As gadgets shakes off its geeky mystique, and consumers snap up smartphones and tablets in record numbers, tech companies are transforming their image, but not always for the better.
Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.
The rapid growth of iPods, smartphones, tablets and apps brings heaps of cash and is elevating the previously low-level coders who create them into a new status: the brogrammer — a combo of nerdy programmer and college fratboy.
Incorporating the college term “bro” is a nod to the newfound swagger techies are enjoying as their products increasingly become what is hip and cool on campus, and a result, Main Street. Facebook’s highly publicized IPO underscores what the newfound élan means beyond that, to Wall Street, in terms of respectability and sky-rocketing fortunes.
Tech companies are taking notice of this trend — something from their perspective that may be long overdue, and are using these terms to recruit young students to tech-start-ups. For example, one poster for job hunters asked students if they want to “bro down and crush some code” to check them out.
The new heavy hitter in the tech world is smart and knows code, but today he can also don cool sunglasses, pound a keg of beer, and produce some sexy bikini shots to share with his buds. But do these “frat boy” characteristics add an unattractive element of sexism to an industry whose users are increasingly female?
This spring a number of smaller tech firms like Sqoot, Klout and Geeklist got caught in dustups over sexism in their advertising and promotions, involving the stereotype of scantily-clad, bouncing women at the service of the nerd-turned-powerhouse men. And many are blaming this new machismo as part of the problem.
The development comes at an interesting time when women are incorporating technology in greater numbers than men, suggesting those who adopt the brogrammer swagger may do so at their own peril.
I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar
Women are significantly more likely to use social media, like building or updating a personal blog, than men, according to a Nielsen report last week. At first blush this may mean to the ego-centric brogrammer there are more women to adore his handiwork, but a deeper look reveals something else.
The news women are more apt to create digital personas, combined with reports they are nearly 20 percent more likely than the average American to follow a brand on Facebook or social media sites, represents a powerful position in the digital market. This growing female presence is underscored by a greater understanding and use social media communication tools, and online shopping — factors that could fuel greater digital influence as women up their consuming power on the Internet.
The trend is already being felt in the gaming world. Recent reports from MocoSpace reveal more women than men play mobile games. Also, a study earlier this month found of a big upswing in the number of tween girls playing social online games, highlighting how the two trends represent the basis for a real and enduring shift in gaming industry.
Advocates for diversity may look at the growing female online presence as hope the Web can be an agent of social change, but those who think those changes come from the top down might be a little less encouraged.
Not Much Change At the Top
At top companies, leadership tends to be predominantly male despite tech audiences’ increasingly female face. Most of Facebook’s users and its top operating officer are female, but its board remains all-male, distinguishing the social network as one of the few in the Internet industry — and even among most large public companies — that doesn’t have at least one female director.
The news from Catalyst, a New York-based company that researches women and business issues, is more puzzling considering Facebook’s powerful chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s best-paid senior executive earning $31 million last year, is also an outspoken advocate for gender equality.
A quick scan of most of the latest “hot tech start-ups” also reflects a gender imbalance, which can contribute to and reinforce a “fratboy” mentality. More importantly, it creates companies that might not fully represent the interests of their growing female consumer base.
“We’re long past having to defend or explain why women should be on boards, given all the data that shows how companies with female as well as male directors perform better,” said Anne Mulcahy, former chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox Corp. and a director at Johnson & Johnson, Target and Washington Post.
According to Catalyst’s survey of Fortune 500 companies, firms with three or more female directors outperformed those with fewer, bringing in nearly a 50 percent better equity return. So even setting issues of gender equity aside, it makes good business sense to incorporate female perspectives and personalities.
“If they just have an old boys’ network in the boardroom, they won’t have access to diverse ideas and strategies,” said Susan Stautberg, co-founder of New York-based Women Corporate Directors.
Smart leaders understand a broader, engaged base of users may lead to even further advertising dollars, and women executives, probably more keenly aware of this reality, aren’t exactly waiting on the sidelines waiting to be called into the action.
Women Harness Own Power
Earlier this year, a powerhouse panel of the tech industry’s top women leaders at the Consumer Electronics Show discussed the disappointingly small number of women in the field and the challenges they face in a male-dominated industry.
The CNET-officiated panel featured Google vice president Marissa Mayer, Flickr founder Catarina Fake, editor-in-chief of CNET Reviews Lindsey Turrentine, and Cisco Systems chief technology officer Padmasree Warrior, focusing on the increasing value of women consumers and how more female tech personnel could influence, build and market products.
The pioneering panelists speculated on many reasons why they don’t have more female co-workers. Most felt there is still a lack of support for all students, especially girls, in the math and sciences arena, beginning at the grade-school level.
Another significant challenge for women tech workers is not having role models. Fake spoke about social constraints that often prevent female employees from seeking after-hours advice from experienced male colleagues due to negative stereotyping, and vice-versa.
“There is a barrier,” she said, and that barrier, which often includes struggling for work-family balance, can sometimes prevent women from accessing the industry knowledge they need to ascend to top-tier positions.
“I always tell women that the fact that you’re different and that you’re noticed,” Warrior said, “because there are few of us in the tech industry, is something you can leverage as an advantage.”
This advice could run into some roadblocks if the brogrammer archetype continues to thrive and overtake what many people consider is a more temperate gender environment in the tech industry.
Either way, the tech industry is in the spotlight like never before — featured in movies, television shows, music and books, and how it defines its own professionalism at this crossroads will reverberate for some time to come.
The industry has an opportunity to expand its gender perspective, and instead of bemoaning the rise of the brogrammer culture, it could get busy countering it, by welcoming women and others who don’t fit this narrowing description — if not for more noble reasons, then because it will best serve the industry’s own interests.