Silicon Valley has spent its last three seasons highlighting and calling out various issues within, well, Silicon Valley. From the caffeine and drug-fueled world of startup culture to the cost of rent while trying to live in Palo Alto, Silicon Valley hits most of the problems people inside the bubble come across.
One issue, however, Silicon Valley has continued to address in a multitude of ways for almost four years stands above the rest: the inequality and lack of access to resources for women trying to work in tech.
On Sunday, a former engineer at Uber, Susan Fowler, wrote a scathing report about her year at the Oakland-based company. In it, she called out the harassment she faced from male supervisors, the cutthroat work culture and the lack of access to a proper HR department. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said the company would launch an immediate investigation into the report, but this isn’t the first time Uber has been at the center of a story regarding terrible workplace culture.
Silicon Valley has always tried to bring to light the serious workplace issues that can occur at different companies within the Valley, no matter the size. There are problems at Hooli, the Google-inspired company main character Richard (Thomas Middleditch) used to work at and Pied Piper, the company he left Hooli to create. Creator Mike Judge’s take on Silicon Valley isn’t immune to criticism, though, and it’s through remarks about his show that he’s been able to take a critical eye and reproach how he establishes jokes in the series.
When Judge first premiered the show, he was criticized by reporters for the lack of women present. In the first season, there was only one main female character, Monica (Amanda Crew), an assistant to a venture capitalist who gets involved with helping Richard turn a profit for Pied Piper.
Although Crew defended her role as one of the solitary women in the show, calling it a commentary on how Silicon Valley looked, the series still received its fair share of criticism. In May 2015, Judge sat down with Bloomberg to talk about the show. When the question was brought up, the creator said it was a very intentional decision.
“We’re doing satire about it,” Judge said. “I think if we just came out with the show and every company was 50 percent women, 50 percent men, we’d kind of be doing a disservice to not calling to attention the fact that it’s really 87 percent male and VC firms, or partners, are 94 percent male.
“We’re doing satire. We’re taking jabs at them for it. It’s different than endorsing them, I think.”
Earlier this year, Ellen Pao (former CEO of Reddit and an investment partner at Kapor Capital) spoke about the lack of accessibility women in Silicon Valley face. Like Judge, Pao acknowledged that it’s always been a problem in the tech sector, but people only started to call it out at a mainstream level — beyond a feature in Wired Magazine — within the past decade or so.
“This is the culture that has always been and this is the culture people grew up in and this is the culture that has been very successful,” Pao told CNBC. “When you get to a point where it's so baked into every aspect of every process and it's a big company and you're part of a process, it becomes very hard to unwind all of it.”
In her post, Fowler lists some of the issues she had at Uber in explicit detail. At one point, Fowler talks about how one of her managing supervisors struck up an inappropriate conversation with her about his personal life and when she went to HR to report on it, was met with shrugs of nonchalance over the situation.
In my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn't. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn't help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.
I expected that I would report him to HR, they would handle the situation appropriately, and then life would go on - unfortunately, things played out quite a bit differently. When I reported the situation, I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man's first offense, and that they wouldn't feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to. Upper management told me that he "was a high performer" (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn't feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.
The uncomfortableness women often feel in Silicon Valley — and especially the way they’re treated by co-workers — is something Judge touches upon often in Silicon Valley. Although he’s not always as successful as he should be — which many women in Silicon Valley have called him out for — Judge uses characters like Richard to show just how men can treat women. In the scene below, Richard freaks out on a fellow programmer because she prefers to use the spacebar instead of a tab key.
That dynamic between male and female coworkers was also criticized by women working in the tech industry.
“I stopped watching specifically because there was hardly any representation of women on the show beyond the VC assistant [Monica] and girls as eye candy at trade shows,” a veteran engineer in Silicon Valley told MTV last year. “There was one episode where one of the guys in Pied Piper fell in love with a girl because he thought she was a great coder (and attractive — like that's impossible), but it turned out that it was really a coworker who had written [the code]. That's where it finally lost me. I'm not an engineer, but I can program and have had a lot of challenges with that type of sexism myself, so to me, it's not funny.”
Silicon Valley needs to do better, but Judge has said he wants to tackle more of the major issues plaguing the industry and find a way to work them into the series. The show went from having one recurring female character to a couple, including making one of the senior partners at a venture capitalist firm a woman. Judge has talked about the fact that he tries to hire more women for the show, confirming at SXSW in 2016 that the writing staff was about 50 percent women.
Part of that inclusionary process has also become the butt of many Silicon Valley jokes. Following the criticism Judge received for having a severe lack of women on the series, the second season saw the introduction of a couple key female characters. When introducing a new programmer, the writers spent a couple of minutes mocking the way women’s roles in Silicon Valley can be seen as diversity hires, instead of being based on their talent. As the meek executive Jared (Zach Woods) says, Pied Piper is suffering from “a distinct overrepresentation of men in this company.”
The resulting debate — over whether or not they should just hire the best person for the job, a common answer given by some who don’t want to prioritize hiring women — leads to an interview with Carla Walton (Alice Wetterlund). Not only does Walton prove to be the best engineer for the job, but during the interview, she immediately shuts down an accidental implication that she’s being hired because she’s a woman.
“I’m not a ‘woman engineer,’” Walton says. “I’m an engineer.”
In a New Yorker piece from last year, Silicon Valley was described as “the first ambitious satire of any form to shed much light on the current socio-cultural moment in Northern California.” In many ways, because Silicon Valley was created by Judge, who spent a large portion of his life working in the industry, there’s an understanding of the players in the show. The issues that Judge is addressing with the series are the same issues he saw when he was working in the thick of it.
Despite that, there is always room to grow. Silicon Valley can still often times feel like a show made by bros for startup bros. Pied Piper investor Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller) is the definition of a boss most women — and men — would probably run from in the Valley. While Judge uses satire as a way to explain the type of characters seen on the show, it doesn’t always come across as well as it could.
Still, in this current day where the term satire is being thrown around without so much as a second thought, Silicon Valley continues to be an example of how the comedic form can be used to properly to shine a light on an injustice facing a community. It needs some work, but as more stories emerge from the depths of Silicon Valley, it’s nice knowing there’s a series willing to tackle those issues and spend time deconstructing them through comedy.
Silicon Valley will return for its fourth season on April 23 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.