The Quiet Efforts to Battle Silicon Valley’s Bro Culture



Once a week, Amy Henderson has secret meetings with the wives of the founders of technology companies. They meet at the women’s homes or in their offices, always with the door closed, or they do it remotely by video calls.

Each meeting is different, but the goal is the same—get their male founder husbands to take a substantial paternity leave in the hopes that their enthusiasm for the concept of embracing a work/life balance for parents will both help their own families and then trickle down to the rest of their company.

“We all know the limiting factor for women’s careers is motherhood,” says Ms. Henderson, who co-founded a consulting firm that runs work/family workshops for Silicon Valley companies. “So when men, especially male founders, show up for fatherhood, it helps to dismantle the old bro culture that believes families are lame and the single man reigns supreme.”

It has been a little over a year since the #MeToo movement made it safer for women to speak out about the toxic aspects of workplaces in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Since then, many tech companies and venture-capital firms have begun developing internal policies and diversity initiatives that they hope will shake up a culture that was previously defined by the idea that the single white man with no obligations outside of work is the best kind of employee.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that the most profound cultural disruptions are happening in a subtle and less public way, influenced by the women in tech who are fed up with the status quo and want change to happen more quickly.

‘Micro moments’

“Changing culture is all about these kinds of micro moments,” says Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab who has conducted research on troubling workplace behavior in the tech industry. “It is the micro moments that will become the macro and change the norms of professionalism.”

Ms. Cooper and others say much needs to be done to change the culture that they say still pervades tech companies and startups. “Bro culture is a dynamic that’s been creating men-only environments in their most toxic form by encouraging bad behaviors, from excessive drinking to heavy sexualized talk, that excludes women and any person who doesn’t support those behaviors,” Ms. Cooper says.

She adds that it isn’t just women whom bro culture excludes. It’s anyone who doesn’t want to participate in these kinds of behaviors. “Very few people enjoy those things, but they don’t want to stand up to the popular crowd making the rules,” she says. “I like beer pong as much as the next person, but I don’t want to do it at work. “

Perhaps the biggest efforts involve separating work from alcohol. Stories abound in Silicon Valley about networking events that happen late into the night at alcohol- and drug-fueled parties. When you’re a female founder in a male-dominated industry, you feel pressure to go where the money is, even if the money is in an uncomfortable place.

Breakfast events

Last April, Elise Hebb and Anarghya Vardhana, the two female partners at the venture-capital firm Maveron, began brainstorming ways to ensure the firm’s culture wasn’t excluding anyone. Drinks and dinners have been a big part of the recruiting effort at the company. But in April, it occurred to Ms. Hebb that a subtle shift in their recruiting events might make a big difference in terms of attracting more women.

“I just suggested doing a breakfast or a lunch instead,” says Ms. Hebb. “We’re trying to get ahead of potential complaints or a situation where anyone would feel uncomfortable. The bro culture is one that is exclusive. It works for a specific type of person. As a result, others who are different are excluded.”

So Maveron started having breakfast events for prospective employees, rather than putting on something at happy hour.

“We make sure the activities we do within the company and with the founders are gender-neutral,” Ms. Hebb says. “We aren’t doing whiskey drinking and shooting. We’ll do a scavenger hunt, or a hike, which is actually a better way to get to know people than over drinks. Is a scavenger hunt less bro-ey than drinks? It’s different, and we think that relates to a broader group of people who have felt excluded from a singular way of networking. What we’ve realized is that every single interaction you have with our employees and with founders can chip away at bro culture.”

Lesson from a drunk talk

A similar effort to scale back the boozy events comes from Pipeline Angels, an angel-investing boot camp that trains women to become investors. In 2017, Pipeline Angels announced an alcohol-free policy.

It came about when Pipeline Angels’ founder, Natalia Oberti Noguera, attended a tech conference where the host announced an impromptu “drunk talk” on stage. It’s a fairly common tactic in Silicon Valley, with the idea being that a volunteer from the audience will drink a lot and then give a talk in the hopes that alcohol will make that person more vulnerable and more forthcoming.

“Do you know who volunteered to give the drunk talk? A white guy,” Ms. Oberti Noguera says. She didn’t see that as surprising given the potential reputational risks of getting drunk for someone other than a white man.

“We’re already vulnerable,” she says. “It’s not safe in terms of our reputation for a woman, a man of color or a nonbinary person to get drunk and give a drunk talk at a professional event. And so I thought I can take someone else’s mistake and make it a best practice. Now all our events, including meals and evening receptions, are alcohol-free.”

Ms. Oberti Noguera says that not attending a work event if you don’t want to drink “can mean not having face time with senior-level colleagues, as well as missing out on learning about professional opportunities. My hope is that our alcohol-free policy will show people and organizations we don’t have to make that choice.”

Amy Nelson, the founder and CEO of Riveter, a network of co-working spaces, is making sure investment money and networking potential are available outside of the party scene. She has made a point of getting tech entrepreneurs in her offices in Los Angeles and Seattle in front of investors when the sun is shining and the coffee and tea are flowing.

“Something like 90% of VC investors are men,” Ms. Nelson says. “Only 2% of VC dollars go to women. That’s the definition of bro culture—men supporting men, opening doors for one another and making those connections.”

Ms. Nelson says Riveter has had more than 120 founders, all of them women, meet with venture-capital investors. She says the company is working to change the insular nature of bro culture by connecting people outside of the traditional channels.

“We’re opening doors for people that weren’t open before,” she says. “You can really have whatever kind of culture you want. It’s up to us to determine what that is.”

Ms. Piazza is a writer in San Francisco. She can be reached at reports@wsj.com.



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