The other day, I was sitting at a networking luncheon with eight men. I was the only woman, and it was a very odd experience.
Even though none of us knew each other, the guys had an instant camaraderie. I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt uncomfortable other than the fact that I was wearing heels and was still six inches shorter than anyone else there.
Then I got back to my office and read a piece by Ann Friedman in New York magazine about the bro culture in today’s American companies. Friedman talks about Pax Dickinson, Business Insider’s CTO, who was apparently ousted after a tech blog reported that he’d been sharing sexist opinions via Twitter for years. Since people get dinged for stupidly mouthing off on Twitter all the time, that isn’t the story. The news here is that one of Dickinson’s cronies defended him, saying that his friend was a “frequently hilarious performance artist who tweets with a faux-brogrammer alter ego.” (Brogrammer = an IT type belonging to a bro, or frat house-like, culture.)
Bro culture was first mentioned years ago by feminist publications, but it's lately been highlighted everywhere from the U.S. military to the financial sector. According to Friedman, it describes a group that’s dominated by wealthy, white, straight men that maintains its bro-ness by excluding those who are different.
I recently created a course for a large Fortune 500 organization on gender differences. At this company, we noticed that no matter how many talented women the firm hired, few ever seemed to make it in executive management. The women didn’t seem to fit in because they didn’t laugh at the right jokes, didn’t go out for beers after work and simply lacked everything that makes a bro a bro. I know that this company is far from unique in this respect.
Small businesses can have bro cultures, too, and provided you want to appeal to a wide range of people, bro-ness can be just as damaging for your small company as it is for larger organizations. After all, if you don’t look and act like your customers, how will they be able to relate to you and why will they want to buy your products and services?
Like many situations, the first step here is to admit you have a bro culture and that it may be a problem.
Recognizing A Bro Culture
Before you can admit your company may suffer from a virulent strain of bro-ness, you have to know what a bro culture looks like. Does your company have any of the following traits?
- Management is dominated by a group of guys who've formed a close and seemingly impenetrable bond. From always going out to happy hour together to knowing the details of one another's family life, they're more than just work friends. They're, well, bros.
- "The guys" stand up for each other in work-related matters—they also make excuses for each other's bro behavior. When people complain about the guys, they're told they're being too sensitive.
- When the guys get together, you're shocked at their sexually charged humor. Being in a conference room with them reminds you of being at a fraternity chapter meeting.
- The guys always seem to want to hire someone just like them.
- Your company can't retain women or minorities at the senior management level.
If you recognize two or more of these traits at your company, you may very well have a bro culture on your hands.
Taking Steps To Stop It
Making a concerted effort to hire a certain number of women and minorities might be a good starting point to making your company's culture less bro-y, but you can’t stop at quotas and ratios. Even a small number of bros with good intentions can unknowingly sabotage your efforts to promote diverse thoughts and opinions in your company. Instead, you have to proactively increase your staff’s awareness of the issue and encourage them to make changes in the way they communicate with each other. These three tips are a good start:
1. Eliminate unconscious biases.
Your organization may harbor biases in favor of the bro culture even if you or other senior managers don't realize it. The first step in fighting an unconscious bias is to challenge implicit thoughts. For example, bros should be mindful if they're resisting hiring a female candidate. They can ask themselves out loud, “Why am I uncomfortable selecting this person?” They should also practice empathy by picturing themselves in a non-bro team member’s shoes and asking, “Would I think this scenario is fair?” These exercises will open everyone’s eyes and hopefully mitigate the bro culture bias in your workplace.
2. Encourage your bros to let others in.
Encourage your bros to socialize and work with other members of the staff. This may involve organizing a night out on the company or creating an intra-team competition that pairs bros with other employees. As they begin to mingle outside of their bro circle, encourage the guys to hear others out, listen to and acknowledge their feelings and opinions, and ask for feedback. This can help bros minimize their aggressiveness and jocularity, two traits that are known to turn others off.
3. Be an accessible, transparent manager.
Let your team members know they can talk to you about biases and other sticky subjects. In return, be open and receptive during these conversations. Conduct pulse surveys to understand what specific issues of hidden bias and unfairness might exist on your team, then take action to eliminate the problems.
Do you have a bro culture? What, if anything, have you done to address it? Share with us in the comments below.
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