped to the defense of the jokers. She’s quick to point out that plenty of white men have championed her work and helped her succeed. It’s the demeaning behavior and group posturing that separates the allies from the assholes. “A brogrammer will signal in front of other guys,” Richards says. “When there are other people around he’ll do things to neg you. They’re not just doing this to women, sometimes it’s on everyone.”

This is a surprisingly race- and gender-neutral comment from someone who often speaks to industry leaders about how geeks can “connect authentically” with colleagues who don’t look like them. “A lot of this is lack of self-awareness. I meet so many nerds that are just oblivious. Implicit bias is a huge problem in tech,” she says. “When I talk to women and people of color, I focus on empowerment. When I talk to white guys, I focus on empathy.” Her approach to reducing the brogrammer influence is, as she puts it, to “activate the bystander.” Not all white guys are bros, after all, and the key to making sure brogrammers don’t run amok is to engage everyone else in shutting them down, she says, not just the women who happen to be standing onstage when two guys start making boob jokes.

Perhaps this is where top-down approaches like Harvard’s fall short. With only a handful of professors and deans attempting to enforce a less bro-y atmosphere, it’s an uphill battle. Changing a culture requires the awareness and participation of everyone in the room. As Nitasha Tiku wrote at Valleywag on Wednesday, “The would-be comedians behind Titstare read the room at the San Francisco Design Center and thought: I know what will make this crowd laugh.” And they were right: Titstare got “very loud applause.” Bros are pack animals. So if he says something sexist and no one laughs, he’s not a bro at all. He’s the joke.

How Do You Change a Bro-Dominated Culture?