Can Women Crack the Code of Brogrammers?

UPDATED: September 26, 2015
PUBLISHED: September 26, 2015

Women are hungry for good news about how to play like the big boys in tech. That was evident at the Watermark Conference for Women in Silicon Valley last winter. Five thousand people turned out for the first-ever enclave of female tech aspirants to hear how to crack the code of neo-sexism among brogrammers who act like recycled “Mad Men.”

Cindy Solomon, organizer of the conference, bemoans the return of overt male sexism. It’s happening with the rise of a new Gen X brotherhood of managers. “They never went through the basic ‘Let’s call stupid, stupid’ gender bias training of the ’80s and ’90s,” she says. Solomon, who is a speaker, trainer and consultant, has been training leaders for more than 20 years. She says those working in technology companies deal with micro-aggression every day, rarely getting the good assignments, being socially ostracized and even penalized for promotion if they take maternity leave or breastfeed. “It’s a slow whittling down of confidence, motivation and soul.”

She foresees little progress even in companies like Intel that promise robust campaigns for diversity. “They’re going about it in the same old way, throwing money at the same human resource people who couldn’t fix it before.” What is really necessary is a whole mind shift, retraining current male leaders to recognize and correct their unconscious bias, and rewarding them not just for hiring but also for retaining women who will add value to products that appeal to at least half of all consumers.

How did the hottest industry of America’s 21st century become so regressive?

“We women who started out in tech in the early ’80s thought nothing could stop us,” remembers Germaine Gaudet, a sales and marketing expert I met at the conference. “I was coding until a manager urged me to switch to sales; I worked in three countries and moved to Silicon Valley in the early ’90s, believing the world was getting better and better for women. But after the dot-com collapse in ’97, things got worse and worse. Women weren’t being hired anymore.” Instead, she says, tech companies began hiring young Asian men who had come to the U.S. on temporary visas sponsored by their employers. Many were willing to accept low salaries, she says, living up to a dozen in one apartment, while working 12- to 18-hour days. “I saw the [venture capitalists], all rich white boys, were more than happy to run sweatshops in Silicon Valley and exclude women,” Gaudet says.

As the ecosystem became more locker-room smutty and socially inbred, it was harder and harder for Gaudet to force herself to go to work. She spent half her energy trying to watch her own back. Her ideas weren’t valued. She stopped advancing until she became a dinosaur by Silicon Valley’s youth-skewed standards. In such a hostile environment, she just wasn’t having fun anymore. She bailed out.

The ubiquity of her personal story is borne out by data. In the mid-1980s, women represented 37 percent of computer science graduates. But when IBM introduced its first personal computer in 1981, it was marketed toward boys. Thus began the rise of the bro-grammer culture, popularized by the movie Revenge of the Nerds. The model was not only brainy geeks, but social misfits who worked all the time, their fear of girls masked by a nasty streak. In the ’90s, many women lost confidence that they could succeed in a field where the early dot-commers were male graduates of Stanford’s historic class of ’94 who founded companies with other men just like themselves. The slice of females studying computer science has shrunk by almost one-half from a high in the mid-1980s to just 18 percent in 2015.

But there is new hope.

Grassroots efforts have started to reverse perceptions that women, blacks and Hispanics are technologically unfit. Women of color now in their 30s and 40s—born too early to find access to STEM careers (in science, technology, engineering or math)—are taking it upon themselves to excite young girls to challenge old-think. These activists aren’t burning their bras or protesting in the streets. They are politically savvy social entrepreneurs who have been priming the pipeline by recruiting girls as young as 7 into coding programs and summer internships, dazzling them with visits to the most glamorous companies, pairing them with mentors, and preparing the millennial generation of women and minorities to become a gusher ready to fill the new tech talent pipeline.

One of the earliest of these activists is Reshma Saujani. Born of parents expelled from Idi Amin’s violent Uganda because of their Indian ancestry, she grew up in Illinois watching L.A. Law and Ally McBeal and dreaming of going to Yale Law School. It never occurred to her to try to break into the tech field.

After receiving degrees from Harvard and Yale, she achieved her goal with a career in business and law. Then she discovered her mission, founding the nonprofit Girls Who Code in 2012. Its summer boot camp for high school girls has tripled its impact in less than three years. With charm-coated drive and valuable political connections including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for whom she had served as deputy public advocate, Saujani has attracted an all-star lineup of corporate partners that include AT&T, Accenture, Facebook, Intel, Microsoft, Twitter, Viacom and Verizon.

Laura Weidman Powers, a 32-year-old brainiac in San Francisco, sees an advantage in having been born the daughter of a black mother and Jewish father. That’s because she sees the future. Around the year 2040 the U.S. will cease to be majority white, according to expert predictions. Why, Weidman Powers asks, don’t the masters of the tech universe see the rapidly expanding population of educated women, blacks and Hispanics as the new 21st century workforce? Already, California has a dominant minority population. If companies don’t start training and hiring outside the advantaged white male gene pool, the available talent pool will thin out.

In 2012, Weidman Powers and Tristan Walker co-founded a nonprofit, CODE2040, dedicated to attracting and training black and Hispanic college students and selling diversity as a business advantage. I saw the future of tech when Weidman Powers threw a party in San Francisco’s Impact HUB to celebrate her organization’s third year. She showed off her millennial talent—dozens of minority techies who weren’t shy about pitching themselves. “Half the people at this party may never have been in a room with so many cool young people of color,” Powers whispered to me. But that didn’t stop funders and executives from Google, Twitter, Dell and LinkedIn from tripping over each other to chat up the recent graduates of CODE2040’s internships.

It will take a long time to change a workplace culture dominated by brilliant and privileged white men, but never underestimate the staying power of women whose DNA is coded for progress.

Find out how successful women make the most of their time. 

Sheehy is a journalist, lecturer and best-selling author whose books include the groundbreaking Passages and her recent memoir, Daring: My Passages.