There are tons of initiatives for women in tech: awards, grants, accelerator programs. These initiatives tell a great story: women have become celebrated, recognized, respected. Finally. But is this the reality?
Last year, I interviewed several women in Silicon Valley for a column in the Huffington Post. My theory was that in order to drive change, you first need to change the conversation. If we want women in positions of power in tech, we need to talk more about female founders, female VCs, female executives. We need to give women visibility. That was my theory. My theory was wrong. Or at least not completely right. I still believe visibility is crucial to driving change, but it requires two other things as well: mainstream conversation and companies who not only talk the talk but also walk the walk.
“Women In Tech” Is Missing Mainstream Conversation And Companies Who Truly Take Action
In order to have a conversation, you need a variety of people participating in it. Right now, all the talk about gender equality seems to be happening amongst those who are already on board. And while individual promoters, both female and male, are doing great work on an individual level, it doesn’t seem to be — speaking in Silicon Valley terms — scalable.
Additionally, Women in Tech awards and press opportunities are a great way for tech companies to cover up the things they are not doing, and that’s hiring more women, promoting more women into senior positions, and giving women a stake in their companies. If you look at the number of top executives at tech companies, the needle hasn’t moved. In some cases, hiring and promotion rates for women have actually dropped. In a 2015 report by the National Center for Women and Information Technology, women were reported to hold only 25% of jobs in tech, and of that 25%, 16% were white, while only a shocking 1% were Latina. The number of women in computing particularly has been dropping since 1991, when it reached a height of 31%. Retention rates are also terrible, with twice as many women as men quitting at mid-career level — around 50% of women quit 10-20 years into their careers. The numbers tell a very different story than the media or company keynotes that often highlight their “successes” of female empowerment.
None of this tends to make it into mainstream conversation. But there is something on the horizon that may be able to help with this. It might be surprising, but that silver bullet could well be popular entertainment, and in particular, comedy shows.
Comedy Has The Potential To Bring Serious Topics To A Mainstream Audience
Nothing moves a conversation into the mainstream like the cultural force of TV. This is particularly true at the moment, as we enter a golden age of television. Since the advent of streaming services there has been a huge uptick in quality TV productions, and now 700 new shows are released every year. Netflix is investing $8B in content this year, Amazon, Apple and Hulu are investing billions in original content as well, and even Facebook is dipping its toe in the streaming waters. In other words, this is a perfect time to develop original content, especially if your content is culturally aware, diverse or anything that wouldn’t have made it onto TV just a few short years ago.
Show creator Serena Schuler is capitalizing on this. Schuler’s comedy venture is Makeshift Society. The ensemble comedy centers on the female founder of a startup. The show’s plot and characters are based on the experiences of real women in tech, who understand first hand what Silicon Valley’s bro culture is like, and the difficulties of going at it alone as a woman in that world. Schuler, in a very savvy and characteristically women-focused move, teamed up with three very successful women in tech to push this groundbreaking comedy forward and leverage humor to bring more people into this conversation. Bonnie Crater is a three-time Silicon Valley CEO, currently heading up Full Circle Insights, Jenny Cheng is a VP at Paypal and Judy Loehr is a long-time startup adviser and former VC, currently leading Bayla Ventures. The project’s whole team is actively working to change cultural perceptions of women in tech at scale. “There’s a pent-up hunger for authentic stories about women in tech”, explains Judy Loehr, “I’m looking forward to watching Makeshift Society, and I’m also motivated to change the stereotype of what a founder looks like so we can broaden the lens that VCs use when evaluating female founders.”
Makeshift Society will focus on Alex, a rising star in the tech world who’s booted from the frat-boy tech scene when she refuses the predatory advances of the CEO. She’s always dreamed of building a startup but has always taken the safe route. When Alex discovers a co-working space filled with founders and entrepreneurs chasing their ambitions, she finally decides to take the plunge, start her company, and make her own rules. This seems like a pretty typical comedy set-up; someone going at it alone, against the odds. But there is very little that is typical about this project, with its female creator, female startup founder as the lead, and an advisory board of women with 20+ years in the tech industry behind them.
Changing The Conversation On A Grand Scale
Makeshift Society is not without precedents. The hit Netflix show One Day At A Time is about a divorced Latina veteran who has PTSD. Her daughter is a lesbian and her teenage son at one point is very relieved that he is a man (“I’m so happy I’m a man, so I don’t have to deal with sexism”.) One Day At A Time is a highly successful mix of comedy and political debate, turning abstract political issues into personal stories. Comedy is used to tackle challenging subjects on television that affect our culture at large.
Earlier examples of comedy helping to push a change in attitudes include the still much loved Modern Family, now in its ninth season, normalizing gay marriage and adoption, and even The Mary Tyler Moore Show gently persuading viewers that women perhaps belonged in the workplace in the early 1970s.
Makeshift Society takes a similar approach. While the Silicon Valley TV show parodies a male experience in Silicon Valley, Makeshift Society tells the story from a much-needed female perspective. The idea is: If you can see it, you can become it.
Comedy and satire have often been used to reframe the conversation. In The Science of When We Laugh and Why Scott Weems proposes that humor arises from inner conflict. It’s about ‘getting’ a punchline, something that is very similar, for our brains, to solving a difficult problem. That’s why comedy may actually be the accelerator that finally improves the tech industry for women.
A Fairer Way to Fund Television
In addition to challenging founder stereotypes, the team behind Makeshift Society is also challenging the way TV shows are made. Rather than optioning the show, and selling the rights to one production company (which can be bought and shelved, never seeing the light of day), Makeshift Society’s advisory board is raising the funds independently to ensure this show gets made and is seen by audiences.
The team has so far raised 75% of their goal with donations from female founders, people in tech, and a couple of individual philanthropists focused on women in tech issues. Self-funding gives the women who make this show the autonomy to create a comedy that is both funny and authentic to the experiences of women in tech today. As a long-time member of the startup community, I look forward to watching this show.