Source: USA Today
SAN FRANCISCO — Women are hopeful bro culture could be mortally wounded, but they aren’t quite prepping for its funeral.
“Bro Culture,” the exclusionary, male-centric vibe at some companies that has led to a spate of powerful men such as Uber CEO Travis Kalanick losing high-profile roles is under heavy assault.
A younger generation of women is speaking more openly about what they experience in the workplace, and some companies such as Apple and Microsoft have responded to criticism on issues such as equal pay with efforts to address the disparities. The shift has resulted in a string of repercussions that have made men think twice about their behavior.
However, many women remain skeptical that their complaints and the recent outcomes will make a dent in what they view as long-standing issues of inequality and harassment in the business world.
“Will people stop sending memos about what kind of sex is appropriate at a company party? Likely,” says Jessica Rovello, CEO of interactive content company Arkadium, referring to a memo that Kalanick once wrote. “But will this change the way people operate? Probably not.”
Ingrained male habits die hard, Rovello says, recalling countless meetings where, as the only woman in the room, questions she asked were answered with the speaker addressing a male colleague.
The vexing issue came to the fore again this week after an excerpt of Ellen Pao’s upcoming book, Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change, was published in New York magazine Monday.
Pao, who unsuccessfully sued iconic venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins for sexual discrimination, recounts how her future at the company was derailed after she broke off a relationship with a Kleiner partner who had failed to leave his wife as planned.
She also describes a flight she took on a Kleiner partner’s jet during which a male tech CEO talked about porn stars and sex worker preferences with her male colleague. “Sometimes the whole world felt like a nerdy frat house,” wrote Pao.
Origin of the species
The word “bro” is a white appropriation of the African-American greeting derived from “brother.”
But as a term describing an ethos, bro culture has come to represent a testosterone-charged group reminiscent of a sports team or frat house and for some harks back to powerful white privilege that has caused women and minorities to struggle for equality since the founding of the country.
At its core, bro culture aims to create a space where boys can be boys, says Michael Kimmel, founder and director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University and author of Angry White Men: Masculinity at the End of an Era.
What we mean when we say ‘bro culture’
“It’s a reaction against the entry of women into virtually every public space, which they see as an invasion,” he says. “Once upon a time, every place was a locker room.”
Kimmel also warns of a toxic byproduct of this culture that extends beyond women. Men who aren’t drawn to the code — the teasing, the boasting, the drinking — can be pressured to “compromise their own values in the name of fitting it with bros,” he says, adding that the pressure to conform can be intense.
Echoes of Wall Street
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which battled Wall Street on the behalf of women decades ago, says women continue to come forward even though the agency hasn’t filed any major financial industry sex discrimination cases in New York City in recent years.
“That doesn’t mean similar discrimination is not occurring. We certainly have continued to see allegations like that,” says Raechel Adams, an EEOC supervisory trial attorney who worked on one such case 13 years ago.
One in four women reported experiencing “sexual harassment” in the workplace, according to a June 2016 EEOC report on workplace harassment. When asked more specifically about unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion, 40% of women reported being harassed, the report found.
Additionally, almost 60% of women surveyed reported some form of gender harassment, which includes sexist, crude or offensive behavior at work.
Fair personal treatment is just one facet of the challenge. Getting equal pay and funding for women-led ventures is another.
While a number of tech CEOs have made efforts of late to close the pay equity gap, women make up just a quarter of the nation’s computing workforce, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Last year, male entrepreneurs received $58.2 billion in venture capital, while women received $1.5 billion, or just 2.5%, according to PitchBook.
In 2016, women in software tech were paid 83.4% of what men earned, while women in securities, commodities and financial services received 65.2% of what their male colleagues earned, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.
“Culture at work is so long standing, and it’s just impossible to beat it down,” says Allison Schieffelin, who won a Wall Street discrimination settlement a decade ago in a case that showed bro culture is hardly a new phenomenon.
Serious consequences for bad actors
Even so, women working in Silicon Valley have made men think twice about the potential consequences of indecent behavior.
Venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck was forced to resign from Binary Capital after being accused by many women of inappropriate advances during business negotiations.
Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a detailed blog post in February about the ride-hailing company’s sexist environment. Her charges started a cultural tailspin that led co-founder Kalanick to resign in June after eight years of helming his $70 billion start-up.
Dave McClure of tech incubator 500 Startups resigned after being accused of inappropriate conduct.
Retired venture capitalist Chris Sacca apologized for “perpetuating a culture rife with busting chops, teasing and peer pressure to go out drinking.”
And Google fired engineer James Damore on Aug. 7 after, in the course of questioning the tech giant’s diversity program, he suggested women were less biologically fit for careers in tech.
Criticism of bro culture isn’t limited to the tech industry. New York-based “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli, who was convicted Aug. 4 on three securities fraud charges in an investment case, separately has been criticized over his treatment of women.
Freelance writer Lauren Duca early this year reported that Shkreli harassed her after she criticized President Trump in a 2016 TeenVogue opinion piece. Shkreli, a sometime Trump supporter, trolled Duca online, writing he had “a small crush” on her and inviting her to be his date for the presidential inauguration ceremony.
The health care entrepreneur gained infamy in 2015 by imposing a 5,000% price hike on a medication used to treat HIV sufferers, said in a July Facebook Live session before the start of jury deliberations in his case: “Trial’s over tomorrow, b—–. And if I’m acquitted, I get to f— Lauren Duca.”
Imagine a company that takes its cues from the behavior of a leader such as Shkreli, and you have a sense of how corporate culture can quickly become a tinderbox of inequality, says Joan C. Williams, a professor at Hastings College of Law and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law.
“When work becomes a masculinity contest, whether it’s measuring the hours you’re working or the pay you’re making, then often hitting on the women in the office is just another metric of your success there,” she says.
Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center, a non-profit organization that champions equality for women, says there is no question that sexual harassment is rife in all types of workplaces. Nonetheless, outrage over bro culture has not been unanimous.
Men and women in the tech industry stood by their embattled colleagues, characterizing their downfalls as witch hunts. “How is it that men should pay with their careers for a moment of weakness?” asks Michael Petraeus, a start-up entrepreneur who calls McClure’s ouster a “crucifixion.”
Wall Street’s cautionary tale
History suggests that it may take far more than a paper billionaire’s demise to clean up bad behavior.
A few decades back, Wall Street was riddled with the same sexual discrimination issues as junk bond and derivatives wizards reinvented investing much the way today’s tech entrepreneurs have disrupted the taxi and lodging sectors. Their success often bred a feeling of invincibility and supremacy.
But some women wouldn’t stand for it. In 1996, Pamela Martens and two other women filed a federal complaint against Smith Barney, which had doled out 95% of its brokerage jobs to men, according to the lawsuit.
The case became known as the Boom Boom Room lawsuit, after a Smith Barney basement party room from which women were barred. Because all employees had signed agreements to take any claims to mediation, trial revelations were avoided in exchange for mediated settlements for nearly 2,000 women.
“The bro culture on Wall Street has been enshrined by contractually mandating that all employees and customers waive their rights to use the nation’s courts to settle charges of misconduct and fraud,” Martens said in an email statement to USA TODAY.
As if their legal counsel took lessons from the financial companies in the East, in the tech mecca of Silicon Valley, few women’s complaints spawn lawsuits because employment contracts require complaints to be settled through binding arbitration.
But even public legal victories come with a realization that only so much has changed. At the turn of the millennium, Allison Schieffelin earned more than $1 million a year as an institutional bond saleswoman at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. The EEOC sued, alleging discrimination with respect to promotion, pay and other conditions faced by women in the brokerage’s Institutional Equity Division.
Moments before a 2004 court trial opened, the company agreed to a $54 million settlement.
Despite the win, Schieffelin says the issue persists: “I feel like I made a mark, but I feel like the problem is still incredibly prevalent.”
Contributing: Alia E. Dastagir and Jessica Guynn