What Women In Tech Think About Silicon Valley
A quarter of computing professionals are women—something you’d never guess from HBO’s Silicon Valley. Centred on a tech start-up with the power to revolutionize the industry — if it doesn’t implode from nonstop squabbling and isn’t outmanoeuvred by Googlelike mega-players first—it’s the most mainstream depiction we have of the tech industry. Co-created by Mike Judge (Office Space, King of the Hill), Silicon Valley is often razor-sharp satire, but the comedy sometimes mimics, rather than parodies, some of its target’s worst tendencies. Among the show’s biggest disappointments are its virtual erasure of female programmers in the start-up world—an exclusion that, according to women in the industry, feels both realistic and disrespectful.
We asked nine female techies in a wide variety of roles in the industry what the show gets right about gender in the actual Silicon Valley, what it gets (painfully) wrong, which storylines they’d like to see, and how women can prosper in tech. Answers have been edited and condensed, and some names have been changed.
What are your general thoughts about Silicon Valley?
Miriam (software engineer, in tech for one year): I love it. It encapsulates SF tech life in a way that I just can’t articulate to others, and watching it is like sharing an inside joke.
Mo (software engineer, in tech for nine years): Love it. The first episode actually gave me nightmares, i.e., I woke up several times the night I watched it with my heart racing, thinking, I’m wasting my life. Why am I in this field? But once the existential horror passed, it’s sooo funny. (I wish you’d asked me who I ’ship, because I am extremely passionate about Dinesh/Gilfoyle.)
Laura (director of the Rackspace Startups program, in tech for three years): It’s extremely accurate, for better or worse. There is this aura of ego and power around the tech industry that the show really undercuts. Some of the most powerful, wealthy, or successful characters are also portrayed as incompetent, strange, scared, neurotic, etc. That’s really humanizing: billionaires who can’t figure out how to order their own lunch, executives who don’t understand the technologies their business sells, hustling to get millions in VC [venture capital] funding while also being terrified of the responsibility that comes with that kind of money. So many of the characters are defined by their weaknesses, which is really interesting considering how “strong” many of the characters think they are.
Sarah (VP of product, in tech for eight years): I stopped watching specifically because there was hardly any representation of women on the show beyond the VC assistant [Monica] and girls as eye candy at trade shows. There was one episode where one of the guys in Pied Piper fell in love with a girl because he thought she was a great coder (and attractive—like that’s impossible), but it turned out that it was really a coworker who had written [the code]. That’s where it finally lost me. I’m not an engineer, but I can program and have had a lot of challenges with that type of sexism myself, so to me, it’s not funny.
How do you feel about the fact that the main cast—the five dudes at the incubator—is all male?
Maven (data scientist, in tech for two years): For better or worse, that does track with the current reality of the Bay Area technosphere. I would have liked to see at least one female character in the main cast, but knowing that this show is a parody, I can see that it’s harder to [satirize] a budding female entrepreneur than a male one.
Miriam (software engineer, in tech for one year): Very reflective. Not to say that that is all there is, but those are the people that get most of the attention, jobs, and funding.
Mo (software engineer, in tech for nine years): The fact is, a compression start-up in the real world probably wouldn’t have a woman in the first five hires—or even the first 20 or 30 hires. Especially if Erlich Bachman worked there, because most women I know with any chops would nope out within five minutes of meeting him, amazing algorithm be damned.
Leslie (lab instructor at a coding boot camp, in tech for a year): My gut reaction was to feel insulted. I know the percentage of women is low, but apparently the writers think they are invisible. There was also that one woman at the conference that was ostensibly just bait to get the guys to write code or something. It was weird.
Sarah (VP of product, in tech for eight years): I don’t think it’s unrealistic—at that size, a lot of companies are all male. That in itself doesn’t bother me. But there are tons of opportunities to have female characters who are smart and awesome like so many women in the industry, and the [writers] don’t take them. For example, the lawyer in Season 1 could have been a woman. They also could have reversed gender stereotypes and made Monica, who started out as the assistant to Hooli CEO Gavin Belson, a man, but they didn’t. I’m also bothered that the main cast includes just one man who is not white, and some of the jokes border on homophobic.
Emma (programmer, in tech for 10 years): Every time I see a poster with their male faces, I cringe a little inside. I don’t watch the show, because the last thing I want after dealing with clueless dudes all day is to watch a show about clueless dudes. I assume there’s some stuff that the general public would find funny, but I expect it would actually tie into some deep trauma that I have to deal with in my line of work. For instance, “bad with women” is a stereotype about men in tech, but I’ve been sexually assaulted by an ex-coworker after a networking-ish type of situation. So I don’t find the “tech men who are bad with women” trope funny anymore.
How do you feel about the show’s three recurring female characters: Monica, the friendly venture capital assistant; Laurie, the robotic Pied Piper investor; and Carla, the rainbow-haired programmer?
Elizabeth (software engineer, in tech for four years): Monica is a pretty typical business-side female, but it’s nice that she is the one to understand and leverage Richard’s technology. She has more tech knowledge than a lot of business-side people have. (I was happy to see Richard and Monica’s flirtation go nowhere, which seemed to happen because she was the only girl on the show at the time.) Laurie Bream just seems like a replacement for the Peter Gregory character, so I don’t give her much thought. Carla is cool, but seems to lend credence to the fact that all female developers are alternative in some way, which can be a difficult stereotype to get away from.
Mo (software engineer, in tech for nine years): I kind of liked Carla, but I did feel she was clearly a token. It seems like the writers’ room felt the same, since she didn’t stick around long, though I very much like that she returned to blackmail the guys. I like Laurie Bream a lot, since I generally have a special place in my heart for women characters with no social skills. Monica—eh. My favourite moment of hers was when she wore the unflattering dress to “break up” with Pied Piper, and Erlich immediately called her out. On the whole, I don’t think she’s that interesting a character.
Miriam (software engineer, in tech for one year): I like them all, and how different they are from each other. I also like how the guys all assumed [Monica and Carla] would be friends, and the women were like, no. I like when they brought Carla back in to help them out, and she “screwed” them over by asking for what they fairly owed her. It was a subtle point that many may have missed: They screwed her first, and she had to become “manipulative” to get fairness.
What do you think the show captures best about the tech industry?
Maven (data scientist, in tech for two years): The fickleness and the entitlement of venture-capital investors. Also, the roadblocks in the early stages of start-ups.
Elizabeth (software engineer, in tech for four years): The show is most accurate in showing how the best ideas aren’t always the ones that succeed. It’s a lot of luck, cunning, and timing.
Mo (software engineer, in tech for nine years): The stupid corporate bullshit (mostly in the form of Hooli); the idiotic business ideas; and the weird, stunted machismo. It also gets a lot of the lifestyle details right. Every time I watch it, I turn to my husband and say, “Thank god we don’t live there anymore,” just as he’s saying, “Why did we ever leave Palo Alto?”
Miriam (software engineer, in tech for one year): How women and people of colour are missing. How the dudes are gross. How ridiculous it all is. How fast-moving and showy and flashy and silly it all is. How fun it is.
Laura (director of the Rackspace Startups program, in tech for three years): Technology, and software especially, moves so impossibly fast. The competition, money, and pressure behind it are huge and never-ending. Most consumers don’t understand that the code running almost every app or software is essentially just a bunch of mostly functioning modules duct-taped together, and we all just cross our fingers and hope it doesn’t have too many bugs or crash too spectacularly once it’s released. It’s like a leaky life raft; you’re constantly patching holes and bugs just to stay afloat, from an engineering perspective. From a business perspective, for start-ups especially, you’re also constantly trying to stay afloat in the larger market, to create and grow a brand name, stay relevant, gain enough users, and make enough money to keep paying your engineers and keep the lights on. Silicon Valley sheds light on all of that. Behind the fancy glass conference rooms and chic exposed-brick offices, we’re all just scrambling to build and sustain companies in an extremely competitive environment, where so many companies are born and die everyday.
What do you think the show depicts the least well?
Elizabeth (software engineer, in tech for four years): The show can over-represent the “bro-grammer.” There are definitely some of them, but not enough to staff all of Hooli.
Amanda (front-end developer, in tech for three years): I didn’t care for the TechCrunch Disrupt episode with that cupcake start-up chick who couldn’t code and flirted her way into getting help. I know quite a few lady developers, and none of them would do that.
Laura (director of the Rackspace Startups program, in tech for three years): The actual coding and product development, though I understand that most people have no interest in that, so I get why the show glazes over those parts. I think most of the conversations about the actual code is usually banter between Dinesh and Gilfoyle or Richard doing genius things on a whim that almost always work out on the first try, neither of which are especially accurate portrayals of software development.
Miriam (software engineer, in tech for one year): All the people trying to get into the industry—and the portion of the established industry that is really helping them: By supporting tech boot camps, mentoring fledgling programmers, explicitly hiring women and people of colour for their companies, investing in them at work and providing support they need to survive.
What would you like to see on the show regarding gender in the tech industry?
Maven (data scientist, in tech for two years): More varied and multidimensional portrayals of female techies. They don’t all wear hipster glasses, dorky clothes, ear piercings, only know math, etc.
Miriam (software engineer, in tech for one year): The difficulties for Laurie to get in such a high position as she got and what it cost her in her personal life, sacrifices that men don’t usually have to make. Also, a white male character that truly sees himself as a big advocate of “diversity in tech” with unconscious bias that consistently undermines his advocacy would be hilarious and spot-on.
Sarah (VP of product, in tech for eight years): I’d just like it to reflect reality better and maybe contribute to changing some attitudes. For example, situations where men interrupt or mansplain in a really obvious way, or mistake a woman in a high position for a secretary/assistant (which has happened to me), or apply a double standard about looks. I think it’s also important to explore these themes when it comes to race, age, and sexual orientation—the tech industry is not great at inclusivity for those groups, either.
Laura (director of the Rackspace Startups program, in tech for three years): None of the characters have had significant others. It’d be interesting to see some of the core characters fall in love or have children and try to balance that against the extremely high-stress environment of the show.
What’s a gender-related issue in the tech industry you’d like to see discussed more in the greater culture?
Amanda (front-end developer, in tech for three years): Imposter syndrome!
Sarah (VP of product, in tech for eight years): An issue in a lot of industries with growth and good pay: Women are just assumed to be less capable. I would love to see more discussion of creating environments where women can safely fail sometimes, hiring on merit, evaluating everyone the same way, and how frequently a single person’s performance is extrapolated to be indicative of a whole gender, race, or a combination of the two.
Emma (programmer, in tech for 10 years): How programming culture (networking/going out drinking/etc.) actually leads to very unsafe situations for women. How women in tech have to emotionally process for men who are forced to be emotionally stunted by our culture. How many of these men act like they desperately still need a mom, and how much extra work women have to do when they’re in the field because of this. I did not have the luxury of being as emotionally clueless as my male colleagues. Women who are [like that] don’t last in the field 10 years.
Mo (software engineer, in tech for nine years): I think a lot about discrimination against parents and especially against mothers, because I feel like I was warned that I’d feel awkward/be placed in awkward situations as a woman, but nobody told me how different the awkwardness gets once you start a family.
Laura (director of the Rackspace Startups program, in tech for three years): Maternity and paternity leave is something we’re starting to discuss more. But with work-from-anywhere tools like GitHub, Skype/Google Hangouts, Slack, and email, it’s increasingly hard to take real time off to focus on your kids or yourself. I see so many people in tech—myself included—who work intermittently during their vacation time or parental leave periods, which defeats the purpose of those breaks.
Any advice you have for budding female tech workers?
Leslie (lab instructor at a coding boot camp, in tech for about a year): Get with the other women. It’s so exciting to be in an environment where no one cares that you’re female, and you just get to talk about stuff you’re interested in. Also, look for companies with female leaders, or where women are able to get promoted. That’s a positive indicator of a culture where women can succeed.
Mo (software engineer, in tech for nine years): Find mid-career mentors through MentorNet and other programs like it. I stayed in tech because my MentorNet mentor talked me off a ledge. I’ve done the same for younger women I’ve mentored. It really helps to have someone who’s been through it and knows what it’s like to tell you whatever situation you’re in isn’t the end of the world—or to tell you that you should quit your job, go to HR, or have that exam regarded.
Sarah (VP of product, in tech for eight years): Sometimes men will belittle you or talk down to you to hide their ignorance or lack of confidence about something. That’s their problem, not yours. Don’t assume they are right, or that they aren’t just being a jerk to you. Find supportive people who believe in you, and help each other.
Elizabeth (software engineer, in tech for four years): Don’t get discouraged. Guys tend to get a leg up in tech because they fit the stereotype of the kid in the basement that started coding websites in middle school, but that isn’t the only path to a successful tech career. Don’t get caught up in learning everything, and don’t think you need to be the smartest kid in the room to do well. Learn logic and math. It will take you far.
Amanda (front-end developer, in tech for three years): Don’t be intimidated. Just because there aren’t as many women in tech doesn’t mean we’re not as good. In fact, some have argued that when gender isn’t readily apparent, women’s codes (changes/edits) are accepted more often than men’s—hey’re actually better. Also, the lady dev community (made up of organizations like Women Who Code) is super helpful and beginner-friendly. Reach out and ask questions!
Laura (director of the Rackspace Startups program, in tech for three years): Be unafraid. Ignore stereotypes. Take every article about the lack of diversity with not just a grain of salt but a whole handful. Despite what you’ll read, companies are working on diversity. It won’t be perfect, but be part of making it better. You don’t have to be a nerd or a geek. You do have to be smart and creative and hardworking, and so many of you already are. There is a place for you in this field—not just in engineering, but in product management, HR, finance, law, marketing, sales—tech companies need all of those people. Careers in tech offer women some of the highest salaries and growth opportunities of any job. Go get them!