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International Women's Day - how to fix toxic tech bro cultures

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett March 8, 2024
Solutions to the tech sector’s ongoing lack of gender diversity tend to focus on how women can improve their own chances of success. But this International Women’s Day, let's talk about why the tech bro culture must be dismantled if real change is ever to take place.

bro cuture

Despite apparently endless diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives by employers in the tech sector, the now infamous ‘tech bro’ culture still appears to be alive and kicking.

Two recent reports bear this statement out. One study was conducted by the Fawcett Society, a membership charity that campaigns for women’s rights, and sponsored by telco Virgin Media O2. It revealed that a shocking one in five men in tech believe that women are naturally less suited to working in the sector. 

To make matters worse, a huge 72% of women in tech roles said they had experienced at least one form of sexism at work. This included being paid less than their male colleagues and being subject to sexist ‘banter’ (22% respectively). A further one in five found their skills and abilities coming under question. 

Unsurprisingly then, a worrying 43% female tech workers consider leaving their jobs at least once a week. 

A second report by tech consultancy and managed services provider Ensono came up with similar findings. It indicated that just over a quarter (26%) of women in tech in the US, UK and India have felt uncomfortable or unsafe due to microaggressions or other forms of discrimination. This is up from 20% in a similar study in 2022. 

A further 73% also found themselves having to absorb more responsibilities than their male counterparts following headcount cuts. Again unsurprisingly, a significant 19% said they planned to leave their current employer over the year ahead.

But poor retention rates are not the only signs that an organization’s culture is toxic. Others include high sickness levels and large numbers of formal complaints, grievances and disciplinaries due to conflict. Moreover, says Sheila Robbie, Key Client Account Manager at conflict management and dispute resolution services provider CMP:

Toxic cultures stifle people’s creativity, voice, innovation and all those great things organizations need to survive and thrive. So, they either leave or become so demoralized and checked out that they stay as they don’t have the energy or confidence to go. But either way, it’s not good.

Why tech bro culture remains so ingrained 

As to why tech bro cultures continue to remain so entrenched, Robbie believes it is because companies tend to be run by men who “don’t want to give up their power, influence or position” – although such feelings are generally unconscious. As she points out:

People are often trying to protect what they’ve got and are unaware of their own privileges. Our reptilian brains see comfort in the familiar, which is why leaders also promote people like themselves. As to why people behave badly, it’s often about a lack of self-awareness - they don’t realize the impact they’re having on others.

This is particularly true in the start-up world, where companies tend to be set up by young men. Veera Siivonen, Chief Commercial Officer and partner at AI governance and transparency platform provider, Saidot, explains:

If young people get a lot of power when they’re not mature yet, it’s more likely to cause problems. As tech start-ups tend to be male dominated, it affects their culture.

This situation is reinforced by the unquestioning acceptance of masculine values that have been embedded in workplaces of all types since the Industrial Revolution, believes Dr Na Fu. She is Professor of Human Resource Management at Trinity Business School:

The structure of the average working day was designed for a time when male workers were dominant. So, at the regulation and policy level, more work needs to be done to create a more gender-inclusive work culture. This has already resulted in things like gender pay gap legislation, which is great. But there are also issues from a more basic organizational viewpoint. A lot of social and networking events take place after work, which isn’t good for women who still tend to do most of the parenting. But if these events were moved to lunchtime, it would be a small change that had a dramatic impact.

Another challenge, meanwhile, is that of “decoupling dynamics”. This refers to the gap between organizational intentions in DEI terms and implementation on the ground. Key barriers to the adoption of effective inclusive practices here include managers being confronted with conflicting demands from multiple stakeholders and lack of accountability. Fu explains:

Decoupling happens as employers have limited resources. When making decisions, things like profits must be taken into consideration, which results in trade-offs. So, an individual might be toxic, for example, but if they’re performing well, they could end up being promoted. As a result, a systemic approach is required to work out to what extent the organization can tolerate bad behavior.

Tackling tech bro cultures

Key to solving this conundrum is the attitude of the top team, and especially the CEO. This means that positive role-modelling is vital to encourage behavioral change elsewhere. Robbie explains:

It starts with senior leaders’ behavior and vision. They need to buy into the idea of an inclusive culture, and policies and processes all have to support its delivery. It’s also important they listen to people and ask curious questions rather than jump to conclusions. To create a high-performing team, it’s about ensuring everyone is rewarded and recognised for the good stuff but also feel supported when things don’t go well. That way people feel they can learn from their mistakes. 

Put another way, Robbie says, supporting psychological safety is imperative to create a space in which people feel they can speak up about bad behavior and be listened to rather than victimized. Creating whistleblowing policies and channels is also useful in this context. As she points out:

It’s important to have channels for people to report unacceptable behavior, and to welcome input. Things are often swept under the carpet, but it’s vital that organizations are seen to be doing something about it.

Other practices that help create a more positive culture include being very clear on what the organization stands for by ensuring its vision, mission and values are well understood. Introducing a code of conduct is useful as is management coaching and training, not least to help people develop more self-awareness. 

Creating an inclusive culture

Brigette McInnes-Day is Chief People Officer of robotic process automation software provider, UiPath. She believes that creating an inclusive culture should involve everyone at every level of the business:

When it comes to ‘bro culture’ or any culture, it goes beyond just an HR perspective. That’s only one leg of the stool. It’s about leadership and employees’ behavior setting the culture. It takes leaders, employees and human resources together to regulate and hold each other accountable to be culture carriers.

In other words, Robbie says:

It’s all very well having nice words on a poster, but you need role models across the organization who live and breathe the company’s values. This means that recruitment and promotion processes should be linked to an individual’s people skills, not just their technical ability. Rubbish line managers erode culture, so reward and recognition should be linked to how people behave. It’s also important to have robust performance management processes in place so everyone knows what’s expected of them. And if they don’t behave in a way that’s expected, there should be consequences to that.

Siivonen agrees:

It all starts with who you recruit into the company in the first place. So, do they fit with your culture, do they share your DEI values, and do you undertake a cultural assessment when recruiting them?

Another important consideration when trying to bring about change is employing an evidence-based management approach. Fu explains:

Introducing an analytics dashboard to show which managers, teams or departments have the highest turnover enables you to see clearly where toxic cultures are. It’s not always the entire company, it’s often about individual departments, so using analytics enables you to obtain evidence and then take action.

My take

Around half of women in tech quit their jobs by the age of 35. Activities, such as coaching and mentoring, can undoubtedly help here by boosting networks, skills and, importantly, confidence to help them progress in their careers. 

But a key problem is that the overwhelming focus tends to be on changing the individual rather than the often toxic cultures in which women find themselves. This means that if employers really are serious about attracting and retaining women in tech, they simply must dismantle these damaging cultures and create an environment which is truly open and inclusive for all.

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