'Silicon Valley' Faces Big Tech's Female Problem

A scene from episode 1 of Silicon Valley shows, Christopher Evan Welch, Amanda Crew, Josh Brener, Thomas Middleditch.
A scene from episode 1 of Silicon Valley shows, Christopher Evan Welch, Amanda Crew, Josh Brener, Thomas Middleditch.Jaimie Trueblood / HBO

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What's missing in "Silicon Valley," HBO's new sitcom about young turks of the tech industry? Only the obvious: Women.

The show, which premiered Sunday night, is a spot-on satire from Mike Judge, the guy who gave us "Office Space." In "Silicon Valley," billionaire CEOs spout empty aphorisms about changing the world, while engaging in conspicuous consumption. Disheveled coders argue over which Steve is the one to emulate — Jobs or Wozniak — and whine about being outsiders.

In this wasteland of new-age male bravado, we see only two women. (Three, if you count a female riding a folding bike — who is acknowledged via a comment that’s ageist and sexist.)

The show is fictional, but the accuracy about an industry in which women are a minority makes some viewers loath to tune in. "As far as these guys being young and nerdy and not handling money smartly, that's not interesting to me," Erin Gibson, comedienne and women's issues commentator, told NBC News.

"I'd like to see Judge take on the treatment of women in the tech industry," said Gibson, who counts herself a Judge fan. "It’s probably one of the worst industries for exclusion," she said, adding that the entertainment industry is saturated with dude nerd-themed productions.

"I have to be honest, I can’t watch another nerd do anything," Gibson said. "I am so over nerds doing things."

From the male geniuses of "The Big Bang Theory" to "Nerdist" Chris Hardwick presiding over every aspect of Comic-Con culture, entertainment is enamored with the plight of male nerds — despite the revenge they've achieved in the real world. It's the women with mad skills who have yet to gain that status quo in either pop culture or Palo Alto.

As Zeynep Tufekci, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina's iSchool, wrote in a blog post last month: "Many tech guys ... think something along these lines: 'Wait, we’re not the jocks. We aren't the people who were jerks. We never pushed anyone into a locker and smashed their face. We’re the people who got teased for being brainy, for not being macho ...'"

But those former high school outsiders now rule the school, and Judge's "Silicon Valley" reflects that.

"Not being Chuck Lorre isn’t much of an accomplishment."

The handful of women in "Silicon Valley" may present an opportunity for Judge to satirize sexism, but it depends on how cleverly it's handled. One female character, a CEO’s assistant who recognizes the value of our hero’s algorithm, will likely become a love interest. But that's not enough to pass the Bechdel Test — two women who talk about something other than a man — or attract disenfranchised viewers.

"I’ve no doubt that Judge thinks of himself as a Nice Guy who isn’t sexist, but that’s not nearly enough," Kelly McMahon, an avionics systems engineer who is weary of nerd sexism both on TV and on the job, told NBC News. "Not being ["Two and a Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory" creator] Chuck Lorre isn’t much of an accomplishment."

Obviously, it's not Judge's responsibility to correct everything wrong in the real Silicon Valley. But the show would miss some major shooting fish-in-a-barrel possibilities if it doesn't attack sexism head on. And if not, “Silicon Valley” will confirm what we've known for a long time: Sexism is a problem in comedy as well as Silicon Valley.