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What HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’ gets right about the tech industry

The past is still present.

 

Gillian Branstetter

Internet Culture

Published Mar 17, 2016   Updated Feb 29, 2020, 10:03 am CST

After lasting through a steady torrent of criticism over its “boring sexism” during its first season, Silicon Valley attempted to assuage its diversity woes by hiring a woman. Carla, a straightup hackette, interviews for a job as an engineer for Pied Piper, the scrappy startup at the center of HBO’s satire of the tech sector. The all-male staff of Pied Piper awkwardly tries to step over admitting that adding a woman to their staff would be great, but only if that woman is also the most qualified candidate.

In the scene, Clara (played by Alice Wetterlund) defends herself against being called a “girl engineer,” forcefully indicating that she’d rather just be known as an engineer. To put a cherry on the awkward sundae, a gaunt Jared (Zach Woods) walks Carla out while confessing his love for her.

As much as Carla’s inclusion on the show might appear to be a metatextual nod to tokenism, the creators of Silicon Valley swear the show’s lack of women or minorities is merely about accuracy.

‘The world we’re depicting is fucked up.’ —Alec Berg, writer/producer for HBO’s Silicon Valley   

At a South by Southwest panel this week featuring the show’s creators and stars, writer and producer Alec Berg defended the show’s relative lack of women by pointing out that “the world we’re depicting is fucked up.” Berg told the panel he received criticism for not including more women in B-roll footage of a tech conference on the show, only to reveal the footage was from an actual TechCrunch Disrupt. “Do we have a responsibility to make the genders on our show more balanced, when this is the world we’re depicting?”

The show’s creator Mike Judge has done similar passing of the buck, suggesting it would be a “disservice” to portray Silicon Valley as more diverse than it really is. “We’re taking jabs at ’em for it.’ Judge told PandoDaily. ”It’s different than endorsing it.” Judge and Berg are right—instead of spilling ink on the misogyny and racial exclusivity of a fictional portrayal of the tech industry, it is far more important to question the reason why it would be difficult to give an accurate portrayal while still offering a diverse cast.

The tech industry consistently ranks as one of the most exclusionary sectors of the economy for minorities and women. According to rankings by internal reports about company diversity, some of the largest players also feature the least number of female and minority employees, as well as less frequency of those demographics among leadership roles. Out of nine companies polled by Fortune magazine, women made up an average of one third of the tech workforce and, at companies like Cisco and Intel, less than a quarter of workers were women. The average only becomes worse if only leadership positions are considered, with women holding somewhere between one fifth and one fourth of management or executive positions at most name-brand tech companies.

While the reasons for this are expansive—gender roles in early education, availability of computer science courses, and sexist hiring practices among them—the most pertinent to Silicon Valley may be the exclusionary practices of most venture capitalists. In the HBO show, the all-male team of Pied Piper struggle to gain acceptance among the high-powered world of newly-minted billionaires. But for female-led startups, the battle is even more difficult.

According to the most recent report from the Female Founders Fund—a VC firm dedicated to early funding for startups founded by women—series A funding of female-led companies declined 30 percent in the last quarter of 2015, with just 8 percent of grants going to companies created by women. Were Silicon Valley to give an accurate portrayal of such a company, the most likely result for the female heroes would be turned away at the doors of power and reduced to crowdfunding as their only option for success.

The creators are right to defend themselves against criticism when their casting and writing decisions are meant to reflect the deeper cultural divide. 

Aside from the lack of gender discrimination within the industry, however, is the great racial disparity that also exists at many of these companies. According to 2014 Equal Employment Opportunity reports, whites made up an average of two thirds of employees at Microsoft, Google, Intel, Cisco, and other Silicon Valley giants. Although blacks and Hispanics make up 6 percent and 11 percent of computer science degrees, respectively, each holds less than 5 percent at each company.

It should be noted the largest racial minority in Silicon Valley are Asians, whose employment rate in the tech industry actually surpasses their likelihood of holding a computer science degree. In fact, about a third of Silicon Valley employees are Asian and, at companies like LinkedIn and Yahoo, that number rises to over 40 percent. This has caused a backlash-to-the-backlash, in which many have wondered if those complaining about a lack of diversity at these companies really just want to see the “right” diversity.

It’s a trope Silicon Valley itself famously mocked in this scene.

As much as the show calls attention to both the lack of diversity on the show and within the industry it mocks, the creators are right to defend themselves against criticism when their casting and writing decisions are meant to reflect the deeper cultural divide.

The defenses of Judge and Berg mirror those of Matthew Weiner, the creator of AMC’s Mad Men. Like Silicon Valley, Mad Men portrayed a high-powered industry home to rampant misogyny, racial prejudice, and gross debauchery. Wiener defended the lack of African-American characters on the show, which takes place in Manhattan in the 1960s, by pointing out that the upper-class characters on the show wouldn’t have been very likely to encounter many black people in the segregated world of Madison Avenue.

When Mad Men did include its first major black character—secretary Dawn Chambers (played by Teyonnah Parris)—critics saw through the veneer of political correctness her inclusion was supposed to cast. Salon’s Alex Madison called the show’s black characters “alternatively invisible or convenient,” and Dawn was no exception. The sole episode of which she was a focus made her inclusion awkward, and the character’s forced existence as emblematic of the Civil Rights movement is best symbolized by the odd and discomforting hug offered to Dawn by Joan upon the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Julian Fellowes, the creator of PBS’ Downton Abbey, expressed similar concerns about adding characters of different ethnicity to the plainly segregated world of the aristocratic Crawley family. “You have to work it in in a way that is historically believable,” Fellowes told The Telegraph back in 2012, “but I am sure we could do that.” When Downton went on to introduce its first black character, jazz singer Jack Ross (Gary Carr), some criticized the show for embracing the same brand of tokenism Silicon Valley did by including Carla.

The real message of period pieces like Mad Men and Downton Abbey shouldn’t just be how much has changed—but how much has stayed the same. 

The purpose of this practice on Mad Men or Downton Abbey goes beyond historical accuracy and veers into social commentary. Much of what made Mad Men such a good show was comparing the quaint and often disgusting attitudes of the 1960s to today, enabling us to feel so much more enlightened than the generation of our grandparents.

But as Silicon Valley attempts to portray, the real message of period pieces like Mad Men and Downton Abbey shouldn’t just be how much has changed—but how much has stayed the same.

The lack of diversity on display in shows like Mad Men and Downton Abbey is meant to reflect the facts of their respective eras—but they should also be reminders to us that keeping minorities and women out of the halls of power is practiced up to this very day. Silicon Valley is far from a perfect satire—it takes more than a wink to separate self-awareness from blind participation—but the mostly white, mostly male cast should stand as a reminder for our own failings the way depictions of the past remind us of our grandparents’ mistakes.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter.

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*First Published: Mar 17, 2016, 5:23 pm CDT