“Hey Man”: Language and Bro Culture in the Animal Protection Movement

How Subtle Gendered Language Holds Many Advocates Back

Many women and some men have written extensively about the tech industry’s problem with “bro culture”: a frat-like culture unwelcoming to women of all races and people of color of all genders and dominated by charismatic, white, (usually) heterosexual men. The culture is not confined to Silicon Valley and college towns but also permeates Wall Street — and even the animal protection movement.

Like any culture, that of the bros is partly defined by its language. “Bro talk” ranges from overtly sexist comments and sexual harassment to sexual jokes and even more subtle gendered phrases. As author and former hedge fund trader Sam Polk wrote in The New York Times, “‘bro talk’ produces a force field of disrespect and exclusion that makes it incredibly difficult for women to ascend the Wall Street ladder.”

I’ve bumped up against a similar force field myself, and I’ve heard from many other female animal advocates that they’ve felt its restrictive power firsthand too.

Sexual jokes and banter pepper the conversations of some men in our movement, but more subtle bro talk can also be exclusionary. An interaction I recently witnessed provides an example. One of the animal protection movement’s recognized leaders, let’s call him Tom, approached an older man — a high-powered executive Tom had never met before — to introduce himself at a conference. Within his first few words, Tom referred to this executive as “man.” As in, “hey man, loved your talk.” The two men visibly instantly bonded, forging what appeared to be an immediate connection.

Such an interaction would never occur if either or both of these men were women. Women couldn’t call a male executive “man” without coming across as unprofessional (or simply weird), and no one could call a female executive “woman” or another similarly gendered term without offending her. “Hey woman, loved your talk!” Yeah, right.

The extensive use of the terms “man,” “bro,” “brother,” and “dude” by men in our movement perpetuates an exclusionary bro culture not just among professional animal advocates themselves but also among the wider sphere of leaders and influencers with whom they interact. These terms hold enormous power to unify (straight, white) men — power that language does not afford women as a means to connect with one another or with men. When women overhear men use these terms, the message we receive is clear: This is a boys’ club, and you’re not welcome.

[Before I go further, a disclaimer: I’m not suggesting the use of these terms is comparable to (much less amounts to) sexual harassment. I realize that some readers may believe calling them out as problematic seems like over-the-top PC policing or a distraction from the larger issues women in our movement face. But the fact that many of my female friends and colleagues have independently brought this issue to my attention over the past year or so indicates to me that this is a problem worth talking about. Furthermore, opening this discussion presents a simple opportunity for men to make small changes in their behavior that will make them better allies to women.]

Consider that women are already at a disadvantage when it comes to building connection, trust, and respect with other professionals, especially men in leadership roles. We’re socially conditioned to be more polite, less direct, less confrontational, more formal, more reserved, quieter, and smaller. Many of the most successful people in our movement are men who embody the opposite traits: They’re large, loud, informal, outgoing, gregarious, charismatic, and direct. This is true in other male-dominated sectors as well. And having these traits in common is part of what helps men connect with one another so effortlessly.

In some circumstances, women have the option of enhancing some of these characteristics in ourselves in order to gain more respect — from men and society more broadly. We can adjust our posture to take up more space, learn how to be more outgoing and charismatic, speak up, and be direct. We can change many things about our language, such as striking “sorry” from our emails, replacing an exclamation point or emoji with a period, and refusing to let men interrupt us.

We can do all these things, but we simply do not have the option of calling a man “man,” “bro,” or “dude” in a professional setting.

When my female colleagues and I have raised this issue with men in our movement, their responses have been mixed. A few immediately recognized the problem and pledged to change their language, but most — including some close friends of mine — were (at least initially) resistant and defensive.

Some responded by arguing this “brotherly” language actually helps animals by deepening connections among male leaders and between them and powerful men outside the movement. Sure, pandering to the patriarchy may yield some short-term benefits, but at what cost? When women see and hear these interactions (and sometimes even when we don’t), we are othered and our own power is diminished. Given that organizations and businesses with greater gender (and racial) diversity in leadership are more successful, more creative, better at problem solving, and more profitable, it’s clear the costs of using exclusionary language outweigh the benefits.

Even though he agreed “bro talk” is harmful to women when they’re present, one of the movement’s most prominent, respected leaders asked me whether it’s acceptable for men to use terms like “man” and “bro” with one another in private — when women can’t hear them. I asked him: “What does it say about the culture of our movement that men would feel comfortable using language women have deemed harmful only when women are not present?” And further, what does it say about our movement that men-only, closed-door conversations in a professional context are common enough to warrant the question itself?

It’s also worth emphasizing that these terms can be damaging to just about anyone who doesn’t identify as a white, straight, cisgender man. I’ve never heard any of the movement’s LGBTQ-identifying advocates use these terms, and “bro” and “brother” are examples of the appropriation of Black culture by white men.

The underlying issue here is that, as Carol Adams explains, “despite the work of feminists to identify the linkages between the oppressions of women and animals, establishing the common patriarchal roots of both groups’ subjugation, a feminist perspective has yet to be incorporated into the theory and practice of the mainstream animal movement.” We criticize mainstream society for its speciesism, but we have yet to address the many isms in our own movement. This limits our potential to create the world we all say we want — one in which no one is oppressed.

So how do we begin to fix this? Language is a great place to start, as it forms the roots of our movement’s culture. If you’re a man who uses gendered terms like “bro,” “dude,” or “man” to refer to other men, consider removing them from your vocabulary. No matter your gender identity, if you hear a man use these terms, consider initiating a conversation (politely and compassionately) and ask that he rethink his word choice. These conversations aren’t always comfortable, but as all animal advocates know well, the most important ones often aren’t.