Protecting the “Bro-Club”: Sacrificing Women, Keeping the Bullies at Tech Companies

No one heard us, no one stood up for us, no one tried to help us. Instead they tried to silence us.

by Anonymous Author on October 17th, 2016

I used to be pretty happy with my job. Sure, there were things that bothered me, but no job is 100% perfect, right?

I was one of a handful of women working for the company, and for a long time, one of only two women on the technical side of things. But my male co-workers seemed nice, I was working remotely, the job offered a lot of flexibility and freedom, and my salary was fair. I ignored those jokes my boss made about the snake in his pants. The times he dismissed my ideas, only to bring them up again a few weeks later as his own invention. How he constantly tried to prove me wrong. The way he made clear my input wasn’t welcome – I would simply have to do things his way. The times I asked for help, and didn’t receive any.

But hey, they sponsored diversity-in-tech events, paid for me to attend and speak at conferences. For a long time, I thought they were really good to me.

During my two years working in the industry, I’ve heard many stories of women in tech having bad experiences: belittled, dismissed, harassed and bullied, and many times, even worse than that; many leave their job in the end, or are forced out. Now I realize that a lot of those things had been happening to me, too, but it was my first tech job, and I hadn’t known better. Until last month, when I became a woman who left.

A shadow of a man falling across a doorway.

Photo CC-BY Georgie Pauwels.

The arrival of the bully was never announced, he just entered our company Slack channel one day. It was a clear case of nepotism. When hiring a woman, she was expected to undergo several interviews, perform tasks, provide work samples. She was vetted thoroughly to make sure she really was a good fit for the job, the team, the role. The bully didn’t have to go through any sort of hiring process. Executive decision. He was in his mid-50s, and had worked in his field – a non-technical role – for many years. Both my bosses had known him for a long time and used to work with him in a previous job.

When the bully entered the company, things started to change… or as I later realized, things that had been wrong all along began to surface. He made it his mission to interfere in anyone and everyone’s work because he knew what he was doing. Even though he had no sort of formal C-level or managerial position, in his mind, all of us needed his help and his input. He treated everyone in the company disrespectfully, but he seemed to have the most issues with the few women in the company. Belittling everything a woman said, making inappropriate and often sexual jokes, were just a few things he did on a daily basis. An idea was only good, valid, and usable when it came from a man, or even better, when it came from him. This had been an unspoken practice for a long time, but he raised the stakes: after his arrival, managers and executives felt even more inclined to casual misogyny and sexism. It was almost like a contest: Who could collect the most ideas women put forward as their own?

No matter whether he was asked to give feedback or not, he criticized everyone’s work… and not in a constructive manner. He made it very clear that he really didn’t give a damn about my work, but still monitored it closely enough to respond immediately to the slightest mistake I made, calling me out in public channels, correcting them himself before giving me a chance to try. His other favorite activity was asking me to complete tasks he thought I was incapable of doing, purposely setting me up for failure. He would private-message me and other women in the company, demanding that tasks be completed or asking why we weren’t willing to collaborate with him; these messages were even more disrespectful than his public ones. He especially enjoyed contacting me outside of business hours, and I mean 2am in the morning, then berating me for not responding right away although he knew I worked in a different time zone.

I began to really dread working. I felt frustrated, belittled, angry, and anxious on a daily basis, and I felt incapable, like a failure. I lacked motivation. I felt like the work I was doing was worthless and didn’t matter. The bully was impossible to satisfy, impossible to work and collaborate with. He didn’t only treat me, or even all women in the company this way: he also got into arguments with my bosses or other male co-workers on a regular basis, we just got the worst of it. But no one called him out for his behavior. During public discussions in which he was disrespectful and offensive, my bosses didn’t act, instead made jokes, made it seem like I was too sensitive and overreacting. They didn’t step up for me. One time my manager apologized for his behavior, saying he made jokes because he simply didn’t know what else to do.

A man against a white background, holding his mouth open as he laughs.

Photo CC-BY David Goehring.

After a while me and other female co-workers started speaking up, and refused to work on the same projects with the bully. I never got a response to my messages to my manager on the topic: they were simply ignored. My co-workers’ complaints were also ignored.

No one heard us, no one stood up for us, no one tried to help us. Instead they tried to silence us, positioned us as the problem.

At some point, other women co-workers decided to leave; conversations with them helped me see the things that had been wrong all along, things I had ignored or seen as normal. I was going to try and make it two more months, because I really needed the job and didn’t have another one lined up. Then I received an email from my boss: he said the job clearly wasn’t working out for me, and suggested I leave immediately.

Of course, the bully got to stay. Not because his work was better or more valuable, not because he had been working for the company for longer, not because he was well-liked.

He got to stay simply because he was a man, and it was more important to the company to protect their internal “bro club” than to act and do the right thing.

A red shirt that has "Bullies" circled and crossed out.

Photo CC-BY Clotee Allochuku.

Bro clubs, and the protection of male bullies that comes with it, is a real thing in many tech companies. There are many bros and bullies out there who have caused women to completely leave the tech industry, and many of them will continue to do so in the future. We can no longer ignore this issue.

Tech spaces are environments where clear abuse and hostility are allowed. Women and people from other marginalized groups are more often targets of this abuse. Bro clubs enable it to happen systematically, and on a large scale. Men don’t want to lose their club membership — maybe out of fear to become a target as well — so they simply abide by the rules of the club and practice the same hostile behaviors… in turn, becoming bullies, too.

We need to rethink how we build companies from the ground up. A lot of startups these days are founded by bros, which then hire more bros. The bro club comes full circle and that vicious circle is never broken. Having a diverse founding team from the start can prevent this from happening; we need to rethink company design and how we can proactively prevent bullying and cronyism from the beginning.

We also need to rethink our hiring processes and design interview processes, and how these are related to nepotism. We need to stop offering jobs to men from executive leaders’ pasts without having to undergo any sort of interview process, without seeking approval from the rest of the team. It is not right to put women through more intense hiring processes, asking them to prove their capabilities 10x more than a man would have to. On the other side of the table, women need to be involved in interview processes. If a man shows disrespectful behavior towards a woman during an interview, this is a clear indicator he shouldn’t be hired. We need to rethink what hiring for “culture fit” really means, when too often, it becomes just a euphemism for bro culture.

Pile of colorful Lego building blocks.

Photo CC-BY Antonio.

Privileged managers in tech are in the position to help, and be allies in establishing a company culture where it’s safe to call out people for unacceptable behavior. Make known that women are equal and valuable team members, and that their ideas and input matter. When you see a woman being harassed and trying to speak up about it, support her, lend her credibility, make sure she is heard and taken seriously. Make sure your company has conflict-solving-processes in place and if it doesn’t, be an advocate for getting them. If a woman turns to you, listen to her, and by listening I mean really listen. Make known to her that you heard her and are willing to take action. Reading an e-mail or a message and never responding to it, is not listening. It takes a lot to speak up, don’t just ignore her. And most importantly, believe her. When a woman tells you she is being harassed, she is not making this up, so don’t ask her to prove it to you.

I might have left my job, but I am not going to leave the tech industry, at least not yet. I am writing this article not out of anger – yes I was angry, yes I was disappointed – but to raise awareness and in hopes to change the tech industry for the better, where we no longer sacrifice women to keep the bro clubs alive.