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it worker stereotype

Friday fun for the IT crowd: Silicon Valley's flawed theory of tech's gender divide

April 17, 2015
By Lisa Dare

The Big Bang Theory. Silicon Valley. The IT Crowd. Comedies about brainy techs and engineers have long relies on the trope that they have a male-dominated culture—but not by choice. What makes this stereotype seem harmless is its premise that these men would love to interact with women, but are too socially awkward to do so. But real women working in STEM fields see the issue differently.  

HBO’s Silicon Valley is a prime example of the flawed stereotype. The show depicts its characters' gender isolation as a result of their social awkwardness. Forced into each other’s company, the men don’t have to worry about how to include women because it’s not an option. Their consolation prize is being able to tell vulgar jokes, have inappropriate conversations and generally be their worst selves.

Having once participated in four-year bout of gender segregation also known as all-girls high school, I can relate to the dynamic. My schoolmates at first desperately longed for the presence of boys but then grew very comfortable without them. Their absence freed us to be as silly—and frankly, as crude—as we liked. We spoke freely about embarrassing topics, formed incredibly intimate friendships and generally thrived.

But when this cloistered dynamic hits the workplace, it’s a real problem. In tech’s case, the brainy real-life women who work in IT feel—and often are—excluded. And this has major implications for their careers. A Guardian story provides context for this phenomenon, quoting an engineering team manager: “Some of the younger [engineers] especially have a hard time relating to women as ordinary people.”

The first part of the problem is that women frequently have trouble getting hired and promoted in tech roles. Call it male groupthink: Men who mostly only talk to other men in their profession have their way of thinking constantly validated, leading them to evaluate women by lopsided standards.   

And women in IT fields often voluntarily leave because they simply grow tired of feeling like an outsider. In fact, tech’s historically low numbers of women are both a result and cause of this problem. As tech becomes more male-dominated, women opt for other careers, resulting in a vicious cycle. 

Unfortunately, shows like Silicon Valley that depict tech's over-representation of men—however true—only serve to amplify the unwelcoming feeling for women. And while the show may be accurate in its representation of tech's gender gap, its theory that this is women's choice is simply wrong. There are many smart, capable women working in tech companies and IT teams, and many more who want to do so. While companies struggle to bridge the gender gap, it would help if pop culture killed inaccurate stereotypes instead of perpetrating them. I'm pretty sure Silicon Valley's clever and creative writers can figure out a way to get this right without killing the show's exuberant humor. 

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Lisa Dare is a marketing writer for TEKsystems who enjoys learning about IT from some of the smartest folks in tech. She frequently blogs about IT career advice and the lighter side of technology, and on her off days loves to kayak and play with her toddler son.

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