Does HBO’s “Silicon Valley” Suffer From the Same Gender Biases as the Real Life Silicon Valley?


“Silicon Valley” dipped its toes into the waters of sexism in tech with its episode “The Lady.” The episode is named both for the female engineer hired by Pied Piper as well as the app funded by their new investor that is essentially a disembodied female voice that handles disciplining his child so that he never has to be the bad guy (or as he puts it “I’ve disrupted fatherhood”). Tongue in cheek inventions like “The Lady” indicate that “Silicon Valley” the show, unlike Silicon Valley the place, seems to be pretty self-aware when it comes to gender bias. Sophomoric gags happen, but are also made fun of including one character’s app idea called “Nip Alert” which is as gross as it sounds. But by the end of the first episode the app’s creator admits that it was a terrible and sexist idea and abandons the project. As for “The Lady,” it is clear that Judge and company are satirizing the misogyny of men in Silicon Valley for their attempts to stereotype women as nags and bores even in the virtual realm.

It’s clear that the tech world has a woman problem. This should not come as shocking news to anyone who follows the tech community. Earlier this year, a study released by Fenwick and West found that women held only 11% of executive positions at Silicon Valley public companies. This issue is not just at the top; last year Google reported that only 17% of its engineers were women. In 2014, Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou called for data from tech companies about the gender make-up of their staffs. So far the list shows dismal numbers including 9% female engineers at Mozilla, 13% at Airbnb and Etsy, and 17% at Chou’s own Pinterest. Several companies have no female engineers, period.

Given all of this, it’s unsurprising that HBO’s “Silicon Valley” has so far boasted only two female characters of note. First there’s Monica, the sensible girl to the eccentric billionaire investor Peter Gregory, who swoops in and out to help the Pied Piper team, but whose own motivations and aspirations remain frustratingly opaque. Following the death of actor Christopher Evan Welch who played Gregory, the show brought in Suzane Cryer as Laurie Bream, the new head of Gregory’s venture capital firm. Bream has much of Gregory’s social awkwardness, but so far none of his same brilliance (see the sesame seed epiphany). She gets swept up in the company’s runaway valuation and then drops them over their impending lawsuit leaving them scrambling for investors. So, do these underdeveloped characters in a show that already lacks women indicate that the show is a little too much like its namesake?

This episode also had something insightful and funny to say about the lack of women in tech. The linguistic gymnastics that Jared goes through to explain their interest in hiring women for the company captures the fraught nature of acknowledging gender bias while also asserting that hiring is a meritocracy. In his words, “we want to hire the best people… who happen to be women regardless of whether or not they are women, that part is irrelevant.” When they do hire a female engineer she asserts herself against her coworkers by insinuating that she makes more than they do in order to drive them to jealousy. She’s smart and funny and can mount a mean prank. While one more female character does not drastically change the heavily male landscape of the show, this new character combined with the show’s satirical take on the tech industry makes it a subversive critique rather than parroting the misogyny of the real Silicon Valley.