How HBO Takes On Silicon Valley’s Gender Problem

Photo: Courtesy HBO.
Silicon Valley is Hollywood’s irreverent take on tech startup culture. I know a number of designers, developers, and startup founders, and according to them this show is a polarizing force in the actual tech community. Some find it hilarious and entertaining; others bash it for its wild exaggerations of startup life. In last night's Season 2 premiere, the HBO show directly addressed the problem of gender representation in tech and venture capital — with depictions that were uncomfortable, but probably accurate. [WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD] Until now, female characters on Silicon Valley have been few and far between. Last season, there was the blonde-and-pink-haired woman at Tech Crunch Disrupt who convinced Pied Piper’s two engineers to write code for her (because pretty girls can’t really code and instead get the nerds to do it for them?). Then, of course, there’s cast staple Monica, the smart, well-meaning, obsessively devoted assistant to venture-capital legend Peter Gregory. Monica is also the sometimes-romantic interest of the main character, Pied Piper founder Richard Hendriks. She is the attractive girl-next-door, and that's about it; there’s nothing profound about her existence on the show. Season 2, however, introduces some more intriguing situations and characters. In one of the season premiere’s early scenes, a Sheryl Sandberg-like marketing executive introduces a commercial for a new product from Hooli, a Google-esque software behemoth. The commercial, designed to tug at heartstrings, features a montage of scenes, primarily of women and children. Hooli CEO Gavin Belson is evidently displeased: "You give me this tampon ad?” he complains.
While I can normally laugh at even the show’s most offensively sexist moments, this one made me cringe. The scene is a direct reflection of the tech world's workplace attitudes towards all things feminine — and the fact that, because the field is so heavily male-dominated, the language in conversations can come across as unintentionally sexist at best. More notably, Silicon Valley is finally giving us a female leadership figure: Laurie Bream, a senior partner who takes the helm at the fictional venture capital firm that's most involved with Pied Piper. When Monica, slightly perplexed, asks Laurie how she became principal partner at the firm, Laurie replies (with robotic execution and a quizzical expression) that the company looked at her portfolio of investments and determined she was, naturally, the most logical choice. Laurie’s character is interesting. She’s worked her way up to this position, she gets things done, and she doesn’t take shit from anybody. Personality-wise, she comes across as hyper-rational, instilled with a Spock-like, black-and-white sense of logic. She’s succeeded in the male-dominated universe of this fictional Silicon Valley. But, it's implied that part of the reason for her success is her lack of emotion.  Her rocky facade softens a bit in subsequent onscreen interactions, so I’m interested to see what later episodes will reveal about Laurie. In the meantime, it’s nice to have regular (albeit somewhat stoic) female face on the show — one who’s smart, capable, and not just someone’s love interest. 

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