November 5, 2012

Brogramming: Sex & Sexism in Tech Startups. ~ Alyssa Royse

The Whos, Whats, Wheres and Whys.

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 and 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 kill kill!  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 20s who’s working 60 hours a week to undo all that programming and still keep his job and get laid?

So what happens?

That’s easy, and sad.

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.


To read on about why this matters for women in the workplace and how we can start to change this behavior, look for Brogramming: Part II.

Alyssa Royse is a hot mama in her 40′s raising a teenage daughter and 2 young step-daughters. She is a veteran entrepreneur, journalist and PR hack who is now working entirely to promote healthy sexual freedom for all humans – because sexual agency is a human right, and also an important part of health and wellness. A popular speaker and guest writer, she can be found most often on her eponymous blog, AlyssaRoyse.com, on her new startup venture, NotSoSecret.com and as the co-host of the weekly radio show Sexxx Talk Radio on The Progressive Radio Network. (Downloads available on both prn.fm and in iTunes.) When she’s not thinking and writing about sex, she is generally playing with her big, queer, bi-racial family, traveling, reading or at the CrossFit gym sweating. Yes, she would probably love to come speak at your conference, or write something for you, contact info is on her blog. No, she does not want to date you, her dance card is blissfully full.


Editor: Elysha Anderson

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