“Haven’t seen a poster like that since I lived in a fraternity house.”
I was chatting with my wife over dinner and filling her in on the first day of my new job. The fledgling tech startup didn’t have many employees, but was experiencing strong customer growth. I was brought on board to manage customer service and was excited about the opportunity.
When I had interviewed, I never saw the software developer’s “Coding Pen” which was located in a converted conference room. While giving me a tour of the office on my first day, the CEO brought me in to meet the developers.
The average age was probably 25 and the group was all guys. Pretty typical demographic for developers working for a tech startup.
The first developer I shook hands with was the team lead, Jason, and he was wearing an Orioles baseball cap backwards, shorts, t-shirt and sneakers (no socks). His t-shirt had a silhouette of a curvaceous female with the caption – “Coders Do It Better.”
I said “Funny shirt.”
Jason gave me a serious look and said, “How is it funny?”
After an uncomfortable pause, he smiled and said “just messing with you,” swiveled his chair around and went back to writing code.
My eyes must have visibly widened when I glanced up at the wall above Jason’s computer. Tacked to the wall was a poster of a girl in a red bikini laying on a red Ferrari with the caption “Red and Juicy.”
I’m still not quite sure what it meant, but could probably hazard a guess. The CEO led me out of the Coding Pen and never said a word about the poster. I had to assume he condoned it.
I’ll admit it. The poster made me uncomfortable. Welcome to the world of the Brogrammer.
The Rise of the Brogrammer
Perhaps I was becoming stodgy in my middle age. I started out as a twenty-something programmer and worked with mostly men. But the companies I worked for at that time were big companies with human resource departments that would have had a cow if a poster like that was hung in any office.
I had also recently worked for another startup software firm, but nothing this overtly sexual was ever posted for all to see.
As I was relating this to my wife (who happens to work in HR), she sighed and said, “Lawsuit waiting to happen.”
Evidently, this was part of the “brogramming” culture. I read a recent article on CNN about the continued rise of the male-oriented tech culture, popularized in the movie “The Social Network” about rise of Facebook. The article defined "brogrammer" as a mash-up of "programmer" and "bro," the stereotypical fraternity-house salute.
I was in a fraternity and, yup, these peep-show posters were prominently displayed. When you put a group of young men together, this should not be a huge surprise. The difference is that a fraternity is an organization only for men; a software company is not a fraternity.
And sure enough, my first hire was a female. Jane was in her early 20’s as well and she was excited about the laid-back culture of the company.
But Jane also hadn’t been into the Coding Pen for her interview.
At first, she didn’t comment on décor of the Coding Pen and I was too enamored with the new job to think much about it. In her first week, Jane and I were in a meeting with the developer team. Jason was wise-cracking with his fellow “brogrammers” about his girlfriend dumping him. He referred to her as the b-word and other words too R-rated for this article.
As Jason continued with his bravado, Jane just stared at the customer trouble ticket report. Again, I was used to hearing this language when around a bunch of guys, but this wasn’t appropriate.
I broke up the bantering by saying, “Ok Jason, save your girlfriend bashing for another time, we have work to do.”
Backlash against the Bros
Before the end of her first month, Jane asked if I had plans for lunch because she had something to discuss. As I bit into my burger she came right out and said, “I love my job, but I’m very uncomfortable working in this sexist environment.”
My stomach sank as chewed my burger. I had known this was coming and missed my chance to do something about it.
Turns out, Jane had talked about her concerns with the only other woman in the company – our CFO.
Jane explained, “Can you believe she told me boys will be boys?”
I thought, oh boy. (I think I know why the saying is “oh boy” and not “oh girl” – us boys cause more trouble in the world.)
Over lunch I did my best to calm her down, assuring her I would talk to our CEO about it. She agreed to wait and see if things changed.
When I informed our CEO about Jane’s complaint, he just laughed.
“C’mon, she had to know what our culture was here, right? That’s just boys being boys.”
Yeah, he and the CFO must have talked.
I said, “This could get serious – you know, sex discrimination?”
Our CEO was incredulous. “Are you kidding? These guys are writing a kick-ass product and are going to make us a lot of money. If she doesn’t like it here, she can just leave.”
Oh. Forgot to mention our CEO was older than the developers. He was in his late twenties. Guess it wasn’t too surprising he felt this way.
Striking out with the CEO, I decided to try talking to Jason directly. I stopped in the Coding Pen late one night after everyone else had left.
“Hey Jason, have a minute?” I asked.
Jason didn’t look up from the glow of us his dual monitors and just said “uh huh.”
I gave him the run down on Jane’s concerns and said if we want to grow into a successful firm, posters like “Red and Juicy” would have to come down.
Finally, Jason stopped typing and looked up at me with sleepy eyes. He yawned, took a swig of his energy drink and said, “The poster stays dude, or I leave.”
After a couple more attempts at reasoning with him, I finally gave up. Jason knew he had the support of the CEO and could do whatever he wanted.
Luckily for me (and ultimately the company) the next day, the CEO was leading a potential investor on a tour of the office.
A female investor.
Amazingly, no one had the foresight to think this investor would be offended by the poster. Maybe not so shocking because the mindset in the “brogramming” culture is that sexist material hanging on the walls, sent in emails and in conversation are acceptable if the company has bright prospects.
After all, an investor would care more about making money, right?
The investor very calmly explained to our CEO that if he had any hopes of raising money, those posters had to go. From what I could hear through our very thin walls, she gave him a pretty good lecture. This investor cared about protecting her investment, and didn’t want it squandered as the result of a lawsuit.
The next day, Jason’s poster was replaced. And coincidently (or not) Jason received a huge raise. He didn’t go anywhere.
Jane was placated, although from time to time the conversation was still a bit sexist around the edges. This culture likely won’t change as long as males dominate the software development field.
And what did Jason replace the poster with? He put up some random Star Wars poster.
Thank goodness Princess Leia was mostly clothed.