A little over a year ago, I wrote an impassioned defense of HBO's Silicon Valley. I felt that the show, for all its sexist stereotypes, shed some much-needed light on gender-related problems within the tech industry and the need for reform.
But a lot has happened since then: Susan Fowler called out Uber for the biases she faced, launching a massive investigation into the company's corporate culture; ex-Google employee James Damore circulated a memo alleging women are less biologically suited for jobs in tech; and prominent venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck was accused of sexual harassment by multiple female entrepreneurs. All of these cases made one thing abundantly clear: The tech industry didn't need a fictionalized TV show to point out just how bad things were for women in the Valley anymore.
What it does need is a show from a women's point of view. Fortunately, this antidote to the bro-centric version of Silicon Valley is in the works. Last week, Deadline reported that ABC green-lighted development of a fictional comedy, tentatively named Valley Girls, inspired by Geek Girl Rising: Inside The Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech. The book, which Refinery29 excerpted this spring, tells the stories of women in tech who have faced and overcome adversity in the field.
One of the women featured in the book is Debbie Sterling, the founder and CEO of GoldieBlox, a toy company with the admirable mission to disrupt "the pink aisle" in toy stores by encouraging girls to build and tinker with their toys. The company's character, Goldie, is a female engineer. When I spoke with Sterling last week, she expressed excitement, but wasn't impressed that a female-focused Silicon Valley show is just now in the works.
"Honestly, this should have happened a long time ago," Sterling said. "There’s a huge problem with the [tech industry's] boys' club in that it sort of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even when we’re young children we start to learn through the pop culture and media we’re surrounded by that tech is a boys' club."
Sterling makes a valid point. The shows that are out there now are entertaining, but they can subtly impact our perceptions of the world around us, reinforce stereotypes, and even affect our decisions. Consider the effects of watching shows about medicine, such as Grey's Anatomy, House, and ER. One study found that streaming shows portraying doctors in a negative light made people perceive real-life doctors more negatively. Another found people were more likely to take action regarding their own health after learning about an issue on TV.
These studied effects of television shows point to the potential impact of one about women in tech: It could help people better understand the challenges they face. Even though we hear many of these stories through the news, Sterling believes there's additional power in using fictional representation to get a point across.
For Sterling, the sexism she sees and has experienced herself has mostly been subtle rather than overt. For example, when speaking at one of Apple's developer conferences, Sterling held a question and answer session focused on tips for empowering women in tech. She was pleased to find that many men attended, but disappointed that they, seemingly obliviously, talked over all of the women there.
"If you showed that in a TV show, those men might be able to see it in a different way because it's dramatized and acted out from more of a 30,000 foot view," Sterling said.
Still, the female Silicon Valley will need to be careful in considering how it portrays the adversity women face in the industry. While the show shouldn't shy away from addressing the negative, it would be a shame to overemphasize it and only depict the tech scene as a toxic place for women.
"There’s an opportunity to show optimism," Sterling said. "My hope is that the takeaway for the women who are watching [the show] is an excitement for the future as opposed to a 'shrug your shoulders, how unfortunate this is the way it is' feeling."
ABC hasn't officially picked up the show as a series, and declined to comment to Refinery29 since it is still in development. If it doesn't pick up Valley Girls, the hope is that another network will. Also, another hope is that the name of the show isn't actually Valley Girls.
"Valley Girls has this connotation to me of a sorority sister in the 1980s. If somebody called me a Valley Girl and I thought about that connotation, that’s not something that I would want to be. If this show can create a new connotation for that term, then that's great. But it’s up to the creators of the show to earn that title, because they’re going to have to change its meaning."
Silicon Valley is a dry take on the tech industry that hyperbolizes the stereotype of the socially awkward, hoodie-wearing coder to hilarious effect. We all know these stereotypes well at this point. Wouldn't it be refreshing to see a different take?