Everyone agrees the rant author is a scoundrel. The real question is: how can you avoid having his type in your startup? There are ways.
Sexism is a big tent. It includes sexual harassment like overt unwanted contact, inappropriate comments, sexual advances, and withholding promotions for unreturned affection; it also includes gender-based bias — far more common and far more difficult to label and identify. Each of these two extremes deserve significant attention from companies, but this article is devoted to the latter. Gender-based bias, or ‘Dude-bro’ism’ is a culture of bias that proliferates in tech. Like all outbreaks, prevention is cheaper and easier than treatment within work environments and corporate culture. Prevention begins at the first job interview, but also requires steady maintenance to keep away. This is a guide for prevention.
Tell me about the strong women in your life…
I speak to a lot of young women at conferences and events devoted to promoting women in tech. The top question I am asked is how they can protect themselves from Dudebroism. They ask it with a variety of phrases like, “bosses who might overlook me in promotions against competing males” or “men who complain because they got a girl on their team” and the always-lurking, “how can I get more respect in meetings?” I tell them it begins at hiring: ask a potential boss/colleague/partner/co-founder/employee: “Tell me about the strong women in your life.”
You want to work with men who have years’ experience with strong women in the form of sisters, best friends, wives, mothers, or the gold standard: bosses. You do not want to be a colleague’s first encounter with a woman in an alpha role. You definitely do not want to be the first woman to tell a man he is wrong about something. In that case, you will most likely become an object of resentment as opposed to a catalyst for paradigmatic change in their worldview of how women act. That Google Dudebro was full of resentment.
Beware of men who answer this question with softball answers like, “I have lots of female friends” and “I really respect women, they do it all.” Women do do it all often, but you need specifics here: who/where/how/when/why. Great answers include: “My wife leads her division and I have seen first hand how she has to listen to difficult men who talk over her in meetings” or “My first strong woman in my life was my mother, who, growing up, coached my soccer team after she got off work.” These are men who are less likely to pollute a company with Dudebroism.
Beware of the college drop-out
Peter Thiel may reward young men who drop out of college, but he is also rewarding a culture of confirmation bias, which is a gateway drug to Dudebroism. Men who stay in college to earn at least a bachelors degree are likely to have been on teams in classes that made them work with women. They are likely to have had female professors and TAs who were in positions of power over them. A man who goes directly into tech from his high school years is at a very high risk of clinging to his high school view of women. For many men in tech, that’s not a pretty view.
Aside from the years of maturity it can add, I typically find finishing a 4-year degree is positively associated with a broader worldview. College exposes one to different ideas and ways of thinking. Finishing college is something of a litmus test for surviving four (or five or six) years outside of your cultural safe place. Colleges with humanities cores are especially great at challenging young people. Most of all, colleges make students face the mind blowing possibility that a) they are wrong about what they think is right; and b) they might fail at something that matters to them: two of life’s greatest protections against Dudebroism. Extra points for men who have degrees outside of tech.
Root it out at first sight
Even self-actualized, evolved men with strong women in their lives and college degrees have gender-based bias. It must be constantly surveilled and rooted out at every sighting. I count myself among the luckiest female CEOs of all-male teams to have found men who are extremely minimally Dudebro, but my very amazing colleagues still have their flare-ups. I call them on it every single time. You have to know what to look for.
A higher standard to explain myself: Gut decisions make up a lot of decisions in tech. They are mostly based on instinct instead of evidence, which means bringing the team along with one’s direction is made possible by a person’s ability to bring about consensus. When men talk to each other, especially white men, they already share 99% of their cultural norms. So, if they are going on half or mostly gut feelings for a big team decision, men can sort of grunt and say a few words and know what each other means. Women come from a different cultural norm and don’t get that advantage. When men challenge a woman’s gut direction on a decision, they ask her to explain it, to break it down into evidence. Since it is a gut feeling and not an evidence-based decision, her ideas break down quickly under scrutiny.
Even beyond gut feelings, women are asked to explain everything — to the point that explaining why we think we are right in a disagreement about what is right becomes an object of gender bias. Among men we trust, most women can break down their preconceptions that lead to their decision. But if we don’t trust the men we are working with due to previous hostile experiences, just being questioned can be enough to make us abandon our post defending our argument. Sheryl Sandberg calls this Leaning Out. It might be a one-off small slight, but it becomes death by a thousand cuts. Many of these challenges over time results in women getting left behind from teams and overlooked as leaders. At some point, our backs are in pain from all the leaning in. Save our backs by having our back in these fights.
Jokes are not funny. You know what Freud said about jokes: they are latently hostile ways of saying things that are otherwise culturally inappropriate to say out loud. Companies protecting themselves from Dudebro outbreaks have to make a zero tolerance environment in response to jokes and colloquialisms that refer even remotely to gender (and racial) bias. Women are not back seat or bad drivers, achievers don’t “get her done,” and decision makers are not “flirting” with commitment — just to name a few terrible phrases common in startups. From the leadership of a company through every level, a culture of speaking with deliberate words to convey maturity and a level of respect must always be a) demonstrated, and b) upheld.
This one is a hard one for startups that like to play nerf shooter games and joke around, which is not exactly mature. The culture of being at ease when you work is interpreted as the opposite of speak with words deliberately chosen. And yet, it’s not just women who are hurt when you let this bad seed grow. For the hard-to-convince on this front, I appeal to their care for men. Imagine the man who at home has a culture of respect toward women but endures gender-bias in disrespectful words at work. He, too, will be inclined to leave that workplace for somewhere that does not make him feel dirty and duplicitous. Good workers are good people around the clock. You want them, so fight to keep them.
Put women in charge. Startups keep metrics on everything from user stats to burn rates. Keep stats on women: how many have you hired, how many have you promoted, and how often do you speak with them. Beware of the trend of employing plenty of women, but only at the low and medium levels of leadership. I warn young female professionals to watch out for this when looking to work at a company. If you don’t see a decent percentage (sadly, 30% is decent so far) of women in the highest levels of the company or organization, you know this is a sexist place of work. It isn’t a pipeline problem, it isn’t a Silicon Valley evil we deal with: it’s a sexist place of work.
Women are amazing employees. Trying to prove themselves in a world of Dudebros creates an instinct to take on more tasks and a burden to over-perform, but it also runs the danger of discouraging them from demanding promotions and leaving if they don’t advance. Bad male leaders make the most of this trend and populate lower- and middle-management levels with workhorse women without ever moving them up through the ranks. Your internal metrics should warn you when this happens. But diligence also comes from one-on-one meetings where every project lead asks each male and female employee what they are overseeing on a regular basis and compares output to their self-declared list of tasks. You will quickly find the females who have the “I want to prove myself” productivity and you can both enjoy their enthusiasm for their work and reward them by moving them up the ladder.
If prevention fails, seek treatment
The worst of the Google rant was his underlying belief that women are biologically unfit to work in tech. Women are no more naturally social than men, and men are no more naturally great at coding than women. If any part of your leadership shares this mindset, please bring in some expertise to educate them (you). Socializing and cultural norms gave rise to these notions and they are the poison seed that threatens to destroy all that is beautiful about Web 2.0, Silicon Valley, the idea economy, and the future as we dream it to be.
That old tech adage is wise: hire slow and fire fast. Get rid of Dudebros when you spot them. They are going to ruin your company if you tolerate them even briefly. Don’t fall for the weak thoughts of immature men: they aren’t worth it and they aren’t going to change.