Bros on TV

You know what’s more sexist than Silicon Valley? Its HBO version

April 15, 2014
April 15, 2014

The pilot for HBO’s Silicon Valley gets a lot of things right about the tech scene – or close to right, anyway. Fast-paced and funny, it plays its stereotypes with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

But I couldn’t help but notice that the Silicon Valley of fiction is even more male-dominated than the real one – which is saying something. Only one female character speaks a line in the first episode: She’s an assistant to a venture capitalist. And while it’s entirely possible that this was a conscious choice on the part of the show’s creators – a satire of Silicon Valley as a land without women – I’m not convinced it’s a successful one. The near-total invisibility of women in the show doesn’t problematize the valley’s lack of gender diversity so much as it simply replicates it and dials it up to ten. A more successful strategy for highlighting the dearth of women in tech would be to actually show us some interesting female characters, and have them play a part in critiquing the current reality.

I like the show and I’m not here to be a killjoy; I’d just love to see the show better reflect reality. So I’m going to play along with HBO’s rules as I interpret them:

  • Keep it light.
  • Run with the stereotypes.
  • Use recognizable, real-life models.
  • Preserve the protagonist’s bromances with his accelerator cohort.

OK? I’m not asking HBO to join the change-the-ratio revolution—just to reflect the fact that even in Silicon Valley, women do exist, and we have some colourful roles to play.

1. The Girl Coder

She’s a hacker in the accelerator—the only woman there. She wears what the dudes wear: t-shirts, jeans, hoodies, maybe a little more fitted, or maybe not. Her hair could be a different colour every other episode. She’s working on an app that’s as niche and unknowably obtuse as the rest of her cohort’s.

The Girl Coder’s backstory: She started out as a front-end coder (cue many inside jokes among her peers about her non-hardcore-ness) before digging deeper into how to build software and configure servers. She’s now a ridiculously good coder, and can hold her own with the geekiest engineers anywhere. But being an outsider because of her gender has made her good at blending in. She can take a joke, has a high tolerance for environments where she’s the only woman, and experiences much of the same social awkwardness as her male peers.

What she adds to the show: The Girl Coder racks up the tension in the accelerator by both embodying and showcasing the social awkwardness of her cohort. Every now and then, the guys in the accelerator notice that she’s actually female, and experience a brief moment of awareness that apps like “Nip Alert” might not be what’s going to net them their first billion. (Potential character arc: She eventually figures out that her environment is sexist and loses patience with it, a la Elissa Shevinsky.)

2. The Woman Executive

Why, oh why, did HBO opt to make both rival bidders for the protagonist’s software—Gavin Belson and Peter Gregory—male? Belson’s character in particular could have been a great homage to Marisa Mayer (and what TV show doesn’t have room for a slim blonde who wears heels?). That said, I would have loved for the Peter Gregory role to have been a woman; his kind of backing – buying 5% of the company and encouraging the founder to keep growing it – is a refreshing change of pace from the big-company-acquisition model, and adding gender to the list of differences between Belson and Gregory would be a fun twist.

The Woman Exec’s backstory: See Marisa Mayer’s Wikipedia entry.

What she adds to the show: Less same-sameness amongst the middle-aged characters on the show. More opportunities for sponsored product placements by clothing designers, and Devil Wears Prada references.

3. The Girl Geek Without a Name

One scene in the pilot that grated on me has Belson gazing out the window of his C-suite office, watching groups of engineers stroll across the campus below, and commenting about the sameness of each group. The comedy here was broad and a little dull, something along the lines of, “There’s always a tall, skinny white guy, a short skinny Asian guy, a fat guy, a guy with weird facial hair, and an Indian dude.” (Forgive my poor paraphrasing, but I can’t be bothered to go re-watch it for the sake of accuracy.) Racial stereotypes and weak humour aside, why exactly is it important that every single one of these anonymous coders be male? Even the most depressing statistics about women software engineers peg the percentage of women in software engineering at 12.33% – a far cry from zero, so if the series wants to show what it’s really like in the valley, about one in eight anonymous walk-ons should be female.

Even if the producers are trying to make a point about the dearth of women in tech by showing so few of them, I’d suggest that point would be strengthened by a 1-in-8 ratio, whereas as it stands, it appears as though women only exist in Silicon Valley as eye candy at parties or assistants to executives.

Her backstory: Doesn’t matter—she has no lines.

What she adds to the show: The most perfunctory nod to token representation of women.

4. The Veteran

Another of the pilot’s more cringeworthy moments for me was when the main characters are taking the Google Hooli bus to work and they mock a grey-haired woman riding by on a collapsible bike, seemingly for being an older woman. (Either that or I didn’t get the inside joke.) As Jen Shradie points out in her post about the show, the scene brought to mind Susan Mernit’s recent observations about the invisibility of being an older woman in tech. Contrary to pop-culture depictions, there are actually plenty of women engineers who’ve worked in tech since well before the Web came about – so showing one senior techie woman of that era would be consistent with reality.

And besides: Wouldn’t it be amazing if Silicon Valley chose to go against the grain of “Mom Test” stereotypes and actually portrayed a woman who’s been to this circus a few times before? I’m seeing her as a minor recurring character – perhaps an advisor to the accelerator who pops in from time to time.

The Veteran’s backstory: Think Susan Kare meets Sophie Wilson.

What she adds to the show: An ass-kicking, name-taking maternal figure.

And now, if I may indulge myself for a moment, I can’t resist throwing one more idea at the producers, on the off-chance they’d like to do improve upon reality and throw us women viewers a bone.

Optional Bonus Role: The Other Girl Coder

I’m going to go way out on a limb here and suggest that Silicon Valley could actually feature more than one woman engineer. I know, I know – it’s a seriously radical idea. I mean, we could wind up with some Bechdel-test-passing television here. But just imagine what kind of things might be possible if the show went there. They could even be—gasp!different from each other in meaningful ways. Maybe they could even get along with each other.

Her backstory: Used to work for Facebook, Google, or one of the other big SV corps; she’s through with being a cog in the machine and is ready to run her own company.

What she adds to the show: I’d love to see the two girl coders could launch a startup together. Maybe it could compete with the protagonist’s startup. Dramatic tension, anyone?

Who’s Missing?

Did you notice that I haven’t included any of the female stereotypes that are in the show? The non-engineers at the party in the opening scene? The assistant-to-the-powerful-male-VC who has the only female speaking role in the pilot? I also haven’t listed any designers, marketers, project managers, and so on – not because I don’t think they’re important, but because it’s clear to me that Silicon Valley, like the non-italicized Silicon Valley, would rather focus on coder-founders and the VCs who fund them.

But even playing within those limits, the show has a way to go before it reflects a tech industry that I recognize—let alone the one I’d like to see.

Follow Lauren on Twitter @LaurenBacon. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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