Brogramming: Sex & Sexism in Tech Startups
I went to an UnConference for the Seattle Tech Community today, thinking that I was going to give a talk about the creeping sexism in the tech world that has come to be called brogramming. As luck would have it, someone else wanted to talk about the same thing, so we wound up joining forces and instead had a heated discussion with a room full of people who literally yelled about whether or not this exists, matters, is inherent, can or should change.
It was maybe the first time in my life I wanted to wrap myself in the mantle of “feminism” and bitch-slap the naysaers into sweet submission. An interesting sensation if you know anything about me. The more people tried to yell at me and tell me it was bullshit, the more I realized how NOT bullshit it is. It is very real. And yes, it is a problem.
When I thought I was going to give a talk alone, and then field a Q & A, I had worked up a totally humorous approach towards identifying the problem, perhaps some root causes and a way to a future in which we can all peacefully coexist. And I’m going to try to do that here, though I hope that it will still spark such a lively discussion.
So here it is, slide by slide….
Before we explore the sticky territory of sexism in the tech industry, and what has come to be called “brogramming,” I want to explicitly get your consent. This is going to be a very adult conversation and, and as such, I want your consent. All you have to do to consent is stay put. And that is, in many ways, a perfect way to look at this issue as a whole, because most people do not, simply by virtue of going to work, give you permission to sexualize them, or their work place. And in an environment that is increasingly sexist, it gets very hard for someone who feels repressed, or just as an offended minority, to stand up against it.
It also important for all of us to be willing to recognize that this might be a real problem. And that many of the people perpetrating it are not, in fact, sexist assholes. Indeed, they may genuinely not realize they’re doing it, that there’s anything wrong with it, or that they have a choice. So there is no personal blame here for any individual. Rather, we need to look at the culture as a whole and ask ourselves if this is good for us as an industry, as individuals, and as the businesses that we are trying to build.
Lastly, no one, least of all me, is trying to take away your right to be sexy or flirty, to hook up or anything else. Hell, my job is to try to help people have better and more creative sex, more often, so I’d rather look at this as a way to improve the tech community, your business, and your opportunity to get laid. Because some part of me thinks that all of the crazy posturing that we call “brogramming” is actually just what many people think they have to do to get ahead, and get the girl.
I’m here to tell you that the best way to achieve both of those goals is to stop being a douchebag, treat both women and your customers with respect, and approach everything as a way to collaborate in forming a lasting relationship. But it starts with you.
Yes, unlike most talks I give, this is a very heteronormative talk. It’s about straight guys and the impact they have on women, because this talk is largely about how brogramming is a major reason that more women don’t get into and stay in tech. Any gender bias here is entirely intentional….
WHAT IS BROGRAMMING?
It’s hard to pinpoint when the geeks who made Silicon Valley the center of the modern world started adapting – and then codifying – the “work hard, play hard” agro machismo once reserved for jocks and investment bankers. Retrospectively, it seems like the organic puss left after the DotCom Bubble burst and everyone still believed that they could be zillionaires overnight and buy their way to both financial and emotional security. I am reminded of the great opening scene in The Social Network, where the Mark Zukerberg character (and remember, this is a work of fiction, so it is just a character) is being dumped by his girlfriend and she says something like, “you’re going to think that people don’t like you because you’re a geek, but that’s not it, it’s because you’re an asshole.”
Indeed, the rest of that movie seems the perfect depiction of the “brogramming” attitude that swept the tech industry – or, as Rob Spectre of Twilio called it in a now infamous speech, “The Brodom.”
This behavior, which looks like a frat party with expense accounts, has taken on a culture of its own, complete with vocabulary and predictable behavior patterns. Without trying to paint all fraternities with a broad brush, the Brodom behavior looks like what most people would call a “frat party.” There is focus on partying, being tougher than anyone else, “kicking ass,” and an attitude about women that looks pretty misogynistic. I hesitate to say that is absolutely is misogynistic, because that implies a level of intentional disregard for women that I don’t think is fair to ascribe to all brogrammers. So I’d like to focus on the trend, not the individual players. I assume that most brogrammers are decent guys, caught up in a culture that is worse than any of its parts. And that they do it simply because it’s what their culture does, and they believe that is how to get ahead, and yes, how to get women.
Let’s neither ignore nor demonize that last point. The quest to get laid crosses all industries, and is indeed a driving force for many of us – perhaps most especially the younger guys who seem to embody brogramming culture. They think that being the baddest bad ass will get them some ass.
I think they’re wrong. I think brogramming, besides being sexist and harmful to the workplace and the tech industry, is also bad for business and a bad way to attract women. The good news is that not being a sexist asshole is both good for business, and good for attracting women.
WHERE IS BROGRAMMING?
Brogramming is so ubiquitous that it’s almost pointless to nail it on a few people, but a recent Mother Jones article has brought several recent incidents to the forefront.
Go Daddy has to be the Godfather of brogramming misogyny, as they have, for years, been using women’s boobs, and the promise of soft-core porn online ads, to drive traffic. GeekList recently followed in those footsteps with the “girl in undies” ads on the last slide. As stupid and sexist as it was, the Twitter storm that followed showed exactly the nature of the brogramming attitude that exists today.
But the illustrations on this particular slide are all here for a reason. There’s the now infamous Boston API Jam by Sqoot, which lost all its sponsors after backlash from offering women serving beer as a conference perk. And the Silicon Valley VC pitch by a young startup that used photos of women in bikinis to highlight how awesome it was that their product could help you find the “good” places to be. Because, you know, “sexy” women are what makes a conference worth attending, or a place worth visiting. It should be obvious why this is offensive to women, but let me spell it out for you. We are not products. We do not exist solely to make things better for you. And worse, the very narrowly defined depiction of what “sexy” is leaves the majority of women out. It’s fine if you are not attracted to everyone – we are all entitled to our taste – but it is not fine to walk around talking about it all the time. Your sexual interests are not the point of a domain name registry, a conference or the success of your company.
But, just in case you still don’t see why this is offensive, look at the Boston API Jam add again, and imagine if it said, “Need another beer? Let one of our friendly (black) event staff get that for you.” Look at the location-scouting app pitch and ask yourself how you’d feel if that photo showed black people and said, “you won’t find these here” rather than chicks in bikinis and said “you’ll find these here.”
What is obviously racism in the above examples is just as obviously sexism in the real life samples.
The message it sends to women in tech is that women are valued for their sex appeal, and ability to satisfy men’s sexual imaginations. That is the wrong message if you want to attract women in tech. And, frankly, if you want to attract women to you.
Being a douche is not the way. Douching is bad for a woman’s vagina, and the metaphorical douches who call themselves brogrammers are bad for women in the world.
WHY DOES BROGRAMMING HAPPEN?
Going out on a limb, this is an easy one. They think they have to. Guy Kawasaki often quips that you should never do anything in business without checking with a woman first. Although I tend not to buy into gender stereotypes (I don’t think your genitals dictate your ability to treat people with respect) he posits that men possess a “killer instinct” that they can’t always turn off. They want to kill the competition, kill the pitch, kill the….. And to do so, they need to be badder, louder, bigger, tougher and faster than the competition.
Fine. I can buy that. When guys get together in guy groups, their personalities seem to change a bit. I’ve seen it, I don’t really think much of it. After all, a group of women is just as scary, and frankly, just as crass. We just tend not to let it seep into the workplace as much.
So there’s Kawasaki’s point. But I also think that there is a larger cultural issue that isn’t getting talked about enough. As much as we bitch about (and rightly so) the unreal depictions of women’s bodies and women’s “roles” in the media, I don’t think we pay enough attention to the same thing with men and boys. Even in tech, the ones we celebrate are the ones who made tons of money, the ones with the fancy cars, the ones with….. Outside of tech, images of men’s bodies are no less unreal than those of women. And then we add to that this entrenched cultural expectation that men are tough, strong, fearless, provide for their families, and do it all without ever expressing emotions that would make them seem like a “pussy.”
From the time that boys are little, we tell them to “man up and get ‘er done.” To a large degree, I think these misguided, and damned douchy, brogrammers are doing what we taught them to do. Compete until you are successful and get a hot girl.
That’s no excuse. It’s wrong, it doesn’t work and it’s just rude as hell, but it’s perspective we need to own. The myth of Prince Charming saving the damsel in distress is as bad for men as it is for women.
Most women would way rather have a kind, competent and secure guy who doesn’t play games. But we don’t model that, anywhere. Rich or strong, or both, that’s about it. How do you expect a guy in his mid 20′s who’s working 60 hours a week to undo all that programming and still keep his job and get laid?
SO WHAT HAPPENS?
You get a bunch of guys who think they need to be James Bond, and they end up being the Situation. And I’m sorry, but any of you hyped out agro brogrammers who think that you look cool…… Not so much. And please, stop with the cologne. (Okay, that was an off-topic personal plea, but at least lighten up, a lot.)
On a business level, it’s bad for business, and we’ll get to that. But on a personal level, I promise, you’re not going to get the girl that way. At least not the one you want.
SO WHY DOES IT MATTER?
There has been a marked decline of women in tech in the past decade. While I’m not one who says everything has to be even in all regards, I have a hard time believing that ignoring – much less alienating and eliminating – half the population is good for any business. For several reasons:
1. When trying to innovate or problem solve, entrenched thinking and groupthink are the least likely paths to optimal results. A diversity of perspectives and ways of thinking is almost inherently valuable.
2. Women are reported to control nearly 2/3 of the consumer wealth in this country. From how we buy airline tickets to groceries to online banking, all consumer goods and even cars and real estate. Not having women on a team is foolish. (No woman, for instance, would have put bikini jumping women in that pitch, which did anger at least one potential investor. Or Suggest women as beer-serving wenches at a conference, which caused them to lose all their sponsors.)
3. Building a better team means having the best talent, so, to quote my friend Dan Shapiro, who has built more successful businesses than anyone I know, “We simply cannot afford to alienate large chunks of the workforce, it is a widely understood truth that the single biggest challenge to a successful startup is attracting the right people. To literally handicap yourself by 50 percent is insanity.”
In the discussion of women in tech, people often wonder if it matters if women write code and what to do about team chemistry that is perfect without women.
In my mind, this is not black and white. If women aren’t writing code because they don’t want to, that’s fine. But if they are denied the opportunity because of systematic sexism in both education and employment, that’s a much larger issue.
Returning back to the “is this sexist” question again, I would ask, “is it racist?” If someone said “black people just aren’t as good at writing code,” or “black people just aren’t a good fit on my team,” would that be racist? If so, then “women just aren’t as good at writing code” and “women just aren’t a good fit on my team” is sexist.
Continuing that, if they aren’t a good fit, because the men on your team are insisting on sexualizing everything in a personal way, then it is the men who are a problem.
That sucks to hear, but let’s back out of it a step or two. I live and breathe sex. I do not think it is possible to remove sexuality from the workplace. Nor do I want to. Generally speaking, when our creative and intellectual juices start flowing, so do our sexual juices. And that’s okay. Actually, I think it’s all kinds of juicy goodness, because people who are fully “turned on” tend to be really creative and productive.
But taking that energy and making it overtly, personally and tactically sexual is something different altogether. Unless someone has given you their consent to enter into an overtly sexually charged environment, that’s when you cross the line.
Gawking over pictures of women in bikinis is overtly sexual charged. It is not okay in the workplace. Unless you work with me, in which case I am very clear up front that not only do you have to be comfortable watching porn and talking about kinky sex, you have to have a life in which it is okay for you to do so, because stress at home will come to work with you, and it will lessen your productivity.
The key there is consent. Plain and simple. And the fact that I work in the sex industry. Not the tech industry. I sell sexuality, not software as a service.
Which is part of why I believe that even men don’t want to be surrounded by just men all day. Business set aside, if you want to get ahead with the ladies (something I encourage, because my mission is to help ladies have better sex, and for at least half of them, that means access to men who are not total asshats) then learning to be around, work with, listen to and understand women is your best path to success. I promise you, most women don’t want James Bond any more than they want The Situation. The ones who want men, want men who respect them, listen to them, value their opinions, look out for their best interest and are fun to be with. Practice that at work, and you’ll be better at it after work. No woman wants to be with a man who treats women like shit, that would be admitting that they, themselves, were shit.
IT’S NOT FUNNY
We’ve all heard it time and time again, the humorless feminist. Can we stop that now, please? Along with the “women don’t like to fuck” thing, that’s bullshit. I spend all day listening to women talk about how bored they are with their sex life, and they often say that it’s because there are no men that are worth fucking. Dudes! Get worth it!
And for what it’s worth, I am always telling my girlfriends that geeks are where it’s at (and I mean it.) “Those guys won’t give up until they find an algorithm that makes your motherboard hum!” I’ve said it a hundred times, and I’m not stopping any time soon.
But the jokey brogrammer attitude about women simply isn’t funny. The rules of humor are simple, you can’t make a joke at someone’s expense unless they have status to spare. Making jokes about historically repressed populations isn’t funny, especially if you are in the part of the population of that did the repressing. Maybe in the future, but we aren’t there yet. Sucks if you are a privileged white guy,’cuz you can pretty much only make fun of privelaged white guys, but at least you have Charlie Sheen. But humor points up – we roast celebrities, not waiters. There’s a reason.
We are already fighting for credibility, equal pay, trying to prove that we deserve to be on an equal playing field. (Which, I might point out, we shouldn’t have to do.) But making us the butt of jokes – or our body parts – just knocks us down more.
So stop it. It’s counterproductive at work, and a non-starter if you’re trying to attract women.
IT’S BAD FOR WOMEN
Look, this is simple. Everywhere we turn, we are bombarded with media messages that tell us we’re too old, too fat, too tired, too wrinkly, and too out of style. We don’t need to get this shit at work too.
How would you feel if a successful, chick-run, tech company slung their slogan on a schlong of unreasonable proportion that you could never live up to? Good? Productive? Like you totally wanted to screw the chick who expects your penis to be on par with THAT? No, of course not.
On the most basic level, it is hard to feel safe, appreciated, welcome and respected when we are, at best, left out of the camaraderie, and at worst, kept out and belittled by a sexist misogyny that blames us for not loving to be treated like second class citizens, sexual objects and the butt of jokes.
Especially when we are, at least in theory, there to work. And then people try to tell us it isn’t happening. Remember separate but equal? When “blacks” and “whites” had separate drinking fountains? That was racism, right? What’s happening in brogramming culture is sexism in exactly the same way. Chicks can be project managers, but not coders? We don’t get to be part of your little group because we aren’t “down” with being talked down to and about all day long.
I don’t think you should hire people of any sex, gender, orientation , race or religion to make a quota. But if something is systematically – even subversively – blocking an entire portion of the population, then it’s an “ism.” “Isms” are usually a problem.
WHAT DO YOU WANT?
Whether you want to build a better business, or be the guy who actually gets the girl, you simply have to start ignoring all the hype and noise around you, and focus. Focus entirely on the market (which, in this case, can be a girl or the people who you hope will buy your product.)
You have competition. All the chest-thumping dudery in the world isn’t going to help you “kill” the competition, as Kawaski would put it. So calm the fuck down and focus. Stop worrying about who’s having bigger parties, getting more press, has more Twitter followers or Klout, focus on what your market needs. Don’t guess, ask them. Don’t design things they don’t need just because they’d be cool and you can. Don’t spend money you don’t have on things you don’t really need. Launch a product that serves your customer’s need better than anything else can. That’s what will make you successful in business. Not g-strings with your name on them.
And for goddsake, get a woman’s perspective, because I promise you, you will want a woman to buy what you’re selling, so ask one. Ask a woman how she shares photos, wants to read magazines, wants to look for real estate, wants…..
And if you meet a woman who you actually want to hook up with, do the same thing. You’ll be good at it now, because you’ve been practicing. Ask her questions. Listen to her answers. Share something true about yourself (not bullshit lines.) Figure out if you can meet each other’s needs, honestly. If you want no-strings sex, tell her that. Because if that’s what you want, and you tell her something different, you’re gonna unleash a whole lotta crazy. And vice versa. You have no idea how sexy direct communication is. It’s super hot. It’s an app that actually works rather than one of those gajillion apps that somebody wrote because they were so cool, bro, without thinking about if they really do anything that anyone wants.
KEEP WHAT YOU WANT
And this is the most important thing in both businesses and relationships – Acquisition is harder and more expensive that retention. Whether it’s an employee, a customer or a girlfriend, it takes a lot of resources to find the right match. The best way to not have to go through that as often is to get it right. That, invariably, means communication, respect, and trust. There is nothing in brogramming culture that fosters any of those things. Not in the board room and not in the bed room.
After the talk that didn’t really happen, I was approached by both a gay programmer and an African-American programmer, and both of them said, essentially, “this shit hurts us too.” Brogrammers are the “mean girls” of the tech world. And it sucks for everyone who isn’t one of them.
BE THE CHANGE
Look, I get it. I’m not trying to be a buzzkill, but the people who say there isn’t a sexism problem in tech are delusional. There is. It’s real, and it really is a problem. You simply cannot alienate and eliminate half the population and not take some responsibility for it.
Paraphrasing The Social Network, it’s not because it’s geeky, it’s because the brodom inherently does not involve women. There is no way you can use our tits to sell your products and serve your drinks and then say that as an industry you value us. There is no way your “leaders” can give speeches like the one Rob Specter and Matt Van Horn gave, to much applause, and tell us you value women.
You can’t even blame it on the other guys, unless YOU are one of the ones who stands up and calls bullshit. As I often tell my 13 year-old daughter, as bad as the bully is, it’s the people who don’t stand up to the bully who make the bullying problem as big as it is.
And that’s the good news. When you stand up and opt out of brogrammer culture, you become one of the good ones. You become a force that puts an end to sexism, you become a voice that focuses on what really matters, you become something positive.
The tech world has gotten a lot of bad press lately. Yes, I think the media focuses on the negative, but I also think that’s why it grows. People think that’s the way to get attention, and they want attention. We all do, it’s normal. After all, we can all name Matt Van Horn now, who cares if it’s because he’s an example of Brogrammer douchebaggery? They’re “famous.” Or at least infamous.
We should all care. Because unless we put a stop to it, the tech industry will be to sexism what the South is to racism. An embarrassing hanger-on to the progress that the rest of the world is making. Tech is going backwards – and the numbers show it. We are losing women in tech, while women in leadership in just about every other industry are increasing.
But will being “that guy,” the one good one, get you the girl? Actually, it will. By being respectful, trustworthy and focused on quality, you’ll get the girl. I promise. As I’ve often said, I’m not interesting in dating, much less fucking, some guy who will do it with just anyone. Because I’m not, “just anyone,” and I want partners who know that. Being a douche will not get you the girl.
Being a brogrammer is bad for your sex life, and it is really bad for business.
BE A GREAT LOVER
If none of that worked for you, let me leave you with the immortal words of David Foster Wallace. I tell this to anyone who will listen when talking about sex, because it’s the best advice out there. But it works in business too, just minus the sex. “A good lover makes you feel good. A great lover makes you feel like you are a great lover.”
Ironically, it comes from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, and in my personal opinion Brogrammers are hideous men.
But, taking this out of the bedroom and into the boardroom, your job is not to be the most impressive individual out there. It’s to build a great product, in a great company, with a great team. And the best way to do that is to make sure that the people around you feel great being around you. That’s what will make you better than anyone else. Be the guy that helps people be the best they can be. That will get you ahead. And, well, head.