Is Bro Culture Destroying Business Innovation?

The toxic effects of bro culture not only damages lives but also bottom lines


Even if you have never heard the line ‘bro culture in the workplace’ before, I am pretty sure you can immediately piece together what it means. it is usually characterized by young, brash and inexperienced men who create a toxic work environment for anyone not part of the tribe through harassment, hyper-competitiveness, and exclusion.

This is obviously not a new phenomenon. Bro culture has existed in one sense or another since capitalism was birthed, and many centuries before that. Over the past year, we have dealt with a wave of one of the most damaging tenants of bro culture in the workplace, sexual harassment. Starting with the Weinstein revelations, we have seen bombshell after bombshell drop with hero’s falling into disgrace almost daily.We have all had to come to the realization that misogyny is not a left or right, rich or poor issue, but a global, all-inclusive problem which we all need to start facing better.

Over the decades, the problem has been getting better overall, but with an issue as primal to our society as sexism and tribalism, the roots run deep.’Let's be honest. Stories about healthy and inclusive cultures are boring,’ says Laurie Ruettimann ‘I think bro cultures are still rare. Most people go to work and suffer from working with people who are too nice for their own good and never say anything controversial or meaningful. Or they work in passive-aggressive cultures where people are nice to their faces but stab them in the back on anonymous employee-engagement surveys.’ Indeed, part of the reason it looks so bad right now is that these incidents are basking in the light for once. The debate isn’t circling around various degrees of victim blaming as it has in the past, society seems to have finally decided to believe these women and take some action. Much like how it took the Rodney King video to open the of the eyes of rest of white America to the plight of African-Americans at the hands of the police. It has taken the #metoo movement to open men’s eyes to the true extent of this problem, something women have been acutely aware of for a very long time.

However, while it might seem like we are making progress in finally holding abusers to account, bro culture in the workplace is much wider than that. It doesn’t need to be overt harassment; little things like dismissing or belittling a female colleague’s ideas in a meeting or only hiring people you think you will get along with. It's a culture which promotes winning above all else and thinks humiliation is an appropriate form of motivation. These all stem from an unhealthy idea of what masculinity should be and in many respects, the ideology capitalism was built on to begin with. The larger problem with bro culture is it locks-in female stereotypes in a workplace. Women not only feel uncomfortable due to harassment but also feel like they can’t negotiate pay rises without being called bitchy or bossy. They feel like they can’t speak up in meetings with differing opinions for fear of sounding ‘shrill’.

A Problem With Startups

Even though this is a problem which affects all industries, recently, it does seem like a disproportionate number of these kinds of stories seem to be linked to startups within the tech sector. A previous employee of Uber, Susan Fowler published a blog detailing allegations of the company’s culture of harassment earlier this year. This, among an array of other moral failures, led to the CEO of Uber having to step down along with 20 other members of staff. Even google fell in hot water this year when one of their employees released his own manifesto about the pitfalls of gender diversity in the workplace, claiming women don’t deal with stress well due to ‘biological reasons’.

These startups probably don’t start with the intention of creating a toxic workplace. However, when the diversity isn’t a priority from day one, it tends to lead to a skewed demographic in favor of the dominant demographic, men. They end up reinforcing the cycle by not wanting to lose the ‘magic’ and hiring people they think mirror the image of the people who made the company great in the first place. Slowly, smaller instances of inappropriate behavior or discrimination just become normalized as those who are the victims are in such a minority. Already feeling like outsiders, they don’t want to seclude themselves any further from their male co-workers.

Another issue is the fact that a lot of these startups tend to not have an HR department until later in their maturity. Once they get to this point, a default bro culture has already been put in place and HR end up bending to the pre-existing mentality of the company and not what is fundamentally right.

The Economic Consequence of Bro Culture

The thing is, even if you don’t believe this is something that needs to be fixed from a common decency point of view, it is also damaging to company bottom line. Reputations matters, and even though a company like Uber has been wildly successful in a very short period of time, it has all started to catch up with them. A year marred by scandal has potentially knocked 10 billion dollars off Uber’s value according to a report by The Information. And not only are these practices damaging to company value, but when you have a reputation for allowing an exclusionary culture to run your business, you immediately chase away talented women and men who don’t want to be part of a toxic office. This means the company starts to miss out on the best minds which will effect innovation in the long run, something crucial to any modern venture.

For an example of how deeply bro culture can damage a company, or even the world economy, you need not look any further than the financial sector. The entire financial industry was precariously propped up by the core tenants of bro culture; incentivized short-term victories prioritized over good practices or even common decency and morality. The ‘if you can’t win, cheat’ mentality ran so deep it created an industry model so unsustainable, it led to the biggest recession in modern history and affected almost every person on earth.

All this damage because some bros did ‘whatever it took’ to make their bonus cheques.

The Simple Fix?

One of the biggest symptoms of bro culture is its most effective solution; a noticeable lack of women, especially in positions of power.

Women held just 25% of computing jobs, according to the National Center for Women & Technology. Start-ups are even worse with just 16.8% of U.S companies funded by at least one female founder according to Pitchfork. An undeniable connection all these stories share is the absence or abject failure of human resources departments. Either by not responding appropriately to claims, assisting the offenders, victim blaming or just not creating a safe enough environment where women felt comfortable coming to HR with grievances.

Leaders need to work with HR departments to change the culture of their company, not from a court-mandated mindset, but a genuine desire to want to create a healthier workplace. An effective HR department needs to be seen as a priority from day one. CEO’s need to practice what they preach and strive for diversity within leadership teams from conception. Even when well-intentioned, a board of men is unlikely to reach the best solution when dealing with bro culture. HR needs to develop a clear and decisive mechanism to deal with all forms of inappropriate behavior.

But it needs to be deeper than simply reprimanding people for making a bad joke or forcing teams to hire a more diverse staff. HR needs to start acting as the moral leaders for their companies. They should engage staff with an element of empathy, help people realize their biases instead of just shutting them down. This causes them to internalize those beliefs and does little to really change the culture, just makes it more insidious. A lot of the time, these beliefs are built on unconscious gender biases we all, men and women, have been raised with. Helping an unwitting bro introspectively consider why he feels so uncomfortable hiring a woman will go much further than just giving him a quota of women to hire. It would surprise you how far an anti-sexual harassment seminar can go to informing people of what is and isn’t acceptable in an office.

This will have a ripple effect on the company’s dynamic because then the enlightened will begin to challenge their fellow bros, question the status quo, pause a second before blurting out a potentially offensive joke. This is the real first step in reversing the polarity of a company’s culture’s if it is already quite toxic. HR can’t single-handedly change a company by themselves, they need to change hearts and minds of the people who work there to begin to change the tide.

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