Teach girls to embrace their inner nerd: Making Silicon Valley look less dorky won't solve its gender problem

The key to recruiting more young women into tech shouldn't be to glam up an industry that has been a geek haven

Published April 26, 2016 6:34PM (EDT)

  (AP/John Minchillo)
(AP/John Minchillo)

At the Tribeca Film Festival Daring Women Summit last week, Julie Ann Crommett made a strong case for broader representation in pop culture. In a talk titled “Cracking the Code – Hollywood, Diversity, and Computer Science,” the Entertainment Industry Educator in Chief of Google opened by displaying an advertisement for the HBO comedy "Silicon Valley." “When you think of somebody in tech...do they sort of resemble the images on the screen?” she asked, “Nerdy, glasses, maybe antisocial, white, typically, and male.” Crommett described her job as challenging these preconceptions, and promoting an image of tech that more closely resembled the attractive rainbow of faces that populated the next slide. “As you can tell, there are no glasses except the sunglasses in the middle,” she quipped.

Being able to relate to the characters one sees on screen is, in and of itself, deeply meaningful. But, as Crommett rightly noted, Hollywood's influence extends further. In an industry where women are grossly underrepresented, these dominant images play an important role. According to Google's research, stereotypes or perception of the career accounts for 30 percent of a young woman's decision to pursue computer science in high school or college. Hollywood portrayals of nerdy, glasses-wearing techies, Crommett argued, is dissuading girls from becoming engineers.

Indeed, diversity in popular culture is important precisely because it has the capacity to expand our vision of how the world is or ought to look, and challenge our preconceived notion of how people are or ought to be. This is certainly true when it comes to categories such as race, gender, and sexuality. But it is also true for neurological traits like introversion or personality traits like social awkwardness or “nerdiness.” Much as gender stereotypes can hold women back professionally, managers often rely upon highly flawed cues to determine which employees will make good leaders, with career advancement as much a matter of personality as of competence. In the series premiere of "Silicon Valley," protagonist Richard acknowledges as much. “For thousands of years, guys like us have gotten the shit kicked out of us,” he says. “But now, for the first time, we are living in an era where we can be in charge and build empires.”

Richard is right. With barriers to entry in the field of technology at an all time low, it's becoming clear that one needn't to be a “people person” to understand people. A coders' way of looking at the world from an algorithmic, objective perspective often allows those who lack traditional social skills to effectively tackle widespread social problems. Such a mentality extends beyond the for-profit space into the realm of philanthropy, too. In an unusually candid interview, Bill Gates merrily accepted the label of “geek.” “Hey, if being a geek means you’re willing to take a 400-page book on vaccines and where they work and where they don’t, and you go off and study that and you use that to challenge people to learn more, then absolutely,” he said.

Though Richard and his ilk lack Gates's gravitas and noble ambitions, their work habits are deeply endearing, even when their social clumsiness veers toward the obnoxious or rude. Their strange, freakish ability and willingness to dig deep into even the most bizarre problems is presented as immensely relatable, making good on the show's promise to audience: “See genius in a whole new light.” The goal is a laudable one. In an environment populated by characters who've always been outside the mainstream, it becomes clear just how arbitrary our conceptions of personableness are. Portrayals of smart people whose behaviors lie outside social conventions increase our comfort with weirdness in the workplace, ultimately getting more responsibility and funding into the most capable hands.

So it seems needlessly mean-spirited for a company like Google to watch a show like "Silicon Valley" and bemoan the fact that its leads are such dweebs. It also seems to defy the company's vested interests in fostering the kind of eccentric environment that produces results. A far healthier approach might be to celebrate social differences while questioning, as the show subtly does, the sexist forces undoubtedly at work in a world that is, factually, male dominated.

When, for example, the eccentric, Thiel-inspired Peter Gregory dies suddenly, his socially adept mentee mourns, “He was the smartest, shrewdest, strangest man I've ever known.” Yet minutes later, she approaches his borderline-autistic replacement Laurie incredulously, declaring, as though it were a self-evident statement of fact, “Managing partner is all about meeting with people and interacting with people.” Laurie, it turns out, is not only smart and shrewd, but can interact with people just fine. Her initial offer to Richard is accepted gratefully, and she seamlessly negotiates her first major deal. The reality is it that we tend to fetishize male quirks as glimmers of genius, yet instinctively view similar quirks in women as insurmountable barriers to their professional success. The problem isn't that girls and women are uniquely susceptible to social pressures, but that the social pressures faced by girls and women are unique.

Given this landscape, the best thing we can teach girls isn't how to code, but how to develop confidence that isn't dependent on the immediate validation of their peers. Young women must learn early on not to restrict their behavior to their classmates' views of what's cool or feminine, and to resist pressure to abandon their interests or passions. Rather than rebranding tech as a glasses-free zone, Google's energy would be better spent encouraging girls to lean in to the labels. Perhaps one day they'll respond to childish taunts the way Gates did. “I’m a geek,” he said. “I plead guilty. Gladly.”

By Silpa Kovvali

Silpa Kovvali is a New York-based writer who focuses on social and cultural criticism. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, and The New Republic, amongst others.

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Bill Gates Feminism Girls Silicon Valley Tech Women In Tech