Jim Sting: Remember you told me to tell you when you were acting rudely and insensitively? Remember that? You're doing it right now.
-- Wargames (1983)
To see how the image of geeks has changed, you don’t need to go any further than the movies. In 1983’s Wargames, the literally seminal example of the genre, geeks are male and have social skills issues. By Jurassic Park in 1993, it was okay for a girl to be the geek (Unix accuracy issues aside). But somehow, after that, things changed.
The real touchstone was 2010’s The Social Network, about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, which showed the erstwhile geeks as rich, famous, desired by women -- but with no women as equals in their presence. (Even Zuckerberg’s real-life girlfriend at the time, whom he recently married, was sanitized out; in fact, supposedly it was being dumped by the fictional girlfriend that led him to found the company in the first place.) Being a geek was romantic. Being a geek was sexy. And being a geek was male, no less so than in a movie about the military, the conquering of the West, or a sports team. It was this generation’s depiction of Tom Wolfe “Master of the Universe” male bonding.
“This movie, we’ve been told, not only reflects its era, but will shape it,” wrote The Daily Beast, presciently.
(The more recent Jobs, about Steve Jobs and the rise of Apple, is similar in that it also showed an all-male world, eliminating the woman member of the Macintosh team, Susan Kare, who designed all the fonts and icons. However, it wasn’t nearly as influential as The Social Network.)
The Social Network’s romanticized fantasy about male bonding led to the rise of the “brogrammer” culture. “Forget what you think you know about the benignly geeky computer programmer who lives for the thrill of finding a single misplaced semicolon in thousands of lines of code, and welcome to the world of the ‘brogrammer.’” wrote CNN last year. “Some in the tech community complain that its anything-goes structure and sky's-the-limit earning potential has turned the environment at some companies into something akin to your worst stereotype of a booze-soaked frat party.”
It’s great that geeks are now cool and all. Geek pride, yo? But this culture has its own methods of exclusion, deliberate or not. You have to earn your way and prove yourself, like a boot camp or hazing ritual.
Going along with the “brogrammer” culture is the more insidious notion of “cultural fit.” To be sure, it’s important for people to be able to work together collegially. On the other hand, there’s increasing evidence that cultural fit is being used to exclude people who are “different” -- including women and minorities.
Even when women are hired, they often report that they are being told they aren’t capable, that they don’t belong, merely by virtue of being female. Sadly, this feeling of exclusion starts even in high school. And things don’t get much better after that.
This all came to a head this week with a couple of events. First, TechCrunch was forced to apologize about sexually oriented crudity in the first two presentations in its Disrupt show in San Francisco.
Second was the ouster of Business Insider’s CTO, Pax Dickinson, a self-proclaimed brogrammer, due to some of the things he was Tweeting. Good taste prevents us from citing them here, but they are readily available. (Incidentally, he claimed he gained 750 Twitter followers and 7 Klout points in less than 24 hours -- though he now claims that that, and all his other Tweets, were jokes -- and he still has supporters.)
So what’s the real problem with the brogrammer culture and cultural fit? If girls aren’t majoring in computer science, how are companies supposed to hire them? If female programmers are too sensitive to make it in a mostly-male environment, what’s the problem?
In the case of Dickinson, “This is a man who had hiring power at a major tech publication yet felt comfortable tweeting about his distaste for women and minorities, whose behavior has been implicitly condoned by the organization he represents,” writes Jessica Roy at BetaBeat. “And we wonder why women and minorities are so underrepresented in tech?”
In addition, hiring too many people who are too alike can narrow your company’s focus. Although “diversity” may be a dirty word to some, it helps in developing and selling products to a broad range of customers. “Numerous studies have proven that diverse workforces give companies competitive advantages in skill, employee retention, innovation, and profits: A 2009 study by University of Illinois sociologist Cedric Herring found that companies with the highest levels of racial diversity reported, on average, 15 times more sales revenue than those with less diverse staffs,” reports Bloomberg Business Week. “And the American Sociological Review survey warns that a focus on hiring employees with the same hobbies and backgrounds can limit diversity.”
Diversity concerns aside, fewer women than ever are entering the profession, at the same time when computer professionals are most urgently needed. The industry can’t afford to alienate half its potential workforce.