You Asked, SWE Answered

By Amanda Harrison, SWE Editorial Board

I’m in my summer internship. I’m the only woman in the lab. Many of the men participate in “bro culture.” What should I do?

Almost all women engineers have had the experience of being the only woman in the room. Dealing with “STEM bros” and “bro culture” is often a challenge they have to face in their roles. For young women engineers newly entering the profession via internships or first jobs out of college, working in a mostly male environment can often be intimidating. I have dealt with my fair share of STEM bros and gender bias in academia, and I would like to share some of the strategies I have found helpful, as well as the advice I have received from other women in engineering.

“Bro culture” in the workplace can take many forms. It can be generally described as a situation in which men are seen as the default and women and non-binary people as the other, which often leads to misogynistic and discriminatory behavior against those who are not recognized as the same.

An extreme form of “bro culture” in the workplace is when men are being sexist, misogynistic, or blatantly antagonistic toward those other than men. The toxicity of these individuals and their actions creates a hostile work environment for all, but specifically those they are targeting. This unprofessional behavior is completely unacceptable and not something that should be tolerated by anyone on the team. In this instance, it is important to document what words and actions are being said and taken and bring that to your manager. You should never have to deal with any form of bias or harassment in the workplace, and these issues should be addressed and handled immediately.

When networking events or work-related social events take the form of traditional male-bonding activities such as golf clubs, sports bars, sporting events, and gentlemen’s clubs, women and non-binary people may feel unwelcome.

There is often anxiety around reporting instances of bias or harassment to management. What if the colleague retaliates? What if you are then further excluded? What if your manager does not act? These are all real fears and unfortunate realities that women often deal with when reporting acts of misconduct, but that does not mean inappropriate behavior should go unreported. These types of harmful actions and the biases they perpetuate require accountability. Handling the anxieties around reporting is critical. You deserve to have space. You have earned your position. You have every right to be there and feel safe. Do not let anyone take that away from you or belittle your worth.

A less extreme but still harmful example of “bro culture” is when men in the workplace are intentionally or unintentionally excluding peers who are women or non-binary. When networking events or work-related social events take the form of traditional male-bonding activities such as golf clubs, sports bars, sporting events, and gentlemen’s clubs, women and non-binary people may feel unwelcome. Any activity can become tainted by “bro culture” if the focus is on hypermasculinity. It’s not about the event; it’s about the intent.

In this situation, if you are feeling excluded from your peers’ after-work hangouts, it is important to articulate those feelings. Find an ally to talk to about feeling excluded, someone who is willing to use their position to make space for the needs of others. Propose alternative activities for you and your group to do. Some ideas might be a game night, mini golf, an escape room, or a casual group dinner. When proposing ideas, try to think of an enjoyable activity that is gender-neutral and culturally inclusive for everyone on the team. Finding a balance in these activities is crucial for a productive team focused on inclusion and belonging.

Women in STEM can sometimes find it intimidating to take up space. Own the fact that you worked hard to get where you are, and you earned your position. Don’t let anyone diminish your worth with their words or actions. Take initiative. Speak up when you see inequalities, whether those inequalities impact you or not, because it is important to foster space for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Voicing your concerns to your manager or peers is the best way to initiate a change in the culture of the team. When making space for yourself, make sure you also include other intersecting identities such as physical disabilities, cultural differences, and neurodiversities to make the workplace and work-related networking events accessible to everyone.

If you’re a collegian or young professional seeking advice on a personal or professional issue, please submit your question here:

About the author: Amanda Harrison (she/her) is a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is currently working toward a B.S. in computer engineering as well as a minor in literature. Amanda Harrison joined SWE in 2019 and participated in the SWENext High School Leadership Academy, as well as the Collegiate Leadership Institute, before joining the SWE editorial board in 2022.