Back

How to be a woman in bro-culture?

I just took my first tech job in the midst of all the tech layoffs. While I feel grateful for the role and enjoy my direct team immensely (the most diverse team in the company), the rest of the company is comprised of white, cis men. And these men are bro-y.

As a woman, as a queer - I just do not know how to interact with bro-y men. My social life lacks cis men, I don't tend to date them and I've only worked with a handful of men temporarily over my professional life. It's a culture shock for sure.

During a team dinner, an executive only made eye contact with the three other men at the table and didn't look at me much at all, even when I asked him questions. He spoke about sports for 80% of the three hour evening, even though I made it very clear very early on (through humor) that I am not a fan of watching sports. When he asked me what I do at the company, his eyes glazed over and he said he was surprised to know I worked at the company, that he'd maybe heard my name mentioned once or twice before.

I'm embarassed to say, at one point during the evening, I had the thought, "What can I do to make this executive take me seriously and give me equal eye contact?" Then I reminded myself that I am not interested in competing for attention. I do not define my value by what I do for work.

But still, his treatment of me stung. And I don't know the first thing about navigating bro-culture. Anyone have tips for navigating this new world and how to hold onto my sense of self in the process?

You have to find something you have in common with the person outside of work. Just cycle through all biographical topics. Where’d he go to undergrad, where’d he go to grad school, what’s his hometown, what other cities has he lived in, does he have kids, what do his parents do and how’d he decide not to do that. Keep going until you find something in common. If this is a single bro-y dude, maybe you can mutually complain about dating apps, such as, “Yeah, I mainly date women but the apps still suck because of xyz.”If these are good people, I promise they are just as bewildered as you are about what to talk about.I used to travel multiple days a week with the bro-iest dude, and we ended up talking a lot about his kids and my family. In addition to sports, he really wanted to talk about The Bachelor because he would watch it with his wife, but sadly I wasn’t a fan.You just never know what commonality you will find.
I've definitely been in a similar situation at more than one company. I was in an office where I had lunch with only men every day, and all they wanted to talk about were sports. It was a lonely time. I've also worked in blatantly sexist organizations that had multiple walking lawsuits in leadership. And I've often been the only woman on my team, so there's been a lot of feeling like "the only one on in the room." It's exhausting, especially when you feel like you just can't connect. I've also had experiences where the white male executives didn't really know what to make of me because I wasn't the "conventionally attractive" woman they expected to see and interact with. I want to second Filomena and suggest that you try to find some kind of commonality or topic of conversation beyond sports. Even with people really unlike myself, I can usually find some kind of common ground: pets, TV shows, etc. It's sometimes a little exhausting and wearying, but it usually pays off to have some little "Oh hey how's your dog" or "Did you see the latest episode of X" or "Did you and spouse go on a hike this weekend?" whenever you cross paths with them. But I'd also add that even if you didn't find this common ground or if you kept running into social walls with these folks, that's okay! Seriously. I left those previous jobs I mentioned both angry and feeling that there was something wrong with me. I wish I'd been more proud of my presence, my experiences, and my existence in the world, even if I wasn't like my male colleagues. I wish I'd reminded myself more that I had something to offer, even if it wasn't chatting about the weekend's game. And that I wouldn't spend any time or energy trying to please or ingratiate myself with people who wouldn't understand me or value my existence in the world. Looking back, I know that's easier said than done: when you spend every darn day surrounded by people you don't really mesh with, it can really wear you down. Not that that means be rude, unprofessional, or any of that! Treat these folks with respect (obviously, if they are harassing you or creating a toxic culture, do not tolerate that behavior) and as colleagues. They don't need to be your friends or your work buddies: just people you can interact with as coworkers. A few things also helped me navigate this world (harder now, post-COVID): finding my own people outside of work and cultivating my interests. I committed to joining a writers' group and spending time with friends. It was easier for me to go into work feeling like a bit of an outsider or like I didn't quite fit in when I could leave work for the day and go spend time in places where I wasn't trying to navigate an unfamiliar world. I'm not sure what this looks like for you, but it might be finding ways to connect with people who share your interests outside of work, so that your job is just your job: where you go to do work and get paid but that your social fulfillment and sense of belonging comes from elsewhere. I also would lean on former colleagues for advice and mentorship: the women I'd worked for and with and really admired or men I'd seen break the mold. They often could give me pointers on navigating specific scenarios or just encourage me that it's okay. (I actually wrote a blog post about types of mentors and when this kind of mentorship could be helpful: https://blog.get-merit.com/the-5-types-of-mentors-you-need-throughout-your-career/) I hope that you find a way forward with these colleagues--and know that you're not alone! 💚
Wow, I was so glad to read this post, because I go through something similar. I'm also a queer woman and this resonated very deeply. I actually do love sports and it still doesn't seem to matter. Many men don't like it when you're more knowledgeable than them about a topic (sports), and even feel threatened if your level of knowledge is comparable. Some men simply cannot believe that a woman would be into sports like they are. I once had a boss who played the same sport as me, and I would try to talk about it with him in an effort to connect with him, as others here have suggested. Didn't make a difference. Men don't see women as competition, because they've largely been socialized to believe that we're inferior to them. We're not as strong, we're not as smart, we're not as worthy. This is their default mindset.I once was at a job where I had to work closely with two cis white male founders. They basically ignored me. A new guy came in, with extremely similar look and interests as mine. They went out to lunches and dinners with him from day 1. There was nothing I could have done differently in that situation to be someone they wanted to be around more (the kind of relationship building that leads to promotions, raises, etc.)I don't know what the answer is, but I think it is genuinely a disadvantage that queer women deal with. I even see a difference with how cis presumably straight men interact with straight women. My male boss had a woman touch his chest in an "innocuous" but intimate way after a meeting went well this week. It was "innocuous" and out in the open but very inappropriate if anyone wanted to care. It's this low level flirtation that I see amongst straight people in workplaces that is so prevalent most people don't even recognize it for what it is (inappropriate af!!) As a queer woman, I feel that not partaking in this unspoken part of the workplace puts me at a disadvantage in terms of relationship building. The truth is, people are drawn to people like them. A good professional will make an effort to connect with everyone regardless of this. The guy you described just sounds like a terrible professional (and jerk.) Him ignoring you says 100% more about him than it does about you. You can't force someone to like you. I think the silver lining is that we don't have to deal with the bullshit of cis men in our personal lives. Big win in my books.
My top tip from my bro culture experience is to find an ally among the bros, just one of them. You figure out something in common. As much as bros like to be bros, they also love to see themselves as protectors. That bro will vouch for you with the other bros. The key is to become something like their sister (ugh, I know, but it works with bros). When the executive sees that you have the bros support, they will have to pay attention to you. Of course, they should pay attention to you because you are smart, skilled and all the professional reasons. But there is an element of group dynamics and psychology.
Men seeing themselves as protectors of women is exactly, imHo, what we should not be playing into. This reinforces the idea that we need them to protect us, that they're stronger than us and therefore somehow better and superior. This is just going to perpetuate women being perceived and treated as 'less than' men. Normalize men seeing women as equals. Maybe they should have to cater to our interests in order to progress professionally for once.I'm going to jump in and speak for myself as a queer woman here because I don't want to speak for OP but also want to provide another queer woman's perspective. Presuming your comment came from the POV of a straight woman, consider the perspective of a queer woman who doesn't socialize with men and has no reason in her life to view men as protectors in any which way. I can see why cishet women enjoy the idea of men being their protectors, but there are lots of women out there who have no use whatsoever for this, and for whom this concept can even be triggering or traumatizing, or at the very least unrelatable. The way I personally deal with situations like this is trying very hard to see each individual as an individual. Most people, including bros, are more personable when you have a chance to interact 1-on-1. If a group of people are shitty individuals even after you've given them a chance, it's definitely time to get out and find somewhere better.
+1 to this comment!To add to this, I feel like bros also enjoy having token friends. I’m not saying this is good, but as a survival tactic in a culture like this, if they see you as, “my one queer friend” (and let’s be honest, they probably don’t know the distinction between “queer” and “gay”), they’ll be more likely to want to get your perspective on stuff.One of my friends is a senior black executive who operates in white male bro culture, and he got 600 calls during the latest BLM movement because he was the only black person they knew and they wanted to learn more about it without reading a book.Again, I’m not saying this is positive — it’s definitely unpaid emotional labor. I’m just saying it’s an angle to relate to these people (plus, in a way, you are also treating bros as a monolith when they are technically individuals).
I want the question to be "how to be a women (period)." You don't have to be different based on who you are around. When you know how to be yourself, you show up as yourself. Period. This is, as Brene Brown says, belonging. The ability to show up and be accepted as you are. Listen, I worked in bro-tech-culture for years, I get it. I tried being "one of the guys' and for years it served me until I became pregnant and couldn't hide the real me (physically or emotionally). I learned the hard way you can't show up as someone you're not and be in alignment with your best work and your personal fulfillment. Acting like anything besides who you truly are is out of alignment. Yes, you get to be curious and build connections by learning more about these men who seem different. The truth is it's their egos being big that's hiding their true selves too. We're all really so much alike. It's possible you are curious, and still don't feel a real connection with any of them. At that point you have to ask yourself if this is a culture you want to be part of. You choose. You can be in your power and be in a supportive environment. If you want to be supported, let me know. I've been there, and support women with this all the time. You're worth it.
I’ve always found humor to be helpful in those situations. There’s a perception among bros that women are humorless. I’ve also found these situations more comfortable than more typically feminine teams where I’m expected to perform femininity too, which I’m not comfortable with. The advice to find something you have in common is great too. I’ve found in general people want to respect each other and will do so if given the right circumstances.
I work with many people who are different than me - elite people, bro-ey people, condescending mansplainers, people who are ruthless/unfriendly - and I find that what really helps is active listening, and validation. Using "Yes, and" as an approach to echo and champion points of theirs that you agree with, and being able to say, "wow, that sounds so hard to have you team lose AGAIN for the third time. I don't follow sports but I don't know if I'd be able to keep cheering in that case! what keeps you going?" and so on. But it can also be helpful to try to pre-sort companies before you join based on their diversity/inclusion markers. Tech is a very, very bro-ey male white place, but not every single company is like that. Ask companies what % of their team is women/minority in hiring, and what they do to make people feel welcome, and so on.Good luck, I hope you have a good support network, being in environments like this can be really wearing.
I recently read ‘Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office’. Was hesitant at first b/c I thought it would be about how to ‘act more like a man’, but there were some useful tips in there about how to better partner & stand up for yourself.
this is great question and thread! I agree with many things said here. It is very space to navigate so shoutout to you for even trying to. Your feelings are valid.
A lot of your experience resonates with me as an older woman in tech. I'm also black. Early in my career I was the "diversity" at every lean start-up I worked. It's so much better now, so my advice for navigating bro-culture is don't. I suggest you leave for a position where you don't have to find a way to talk to people who don't see you the way they see white, cis men. In my experience, no matter what you do, bring to the table, or code switch into, they may never see you as a peer worthy of attention and respect. You shouldn't have to do something, say something, find some way to relate to get them to see you. It's their problem, not yours. Put them in your rearview. Just my two cents.
My heart goes out to you. Reading your post I can completely understand how not being recognized for the brilliant human being that you are stung and hurt. I'm sorry that you had to experience that. My tips on navigating this new world and holding onto your sense of self in the process is to DO JUST THAT! Hold onto who you know you are. Show up as your full authentic self everyday. Truth is, you got the job because you're qualified. Period. You are there because you were hired to do a specific job. Its nice to get along with people, but they don't define you or need to be your friends. When you show up like you belong, they will notice you. Your life is outside of your job AND you can bring all your creative energy to the work you do, then leave the rest behind at the end of the day. Hold your head up, shoulders back, walk tall, kill it, drop the mic and go home at the end of each and every day.
On the interpersonal level, as others stated, respond empathetically, and listen for the common ground. Food, family, entertainment—I personally dread the family category because it's a lot of loss for me. As for impact, listen for aspirations of the groups or individuals; you might be surprised with an opportunity to be a key ally.
I'm so sorry you're going through this - and FWIW I think your question of ""What can I do to make this executive take me seriously and give me equal eye contact?" is totally reasonable. Wanting to be included / taken seriously is 100% valid.I think my approach would be similar to ones mentioned here. Try to find one person to connect with at the company. You could be watchful for a few days to see which "bro" feels the most approachable, and ask him if he'd be down to grab coffee. You could even position it like - "I'm trying to get to know other folks on the team but I tend to be more comfortable 1-1; would you wanna grab a coffee tomorrow? My treat".Then spend that time just getting to know that person. Most people (men AND women) like people who ask them questions about themselves. It's a pretty easy way to get someone to like you -- mostly because when you ask them questions about themselves they feel important and interesting.My sense is that by opening up to you about themselves, they will start to have a natural curiosity about you, and over time the relationship can develop into something more well-rounded.Hope this helps!!
I've definitely been the "only woman in the room" (engineer here) on dozens of occasions, and you're right-- it can be really, really hard, and incredibly frustrating. Not all the guys will be receptive to your presence either-- unfortunately some may just never come around-- but the advice above about finding one or two willing to be that "ally" can really help.I found that the women who were successful in the bro-ier parts of tech orgs that I or friends have been in all found some way to 'prove' themselves to the guys too. Granted, no one should have to suffer through trials and tribulations, but I found as a young engineer that one of my best paths forward was just being good at what I did, and confidently standing up for my ideas/approach whenever it came up in meetings. It was like watching a light switch flip: the second I firmly stepped in to a conversation related to my direct work and said "This is what I did, this is why I did it, these were the results; any questions about this should be directed to me" when it had become relevant made it very clear that I knew what I was doing and I was not to be trifled with. If you're having trouble finding not-work things to connect about, you can also just ask them about THEIR work. If they like and enjoy their jobs and take pride in their work, the opportunity to do a deep dive on their approach or share a recent accomplishment can help break the ice a little. Good luck!
Oh my god. I have been there. As a former software engineer I spent 9 years in so many companies with bro cultures and so many stories to date. I'm sure you have your own, unfortunately.First - do you want to navigate it? While it can be more pervasive in tech, it's not necessarily something you need to stand for.My first dev job was a nightmare. People would be "iced" in the morning, which meant if you found a Smirnoff at your desk you had to chug it on your knees. I'd often be asked to leave my desk while working on code to take shots with my all male dev team. I didn't know any better and thought this was just what tech was like! People thought it was cool!At my last company I was an engineering manager with a more diverse group of thoughtful people who care a lot about inclusion. Still a tech startup, just a better one. To get inspired, look for job descriptions that talk about culture and what it means to them. Review Glassdoor reviews.If you'd like to stay at the current company I'd suggest getting to know people 1:1. Ask people to coffee for a 20 minute walk outside the office. When you get to know people better tell them how you feel. I bet not everyone loves this culture and it's a facade. Don't get discouraged with tech! There are good pockets in there.