For a number of reasons, last week’s Twitter-propelled implosion of former Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson was fascinating to watch. While Business Insider hasn’t suffered much from its decision to let Dickinson be a part of its team, his tenure and long history of purported “performance art” is just one example of how dudebro culture has powered—and stunted—the tech industry for the past decade.
What, exactly, is a dudebro? Definitions vary. In the tech industry, dudebros are the loudest guys in the room, the ones who lead meetings and close VC deals. They tend to be labeled by their peers (often aspiring dudebros) as “mavericks,” leaders with extreme vision and passion. They make things happen. They get stuff done.
But they do it, in part, by marginalizing everyone who isn’t a dudebro: showcasing and defending culturally insensitive apps at conferences, turning a blind eye to the clear and persistent gender disparity in the industry and, at their dudebro-iest heights, insisting that the American tech world is a meritocracy when it clearly isn’t. This mindset is accepted—and encouraged—in all aspects of tech, from product creation to programming (or brogramming). And it’s a problem. Because although the tech industry is seemingly steered by dudebros, it includes women whose opinions, work and innovations are diminished by it.
But as our cultural landscape changes, tech’s consumers and its drivers of industry are changing as well. If left unaddressed, the myopia of dudebro culture may damage more than an industry’s reputation—it has the potential to hurt its bottom line.
The art of marketing tech to women
Consumer tech is big business, but it’s even bigger for women: an article appearing on The Atlantic last year lists women as leading tech adoption in Internet usage, GPS, e-readers, Skype and all Internet-enabled devices. Women are using more devices, making more buying decisions for themselves and their families, and communicating with more people—including women—with their tech.
So how are tech marketers capitalizing on their biggest consumer demographic? Not gracefully. According to the tech world, women use their email accounts primarily to chat about knitting, dates and mani-pedis; and women who might be looking for the right laptop are little more than computer-illiterate moms who just need an Internet machine. It’s tough to imagine women creating ads like these; it’s even tougher to imagine women at Google or Samsung allowing ads like these to represent their brands.
Dudebro-ing in mixed company
Businesses that have embraced digital marketing also understand that the people who represent their brands online need to invest time and resources into personal branding. That means, of course, cultivating a professional image that serves both the individual and the brand. And as demonstrated by Mr. Dickinson, not every public figure successfully strikes that balance.
Perhaps the most recent and egregious acts of public dudebroism were displayed at this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt. A panel featured Titstare, an app designed to help (presumably male) users take photos of themselves staring at the female form. A clever tagline offered by one of the app’s creators: “It’s the breast, most titillating fun you cans have.”
Reactions to the app ranged from laughing approval to disappointment that young women and girls were being shut out of the tech industry. TechCrunch recognized the error and issued an apology on their website. But would an open, inclusive environment make room for apps like this at all? Would the Australian duo responsible for the app and its presentation have felt comfortable creating and showcasing a tool for creeping on unsuspecting women in the first place? Might the programmers instead put their energy toward an app with an audience wider than fellow dudebros?
The future of tech rests on its ability to push its best talent to the top; but, like most large industries, its survival also relies on attracting a diversity of consumers. As technology becomes the engine of the global economy, the people who lead it must be mindful of their audiences. Being willing to gather much-needed data on women, people of color and other target audiences—and using that data to inform everything from advertising to hiring—could be the catalyst behind leveling the playing field.
Of course, that could lead to tech’s dudebros becoming an endangered species. Which isn’t a bad thing.