Elon Musk’s all-male clique, the “Paypal Mafia,” epitomize the problem of Bro Culture in Tech. This close-knit circle of PayPal alumni founded or invested big in lucrative companies such as Tesla, Airbnb, Youtube, Uber, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. They invest in each other’s ventures and dictate which start-ups will receive their support and which will not. Basically, they gatekeep. But who do they close the gates to?
Mafia member Max Levchin answered this question in an interview with Fortune in which he attributed PayPal’s success to “self-selecting for people just like you.” In other words, they seek to exclusively hire those who fit into their “clique” – and by virtue of this their image of a ‘bro.’ This image skews straight, cisgender, and male.
Levchin elaborated on his dream employee: “He thinks like me, he’s just as geeky, and he doesn’t get laid very often. Great hire! We’ll get along perfectly.” Levchin admitted that the work culture he promulgates, in which disagreements sometimes lead to wrestling matches, excludes women and other minority groups. But he asserted that hiring employees of similar backgrounds and dispositions increases productivity, which is essential for startups’ success. Therein lies the problematic, bro-culture ethos that defines the PayPal Mafia: not only is diversity not worth pursuing; it is antithetical to success.
For a case in point, in the 646 companies PayPal mafia members invested in from 1995 to 2018, only eighty-nine (48%) had at least one female founder, and only one had a founder who identified as nonbinary. As the de facto golden boys of Silicon Valley, the PayPal Mafia inspires other power players to gatekeep in the same way, e.g., in the first quarter of 2022, women-founded teams received just 2 percent of venture capital funding.
Because industry paragons like the PayPal Mafia primarily value bros’ perspectives, so do the directors, executives, and managers under them, who often ignore and denigrate employees who do not fit the ‘bro’-mold (“non-bros”). Junior male employees emulate this problematic behavior to advance, resulting in workplaces replete with harassment and discrimination. Riot Games, Activision Blizzard, Alphabet, Pinterest, Rivian, Uber, and SpaceX, among others, have all faced multiple gender discrimination suits alleging a toxic “Bro Culture.” Loretta Lee, who worked at Google from 2008 to 2016, alleged that she faced lewd comments, pranks, and even physical violence from her male colleagues daily. Employees who speak out against their companies’ Bro Culture often face retribution. After she complained, Lee’s male colleagues stopped approving her work, creating the illusion of false performance for which Google eventually terminated her.
Bro Culture harms businesses by making them more difficult and less attractive places for non-bros to work at. This carries tangible financial consequences, e.g. Alphabet paid $310 million and Riot Games, $100 million, to settle sexual harassment and gender discrimination suits. Despite Max Levchin’s claims to the contrary, Bro Culture hinders productivity. Employees at Blue Origin attributed widespread project delays and budget overruns to a toxic work environment fueled by Bro Culture. Female employees struggled to be productive in the face of constant harassment and discrimination. In the highly collaborative schema of the tech world, hindering the work of some hinders the work of all. In the Google example, Lee’s male colleague’s retaliatory refusal to approve her work on a project delayed the entire project. As the highly skilled workforce that drives Tech grows increasingly diverse, employees will grow less tolerant of Bro Culture, and companies that only value bros will miss out on important pools of talent.
For the sake of decency and financial sense, the technology industry must seek to eliminate Bro Culture from the top down. Industry leaders must fund more female- and minority-founded companies and support DEI initiatives in the businesses in which they invest, including a guarantee of equal pay regardless of gender. To eliminate harassment and discrimination, tech companies must empower Human Resources. HR should have regular check-ins with employees in which they can speak openly without fearing retaliation. Hiring committees must make a concerted effort to hire more minorities, women, and people who respect them. Onboarding committees must impress upon new hires the importance to the company culture of valuing everyone’s perspective. None of these steps will be easy, but if the technology industry truly strives to build a brighter future full of AI, self-driving cars, and commercial spaceflight, it must abandon the oppressive beliefs of the past.