Why This Show's Sexist Stereotypes Don't Offend Me

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
If you do a Google Image search for "Silicon Valley HBO" you'll see photos of the show's five main male characters — four members of startup Pied Piper and their hilarious advisor/landlord — and many supporting characters (also all male). Scroll farther and you'll finally see one woman, Monica (Amanda Crew), in a few photos. Monica is a beautiful assistant at Raviga, the company that invests in Pied Piper.

The lack of women in the search results certainly isn't a mistake from Google Image's algorithm. It's also not unintentional on HBO's part.

Critics of the show (of which there are many) call it sexist and stereotyped. Both of those interpretations are fair and, in many ways, very true. But the show's representation of "the women problem" in tech isn't unrealistic.

"With the gender balance, we discuss it all the time. Should we be satirizing a culture that is way out of balance by portraying it that way? Or do we have some responsibility to portray it as it should be? My feeling is that by keeping it out of whack, then it becomes a conversation," show producer Alec Berg told TheWall Street Journal in a recent interview.

Over the course of two full seasons (and three episodes into the third), the show, which mocks startup life and the tech scene in the real Silicon Valley, still has only a handful of female characters. There's the aforementioned Monica, who stands up for the starring group of geeky startup boys — er, men. Season two introduced a pair of very different, yet still successful women: punkish coder, Carla Walton (Alice Wetterlund); and type-A exec Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer), who plays Monica's boss and manages the Pied Piper investment. Thus far, the third season has introduced only one more woman, a sales exec (Erin Breen), who goes by the delightful moniker "Jan the man."

All of these women possess characteristics that represent what it takes for a woman to be part of the primarily male tech scene. Laurie and Carla have thick skins and rarely show emotion, and they can screw with the boys without flinching; Jan conforms to her group of all male coworkers, taking pride in being "one of the boys"; and Monica serves as the slightly more emotional, female support system for the men, who put on a front of confidence, but long for reassurance — and maybe even a little mothering from her character.

While the show may exaggerate its representation of women in the same way it exaggerates the awkwardness, stupidity, and large egos of its male characters, it also draws attention to an issue that needs major reform.

Last month's statistics from the National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that despite making up 57% of the professional workplace, only 25% of professional computing positions are held by women and only 17% of Fortune 500 Chief Information Officer roles are filled by women. Those numbers are disturbing — as is the fact that the gender imbalance in tech isn't a new problem.

And, as Silicon Valley also shows, underrepresentation is just one part of the issue. "Elephant in the Valley," a recent study of women in Silicon Valley, found that 90% have seen sexist behavior at company off-sites and industry conferences, 87% have been victims of demeaning comments from male colleagues, and 60% have reported unwanted sexual advances, among other biases faced by women in the field.

Obviously, some of these issues are general problems that can exist for women in any workplace. But for an industry like tech, which is still very much a boy's club, they seem especially prevalent.

When I spoke with a few high-powered women in tech to get their takes on the show they agreed that Silicon Valley is realistic in how it represents women. But they disagreed with the argument that it ought to change the conversation by showing women in different, stronger roles. "Would changing up a woman's position or personality on the show actually change something in real life?" I asked. The unanimous answer was no.

Charging HBO's Silicon Valley with sexism displaces the blame, which really belongs to the tech industry at large. A TV show, after all, can't change hiring strategies or workplace policies. But what it can do is shed light on these problems, drawing attention from people who are both in and outside of the bubble. And the stark overrepresentation of men in Silicon Valley is doing just that: making us talk about what's missing on the show and in real life — the women.

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