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Inside the GitHub scandal: is sexism part of the Valley's DNA?

Inside the GitHub scandal: is sexism part of the Valley's DNA?


Julie Ann Horvath wanted to help other women — and it may have cost her a job

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GitHub is in crisis mode.

It’s been four days since developer and designer Julie Ann Horvath publicly accused the company of permitting an "aggressive" culture where men flaunt their disrespect for women, and alleged that one of the founders and his wife personally tormented her for two years.

While Horvath says management was aware of the alleged issues, many of her colleagues were shocked. Horvath had tried to keep things discreet; she lined up a new job and planned to quit quietly. That is, until the news leaked on the anonymous social network Secret:

"There were things we could have done differently."

"Self proclaimed queen of GitHub is leaving her throne. The masses cheer." A string of comments followed, some seemingly from co-workers. "Can’t wait to have people calm down." "Made our jobs infinitely harder. Good fucking riddance." "Why is the background image not of Beyonce."

Several female GitHub employees, who spoke with The Verge on condition of anonymity, said they’ve never felt gender discrimination at the company. "I don’t feel isolated or alone," one female developer says. "I have never personally experienced anything like that and I’ve never witnessed it."

But the vicious comments on Secret suggest that some of Horvath’s co-workers resented her deeply. A mea culpa by CEO Chris Wanstrath, rare in the startup industry, further legitimized Horvath’s complaints. "I would like to personally apologize to Julie," he wrote on the company blog. "It’s certain that there were things we could have done differently."

Passion projects

GitHub is used to being in the spotlight, but only to receive heaps of praise. The company’s collaborative coding tool is used by almost every programmer in the industry. Its flat structure and policy of "everyone work on whatever they want, from wherever they want" is marveled at by the business community, and investors were champing at the bit to throw money at it. "If you’re outside the software world, it may be hard to comprehend how important GitHub has become," BusinessWeek wrote. The implication being, if you are in the software world, you already know GitHub is indispensable.

GitHub was even praised recently by ReadWrite for being "a great place for women to work." That was because of Horvath, who advocates for women coders by speaking at conferences, and working with groups like Women Who Code, Girls Who Code, and Girl Develop It.

GitHub was even praised for being "a great place for women to work."

When she joined GitHub in March of 2012, Horvath was the only woman on her team. By late 2012, even with GitHub growing fast, there were still only three women on the tech side. The dearth of women inspired Horvath to start Passion Projects, an all-female talk series hosted at GitHub’s office. Horvath got the project approved by ambushing co-founder and then-CEO Tom Preston-Werner at a company meeting. Preston-Werner had just given a speech about the importance of hiring women coders, and Horvath seized the moment to jump up and pitch her idea. "I kind of put him on the spot, and I hope he’s forgiven me," she told ReadWrite.

Passion Projects became a feather in GitHub’s cap — Preston-Werner was soon bragging about it to the press — and the number of techie women at GitHub had increased to 11 by January of 2014. Suddenly, it was seen as a paragon of gender equality at a tech-centric company — or at least, a shining example of "diverse for the field."

Horvath now admits that part of her motivation was discrimination she felt at GitHub. She never named Preston-Werner, the co-founder who has reportedly been put on leave for her harassment, but it seems she was referring to him in previous interviews about sexism. "I got to a point where I was so frustrated with the leadership in this industry," she said in an interview late last year. "Because I would hear ‘We should hire more women!’ on almost a daily basis from the same people who kind of refused to respect me as a peer. So in a lot of ways Passion Projects was an attempt to call all of their bluffs. I was finally asking my founders and this industry to put their money and their support where their mouths are."

GitHub now has 238 employees across all positions, and roughly 20 percent are women. But after she quit, Horvath even seemed to renounce the work she had done through Passion Projects. "I regret defending GitHub's culture to feminists for the last two years," she said on Twitter. "I'm sorry to everyone I've hurt in doing so."

She says

GitHub is conducting an internal investigation to determine exactly what happened. But Horvath’s side of the story, as related in an exclusive interview with TechCrunch, is this: GitHub was generally female-friendly, but her team felt like a boy’s club. She felt increasingly aware of "how little the men I worked with respected and valued my opinion" and observed the same thing happening to her female co-workers.

This final indignity pushed Horvath over the edge

The situation allegedly became extreme when a founder — reported to be Preston-Werner — asked his wife — reported to be Theresa Preson-Werner — to make sure Horvath was happy. She took Horvath out to drinks and badgered her, apparently worried that Horvath would quit and badmouth GitHub and her husband. She began working in the GitHub office and attempting to intimidate Horvath in person. Meanwhile, her husband reprimanded Horvath for dating a co-worker and tried unsuccessfully to get her boyfriend to quit. At the same time, another co-worker started removing Horvath’s code from projects after she turned him down for a date.

This was roughly when Horvath started Passion Projects, but she says her own situation just got worse. Human resources and another co-founder — likely Wanstrath, who swapped roles with Preston-Werner and became CEO in January — tried to help, but the harassment continued. One day, one of Horvath’s female co-workers and a friend were hula-hooping in the office. She noticed male co-workers leering, and chastised them. The male co-workers "didn’t see a problem with it." This final indignity pushed Horvath over the edge.

Sexism is sometimes subtle

Horvath has long been outspoken, the kind of woman often called "pushy" for asserting herself at work and calling out what she perceived as sexism. "I've tried my best to point things out that are fundamentally wrong within organizations I'm a part of, and have often been dismissed or given the ultimatum of keeping quiet or losing my job," she wrote on her personal blog. "I've digested those experiences, have tried my best to move past them," Horvath wrote, "and instead of continuing to lend power to people who thrive on conflict, have decided to focus my energy toward making my own company and this industry a better place for women to be. It makes me really sad to think that I could be martyred for this."

Sexism is sometimes subtle. Were the hula-hoop spectators being disrespectful, or merely watching something unusual and fun in the office? Were Preston-Werner and his wife trying to silence Horvath for alleging gender issues in the office, or were they trying to protect what they believed to be a positive environment threatened by an agitator?

"It makes me really sad to think that I could be martyred for this."

Some GitHubbers believed Horvath was a negative influence in a company that is a force for good in the world, which is why such virulence poured out anonymously when she quit. Others looked around and saw a company with a supportive, family-like culture where women don’t feel like a minority, and wondered what the heck Horvath was talking about.

The reason some GitHubbers never sensed discrimination may be, in part, because of Horvath’s efforts to stamp it out. One female employee recounted how a group of male engineers changed a variable name from "king" to "monarch" on their own initiative, to eliminate gendered language that might make female peers feel left out .

The female employees who spoke to The Verge were extremely supportive of Horvath. While they say they haven’t experienced discrimination, they were careful not to say anything that could be construed as casting doubt on her story. "I'm focused on making sure that as a woman, I do a better job of being available and supportive and accessible," one female employee tells The Verge. "I want to be someone to talk to. I want to do whatever I can. And we all failed to do that for Julie."

Two steps forward

The negative publicity certainly hasn’t helped its image, but the company’s rapid response should help GitHub emerge relatively unscathed. Not to mention the fact that many women working in tech have seen much worse.

One female designer who knew Horvath through the tech scene tells The Verge that the episode doesn’t make GitHub less appealing as a potential employer. "I'm pretty used to startup culture and often feel like I can go into most companies and thrive (and then bring along other girls with me)." Female GitHubbers said the same thing. "I don’t think that this will affect women wanting to work for GitHub," the female GitHub developer says. "I have a female friend right now who wants to work for GitHub and this has not changed that."

"I'm a big fan of GitHub and I am personally devastated by this."

Whether Horvath’s allegations hold up, they’re yet another reminder of the gender imbalance in the industry. Jake Bilbrey, a front end developer in San Francisco, says he’s seen sexism and bullying similar to what Horvath describes. "I'm a big fan of GitHub and I am personally devastated by this," he says. "I don't think it's feasible that I can stop using GitHub, it's such an important tool, but I will try to minimize my dependence on it. I'm hoping they handle this maturely and effectively so I don't have to."