Why is the tech industry so unfriendly to women?

Darling of the software industry Github is now facing a scandal after a top developer and so-called “Queen of Github” Julie Ann Horvath stepped down, claiming she had been pushed over the edge by gender discrimination in the workplace. Her experience is certainly not uncommon and raises larger questions about the tech industry, its larger community, and its dearth of women. 

The Queen of Github

When Horvath joined the team at Github, she was the only women on staff. The start-up was growing fast, but after nearly a year with the company they had only brought in two more women to do tech work. When Github CEO Tom Preston-Werner was speaking to his team for the umpteenth time about hiring women coders, Horvath spoke up. She proposed setting up what later came to be known as Passion Projects, a series of talks by prominent women in tech.

The problem, though, wasn’t just about quantity. As Github became one of the more progressive tech companies in hiring women for their development teams, Horvath didn’t find her experience as a coder to be any better. In the interest of brevity, we’ll enumerate some of the most emblematic experiences she recounted in a letter to TechCrunch:

  • From the start, she struggled with “the culture, the aggressive communication” and “how little the men I worked with respected and valued my opinion.” She further noticed “her character being discussed in inappropriate places” and more generally felt that her gender was a determinant factor in the way her work was being evaluated. Still, she loved coding and the greater, collaborative purposes of Github.
  • The spouse of the same co-founder that Horvath challenged to back her Passion Projects initiative began harassing Horvath for reasons that are unclear, but with a paranoia about what Horvath might say if she ever left the company.
  • After this pattern of harassment began, the co-founder (Preston-Werner) began criticizing Horvath for dating a co-worker, someone she was already in a committed relationship with when these conversations began. Her partner later revealed that Preston-Werner had pressured him to resign, something the partner refused to do.
  • Another co-worker that Horvath claims is well-respected in the office came to her privately, professing his romantic feelings for her, despite being well-abreast of her committed relationship. She says he was reluctant to leave after being rebuffed. From there onward, Horvath says that coder engaged in a pattern of undermining her code contributions.
  • A final straw was when two female co-workers were hula-hooping as a means of winding down (this was not perceived as out of line in the office culture at Github). Horvath says she watched several men “gawking” at the women, saying, “they didn’t see a problem with it” after confronting the men about their ogling.

After that last incident, Horvath says she “felt unsafe” and that it was “really embarrassing.” She resigned.

Is Github remorseful?

Just days after her public departure, Github’s other co-founder took to the company blog. His brief statement says that the company is launching an investigation, has booted the other co-founder’s spouse from the office, and quite remarkably seems remorseful about the entire situation.

As painful as this experience has been, I am super thankful to Julie for her contributions to GitHub. Her hard work building Passion Projects has made a huge positive impact on both GitHub and the tech community at large, and she’s done a lot to help us become a more diverse company. I would like to personally apologize to Julie. It’s certain that there were things we could have done differently. We wish Julie well in her future endeavors.

While this response is clearly more constructive than much of what Horvath seems to have faced when working at Github, it isn’t clear that she was ever valued. Chris Wanstrath, the co-founder, is happy for Horvath’s “contributions to Github.” What are these contributions? Well, there’s no mention of her value to the company as a coder, something she did for a living for years there.

Instead, he is happy to rave about Horvath’s very worthy project, Passion Projects. Github was glad to have Horvath because, as Wanstrath says, “she’s done a lot to help us become a more diverse company.”

See, Github looked good because of Horvath and her rather public advocacy for women in tech. Article after article raved about this nice new trend.

Advocacy without marginalization

Even then, though, people were wondering. What are the motivations behind recruiting women for tech jobs? Lea Verou felt that women were being harmed by this highly deliberate inclusion of women, because it made them seem as if they did not merit a place in tech without this external favoritism. Speaking on “female quotas” at tech conference, Verou said,

I want to be invited for my skills as a developer and a speaker, not because I happened to be born with a vagina.

While she has a pretty optimistic view of the male-dominated culture in tech, basically calling many of the people concerned about it over-sensitive, even Verou acknowledges the sorts of everyday problems women face.

A few guys were having a conversation, in which I wasn’t participating because I was working on my slides. At some point, a guy said “fuck” and then he turned to me to apologize, because I was the only woman in the room. Did I mention I wasn’t even taking part in the conversation? He probably thought he was being courteous, but by doing that, he basically singled me out. Suddenly, I was not another developer among many, I was the only woman in the room. I felt different, the odd one out. By trying to be inclusive, he made me feel much more excluded.

These are the kinds of early experiences we heard about from Horvath. Too often, she was seen as woman instead of coder. She wasn’t “lead developer at Github.” She was the “Queen of Github.” Long before this scandal broke, she talked frankly about what motivated her to start Passion Projects.

I think I got to a point where I was so frustrated with the leadership in this industry. 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.

She goes on further talking about this difficult balance between promoting women in tech and using them as a marketing tool.

Sure, it’s great your company wants to hire more women. But *why*? I think there are a lot of people talking about diversity in tech right now because they think it’s what they’re supposed to be talking about.

Don’t get me wrong, I plan on taking full advantage of this to try to even the playing field for women and for people who come from different socio-economic classes, and belong to different races and ethnicities.

But not because someone told me those are things I should care about, but because that’s who I am. And I’d like to make it easier for more people like me to learn, succeed, and become leaders in tech.

There is a lot of work left to do

Ultimately, it seems Github never came around fully to seeing their women, or at least Horvath, as something other than a product of an outreach effort. It probably wasn’t something Horvath or others, like Lea Verou, could ever have done by themselves. The tech industry says it wants women, but it wasn’t ever willing to change.

Women were supposed to assimilate into the culture. Act like a man! The “aggressive communication,” the gawking, the back and forth between inappropriate comments and forced displays of political correctness. Nobody wanted to face those things. To become part of the tech industry for women like Julie Ann Horvath was supposed to be about her chops as a developer. Instead, she had to wade through a work atmosphere that was patently inhospitable, that viewed her as “woman coder” instead of “coder.”

And nobody realized this. Aggressive communication? Things like this, that also contribute to the dearth of women Wikipedia editors, aren’t always calculated efforts to marginalize women. They are just unproductive, inconsiderate relics of gender separation that have to be addressed by more than just women.

It takes an open and mindful approach that might recognize the way Horvath was pushed out of Github and be able to summarize her time there as more than helping Github “become a more diverse company.”

Featured image by othree (Flickr)


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