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Is "Bro-Culture" Inherently Sexist?

A woman sued Google last week, saying that she experienced sexual harassment in Google’s “bro-culture.” I won’t go into what she alleges that she experienced because you can read that for yourself if you like, but it got me thinking about what creates “bro-culture.” Is it just that groups of men, when they’re together, will gravitate towards gang-like behavior? Is it the same with women? I don’t think it’s that simple.

What is bro-culture?

To me, the word bro-culture is so evocative of a specific image that it is difficult to even unpack what it means. I will do my best. A bro is an entitled man, usually white, who has enough money to dress in expensive sports-related clothes and acts like a spoiled child.

Bro-culture happens when you have a critical mass of bros together in one place so that the power imbalance shifts from capable adult humans and the bros are the ones setting the cultural norms. Silicon valley is notorious for being a vortex of bro-culture, as this lawsuit represents. The bros are the ones hiring, firing, and disciplining people. The bros are deciding whose opinions get recognized in meetings.

I have worked in jobs that are male-dominated, but not bro-culture, and I have worked in bro-culture, and my experience is that they are intensely different.

It is different to work with one harasser in an otherwise safe job than to work in bro-culture.

Bro-culture is almost always inherently sexist just by the natural course of how it plays out. Here’s why: it takes work to understand people who are different than us. When we are entitled, we have never been forced to see things from a different perspective. Bro culture allows entitled people to reward other people who are like them (other men) and punish people who are different (women).

The solution:

If you are working in a bro-culture, the solution is tough because it is the opposite of what we are naturally inclined to do. When we have a reasonable boss, we want to do everything the boss says to prove we deserve more responsibility and benefits. When our boss is happy, we can be happy. This is reinforced in all schooling through grades.

When you are a woman working in bro-culture, though, it doesn’t work to try to please the bros. They are going to have tantrums no matter what. Instead, what I have found to work best is to deliberately imagine yourself as the one in power, whatever role speaks most to that for you – mom, school teacher, Meryl Streep from The Devil Wears Prada, whatever. Then, you react to the bros like you would react to the 8-year-old children they really are. You reward them for their good behavior; you set consequences to protect yourself around their bad behavior.

Often we think that surviving in a bro-culture requires us to compromise our integrity, but I don’t believe it has to do that. If we deliberately focus on protecting ourselves and understanding what we do have power over, we can often make significant change.


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