Dimensional Insight Book Club: Brotopia

by | Jan 30, 2019 | General BI

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Every industry breeds a specific mentality that lives within its employees. It affects how they think, work, and interact with each other. For aspiring technology professionals in Silicon Valley, they’ve seen how “bro” culture has been adopted by many and how it created a false sense of confidence among men, and a lack of confidence among women that has become synonymous with working in this field.

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In Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley, author Emily Chang investigates the political landscape of the workplace and how even the most successful companies are failing to achieve harmony between men and women employees.

Meet our panel

Our book club panel for Brotopia consists of: Kathy Sucich, director of healthcare marketing; George Dealy, VP of healthcare applications; Teddy Craven, marketing intern; and myself.

What was your biggest takeaway from the book?

Kathy: I’d like to say there was something incredibly eye-opening about this book, but I’m not sure that there was. This is reality for many women in the workplace.

George: That women are every bit as capable as men in most pursuits – which I already believed. However, the book (and others) point out periods in history where women have been “pressed into service” in some of the most challenging endeavors and have consistently risen to the occasion. This includes the early development of computer technology – programming languages in particular, and enemy “code breaking” during World War II.

Teddy: My biggest takeaway from “Brotopia” was the self-selecting nature of organizations. The hiring processes of many of these companies were unconsciously biased towards the status quo. Even Google, a company that tried to focus on inclusion, eventually developed a toxic culture that alienated women.

Kayla: The importance of establishing a strong and ethical company culture. These are the values that will live within your team and influence how they work with each other.

Chang states:

“Computers didn’t become a ‘boy thing’ because boys had some innate aptitude that girls lacked. A large study of high schoolers showed that young women have equal competence in the skills needed to use them. The results did, however, show that young women had more fear and less confidence, leading the researchers to conclude that the differences between boys and girls in terms of computer use reflected stereotyping and gender-role socialization.”

How can we encourage women to become more confident in their abilities in an industry that is telling them that they aren’t as capable as their male peers?

Kayla: By changing the way we think and hire. When making decisions, we gravitate towards what feels comfortable and what is known. It’s an instinctual trait. We’ve been told and have believed that the ideal candidate has X, Y, and Z qualities, so that is who we always hire. And this is where the problem starts. Instead of resorting to what’s familiar, companies need to allow themselves to take risks and challenge what they believed was “right” in the past. Young women already know that they are capable. We just need to show them that they are needed and that the molds that we’ve crafted no longer exist.

Kathy: As the mom of three girls, I think about this a lot. I think a lot of it starts with the way we raise not only our girls, but also how we raise our boys. It’s a very delicate balance. On the one hand, it’s important to build a support system for women and to encourage them to pursue their interests. However, I do think there can be a backlash. When we are too aggressive in pointing out what is different – even if it’s in what we think is a supportive way – we can make women feel strange about their interests or their goals, and they can pull back. In my house, my daughters are interested in robotics, basketball, and baseball – as well as dance, dolls, and art. My husband and I are trying to encourage them to pursue all of these varied interests and build their confidence without bringing gender into the equation. My hope is that this stays with them into adulthood.

George: Give them opportunities to succeed by providing challenging assignments and a reasonable level of support and encouragement. And ensure that they have a “fighting chance” by actively removing barriers that have nothing to do with “the work.”

Teddy: I think an important factor in encouraging women to become more confident in the tech industry would be to stop perpetuating the stereotype of the anti-social software engineer. This stereotype skews more towards men and is a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the moment, girls are given one image of a successful coder and it almost always a guy.

The book goes into detail of the general hiring process in the tech industry (and the politics that go with it). How are companies hurting themselves by maintaining their exclusive ways?

Teddy: Chang proposes that the selection of a workforce made up heavily of ultra-confident “frat guys” is detrimental to the decision-making processes of a company. This specific personality type favors risk taking and trouble comes when there is no balance to this tendency.

Kayla: Balance is key. By creating these standards, you are only hiring one type of person. Nothing gets done when there’s only one type of mind working on something. Companies should strive to have a diverse group of thinkers who approach the same problem in different ways. One can only find their truth by exploring different paths.

George: By not considering a women’s point of view. One of my favorite stories is about how Marissa Mayer, Google’s first female engineer, came up with the ultimately simple interface for Google’s search engine: a text box – which is probably now the most used computer application in history. No man could have pulled that off.

Kathy: There’s a very real danger when you hire people who are entirely like you. “Group think” can get in the way of progress when you don’t consider other points of view. Studies show that companies with more women both on their boards and in the executive ranks are more profitable than other companies. Those results show diminishing returns once companies reach 60% women, showing that diversity in both background and in ways of thinking improves business results. Yes, there have been extremely profitable companies that have been predominantly or exclusively led by men. But how much better could they have performed with more women in the ranks?

Chang describes how the tech industry’s “model” employee (both men and women) shouldn’t be multi-dimensional outside of the office, specifically when it comes to their family life. How can companies encourage a work/life balance?

Kathy: Quite simply, the executive team needs to embrace a work/life balance and model that to employees. It’s hard to shut it off at night when your bosses keep working and sending you emails you are expected to respond to. Chang talked about how some Silicon Valley companies offer employees dinner, but others are going against that and are now sending employees home at 5:30 p.m. I think this is a good step, but maybe not entirely perfect, as it doesn’t build flexibility into the schedule. While many employees may appreciate a 9-5 job, others might prefer 12-8, for example. What companies need to emphasize is that performance is judged by results, not by the number of hours put in at the office. And then follow through on that.

Kayla: Be flexible. Understand that behind your organization are real people who do real things outside of the office. This is what brings value to their teams, their work, and their organization. Just make things a little more human.

Teddy: Facebook and Apple began the trend of covering the cost of freezing eggs for employees. This is aimed at reducing the pressure on women professionals to have children when they are young. Delaying pregnancy and childcare until women are more established in their field is an innovative way companies are helping employees balance work and life.

George: By consciously choosing (recruiting, hiring & developing) employees who model that behavior.

In 2019, there is still work that needs to be done towards creating workplaces where both men and women can feel comfortable and respected. What do you hope to see happen within the next five years? What needs to change?

Kathy: There are a few things I would like to see happen in the next five years. First, a commitment to equal pay for equal work. Chang talked about how Slack has a third-party that reviews its employees’ salaries periodically to ensure that men and women are being paid equally. That sounds like a positive thing to me. Second, companies need to make diversity a priority in their recruiting efforts and not keep bringing in the same types of candidates. If they aren’t finding diverse candidates, look harder. And third, companies need to commit to making their boards and executive teams more diverse. Change starts at the top of the organization. I believe there is an initiative by Fortune 500 companies to make 20% of their boards women. I don’t think that’s enough. We should be aiming for 50-50. I know some people will say that’s crazy because women “opt out” more than men do when they get to the executive level in order to raise families. But I think once you build a more inclusive atmosphere for women, you also build a more inclusive atmosphere where men feel more comfortable in opting out and taking time to care for their families.

Kayla: Appreciate the value of a diverse team. The world wouldn’t function if there was only one type of person living throughout the entire human population. Everyone is different. We’ve all led different lives, have different ideas, and have different skill sets. But despite these differences, we can all contribute in our own ways. I just hope that everyone can focus on what is really important and redirect their energy towards positive contributions that lift their organizations and their team members up.

Teddy: What is specifically troubling about this conversation today is the total inability for some people to listen to these criticisms. I would like to see a general acceptance that a homogenized cultural surrounding is not always beneficial and can be extremely detrimental in certain cases.

George: Like most things, it’s all about leadership – and often necessity. If an organization’s leaders believe it’s important, it will improve. Interesting anecdote: Corning Glass in central upstate New York was having difficulty attracting top engineers to their somewhat remote location. They realized that they had an untapped workforce of well qualified female engineers who had left their jobs to raise families. Corning transformed their culture to encourage and accommodate women, including part time employment and job sharing. That was more than 20 years ago.

To whom would you recommend this book?

Teddy: I would recommend this book to anyone who works in an office environment. Office culture and how it impacts the well-being and productiveness of employees is a fascinating topic and is applicable to a wide variety of jobs.

George: Aspiring female engineers in particular to help them both understand what they are up against and also provide inspiration for what’s possible through hard work and perseverance.

Kayla: I would recommend this book to recent college graduates. They’re the newest group of people entering the work force and I think it’s important for them to really understand what their values are and what they’re looking for from a potential employer.

Kathy: Men. Women can talk about this problem all we want, but it will never be solved without the cooperation of men.

What’s next?

What does it mean to “Work smarter, not harder”? Is there a way to predict the outcomes of situations that we cannot control? For our next selection, we’ll be reading Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts by Annie Duke. In this book, Duke, a former World Series of Poker champion, explores strategy and shares what guides her decision-making process when she doesn’t know everything.

If you want to read along with us, you have until March 28th. Also, let us know if you’d like to be on our book panel or have any suggestions for future selections!

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