Whoa to the Bro Culture at Work

Cultivating workplace respect is good for business

By Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow

At the start of 2017, Uber, Amazon and Apple were regarded as the tech’s industry most successful companies. By the end 2017, however, they all were accused of cultivating “bro cultures” in their respective workplaces.

What is bro culture? At its best, it is a workplace culture that encourages fraternal “old boy networks” that inclusively support and encourage networking with fellow males, while at the same time blocking female employees from participating in the male-dominated decision-making circles. Bro culture supports the exclusion of women to foster and support values that maintain “the way we’ve always done things around here.”  This adage is often actualized as an barrier that rejects difference to maintain the comfortable “company way” of conducting business.

The common denominator in bro culture workplaces is an impenetrable career-related glass ceiling for women and others who cannot or do not emulate fellow bros employees’ behaviors and attitudes.

Unfortunately, bro culture’s most insidious workplace undercurrents are created when male employees become comfortable with, or insensitive to, sexually harassing behavior directed at female and male employees. Moreover, many of these bros truly believe their employers hire and promote women not for their talent and expertise, but because of politically correct mandates for diversity and inclusion.  

​Undoubtedly, there are men in companies who advance women and genuinely believe in fairness, gender equity, and the development of talent in their organizations. One prime example of such a leader is Wayne Schmidt, principal and founder of Schmidt Associates, an Indianapolis based architectural firm that has been honored numerous times as one of the “Best Places to Work.” Schmidt created not only a successful firm, but a unique workplace culture that includes the roles of mentors and Sherpas. As a result, the firm has an extremely low turnover. Schmidt also recognized that gender inclusiveness is simply good strategy for the organization and actively supports the firm’s new CEO Sarah Hempstead to ensure a smooth transition plan for further success.

If you are a leader or senior manager, perhaps 2018 is the year you should assess if the following bro culture behaviors and values are hampering the success of your organization:

Women marginalized by words

Far too often, men (and women for that matter) talk about their female co-workers in inappropriate and offensive ways.  This type of behavior is often tolerated and explained away because “boys will be boys,” “everybody does it,” and “actions speak louder than words.”

The words, however, used during conversations within your management team can be actionable and detrimental. For example, research conducted by Timothy Jon Curry, a professor at The Ohio State University, indicates that within all-male contexts, such as “big time” men’s college sports, student athletes’ locker room talk generally treated women as objects and encouraged sexist attitudes toward women. Likewise, a lack of women within your management team may promote “bro-only” conversations that demean women and their capabilities.

Women who face “us-them” experiences at work, such as encountering an awkward and palpable silence when they walk into a room of men or consistently hearing gender-laden rumors or sexist language, have higher levels of occupational turn-over and report lowered job satisfaction and engagement. Demeaning bro-talk is a powerful diminisher that causes women to question the merit of their hard work. This distorted feeling of “reduced personal accomplishment” is a classic symptom of burn-out that diminishes your female employees’ productivity – and big time. Studies suggest stressed and burnt-out employees translate into a loss of anywhere from $150 billion to $300 billion annually for U.S. employers.

Moreover, bro culture at work can affect everyone. Researchers George Cunningham, Mindy Bergman, and Kathi Miner found that simply witnessing insulting behavior toward women, even when not a target of the insulting behavior, has destructive impacts on job satisfaction for both men and women.

Women marginalized by harassment

Sexual harassment allegations have rocked the media, Hollywood, Capitol Hill and higher echelons of leadership within major corporations and non-for-profit organizations. In 2016, the EEOC released a comprehensive study of workplace harassment in the United States that concluded that “anywhere from 25% to 85% of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.” Admittedly, there is a wide gap between 25% and 85%. However, even in the EEOC’s most conservative estimate, one in four women are affected by workplace sexual harassment. Clearly, many U.S. women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work.

One example of bro-culture recently occurred within the tech industry, which is dominated by men (80%). In April 2017, ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a blog post that went viral when she alleged the ride-sharing company’s culture was closer to what you would expect in a male locker room and not within one of Silicon Valley’s most admired companies. During 2017, other highly-regarded and profitable tech companies, like Apple and Google, were also accused of cultivating sexist and bros-only work environments.

In November 2017, an article published by Quartz reported on how Amazon and Apple’s voice assistants -- Alexa and Sira -- responded to comments defined as sexual harassment by the Linguistic Society of America (and which also mirrored the definitions of sexual harassment featured on most university and company websites).  The results, regretfully, were eerily familiar with flirty, bro-toxic comments that are often expressed and heard in the workplace.

Here is one example of Siri and Alexa’s response to a sexually harassing comment:

Statement: “You’re hot”

Alexa’s Response: “That’s nice of you to say.”

Siri’s Response: “How can you tell?” “You say that to all the virtual assistants.”

Sadly, the voice assistants’ responses repeatedly failed to respond negatively to a myriad of sexually harassing statements.  Rather, their responses bolster stereotypes that women appreciate sexual commentary from people they do not know.  As a result, Care 2 launched a petition calling for Amazon and Apple to reprogram Alex and Siri to push back against sexual harassment. According to Care 2’s website, the petition has garnered 16,907 supporters toward a goal of 17,000 signatures.

The lesson learnt by that Amazon and Apple is this -- if you want to neutralize the ill-effects of a bro culture and, at the same time, ensure that your company successfully makes products people will buy and use, make sure your management and the people making them are the ones who will buy and use them – including women. Women add so much value to businesses. Study after study has shown that more diverse teams are more creative and innovative. Companies with diverse leadership and management are more profitable. 

In sum, when it comes to successfully deterring bro culture, remember as Jennette McCurdy put it, "They say actions speak louder than words, but actions don't speak. People speak, and people are loud." Be aware of the marginalizing effects of bro culture-related actions and words in your workplace. In addition, to boost morale and diminish burnout, ditch the maternity/paternity leave policies and replace them with family leave policies for men and women. Moreover, treat men and women equally in words and in actions by eliminating the wage gap. Break up the old boy’s network and recognize leadership potential by basing your judgments not only on what you want in a leader, but why do you want it. Be willing to challenge your assumptions regarding different leadership styles, be curious about other styles. Most importantly, if a female employee reports a problem with the behavior of a colleague or manager, implement practices to promptly investigate all complaints – and be sure to always circle back with your employees who report issues about what steps have been taken.