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Hacking the “Bro-Culture” in Turkey’s Tech-Ecosystem

Neslihan Cevik

Neslihan Çevik interrogates the “bro-culture” pervasive in Turkey’s entrepreneurial and technology sectors and reviews bottom-up frameworks that center women’s lived experience to counter it.

In February 2021, a group of 35 leading female tech-entrepreneurs and venture capital (VC) firm founders from Turkey invited me to a brainstorming session, “Hacking the System.” The “hack” here refers to innovating backdoor tactics to cope with gender-based barriers that women face in Turkey’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.  

Women have commonly recognized those barriers to be persistent; changes would, as one VC firm founder put “would span beyond our lifetime.” According to the World Economic Forum 2017 Gender Gap Report, given the current pace of reforms, the economic gender gap across the globe will not be closed for another 217 years. Turkish women’s call for devising hacks to circumvent traditional gender norms is not just timely but suggests crucial messages for policymakers. 

Culture matters 

When it comes to entrepreneurship as a policy area, there is an implicit tendency to take culture as background noise that can be ‘done away with’ by technical and skill-based improvements or legal and financial reforms.  

The session held by the leading women of Turkey’s ecosystem points to the opposite: it reaffirms that culture and engrained gender norms have significant impact on the performance of female entrepreneurs. After all, they are women who are proficient in areas often underscored by policy directives—be it education or digital prowess. Yet, they continue to be hampered by gender-based barriers even after becoming founders or investors.  

Women at the session identified "bro-culture"— a culture built on gender stereotypes and that excludes women from crucial opportunities, such as investment, partnerships, international networks, and new technology, in the favor of men—as a pervasive problem within Turkey’s tech-entrepreneurship sector. 

Existing frameworks primarily concentrate on large-scale, systemic reforms that, while essential, are slow to materialize. This issue is also echoed at the grassroots level. Women, for example, discussed the potential that educational curriculum reforms could boost girls' self-efficacy—a key trait for entrepreneurial entry—thereby enhancing the coming generation’s performance. They, however, are still skeptical that these reforms will actually take place and are concerned that, even if they do, it will take more than one lifetime. 

An alternative approach would be to complement macro-reforms with micro-reforms, or everyday life solutions that are devised by women out of necessity to circumvent the limitations of established systems. Policymakers can scale-up these solutions, if proven effective, and expand their impact step-by-step. This can accelerate policy implementation, generate quick wins, and allow for timely responses. Adopting such models would not only lead to more effective policies but also to greater civic participation and democratic governance in the creation of public goods.  

Entrepreneurship as a gendered space 

How exactly does culture impact entrepreneurship? A quick answer is that culture shapes how people view and experience entrepreneurship. While true, this idea portrays culture as an abstract cloud of ideas. Culture is, in fact, an integral component of the entrepreneurial ecosystem with measurable impacts on outcomes. The widely-recognized Isenberg Model, for example, identifies culture as one of six key domains in the entrepreneurial ecosystem—on par with policy, finance, human capital, markets, and institutional support. 

In a previous study, I compared the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries to that of developed- and non-OIC developing economies. The OIC, which is composed of 56 Muslim-majority states is largely classified as developing and spans the MENA region (including Turkey). It stands out for having the highest gender gap among country groups and a female labor participation rate of 38.1%. This positions the group as a meaningful case for examining the impact of culture on entrepreneurship ecosystem’s performance and health.  

By recoding the 14 composite variables from the 2018 Global Entrepreneurship Index data set into an ecosystem model aligned with the Isenberg Model, I compared country groups across four domains: cultural context and social support (the views on entrepreneurs in terms of status and career with corruption levels); resources (human capital, skills, and networks); environment and markets (growth, innovation, and competition); and opportunities (taxation, government services, and perception). 

Among the four domains, the OIC Group exhibited the greatest discrepancies with developed economies in two: the environment and markets, followed by cultural context. Notably, the OIC Group's score in the cultural context domain was three times lower than those of developed economies.  

A closer look at the cultural context further exposes how OIC group is hampered by a lack of risk acceptance and cultural support. 

Risk Acceptance & Cultural Support 

Country Groups Risk AcceptanceCultural support
Developed Economies 0.650.6
OIC Group 0.170.3

This can be explained, in part, by the prevalent political corruption and patronage in the group, which deters belief in individual merits, breeds a fear of failure, and reduces societal support. The dynamics of risk acceptance and cultural support, however, also interacts with gender norms, whereby women receive less support, have lower entrepreneurial self-efficacy, and are more risk averse.  

In fact, concerns about risk acceptance and social support are precisely what emerged from our session. Women highlighted that female entrepreneurs have lower levels of courage and risk-tolerance due to how they were raised within traditional gender paradigms: “Girls are not raised with courage...they are raised with a feeling of not taking risks and constantly ensuring their safety.” 

Women also believed that they receive much less support from society. As summarized by an investor: “men's failures in entrepreneurship are seen as experience; women's as wasted time.” 

Women, however, not only lack a support from society at large but also encounter gendered spaces once they enter the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Women think that the tech sector’s “bro-culture” trivializes their achievements and sexualizes them, hindering their cultural acceptance and access to opportunities. 

Hacking the system 

Can the entrepreneurial ecosystem evolve to support women entrepreneurs effectively despite the systemic cultural barriers?  

Women recognize that macro-level reforms and support (such as state-incentives, educational reforms, and social awareness) are necessary for such change but are skeptical that such reforms will occur soon. This skepticism has catalyzed the search for “hacks” as backdoor tactics.   

One such tactic is to rethink traditional gender norms as potential strengths. "We need to realize that disadvantages can become advantages. Men have the pressure of financial obligations. Women, culturally, have less [of a] burden [regarding finances]. We can use that to encourage females," said a VC founder. 

Regarding “bro-culture,” women believe that coping with it requires a conscious and systematic strengthening of the social solidarity lacking among women: “We need to seriously invest time in developing a strong culture that includes our female employees, investors, customers, and other stakeholders.”  

This session marked an initial effort to spark dialogue about individual solutions aimed at achieving immediate and smart change. These discussions not only illuminated the systemic barriers imposed by entrenched gender norms but more importantly showcased the resilience of women entrepreneurs in crafting workable solutions.  

Using the real-life experiences of women and adopting a bottom-up approach in policymaking can enhance the efficacy of entrepreneurial policies and promote a more inclusive and engaging policy environment, where skepticism at the grassroots level can be progressively replaced by collaborative efforts.  

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not express the official position of the Wilson Center. 

About the Author

Neslihan Cevik

Neslihan Çevik, PhD

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