Inclusive Tech Companies Win the Talent War

May 10, 2012

Originally published on CNN.com.

Startups are fighting a war for talent in Silicon Valley, and the companies that actively welcome men and women are going to win it. Smart companies don't recruit "brogrammers."

The term "brogrammer" is a joke, of course. Male software engineers don't actually pop their collars, wear sunglasses and lift weights while writing code, and share hot tubs with bikini-clad women. But the joke is funny (to some people) because it reflects a certain truth about a community that excludes great talent in favor of frat house fun.

The tech industry's testosterone level can make the thickest-skinned women consider a different career. But the rise of the "brogrammer" joke and its ensuing backlash has some benefits: it helps talented women choose worthy employers, it gives a name and faces to a problem that plagues the industry, and it publicly shames some of the most sexist offenders.

Where the Women Are

In 1999, Google's Marissa Mayer almost didn't take the job at the all-male startup because there were more women at another firm who'd made her an offer. If Mayer had just graduated from college today with offers from two equally compelling startups—one all-male and one not—it's clear which path she would choose.

If you write software for a living and you're located in Silicon Valley, you have your pick of employment options at an array of tech startups. (Yes, even in this economy.) When a recruiter's pickup line is "Wanna bro down and crush some code?"—like Klout's was—you get a sense of what that company's looking for. If you're a woman, it's not you.

That's pretty sad, but it's not all bad. As a woman and a software developer, crossing Klout off the list of places where I might work helps me narrow my options. I'd rather find out an employer glorifies young dudes before I take the position than after.

That's one small way "brogrammer" culture is actually useful. It's a red flag to women engineers, product developers, designers, project managers, marketers, business development, and PR specialists. It says, "This company is not where you want to work."

Conversely, companies who assemble inclusive teams are more likely to snag great hires of all stripes. Tech startups founded by women are few and far between, but they're highly attractive to female and male candidates who don't want to join a boys' club. Established companies with executives who are vocal about women's issues, like Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, also have an advantage. (Sandberg's TED talk is one of my all-time favorite career advice presentations for women.)

Rehabilitation via Humiliation

The Valley's "brogrammer" problem has received a good bit of attention recently, with a focus on some of the worst public offenders. I find sexism in 2012 corporate America appalling, but I'm also an optimist. The folks perpetuating this culture are probably not overt misogynists. Most of the time, they simply don't know any better.

The path to enlightenment is sometimes paved with public shaming.

Path's Matt Van Horn "feels terrible" about sexist comments he made during a conference presentation that caused disgusted attendees get up and leave. Geeklist began a women in technology committee after mishandling the retraction of a promotional video that featured a scantily-clad female dancer.

Cynics would argue that apologies don't resolve the underlying problem. But humiliation is an effective behavior modifier. I don't think these people will make these mistakes again. The bonus: Onlookers have real-life examples of what not to do at their companies.

The tech industry has always been male-dominated. But the perception of those men has changed. Media no longer casts the billionaire geeks of Silicon Valley as awkward nerds who can't get a date. Instead, they're superheroes, the protagonist in epic movies and biographies. A new generation of young people from all walks of life aspire to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates. They'll want to work for the most attractive companies—the ones who built welcoming, diverse teams.

"Brogrammer" culture is exclusionary and problematic. It celebrates frat house values, youth over experience, and men over women. In the war for hiring great talent, the companies who exacerbate this problem instead of work to solve it will lose. That's a good thing.