The Problem with ‘Brogrammers’

Why is Silicon Valley so stubbornly white and male?

Rebecca Burns November 27, 2013

It’s no secret that Sil­i­con Val­ley has a prob­lem with sex­ism and racism, but the rev­e­la­tion in Octo­ber, as Twit­ter pre­pared for its ini­tial pub­lic stock offer­ing (IPO), that the com­pa­ny didn’t have a sin­gle woman or per­son of col­or on its board, rekin­dled a long-run­ning debate on how to chal­lenge these exclu­sions from the tech industry.

Brogrammer culture prioritizes hyper-masculinity, which will always push down those who don’t fit into that. Brogrammer culture encourages men to treat women as a winnable prize.

The debate had anoth­er twist ear­li­er this year with the arrival of Face­book exec­u­tive Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, which calls on women to stop low­er­ing their own career expec­ta­tions. Some cel­e­brat­ed Sandberg’s book as a new fem­i­nist man­i­festo, while oth­ers panned it as plac­ing all the onus on women. At last, a fem­i­nism the patri­archy can get behind,” writes tech blog­ger Shan­ley Kane.

Sandberg’s call for indi­vid­ual women to lean in” and work hard­er in the ser­vice of their employ­er also dove­tails with tech’s dis­dain for col­lec­tive action in the work­place, exem­pli­fied by Sil­i­con Valley’s hos­til­i­ty toward the Octo­ber BART strike. (One CEO of a San Fran­cis­co-based tech com­pa­ny sug­gest­ed this solu­tion to the strike: Fig­ure out how to auto­mate [BART dri­vers’] jobs so this doesn’t hap­pen again.”) Is the tech fem­i­nism” embod­ied by a few white exec­u­tives incom­pat­i­ble with a move­ment for work­ers’ rights in a sec­tor that makes up a grow­ing share of the economy?

In These Times talked about the ways that racism, sex­ism and clas­sism are cod­ed in the tech sec­tor with Kat Calvin, founder of Bler­dol­o­gy, a net­work for African Amer­i­cans in tech; Ashe Dry­den, a tech diver­si­ty edu­ca­tor and con­sul­tant; Kate Losse, author of The Boy Kings, a mem­oir about work­ing at Face­book; and Telle Whit­ney, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Ani­ta Borg Insti­tute for Women and Technology.

Your reac­tions to Twitter’s all-white male board?

Kate: Sil­i­con Val­ley thinks that the gender/​race com­po­si­tion of the board doesn’t mat­ter until there is pub­lic atten­tion. And that’s part of the prob­lem. Tech won’t be a tru­ly pro­gres­sive indus­try until tech com­pa­nies care about inclu­siv­i­ty from an ear­ly stage.

Ashe: Sta­tis­ti­cal­ly, women tend not to get pro­mot­ed much high­er than mid-lev­el man­age­ment and are dri­ven out of the indus­try at an ear­li­er point in their careers, which makes it much hard­er for them to attain these types of posi­tions. For instance, 56 per­cent of women leave tech with­in 10 years, which is twice the attri­tion rate of men.

Kat: I am so bored with these all-male com­pa­nies who choose to ignore 52 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. Twit­ter is huge now, but it won’t be big for­ev­er. Women and peo­ple of col­or have the free­dom and tech­nol­o­gy to build our own start-ups and come up with the next big idea. Let’s make sure the mech­a­nisms are in place for the next big thing, and the 10 after that, to be built by a woman or minor­i­ty, or both.

What are the most promis­ing meth­ods of increas­ing diver­si­ty in tech?

Telle: Under­stand your met­rics. Pro­vide micro-inequity train­ing for all staff and man­agers; devel­op your tal­ent, but in par­tic­u­lar your women; ensure that you have a qual­i­fied female can­di­date for all open posi­tions, but espe­cial­ly senior ones; and review your pro­mo­tion process to look for uncon­scious bias­es in the systems.

Kat: We need to increase the num­ber of Blacks in STEM [Sci­ence, Tech­nol­o­gy, Engi­neer­ing and Math]. We need to make sure that every­one who wants to learn to code, design and build has access to the Inter­net, a men­tor and exam­ples of some­one who looks like them.

Ashe: Most peo­ple are focus­ing on [get­ting women into the tech] pipeline, which I think is the wrong end of the prob­lem. While we cer­tain­ly need more women rep­re­sent­ed in tech, we are see­ing so many forced to leave because of harass­ment, inequal­i­ty in pay and out­right dis­crim­i­na­tion. We need to be focused on mak­ing our busi­ness­es wel­com­ing places for women so they have some­where to go when they get here.

Kate: Many of the resources to become tech­ni­cal are read­i­ly avail­able. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the social envi­ron­ment around tech­nol­o­gy can be dis­cour­ag­ing or even hos­tile to peo­ple who don’t fit the techie stereotype.

What is bro­gram­mer” cul­ture, and how does it play into exclu­sion from the tech industry?

Ashe: Bro­gram­mer cul­ture pri­or­i­tizes hyper-mas­culin­i­ty, which will always push down those who don’t fit into that. Bro­gram­mer cul­ture encour­ages men to treat women as a winnable prize. How­ev­er, I wor­ry that focus­ing so much on the bro­gram­mer stereo­type means that peo­ple who don’t believe them­selves to be bro­gram­mers will not look at their own actions crit­i­cal­ly. Our cul­ture has had these issues longer than bro­gram­mers have been around.

Kate: Yes; six years ago the word bro­gram­mer” didn’t exist, but the same bias­es were in effect. What­ev­er it is called, tech cul­ture needs to become con­scious of how it is biased for a cer­tain type of indi­vid­ual, and how the se bias­es sub­tly or direct­ly work to exclude or dri­ve away others.

Will get­ting more women into lead­er­ship posi­tions change this cul­ture, as Sheryl Sand­berg suggests?

Ashe: It’s impor­tant to rec­og­nize here that the idea of lean­ing in” may work well for some, but not the over­all major­i­ty. Lean In has received quite a lot of crit­i­cism, and right­ly so, for push­ing for­ward a per­spec­tive that is white, upper­class, cap­i­tal­ist and friend­ly to a sys­tem that oppress­es women on a reg­u­lar basis. Stat­ing that women can get along well with­in this sys­tem if only they’d play by the system’s rules fur­ther oppress­es them.

Telle: I am baf­fled by the lev­el of [neg­a­tive] response to Sheryl’s Lean In book. One half of the coin is the sys­temwide issues, but there are few extreme­ly suc­cess­ful women exec­u­tives who are will­ing to dis­cuss being a woman, and I applaud her will­ing­ness to go on the record. At the Ani­ta Borg Insti­tute, we look at both sides of the coin. We announced a part­ner­ship with the Lean In Foun­da­tion which pro­vides struc­ture for Lean In cir­cles. The Lean In cir­cles pro­vide a recipe and sup­port for meet­ing with peers.

What’s the impor­tance of cre­at­ing alter­na­tive net­works and com­mu­ni­ties, such as Blerdology?

Kat: A blerd” is a black nerd, and the term and com­mu­ni­ty are impor­tant because, like women, Black Amer­i­cans and oth­er minor­i­ty groups often feel iso­lat­ed and out of place in the bro­gram­mer” world of tech and start-ups. Con­nect­ing with peo­ple with sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences is vital­ly impor­tant for the trail­blaz­ers who have to face sex­ism, racism, clas­sism and many oth­er isms” to try to make it in their cho­sen fields. Tech­nol­o­gy can be the great equal­iz­er, but only if we make sure that every­one has a place at the table.

What about the way the indus­try treats its ser­vice and oth­er non-elite work­ers? Is it pos­si­ble to fix tech’s diver­si­ty prob­lems with­out address­ing the hier­ar­chy between the cre­ative genius­es” who get cred­it for dri­ving it for­ward and the unskilled” work­ers at its bot­tom rung?

Kate: The Valley’s focus on the tech­ni­cal” has been gen­dered and raced. Tech com­pa­nies con­tain many peo­ple who aren’t specif­i­cal­ly work­ing on tech­ni­cal things, and those roles are impor­tant too. But when the dis­course cen­ters only on the tech­ni­cal, it gets hard for com­pa­nies and observers to see the val­ue of non-tech­ni­cal work in a tech­ni­cal set­ting. In real­i­ty, these com­pa­nies need many types of tal­ents in order to excel.

Ashe: As long as we are divid­ing peo­ple into groups based on how we aren’t fair­ly pay­ing them, there will always be this divi­sion. In every indus­try, women and peo­ple of col­or are much more like­ly to be in low-wage work. Tech com­pounds its prob­lems with diver­si­ty by under­valu­ing the work­ers who aren’t in the cre­ative genius” division.

Final thoughts: What kind of fem­i­nist and anti-racist dis­cours­es do we need, in respect to an increas­ing­ly tech dri­ven economy?

Kat: I’m more inter­est­ed in action. We have the pow­er to live our lives as we wish like nev­er before. In a nation where the mid­dle class is very quick­ly dis­ap­pear­ing, it’s not just a chal­lenge for women and minori­ties to get ahead, it’s get­ting hard for almost all of us. But tech­nol­o­gy makes all things pos­si­ble. You can learn to code or design. You can get cer­ti­fied in dozens of fields and find or build online com­mu­ni­ties of peo­ple who are just like you. And you can even use plat­forms owned by white men to do it. Twit­ter may be run by the old boys’ club, but it has helped count­less women, minori­ties and every­one else build busi­ness­es, make con­nec­tions, and start rev­o­lu­tions, both fig­u­ra­tive­ly and literally.

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
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