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Forking, in coding lingo, is when you take software in a new direction (Sunny Ripert/Flickr Creative Commons)
Forking, in coding lingo, is when you take software in a new direction (Sunny Ripert/Flickr Creative Commons)

GitHub sexism scandal is really about tech’s fake meritocracy Add to ...

In March, GitHub became the latest tech company to face scrutiny over allegations of epic leadership failure and a sexist internal culture as described by designer/developer Julie Ann Horvath in a series of tweets. As with many stories about sexism in tech, the industry seems focused on disproving it.

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Horvath’s allegations of long-term harassment and management’s failure to act are serious, documented and credible. Though her initial tweets were vague, she gave a more detailed account to TechCrunch, outlining the long-term harassment she faced from a founder’s wife, who claimed to influence decision-making at GitHub and warned Horvath against saying anything “bad” about the company.

UPDATE: The company posted a blog that says "a full, independent, third-party investigation" has cleared GitHub of some of the allegations of sexism in the workplace.

When Horvath shared her concerns with GitHub HR, they brought up her personal relationship with another GitHub employee and allowed the situation with the unnamed founder and his wife to escalate. Valleywag later reported that the founder was Tom Preston-Werner, and one of their sources said that his wife Theresa had intimidated another woman at GitHub, who was “paid to sign a non-disparagement agreement after being victimized by Theresa Preston-Werner and subsequently terminated.”

After Horvath made these (and other) issues public, GitHub posted a flimsy apology. Until now, GitHub had a generally positive reputation. GitHub is an extremely important tool – providing the code collaboration, review and management that many developers need daily. As such, GitHub is extremely valued in the tech industry and to investors, one of whom contributed a whopping $100-million to the company. It’s also traditionally been viewed as a good place for women to work, largely due to its support of initiatives like Horvath’s Passion Projects, a monthly talk series highlighting women’s favourite projects.

But what can seem welcoming from the outside – and even to many other employees – can be uncomfortable for someone else. On GitHub culture, Horvath told TechCrunch: “I had a really hard time getting used to the culture, the aggressive communication on pull requests and how little the men I worked with respected and valued my opinion.”

Horvath also told TechCrunch about a “well-liked” co-worker, “popular in the [GitHub] community,” who erased her work from projects they’d done together after she rejected him romantically. She ultimately decided to leave GitHub the day she witnessed a number of her male co-workers “gawking” at women hula-hooping in the office.

Despite these experiences, Horvath did not publicly comment until she was shown a discussion on Secret celebrating her departure and attacking her character. The subject: “Self proclaimed queen of GitHub is leaving her throne. The masses cheer.” Amongst allegations of Horvath spreading rumours and taking credit for the work of others are these comments, seemingly from co-workers: “Can’t wait to have to calm people down.” “Made our jobs infinitely harder. Good f***ing riddance.”

It’s clear that Horvath was viewed by some of her coworkers as a troublemaker for speaking out. And as she tweeted, “character assassination is very seldom actually about work.” After a number of tweets about the hurtful Secret thread – the final straw after months of offenses – Horvath announced that she regretted defending GitHub’s culture, was happy to be moving on to a better environment, and the rest of the story followed.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this story is the degree to which people doubt the role of sexism. Business Insider rushed to pull contrary quotes from an article in The Verge, highlighting other women at GitHub who said they’d never encountered sexism. One commenter on TechCrunch asked that the headline be changed from “Julie Ann Horvath Describes Sexism And Intimidation Behind Her GitHub Exit,” to “Julie Ann Horvath Describes Harassment From The Founders Wife, The Founder, And Has A Problem With Hula Hoops (For Some Reason).” Indeed, it seems that no matter how many examples of sexism are provided, deniers just insist louder.

Sexism is strongest in its more subtle expressions. Would a man be criticized and mocked the same way for speaking up like Horvath? Would he be accused of having an ego for making a place for himself in the community? I think it unlikely, and sexist double standards still exist. Experiences like Horvath’s, including being told to be more “lady-like” at conferences, are common. Take for example, developer Linda Sandvik’s tweets about GitHub Selfies, in which she asks to be judged by the quality of her code and not her appearance. She also says she’s been taken more seriously since making her GitHub username gender-neutral.

While sexism is an issue in every industry, people in tech seem much more invested in denying it, but why? There’s the economic threat that Horvath mentions regarding her own story – the belief that one’s job is at risk when issues are spoken about. (And make no mistake, I agree with her when she says they almost always are.)

But the more dangerous belief is in the Almighty Meritocracy, which plagues tech more than any other industry, that posits: If we work hard, we will be rewarded and emerge unscathed. Many have discovered that is simply not always true.

Sabrina Majheed, a designer at BuzzFeed, says in a Quora thread that she dismissed gender inequality until it affected her personally: “I subscribed to the idea of meritocracy and believed that the issues other women were facing were a result of their lack of focus – and that the opposition they faced wouldn’t happen to me because I was smart, talented, and hard-working.”

Majheed’s initial opinions were based on being an entry-level employee who didn’t pose a threat to anyone. She writes: “It wasn’t until the past year and a half that I began to experience the backlash of speaking up and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that around the same time many of my female design peers who are near my age and previously experienced the same sort of early career success began to have similar experiences at their workplaces.”

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