Tackling toxic ‘bro culture’ in the workplace

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You are sitting in the lunchroom when some of the men in your office are conducting an interview for a new employee. They comment on her appearance, saying that the office could use “another good looking girl”.

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You cringe on the inside, but how do you react on the outside? Do you laugh, because this is the path of least resistance? Will your workplace take these issues seriously if you have to speak up?

This is a choice that many employees, especially women, have to deal with very often.


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How do we get here?

“The reality is that nearly 95 percent of the most powerful companies in Canada are headed by men. And they have an authority over women’s careers as well as their physical and psychological safety in the workplace,” said Vandana Juneja, Catalyst Executive Director , the Canadian arm of a global nonprofit that helps women progress in the workplace.

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Because it was men who were working historically, they were the ones who first created workplace culture and practices. Bro culture—a youthful, mostly-white, party-after-work culture that often includes a sexist understatement—can have a negative impact on women throughout their careers, from isolation to harassment.

Alison Gordon, co-founder of boutique sales agency Other People’s Pot and former CEO of cannabis company 48North, says she’s seen the systemic impact of bro culture in her past as a female CEO.

When they had to move around for investor meetings, many of them were in empty hotel rooms with nothing but a headboard, chairs and a table.

“I would sit by myself at a table that they put there, and then the men would just come over for 20 minutes,” says Ms. Gordon. “I’ll do my game, and it was always very awkward for me to keep the door closed in this room.”

Why did you fall like this? Because this has always happened. And while Ms. Gordon noted that the practice was probably not spiteful in nature, at the end of the day it was not comfortable for her as a woman.

Why are we still here?

With so much focus on healthy workplace cultures in the wake of COVID-19 and the new diversity of employers and mental health initiatives, it can be surprising to see how sibling culture persists across industries.

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“It is worth noting that many men, especially young men, do not subscribe to these values ​​and attitudes and may even feel discouraged. [and] is marginalized in these environments,” says Wendy Cukier, professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at Ryerson University and founder and director of the school’s Institute for Diversity.

“So, it’s definitely not just women who are suffering. I think, arguably, it’s everybody.”

According to Recent research from Catalyst, 94 percent of the men surveyed experienced masculine anxiety—the distress they feel when they don’t think they’re living up to society’s rigid standards of masculinity—at work. And, 28 percent said they would do nothing if their colleagues made sexist remarks.

What can be done?

When it comes to the question of whether women should try to embrace brow culture in the office, Ms. Juneja says, “the solutions may not be on the women alone.”

“It’s not about fixing the women, it’s about fixing the workplace,” she says.

This means creating gender partnerships where everyone works together towards a solution. For example, this may mean connecting through employee resource groups or counseling programs.

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Organizations and employees also need to nurture workplace cultures of inclusion where diversity is valued. Ms Cukier says it must be more than typical unconscious bias training.

“It’s something that has to be reinforced almost every day in how leaders lead, how people treat each other, what gets rewarded and what gets prioritized,” she says.

Finally, Ms. Juneja says it is important to involve senior leaders – who are often men – in education and collaboration.

“If you’re trying to make a difference in the culture, why don’t you go to the top of the house where people have influence?”

ask women and work

Have a question about your work life? email us [email protected].

Q: My team leader interrupts and talks to me during the meeting. It’s impairing my hearing and affecting my mood at work, and I’m not sure if they even knew they were doing it. I really like my job – how should I handle it?

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We asked Fotini Iconomopoulos, negotiation consultant and author of Come Get More, to answer:

This is such a common issue and can be extremely frustrating which can affect your credibility as well. There are some approaches that can help – especially with someone who doesn’t know they are doing it.

The easiest way to deal with this problem is to prevent it. When you’re getting into a situation where they’re tempted to jump in, proceed by saying, “I know you have a lot to add. I’d be grateful if you let me first express your thoughts, to help me establish some presence with the group.” If that happens anyway, you can speak for yourself at this point by saying, “You’re interested. Thank you for that, I look forward to hearing your thoughts right after this next part.” It’s easy to jump in to a colleague in the room and be pre-prepared to say, “Fotini began to share. I’d love to hear more.”

If they’re still clueless, have a private conversation, but keep it objective, no finger pointing: “When it happened, it resulted,” turn that result into something interesting to them. “We didn’t look like a united front,” or, “When this happens to a customer, they might start going over my head, flooding your inbox instead of coming to me.” Asking for their help will also boost their ego and prompt them to fix the problem: “I could really use your help to make sure they respect me.” Instead of blaming or getting defensive, turn it into a problem-solving opportunity.

Interested in more perspective on women in the workplace? Find all stories on the Hub Here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter Here. chain reaction? email us [email protected].


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