HBO's "Silicon Valley" leans in: The bro-tastic startup culture confronts its woman problem in season 2

Mike Judge's brogrammersphere can pass the Bechdel Test now — a female senior partner joins the cast

Published April 10, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)


Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Kumail Nanjiani is also an actor on "The Big Bang Theory." Salon deeply regrets the error.

The characters of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” returning Sunday night, do not care about the national dialogue around women in tech.

They are probably somewhat versed in the language of making tech workplaces more inclusive for women; they’ve probably bought, gifted, or pretended to have read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” But they’re not invested in the issue; they don’t really care about it, except when it’s a convenient talking point. Like the real Silicon Valley—and most of the world—the only factor that truly motivates them is their bottom line. The difference is that this tiny, rarefied world has its own particular set of norms and values—and the potential financial rewards quickly run to hundreds of millions of dollars.

But there’s one crucial element that makes it a lot easier for these characters to be uninterested in the conversation about women in tech, and that is that none of them are women in tech. With one exception (that I’ll address in a minute), the rest of the first season’s regular cast is a collection of clubby brogrammers, who wear their insecure versions of masculinity with just as much swagger as the captain of the football team. There are the five men who have come together to make software called Pied Piper—who occupy varying degrees of unwashed, unshaven, shy and talented—and then the constellation of rival programmers, angel investors, corporate CEOs and legal counsel that make up the San Francisco Bay Area’s tech scene.

That scene, as creator Mike Judge and his crew portray it, is one defined by its lack of women. A company stealing a startup’s ideas is called “brain rape”; “negging” is a strategy to get funding; and in the second episode of the returning season, a guest character kickstarts an app called Bro2Bro that allows users to message “bro” to each other—no more, no less, than just “bro.” The startup team lives together in their incubator—better known as Erlich’s house—and are tangled into each other’s lives in a faux-bromantic way that recalls “The Big Bang Theory” more than Judge’s previous cult hit, “Office Space.” (More vulgarity and more speaking to women, but the same intense intimacy with another male character—Martin Starr’s Gilfoyle, in this case.) Women are mostly talked about, rather than spoken to, and the closed-door boardroom meetings where term sheets, hiring decisions and stock options are slid across the table, in the form of a neatly stacked pile of papers, are near-exclusively the realm of men. This is the fact underscored by the first episode of the second season, “Sand Hill Shuffle,” where the protagonists attend exploratory meetings at seven different venture capital firms. The discussions quickly get heated, as millions of dollars are being tossed around. At every single one, the startup team negotiates with men; if women are present, they’re silent and peripheral.

In May 2012—two years before “Silicon Valley” debuted on HBO—Ellen Pao filed a historic lawsuit against her employers at the time, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. It was a discrimination suit, arguing that Pao had been treated differently and professionally overlooked for her gender—in part because a former boyfriend at the firm took retaliatory measures against her, and in part because when she complained about discrimination to the company’s internal HR, she was professionally penalized.

As Farhad Manjoo wrote in the New York Times, her case resonated with other women in tech—and indeed, with women in other male-dominated industries—with its acknowledgement of harsh truths that are deeply ingrained in the culture of fast money, big deals and tech startups.

Documents in the case showed that one Kleiner partner, Chi-Hua Chien, arranged a ski trip for entrepreneurs from which women were excluded. When he was asked if a female entrepreneur from one of the companies Kleiner had invested in could come along, Mr. Chien responded in an email that because the trip involved shared accommodations, women probably wouldn’t feel comfortable.

“Why don’t we punt on her and find 2 guys who are awesome,” he wrote. “We can add 4-8 women next year.” There was no ski trip the next year.

Or there was the time Ms. Pao and another female partner were made to sit at the back of the room and not at the conference table during a meeting. Or the plane ride in which, Ms. Pao asserted, her male colleagues discussed pornography stars and assessed the attractiveness of Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo.

Last month, Ellen Pao lost her discrimination suit.

Up until now, the only female character on “Silicon Valley” has been Monica, a long-suffering assistant, played by Amanda Crew. She’s employed by Silicon Valley, but somewhat removed from the culture—even though as the show goes on, she provides increasingly valuable business advice to main character Richard (Thomas Middleditch). She’s incredibly normal, almost to the point of being devoid of personality. Monica is Richard’s sometime romantic interest, though they’ve never gone further than light flirtation followed by stress-puking. She is frequently the only woman in a scene. And especially during season one, she is not positioned as being remotely talented. She’s competent, at times, and encouraging. But she does not even code (bro), nor does she make crucial decisions for the firm.

The other women do not come off much better. To quote David Holmes at PandoDaily: “The only female developer the viewer sees is a hapless young woman who relies on the vastly superior coding talents of the male leads to build her cupcake app (seriously).” “Silicon Valley” has the potential to be very funny, and the world of male-centric programming offers a lot of fodder. But Monica’s sidelining in season one is not as self-conscious as some of the other satirical elements of the show—and it hits a little awkwardly, given that the show’s creators and executive producers are all men (though some episodes’ writers and directors are women). Silicon Valley is a self-involved world with retrograde gender politics; so is Hollywood.

What is encouraging about the next set of episodes from “Silicon Valley,” in advance of its second season, is that the show is making efforts to be more aware of the discussion around women in tech—aware and invested in a way that its male protagonists would prefer not to be.

One of the oddest footnotes to the first season of “Silicon Valley” was a depressing real-life twist: Actor Christopher Evan Welch, who brilliantly played the eccentric investor Peter Gregory, died during production for season one. (He delivered this extraordinary scene about Burger King before he passed.) His personality was so overbearing that Monica, a venture capital staffer in her own right, was relegated mostly to the role of second banana to his Rain Man brilliance.

“Silicon Valley” replaced Welch’s role (and his character, more or less) with a woman: Laurie Bream, played by Suzanne Cryer. Laurie is a middle-aged senior partner--not a glorified assistant—and now she’s been promoted to lead the company’s investments. She’s not neatly mediocre; nor is she particularly maternal or an object of flirtation. If anything, she’s even more socially awkward than Peter was. She is, in short, the polar opposite of Monica.

And Laurie is also, on paper, similar to the real-life bringer of lawsuits, Ellen Pao: Laurie is a middle-aged employee at a venture capital firm, best known for her incredible competence, who keeps her personal life well separated from her professional one.

It’s a fascinating casting choice—fascinating, and fantastic. Cryer is excellent in the role, and what’s particularly wonderful about Laurie’s introduction to the cast is that she and Monica now work together closely. The two women now have multiple work-related conversations in an episode—funny conversations, as Monica's and Laurie’s approaches to the world are so very divergent. Unlike Monica’s surface-level belonging to the tech community, Laurie has obviously been in it for decades. And where Monica is struggling to advance in her career, Laurie is well-established. The two make for an absorbing duo, where two different women bring their very different talents to the table to try to make a bunch of money. Monica’s talents begin to seem more like calculated strategies; she’s the good cop for the disorganized team at Pied Piper, while Laurie is the erratic, occasionally present bad cop. And they even get the chance to share occasional gendered advice. When Monica has to deliver bad news to the startup, Laurie pauses and then says, “Dress unattractively when you tell them. I read a study. … May I suggest the beige ensemble you wore last Tuesday?” Monica looks nonplussed. Cut to: Monica wearing the beige ensemble.

More consciously than last season, “Silicon Valley” wants to join the conversation about women in tech. Perhaps its men don’t may much attention to the Ellen Pao case, which has dominated conversations in tech for months now. But its women surely do. And beige ensemble or not, it’s Monica who ends up sitting on the board of Pied Piper as the second season moves forward. You don’t have to win every case in order to make progress.

By Sonia Saraiya

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