Does Silicon Valley’s ‘bro culture’ pervade IT elsewhere?

Many workers in the technology departments across a range of industries describe behavior that may fall short of a legal definition of sexual harassment, but is still disturbing and could contribute to low employee morale and high turnover.

Silicon Valley is rife with alarming stories of sexist behavior like the ones detailed in Emily Chang's book “Brotopia” of hot tub interviews with investors and drug-fueled sex parties.

But it remains unclear if such conduct exists in tech environments elsewhere too. Based on a SourceMedia survey, it appears bro culture is less of an issue for tech employees in other industries, yet it clearly exists. In some cases, the form it takes may just be less obvious.

Of the 386 survey respondents who indicated they work in the technology field, 12% said they have been the subject of unwelcome sexual conduct in the workplace, 16% said they have witnessed such misconduct and 42% said they know of incidents that happened to others. (That broadly matched the findings among the more than 3,000 respondents across all professions, where the numbers were 15%, 19% and 42% respectively.)

Also in this series:
• Sexual harassment in the professional workplace: behind the research
• 10 key findings: sexual harassment in the professional workplace
• Wealth management fares the worst in broad study of sexual harassment
• Banks wrestle with sense of futility on sexual harassment
• Sexual harassment is a bigger problem than accountants think
• HR’s culture shift: Tackling workplace sexual harassment while navigating legal definitions
• A #MeToo backlash is brewing in banking
• From strip clubs to massages: When clients are sexually inappropriate

In verbatim responses provided in the survey – and follow-up interviews with those who opted in – many of those in technology offer examples that would fall short of a legal definition of harassment. Instead, they describe more nebulous, but still disturbing, behavior that creates an environment in which women, and sometimes men, feel belittled.

Being shouted down in meetings. Hearing a woman who is not present described as a “harlot.” Ill-concealed snickering when a new female employee joins an all-male team. Being treated in a dismissive manner. Such behavior, especially repeated over time, can cause low morale and high turnover among women and minorities.

Subtle indignities

Sometimes it’s hard to know when something crosses the line.

Arathi Mohan, a consultant at KPMG, said she’s seen “very subtle” harassment. “Even small acts like a senior male not allowing you to express your opinion, or shutting you up when you try put forth a point that is contrary to his,” she said. “Even the body language — when you go to a meeting room, they just ‘manspread’ and it’s vulgar. These are things you expect the other person to know. We’re all professionals and I don’t think anyone should expect to be given those lessons in etiquette.”

Her company is fair about the things that really matter – for instance, people are paid and promoted equitably, she said.

“Your work does get appreciated irrespective of gender,” Mohan said. “I see a good gender balance in the team. And now we are emphasizing actively recruiting more women in the team and seeing them grow within the organization.”

But in day-to-day dealings with co-workers, there needs to be more respectfulness, she said.

In one meeting, in which she was one of four women sitting with four men, a male co-worker used the word “harlot,” meaning “prostitute,” when referring to someone who was not there.

“I felt it was uncalled for, especially in a professional environment,” Mohan said. “The funny part was that the three other girls in the room did not seem to find anything wrong, did not seem to find it uncomfortable the way I did. I expressed my unhappiness with what the man said, but none of the others came to support me. Of course, the male co-workers also did not think anything was off.”

Though he was confronted, the male colleague did not apologize. “He did not feel like he had done or said anything wrong,” Mohan said.

This anecdote illustrates the uncertainty around what is or isn’t harassment. One person may find a comment offensive, while seven others in the room do not.

It also exemplifies one of the top types of harassment people report: Of the 12% of IT people who said they’ve been subject to harassment, 42% cited inappropriate personal questions, jokes or innuendo among their experiences. Far fewer, 18%, said they have received persistent unwelcome requests, 14% said they’ve gotten suggestive text messages or emails and 8% complained of inappropriate pictures or posters. (The respondents were allowed to cite more than one type of behavior.)

Bullies in the office

A male IT employee at a car manufacturer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he’s seen instances of bullying of men and women in his department. For example, he’s been asked whether he is “really a man.”

“The same people would do the same thing over and over,” he said.

His department of 20 people has only one woman.

“A woman coming into this will have to deal with a lot of unnecessary behavior — if not direct harassment, then bordering on it,” he said. “It’s kind of sophomoric. Jokes, snickering, remarks about her ability to do the job.”

His manager has made openly racist comments to an African-American male and an Indian male, and they’re the only ones of their ethnic background in the group.

He has reported some of this behavior to the human resources department at his company, but it has backfired. His supervisor finds out and tells him so.

“If I go through the proper steps, even if I’m reporting something that happened to somebody else, eventually, somehow, I don’t know where it happens, but that confidentiality ends up back on me,” he said.

“They have this process set up and it’s loosely administered, so the bite comes back to the person who makes the accusation or report.”

As a result, he no longer reports such behavior. The management in HR is changing and he’s hopeful this circling back on those who file reports will change too.

Of the technology professionals surveyed, only 14% said that reports of unwelcome sexual conduct are always dealt with fairly and appropriately, 30% said they usually are, 18% said occasionally, 9% said rarely and 2% never.

Is it getting better?

In Linda Jensen's first job, where she taught Air Force fighter pilots how to use simulation software, she was the only female in the group.

“I was harassed unmercifully by the pilots,” said Jensen, now a health information technology consultant at KRM Associates. “One time I was backed up against the console and kissed while trying to do some training.” She reported the incident to her supervisor, who reported it to the commander, and the pilot was reprimanded.

When she worked at Northrup Grumman and was doing training for the Egyptian military, “any of the female instructors were likely to be backed into corners and pushed for sexual favors by the client,” she said. “It was primarily the older men.”

These days, however, the younger generation seems less likely to engage in such behavior, Jensen said. She has not experienced harassment in 10 years, though she acknowledges she’s “of a certain age,” and no longer viewed the same way.

Still, she sees a meaningful difference.

“I love the millennial guys I work with; they’re perfectly willing to accept a woman of any age as an equal in the intellectual realm,” Jensen said. “It seems like the problem is the older guys.”

She says she once felt dismissed and ignored, but that has changed. She also theorizes that there’s less harassment in tech departments because software development is solitary work, often done remotely.

“We’re all geeks,” she said. “We sit at our desks and we work at our computers, we email and text message each other, but there isn’t a whole lot of socialization going on. A lot of people work remotely, and people are just focused on what they’re doing. We’re pretty professional.”

Other respondents to the survey echoed this.

“Nerds. I cannot speak for other companies — I hire nerds, not showboats,” one respondent said.

Still others suggested that there is a gender divide in departments that makes harassment less of an issue.

“Most co-workers are dudes,” a male survey respondent wrote.

Another male wrote, “Few females in industry.”

Indeed, the survey results have the same built-in gender imbalance tech departments do: 71% of the IT respondents were men.

However, some survey data suggests harassment is still an issue among younger, theoretically enlightened generations.

Among female millennials and Gen Xers who work in tech, more than a third – 36% — said they have been a victim of sexual harassment.

“It goes unnoticed and unpunished,” a female millennial respondent wrote. She cited a "boys will be boys" mindset, lack of female executives and a “fear culture” as reasons for the high prevalence of harassment she perceives in tech.

“It is dominated by men and behavior goes unchecked,” wrote another. “Until there are more female executives and pay parity exists, this pattern will continue.”

What it would take to change

Mohan said she thinks companies should hold more gender-sensitization workshops. Her company has sexual harassment training for employees, but it’s an online module people are expected to complete in half an hour. Some don’t even take the training, she said, but enlist others to help them answer the 10 questions at the end.

Even before people are hired, they should be taught about proper behavior in the workplace and toward the opposite gender, Mohan said.

Ideally, “all this should start much earlier in life,” she said.

Mohan also suggested that the male executives who are respectful of women and make sure women’s voices are heard should be held up as role models for others in the organization.

Jensen said that one thing that fosters inappropriate behavior is a rigid hierarchy with a lack of women in the upper echelons.

“In the environment I’m working in now, there’s very little hierarchy; we’re a team,” she said. “Everybody’s contributions of whatever sort are considered valuable. There’s not a lot of power play going on. Also, we’re equals, which is nice.”

(SourceMedia, the publisher of American Banker, conducted its online survey of more than 3,000 professionals across multiple industries during the first quarter of 2018. The survey is titled “Sexual Harassment in the Professional Workplace: SourceMedia Research 2018.”)

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