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Recognizing and Addressing “Bro Culture” and Other Barriers to Gender Inclusion

Joe is a supervisor at an organization serious about its commitment to diversity. In fact, Joe recently hired a new female engineer, Heather, to work as a supervisor on a team that has long been predominantly male. Joe made diligent efforts throughout the hiring process to ensure the pool of candidates contained qualified female applicants by attending engineering job fairs targeting minority applicants and working with the company’s recruiters to ensure the position was posted on a wide array of job boards. During the interview process, Joe is very impressed with Heather’s skills and qualifications, and knowing that she will be a great addition to the team, he offers her the job and she accepts. Joe is so confident in Heather’s skills and abilities that he decides to take a much-needed vacation the week that Heather starts, certain that things will be in good hands.

When Joe returns, he hears through the grapevine about several break room conversations outside Heather’s presence about whether she is single, and that some employees are making bets on who will be the first to date her. Today, several minutes after Heather walked by the production floor, Joe overheard two male employees quietly joke about how another male employee had said, “He’d tap that.” Joe, not quite sure what to do, decides to let it go, since he is confident neither Heather nor any other female employees overheard this commentary. Plus, Joe knows that once the male employees begin working closely with Heather, they will come to realize how knowledgeable and qualified she is, and will learn to respect her.  

The Futility of Diversity Without Inclusion

As we recently discussed in From Diversity to Inclusion—Breaking Down Barriers on the Path to UNcommon Ground,1 the benefits of diversity are only truly realized when they are partnered with inclusion. The concept of diversity is clear, yet what it means to create an environment of mutual respect where each individual’s unique contribution is truly appreciated is a much more challenging undertaking requiring an on-going commitment to education, reinforcement, and practice of these concepts. This endeavor starts with educating your employees about your organization’s values and expectations in fostering an environment of mutual respect where everyone has a voice and is comfortable using it. The reinforcement of these values requires that leaders and supervisors consistently model appropriate behaviors and offer continual feedback of observed steps forward and setbacks along the path.

The issue of gender discrimination in various organizations has received significant media attention over the course of the last several years vis-à-vis the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, which highlighted long-standing issues of sexual harassment and pay discrimination in many organizations. As a result, many employers have undertaken efforts to strengthen their anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies and practices and many states have taken steps to mandate training. In addition to these obvious steps, it is important that supervisors and leaders are trained on how to recognize and address common fault lines along the path to truly inclusive organizations where men and women feel welcomed to the same degree.

What is “Bro Culture”?

A significant barrier to this type of inclusivity has been so-called “bro culture.” Environments described as such typically exist in male-dominated industries that lack significant, if any, female leadership representation and/or in environments whose leaders perpetuate stereotypes about traditional male and female roles within the organization. “Bro culture” is defined in various ways, but it is fundamentally an accepted culture of bias manifested in behaviors and decisions that support the exclusion of women in the organization, both socially and professionally. Environments like this are typically characterized by behavior that is, perhaps, found in a locker room, not in a professional work environment. In cultures like this, males who do not “go along” with the sexist and unprofessional behaviors are also excluded.2 In its most egregious form, a “bro culture” is one where women are outright sexually harassed and/or discriminated against in terms of compensation or promotional opportunities. One example of this was the “bro culture,” described in a 2018 lawsuit against Google, in which it was alleged that female employees were subjected to repeated instances of inappropriate touching, sexual comments, and unwanted advances. The plaintiff in this lawsuit also alleged that male co-workers regularly “spiked her drinks with whiskey and laughed about it,” as well as “shot nerf balls and darts at her almost every day.”3 While most of the materials written about toxic “bro culture” have been directed at the technology sector, recent articles have also detailed similar alleged behaviors in the financial, advertising, legal, energy, not-for-profit, and other industries.  

Bro culture’s negative effects on inclusion were recently highlighted in Pixar’s 2018 release of a short animated film entitled, “Purl,” a parody of a pink ball of yarn’s attempts to be accepted in a homogeneous organization of white men in suits who are reticent to accept her. In this movie, Purl’s male colleagues only begin to accept her when she begins to dress, act, and express viewpoints similar to theirs. By the end of the film, Purl capitalizes on her acceptance to stand up to her colleagues and create a more inclusive work environment.

What About Less Egregious Behaviors?

But what about behaviors that fall short of outright discrimination or bullying? Based on feedback I’ve received from participants in training sessions and complaint investigation fact-finding, even behaviors falling short of illegal discrimination/harassment and bullying - behaviors that are disrespectful - often create significant barriers to inclusion and ultimately success for female employees. The following is a list of factors and behaviors that often create actual barriers or the perception of barriers for female employees:


  • A lack of female leaders and mentors
  • Teams where females are underrepresented


  • A perception of “cronyism” or “an old boys club” affecting compensation, promotions, who is assigned the most career-advancing work, or who is introduced to established clients
  • A perception that a male boss eats lunch more frequently with, has close social relationships with, or is “chummier” with male employees
  • An apparent tolerance for consensual sexual or dating relationships between female subordinates and male supervisors within the chain of command
  • Entertaining of clients at venues where women would likely not feel comfortable (e.g., strip clubs)
  • Work-related social events frequently centered on excessive alcohol consumption


  • “One-off” sexually inappropriate jokes or comments with sexual innuendo are the norm and unaddressed by leaders
  • Decisions or comments (by males or females) furthering stereotypes that a qualified female employee about to take or returning from maternity leave, or with small children, would not want to undertake challenging assignments (without offering the opportunity to the female employee)
  • Negative comments furthering the stereotype that taking maternity or paternity leave is career limiting
  • Negative comments directed at male employees for taking time off of work to tend to childcare issues or attend school events
  • Face-to-face meetings are consistently scheduled during hours that conflict with school drop-off times and/or after-hours without business justification
  • Males who frequently interrupt or finish the sentences of female colleagues in meetings
  • A male dismissing the idea of a female colleague, only to praise the same idea, when suggested by a male colleague
  • Frequent references promoting traditional stereotypes about marriage, such as a male supervisor commenting how his wife who does not work outside the home “spends all of his money”  
  • Negative labeling of female employees who assert themselves as being “not team players,” “bossy,” or “bitchy,” whereas the same behaviors in male employees are encouraged or praised
  • A perception that female employees have to “be one of the guys” in terms of tolerating offensive banter or language to “fit in”
  • Frequent references to male-dominated activities to make a point, such as combat references or sports analogies
  • A tolerance for sexist comments by leaders
  • Female and male colleagues who discourage or speak up about inappropriate sexist language are labeled “too sensitive”
  • A tolerance for profanity or “rough language” (“That client just ripped me a new one.”)
  • A tolerance for “bro talk” (Typically comments males make to other males about females, in which the female is explicitly or implicitly objectified in a sexual manner and often refer to physical appearance, or send the message that a female is the object of the male speaker’s sexual desire. Most of these comments are made outside the earshot of females. As a learned form of male bonding, these comments tend to be more prevalent among work teams where females are underrepresented.)
  • Demeaning references to females such as “girls”

Breaking Down the Barriers

What can an organization do to break down these types of barriers if they exist? Clearly, the first step is to ensure that any complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination are taken seriously, appropriately investigated, and remediated if company policies are found to be violated. Any concerns voiced informally, vis-à-vis employee surveys and/or social media should also be taken seriously and investigated. It is also important that leaders and HR personnel follow-up with complainants to ensure that issues have been addressed.

Next, leaders and managers should be trained on what a gender-inclusive environment looks like, with a discussion of “bro culture” and the common barriers described above. This training should include open dialogue from both females and males about what perceived barriers actually exist in their organization, and brainstorming on how to remove these barriers moving forward. The trainer should be well-versed in how to elicit discussion of these sensitive topics in a manner where all participants - both male and female - have a voice and are heard. Following this training, it is suggested that a working group formed of senior leaders and HR personnel further examine this feedback and develop action plans to address the suggested opportunities for improvement. It is also suggested that the organization offer similar sensitivity training for its non-supervisory employees. Training sessions for both manager and non-supervisory staff should include bystander training, another critical component in creating a sense of collective responsibility in creating a respectful culture.

Lastly, to reinforce the organization’s commitment to inclusion, it is imperative that leaders in the organization proactively model inclusive behavior and promptly address problematic behaviors, even those that may seem to be trivial. Let’s revisit Joe, the supervisor we met earlier in this article. If Joe knew that Heather’s arrival might have been met with resistance, the best practice would be for him to introduce Heather to the team in a manner that clearly sent the message that he was confident in her abilities to successfully lead the team. Also, Joe needs to address the inappropriate commentary about Heather as soon as he is aware of it. Best practice would be for Joe to meet one-on-one with each of the individuals who made the comments and approach the discussion in the spirit of “education not humiliation,” being mindful that the employees may not realize this behavior is problematic since it was outside the earshot of female employees. Joe should explain that he overheard the employee make sexual references to Heather, and explain that commentary of that nature, even if no women are present, is demeaning to Heather and diminishes women in general. Joe should explain that language of this nature is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. It is also suggested that Joe remind his department generally in the next staff meeting about the organization’s commitment to inclusion. Joe should emphasize how all employees play a role in that commitment by being mindful to avoid making inappropriate comments, such as comments about employee’s physical appearances or sexual comments about employees behind their back. Joe should remind the team that sexual comments are not okay just because no one of the other gender is present, and regardless, don’t assume that someone present isn’t offended as they might not indicate that they are in the moment.

Breaking down any types of barriers to inclusion requires an on-going commitment at all levels of leadership. These efforts demonstrate that the organization is serious about its commitment to build a respectful environment where all employees are valued for their individual contributions.

1 Stephanie Davis, Diversity to Inclusion-Breaking Down Barriers on the Path to UNcommon Ground, November 2018,
2 This article addresses “bro culture” in terms of discrimination against females. However, cultures like this often create barriers for anyone perceived to be “different,” such as members of the LGBTQ community.
3 Nicholas Vega, Google gets sued over rampant ‘bro culture,' New York Post, March 1, 2018.