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A Few Takes On How To Fix The Tech Industry's 'Bro' Problem

Hackers pose at Disrupt Hackathon in 2011.
Araya Diaz
Getty Images
Hackers pose at Disrupt Hackathon in 2011.

The tech industry's sometimes sexist "brogrammer" culture came into focus at least twice this week, making it as good a time as any to highlight the running conversation about how to constructively change the systemic, entrenched issues that allow for offensive apps like Titstare, which was presented at a tech industry hackathon.

We rounded up smart takes from developers, community leaders and journalists in the tech sphere on how to think about moving forward. A few of these contributions are linked to fuller pieces, others are kindly written just for you All Tech readers and included below. (By the way, NPR's Code Switch has diagrammed the various types of bros, though it's missing a tech bro classification.)

First, Rachel Sklar. She's founder of Mediaite and co-founder of TheLi.st, a community for women in technology. She explains how the pervasive culture allows for these offensive ideas to get thought up in the first place:

"They didn't think it was a big deal, because nothing about the place where they were presenting made them think it would be. Boys will be boys, and where it's mostly boys around to reinforce those norms, the lines between what's cool to say in a professional context relax and blur. (Two words: Booth babes.) Dissent will tend to be shushed, and people who object will be told to calm down and learn to take a joke. And because such 'jokes' have minimal negative feedback, it's less noticeable when envelopes are pushed. That's how these things usually happen — someone gets a bit too comfortable, and a line is crossed. But the comfort comes from somewhere."

TechCrunch, which hosts the Disrupt conference where things went awry, has proposed more due diligence in the future. Editor Alexia Tsotsis says the organization is working on an anti-harassment policy for conferences, and a screening program for its future hackathon presentations. But rather than be reactive after these incidents come to the fore, The Atlantic's Abby Ohlheiser urges more deliberate thought devoted to preventing these incidents:

"Giving thought to preventing those moments is far from common among conference organizers. Anti-harassment policies designed for conferences have existed for a while now, but few actually use them. That leaves us with a pretty unsatisfying best-case-scenario of the post-scandal 'teaching moment': individual organizations adapting a series of changes after the fact to prevent another such debacle from happening at their events."

Adria Richards, a developer who was on stage when the outrage-inducing Titstare app was presented, suggests the solution lies in the pipeline of women and girls who are interested in tech.

"There are three messages that young girls get before they get interested in computers, and if we can reach them before these messages, then I think their chance of embracing technology and staying in it is much higher. The messages they get are: One, you wouldn't be interested in this. Two, you wouldn't be good at this, and three, you don't belong here. I can see now, 10-year-olds, 12-year-olds who I used to work with at coding camps. They are older now, and when they get these messages they're saying back, 'No, I've been doing this since I was a kid. Look at my code. I do like this, I do belong, and I am good at it.' "

As for the existing disparity in organizations, Meredith Turits, formerly of Glamour and currently editor of Bustle.com, suggests focusing on inclusion so that the company environments are ones women and people of color actually want to join:

"If women work only with women, and men only with men, there's likely to be much less oversight for this kind of sexism. An us-against-them mentality can only make things worse. In the right now, let's keep our focus on the developers who are creating the best mobile products, whether they're men or women, while simultaneously working even harder to equalize the gender balance in tech, and continuing to support organizations that foster an environment women actually want to join."

Writing for The Bold Italic, Sarah Han notes that female entrepreneurs have made strides not by joining, but starting companies or services for themsleves:

"Start a company that solves the problem you have. Former IBM engineer Leah Busque, founder/CEO of TaskRabbit, did this when she realized the market needed task "rabbits." She coded the prototype of her startup over a summer and raised venture funding, and rest is history. These days, women are solving deeper technical problems, rolling out their own solutions, and standing a better chance at starting the next big tech company."

Dan Sinker heads up Knight-Mozilla OpenNews, a program devoted to spreading open web innovation and development within journalism. He takes on the notion that the "culture" is wrecked:

"[This week's events] helped me think a lot harder about all of startup 'culture.' And when I do that, there's more about it that drives me crazy than just the rampant sexism, racism and just general douchebaggery that's seemingly everywhere right now: The emphasis on fast exits instead of building lasting things, the focus on short-term "wins" that that thinking underscores, the fact that big problems seem to have been tossed out the window for a search for ever-quicker ways to share video, the money, the money, the money. All of it makes me just want to toss it all. And I think that Titstare has helped me to really focus all that. And realize that, simply: we don't have to play this game. There's so much that startup "culture" isn't doing, and there are so many of us that stare into that world and don't see ourselves reflected in it. So let's not try for it. Let's do what we're already doing--building amazing things, creating incredible cultures and communities, changing the world--but let's do it ourselves. Let the douchebags have their increasingly insular world. We've got the rest of this one to change."

This conversation continues with you. We'd love to hear your take, in the comments (keeping in mind the community guidelines, of course), via email or Twitter @NPRAllTech. In keeping with the running exploration of this area, we'll be featuring more contributions and perhaps your take on the issue in the coming weeks.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.

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