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Bossing it: why the women of big tech are taking over the small screen | Television

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Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, subject of upcoming HBO drama Doomsday Machine.

In the jaw-dropping saga of disgraced health-tech entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes, there was one aspect that attracted most of the public’s attention: her voice.

Despite lying about her “revolutionary” pin-prick blood test technology that failed to work, then duping her patients with false diagnoses (she was convicted of four counts of defrauding investors earlier this year) it was her appearance – the Steve Jobs-esque black turtleneck jumpers and signature red lipstick – and her deep baritone, masculine-affected voice that people really zoned in on. So when The Dropout, the TV adaptation of Holmes’s life story – based on Rebecca Jarvis’s 2019 podcast of the same name – was first announced with Amanda Seyfried in the lead role, the internet was abuzz. Would Seyfried do “the voice”?

Yes, as it turns out. But while this vocal affectation might have been a joke to social media, to Melissa, who has worked in the upper management of a big tech company for the past 20 years, it’s something that rings true.

“I have absolutely lived that,” Melissa – who, like all the women in tech interviewed for this article, asked for anonymity – says. “When I want to be heard at my work, I have to talk slower and deeper. If you hit too high of a pitch, they [the men] don’t hear you. If I don’t think my voice will be listened to, I’ll call a male colleague, one of my allies, prior to the meeting and say: ‘Hey, I’m going to ping you in the background, say this when I tell you to.’ They’ll be my voice.”

With the news agenda for the past decade being full of the ethically dubious behaviour of some of the male leaders of the tech world, scant attention has been paid to the women in the industry, who make up just 19% of the tech workforce in the UK. The same is true reflected in pop culture. While the Tech Bro villain is now a well-worn trope in everything from the recent Matrix reboot to Succession and the video game send-up Free Guy, and we’ve had multiple portrayals of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, there’s been hardly any representation of women in tech on the small screen. With a smattering of comedy roles of women working lower down the tech chain (the brilliantly sarky Dobby from Peep Show or blagger Jen from The IT Crowd) to women actually making power moves in the industry (riot grrrl programmer Cameron in Halt and Catch Fire or whistleblower coder Nanette in the Black Mirror episode USS Callister), stories of women in tech have historically been as rare as a female CEO in Palo Alto.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, subject of upcoming HBO drama Doomsday Machine.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, subject of upcoming HBO drama Doomsday Machine. Photograph: John Lee/The Guardian

However, this year, TV’s gaze is finally turning to the female power-players of Silicon Valley. Alongside The Dropout, dramatisations of Sheryl Sandberg’s role as COO of Facebook (to be played by Claire Foy in Doomsday Machine) and Arianna Huffington’s position on the board at Uber (Uma Thurman, in Showtime’s Super Pumped) will hit the screen later in 2022.

The onscreen depiction of these highly ambitious – some say ruthless – women will be drawn from the books that have inspired the series: Sandberg is “a master manager and delegator … who felt she was put on this planet to scale organisations” (from Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang’s An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination); while Huffington leads with “charm and persuasiveness” (as per Super Pumped’s author, Mike Isaac). But do these representations reflect what it’s really like for women working in Big Tech?

Ex-Spotify employee Simone explains: “I think what links these women – and most women in the industry – is that you’ve got to be smart, strategic and driven, as it’s a very tough environment.

“The big six [Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft] are where everyone wants to work and the returns are huge – you get a big salary and with all the equity … I feel like working in tech is the new banking, especially with all the shares – if you join a startup at the right time you can make millions.”

Therese, who works for Facebook (now rebranded Meta), agrees: “There are unbelievable benefits to working at Facebook, the salary for starters. But really, I’m interested in being part of something that’s connected to the future, however potentially damaging that future might be. There’s something very interesting about being part of that conversation.”

It has taken so long to tell the women’s stories, Simone believes, for the simple fact that it’s still an anomaly for women to be high up in big tech companies. Someone such as Holmes is a “unicorn” in a double meaning: both in the tech sense (her company Theranos became a startup with a potential valuation of $1bn); and because, as a female founder, she was as rare as the mythical beast. Her ability to talk the talk was proved by her – mainly older, male – investors, who included Rupert Murdoch, Larry Ellison and George Schultz, elevating her to a role few women have ever experienced in the industry.

“I’m not exactly sure why there are so few female founders,” Simone wonders. “But in this culture it’s all about risk. Building a product is a risk, joining a startup is a risk and maybe as women we want more safety in our careers?”

Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy in Succession.
Female-washing? … Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy in Succession. Photograph: HBO/David M Russell

Slogans such as “Move fast – break things!” and “Be brave!” line the walls at Facebook but, in reality, women are rarely permitted to exhibit those types of behaviour. To be seen as impulsive or demanding perfection as a man in big tech is to be lauded – creative genius at work here! – but they’re often seen as negative qualities in a woman, who would be thought of as unreliable and branded “bossy”.

In Simone’s experience, even in Spotify – a company founded in Sweden, where there is a big push for gender equality – women are still fighting to get a look in higher up the chain: “In most of the inner circles, it’s still always men who are CEO or CFO, and the token woman is head of HR or chief of operations. Women aren’t decision-making on company strategy or direction, they’re in nurturing, people-facing roles. Even Arianna [Huffington] came into Uber to clean up culture and operations.”

“Oh fuck, yes, it’s still a total boys’ club,” says Melissa. “The worst are the men who think they’re enlightened but when it comes down to it they’re not. It’s not my job to teach you how to be the good guy. Go and get training! Go and figure out your own unconscious bias!”

After #MeToo, there seems to have been a concerted effort by tech companies to put women in higher positions. This can sometimes come across as “female-washing” of problematic brands, says Francesca Sobande, a lecturer in digital media studies at Cardiff University. “That’s not to suggest that I think the appointment of women in certain roles in big tech is solely based on their gender identity in any way, but I do think that organisations are hyper-aware of what it means when a woman becomes a figurehead of a company that is typically associated with male-dominated spaces.”

Kerry Bishé and Mackenzie Davis in Halt and Catch Fire.
Tech savvy … Kerry Bishé and Mackenzie Davis in Halt and Catch Fire. Photograph: Tina Rowden/AMC

We have seen this on TV, she adds, through storylines such as Shiv Roy in Succession, brought in to chair a Waystar Royco conference to soothe shareholders’ worries about the company’s sexual misconduct issues, or when she obsequiously tries to be an ally to Gerri over those dick pics sent by her brother Roman, in what’s really a bid to take him down instead.

“[In] a show like Succession there is a risk sometimes that these sorts of conversations overlook the agency of women,” says Sobande. “A character like Shiv knows exactly what she’s doing when she’s making certain decisions that relate to the optics of gender and power.

“It’s important when thinking about these things to always acknowledge the agency of women within this, and what it means for a woman to sometimes knowingly participate in or be complicit in these types of power dynamics that oppress other women.”

This oppression of other women is seen offscreen, too, Therese says: “I’ve definitely experienced women trying to emulate the men of Silicon Valley. I’ve seen some terrible things, and it can really crush you.”

Therese remembers one senior woman who was manipulative and “should not have been in power”. “If I’m being kind about it, it was probably her reaction to the highly competitive system. The pressure of being constantly reviewed in the six-monthly 360 reviews – where overtime is encouraged and your bonus is based on it – it starts to affect how you feel about yourself, as a person, and it affects everything. It starts to influence your feelings about your self-identity and self-worth. It’s a massively, massively entrenched system.”

What is telling in previous TV representations of women in tech, says Sobande, is what is overlooked, from the fact that these stories are all solely focused on white women to them not including “a critique of the power dynamics and the often oppressive capitalist structure that they’re implicated in”.

For those few “unicorns’’ who make it through to the top in Silicon Valley, it might feel like a hollow victory, given the accusations that many of these companies are entrenched in ethically questionable behaviour – manipulating users’ emotions; allowing conspiracy theories to spread – in the name of profit. Sobande adds: “In some pop culture portrayals we see confusion for a representation of any woman in a position of power with it symbolising some form of feminism. With these upcoming series, I’m intrigued to what extent we’re going to see this ‘girlboss’ narrative coming through, and whether or not there’s going to be [an implication of] a feminist sentiment to any of what is depicted.”

Simone also wonders if we can ever square the dichotomy of working for certain corporations that appear to be morally bankrupt yet claim to empower women: “I’m so interested to see Doomsday Machine because of the juxtaposition of Facebook’s morals and Sheryl [Sandberg]’s heavy messaging about women ‘leaning in’ [the concept at the centre of Sandberg’s bestselling 2013 nonfiction book]. I want to get into her psyche about how you balance those two things: promoting women but in a company that does so much destruction. But it’s not just her. I think sometimes women are the ones who are expected to be the ethical ones in the industry.

“I’m fascinated by it.” As are those of us outside big tech, too.

Some names have been changed. The Dropout airs from 3 March on Disney+ in the UK and Hulu in the US. Super Pumped airs in the US from 27 February on Showtime, with a UK broadcaster still TBC.

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