California, Labor / Employment, Sexism, Silicon Valley, Technology, Women's Issues

High-Profile Sex Discrimination Suit Shines Ugly Light on Silicon Valley ‘Bro Culture’

From a Mother Jones story in April about Matt Van Horn, a 28-year-old executive at the social media company Path, who presented at SXSW this spring:

Van Horn continued with some tips for hiring managers: He cautioned against “gangbang interviews” — screening prospective employees by committee — and made a crack about his fraternity’s recruiting strategy, designed to “attract the hottest girls” on campus. He seemed taken aback when nobody laughed. “C’mon, guys, we all know how it was in college,” he muttered.

Van Horn wasn’t even 10 minutes into the talk, but several clearly irritated women (and a couple of men) had gotten up and walked out.…

Irritation ricocheted across Twitter among techies and media colleagues at the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Webb Media, and other major outlets, and I fielded outraged questions and comments for several hours.

The surprising thing wasn’t that a 28-year-old “assclown” would channel The Social Network’s Sean Parker — it was that Van Horn’s comments came on the heels of a whole series of tech-startup flareups over everything from advertising women as “perks” at a company event, to a marketing video featuring a woman clad in a corporate T-shirt and underwear, to a startup pitch session featuring a recurring photo of “leaping bikini-clad women.”

Back in March, BusinessWeek wrote a piece sounding similar themes:

Danilo Stern-Sapad writes code for a living, but don’t call him a geek. He wears sunglasses and blasts 2Pac while programming. He enjoys playing Battle Shots—like the board game Battleship, but with liquor — at the office. He and his fellow coders at Los Angeles startup BetterWorks are lavished with attention by tech industry recruiters desperate for engineering talent. “We got invited to a party in Malibu where there were naked women in the hot tub,” says Stern-Sapad, 25. “We’re the cool programmers.”

Tech’s latest boom has generated a new, more testosterone-fueled breed of coder. Sure, the job still requires enormous brainpower, but today’s engineers are drawn from diverse backgrounds, and many eschew the laboratory intellectualism that prevailed when semiconductors ruled Silicon Valley.

BusinessWeek mentioned that this trend seems to be worse at smaller operations, and less a part of more mature businesses, such as Google. But Pao’s suit might indicate otherwise. Either way, it is tricky situation, especially for any attorneys charged with representing small startups that are less worried about the niceties of employment law and more concerned with creating a sweet new business and, as the stereotype goes, playing foosball and beer pong in the office. (Actually, this is not a stereotype. I have heard several firsthand stories of workplaces that do this.)

Many of our readers work either in-house or on the firm side of the tech sector. We would love to hear about your experiences with respect to the so-called “brogrmmer” culture. Is it as bad as it sounds? What — if anything — are attorneys on the ground doing to prevent disputes down the line?

If you have any information regarding personal or professional experiences, either pleasant or unpleasant, please share it in the comments or send us an email (which we will keep anonymous), subject line “Silicon Valley Bros.”

Lawsuit Shakes Foundation of a Man’s World of Tech [New York Times]
The Rise of the ‘Brogrammer’ [BusinessWeek]
“Gangbang Interviews” and “Bikini Shots”: Silicon Valley’s Brogrammer Problem [Mother Jones]
Ellen Pao v. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers [Superior Court of San Francisco]

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