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"Gangbang Interviews" and "Bikini Shots": Silicon Valley’s Brogrammer Problem

For startups like Path, recasting geek identity with a frat house swagger is a dangerous game.

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

After the back-and-forth was captured by a technology editor at the Guardian and garnered over 70,000 views at the social sharing site Storify, Geeklist issued an official apology and took down the video. (You can see the behind-the-scenes version here.) The apology included a promise to create a "Women in Technology" advisory board for Geeklist and plans to devote the month of April to showcasing the work of female developers on its site. So far, this has resulted in a bare-bones web page with the names and pictures of 28 female web professionals and links to their Geeklist profiles. Reuben Katz did not respond to my inquiries about what other actions Geeklist has taken.

As for Path, after drawn-out negotiations with Van Horn's handlers to get an on-the-record response about reactions to his SXSW talk, Van Horn emailed a statement through a representative: "Some of my words, used for instance to describe a group interview style, were, upon reflection, a bad attempt at humor and a poor choice of words, particularly when taken out of context. It was in no way my intent to offend anyone, of any sex, and I regret any offense I may have caused. "

In a prior phone conversation his representative had told me: "If you got to know Matt as a person, you would see that he isn't sexist at all."

But March wasn't the first time Van Horn had used questionable material in a professional presentation.

At the startup-focused Grow Conference in 2011, his presentation included bikini-girl images from his calendar. He prefaced the slides with a laughing, "I'm sorry for being sexist. I apologize in advance." (See video below.)

The most telling aspect of these incidents, says veteran Seattle developer Christy Nicol, is that none of the company leaders involved appeared to realize initially that they'd done something wrong. They had simply crafted messages aimed at young men, apparently assuming: Who else would be drawn to programming jobs? "It was the mindset seated deep in the subconscious that programmers are male," she says.

Or at least that all programmers want to be in on the joke. "'Brogrammer' isn't an exclusionary term," wrote a commenter identifying himself as "Toronto Brogrammer" on a recent Businessweek story. "The female equivalent is called a 'hogrammer' and I have big respect for women that wear that badge proudly." "Proglamming" and "brogramette" have also been tossed out, but none of the terms appeal to Alicia Liu, an San Francisco-based startup founder and web developer. "I'm still looking for a term for women that's not derogatory, diminutive, or flippant," she wrote on her blog.

Rachel Balik, a San Francisco-based tech marketer, wrote about the Sqoot and Geeklist incidents at Forbes, noting that in both cases many people, male and female, took a stand. "Yet for some reason," she writes, "neither of these stories feel very positive. Maybe because it's clear that these aren't rare instances of sexism; these are just the people who were caught…Women put up with sexism, offensive remarks and intimidation all the time in the workplace, especially in male-dominated fields and at start-ups, where HR often doesn't exist. Many of them may not be as fearless, determined and perceptive as Shanley. That means they're often either suffering in silence—or giving up."

Having worked at mature tech companies like Google and Microsoft, and having advised several young startup founders, Dan Shapiro says that people at the tech bellwethers don't look kindly on brogrammer antics. And while big companies have robust employee policies and HR departments, small startups need more help. "Right now there's not a lot of quiet pat-on-the-back or tap-on-the-shoulder coaching going on," he says, but that's what it's going to take, particularly with so many inexperienced young men filling the ranks.

Not only that, notes Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College—which has revamped its computer science curriculum to attract more female students—but a company's product is shaped by the people who make it. "If we restrict that to a rather narrow set of people, the outcomes are less desirable," she cautions.

Consider Siri, the voice-activated "secretary" built into all new iPhones. She's great at helping locate nearby prostitutes and drugstores stocking Viagra, but when blogger Amanda Marcotte tried to get her to find abortion providers and birth control, Siri came up empty. "Siri's programmers clearly imagined a straight male user as their ideal," Marcotte wrote, "and neglected to remember the nearly half of iPhone users who are female." (Update: At the time, Apple offered assurances that the omissions were an unintentional glitch in a beta product.)

Adda Birnir, a 26-year-old programmer and media entrepreneur in New York City, watched the rise of the brogrammer aesthetic "with a mix of annoyance and exasperation" for several months before deciding to blog about it. She said she empathizes with a new breed of coders who are sick of the mainstream view that they are all undersocialized mouth-breathers living in their parents' basements. "Brogrammers might lack tact, but they're definitely marketing development in a way that appeals to a new subset of men," she wrote. By recasting geekdom as an extension of the frat house, she believes, brogrammers are encouraging guys who might have headed to Wall Street to consider Silicon Valley. But if inclusion is the goal, she says, substituting "geek" with "bro" is equally problematic. "Because if there's anything more alienating to women than a room full of geeks, it's probably a room full of fratty guys."

In response, Birnir says she is cofounding a new startup called Skillcrush, an online resource for women looking to learn code and feel comfortable doing it. "This stuff is scary enough if you didn't grow up doing it, and you constantly feel so far behind and worried that you'll sound dumb if you ask some really basic question," she says. "And then you go to a conference panel and some guy is up there making misogynistic jokes? It just feels like at every point you're getting the message that you're not welcome."

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