Silicon Valley has become a frat house where drinking and womanising are suitable pastimes for young tech luminaires, but the industry is suffering from this lack of diversity
There might not be anything inherently masculine about computer and software programming, but over the years, the profession has been dominated by men. Much like science and maths, somewhere down the line it became the norm to just accept that women were not as interested in programming as men were. And while this generates countless issues of representation, gender-based discrimination and outright sexism, the dearth of female programmers has also led to another phenomenon: the rise of the brogrammer.
of programmers were women in 1990
of programmers are women in 2014
The portmanteau is an amalgamation of ‘programmer’ and ‘bro’; the latter a term of endearment members of fraternities in American universities and party enthusiasts use to refer to each other. The brogrammer differs from others in his profession in that he lives up to The Social Network stereotype of what a programmer should be: full of ambition, using his skills and success as a way to boost his social cred on campus.
A recent thread on discussion site Quora answered the question “How does a programmer become a brogrammer?” with a string of suitably snide responses: “Lots of red meat, push-ups on one hand, while coding on the other, sunglasses at all times, a tan is important, popped collar is a must. It’s important that you can squash anyone who might call you ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ and that you can pick up girls, but also equally important that you know the Star Wars movies by heart, and understand programming ideas, like recursion and inheritance.”
It has long been rumoured Silicon Valley has morphed into a fraternity house of sorts: parties, alcohol, drugs and women, all for the enjoyment of the soon-to-be tech millionaires who roam the streets of Palo Alto. Not all of these rumours are true of course, but the limited number of women in Silicon Valley is indeed starting to cause some trouble for start-ups. There are tales of star coders being invited to parties where topless models serve drinks, and one particular social media executive wooing his first employers by sending them ‘bikini shots’ from a ‘nudie calendar’ he had created. Only last week Snapchat’s 23-year-old founder, Evan Spiegel, was forced to apologise to the public after a series of misogynistic emails he penned were leaked. It might seem amusing, but the alienation of women coders is no laughing matter, and consumers will attest to that.
Not enough women
According to a US Census report, women remain underrepresented in science, maths and engineering jobs, where just 26 percent of workers are female. But when it comes to computer workers, the number of women has actually decreased over the past three decades: whereas in 1990 around 33 percent of programmers were women, that number has dropped steadily to just 27 percent today. What are perhaps even more shocking are the divisions of labour within computer occupations: in 2013, only 22.1 percent of software developers and 23 percent of computer programmers were women. Clerical sections of the industry have a better female representation, with women making up 40 percent of database administration roles.
Regardless of the wider societal issues that have been keeping women away from pursuing tech jobs, it is clear that a deeply sexist culture has been taking over Silicon Valley. “There is always built into a lot of startups the mentality of the barbarians at the gate… the disruptive nature that the startup ethos is supposed to be all about,” Tasneem Raja, Digital-Interactive Editor for Mother Jones magazine told CNN. “It’s sort of lame that it’s being expressed as kegs at the office and beer pong and, unfortunately, also sexism.”
Despite the obvious gender inequality, the clear loser in all of this is the consumer. Non-white, non-male tech users are being let down by a group of creatives who will never be able to provide for them. Brogrammer groupthink is churning out apps like Bang With Friends, SkinnyCam and BroApp (“I feel that there’s simply an impedance mismatch between the intensity of contact that a typical girl requires and the intensity of contact that a guy will naturally supply,” says one of its creators. “BroApp helps minimise that mismatch”) thus alienating whole classes of consumer who want to engage with apps and social media, but remain underserved.
In May, Zeebox, a TV-focused social networking app, relaunched as Beamly; according to its CEO, its male programmers were not delivering an app that appealed sufficiently to its 65 percent female audience. “When we started the company, we were super served internally with male geeky guys, essentially people like myself. And this meant we automatically leaned to engineering the utility side of Zeebox,” Stuart Rose told TechRadar. It is an affliction common to many tech start-ups: due to a lack of diversity in their creative and executive teams, final products end up not catering to a broad enough audience.
A disappointing legacy
The fact Zeebox managed to attract this largely female audience despite being created for and pitched tirelessly towards bros, goes to show women are looking for spaces online. This is a tremendous wasted opportunity for developers such as Rose, who needn’t have limited their product to a younger male demographic to begin with. However, the fact Rose felt he needed to relaunch his app as Beamly – the pink social networking app for TV loving-women – exemplifies exactly why a dearth of female programmers is harming the industry. The majority of his audience was already female, making the app pink will not help attract more women: adapting to the needs of his existing users will.
However, as with most industries, there are faint signs of progress. Women such as Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Meyer are leading the industry, and sending the message to younger girls and women that the tech industry is not just for boys. Social initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic are encouraging girls to take an interest in coding and computer science from a young age. Increasingly, young people are being taught these fundamental skills in school, and such measures help challenge the stereotype that STEM (science, tech, engineering and maths) professions are the preserve of boys. However, progress is slow and it will take a much more concerted effort to overturn these long-held beliefs.
The issue is by no means limited to Silicon Valley. In the UK, where a burgeoning tech sector has been making headlines, the goal is for women to make up 30 percent of the STEM workforce by 2020: a pitiful target that speaks volumes about the state of the sector. Women and girls are being let down by this booming industry all over the world – and it is especially tragic that bros now dominate the creative capitals of tech when we remember the first coder in history was actually a woman. Ada Lovelace, the Victorian woman credited with writing the first piece of code for Charles Babbage’s analytical engine in 1842, would surely be disappointed to know women have failed to follow in her footsteps, and that instead the industry has been overrun by single-minded bros.