Startup culture was boy culture. Can we ever grow up?

Emma McGowan 13 Sep 2021

Can we finally create the workplace utopia we’ve been promising since the first tech wave?

Tech has always been a man’s world. But for a period in the early aughts and teens, it was really more a boy’s world. As the second big tech bubble of the digital age swelled in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, the aesthetics and preferences of very young men were everywhere. Ping pong tables. Kegs in the office. Hoodies as formal attire. Bunk beds in “coliving” houses. Watch one episode of the hit HBO show Silicon Valley and you can see it in all of its glory.

But while Silicon Valley the show ended in 2019, Silicon Valley the place is still dealing with boy culture. As recently as July 2021, workers at Activision — the gaming studio behind World of Warcraft, Candy Crush, and Call of Duty, among other popular games — staged a walkout in response to their employers’ “tone deaf” response to a lawsuit filed by the State of California. The suit alleges “rampant workplace inequality, from unequal pay for similar work to a leadership culture that permitted sexual harassment and even retaliated against women who came forward,” according to reporting by WIRED.

Employees of Activision describe a “frat boy” culture in which women were forced to endure crude jokes, sexual harassment, and sexual advances from male coworkers. “Frat boy” culture is just “boy culture” in its teenage years — and the allegations about Activision outline just how far the tech industry still needs to go if it’s going to be welcoming to people of all ages and genders. 

Further reading:
7 tips for women who want to get ahead in leadership
Czechitas and Avast help women make their future in IT a reality
Showing up for women in business during Covid-19

That’s not to say we’re still stuck in HBO’s version of Silicon Valley. As the small startups who survived the extremely high startup failure rate started to thrive, the culture also started growing up. The furniture got nicer; the beer went from kegs to draughts and wine was added; and the open office spaces got bigger. The offices were brighter and more fun than the offices of more old-school industries. It looked like startup culture really had disrupted office culture for the better.

But then we have situations like what happened at Uber. And Google. And now, Activision. All of which are terrible, terrible examples of what happens when boy culture is allowed to run amok. However, they’re also great examples of how the culture has changed in recent years -- because there’s a reason they happened now, and not 10 years ago. 

So have we done it? Have we kept the utopian ideals of the second tech wave and left behind the toxic parts? Unfortunately, not quite -- that lawsuit is still ongoing against Activision. But, on the flip side, their employees were angry enough about it to walk out of their very lucrative jobs. That’s undeniably a sign of progress. And maybe the third tech wave will bring us a tech world where lawsuits like that don’t ever have to be filed. 

And we are entering a third wave. The Covid-19 pandemic has upended the tech industry. Working from home has led people to realize that “hustle culture” is toxic and some Big Tech companies are giving their employees the option to continue working remotely, even after the worst of the pandemic subsides. 

As we make this shift into new ways of working, it’s up to everyone in tech to ask: Are we ready to finally move away from “boy” and “frat” culture? What does a grown up future look like for tech? And can we finally create the workplace utopia we’ve been promising since the first tech wave? 

Over the next few months, I’ll be exploring those questions and others about this cultural shift that we’re all moving through. Keep an eye on this space for deep dives into what it could look like if tech, finally, is no longer just a man’s world. 

If you’d like to learn more about women in tech at Avast, check out our diversity and inclusion page.

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