Last night I read about the departure from GitHub, the popular social coding side, of its co-founder Tom Preston-Werner. Preston-Werner’s company had been accused of a culture of bullying, sexism and harassment by one of the company’s then developers, Julie Ann Horvath. In an official announcement on its website, GitHub outlined the steps that it had taken to clean house. However, many of these steps seem to have been spent treading carefully around the elephant in the room. When GitHub’s findings are compared with the comments of two of their most vocal critics, the developer Julie Ann Horvath and the technology writer Shanley Kane, it seems that much of the picture is still missing.
“Last month,” wrote Chris Wanstrath, the CEO and co-founder of GitHub, “a number of allegations were made against GitHub and some of its employees, including one of its co-founders, Tom Preston-Werner. We took these claims seriously and launched a full, independent, third-party investigation.”
“The investigation”, continued Wanstrath, “found no evidence to support the claims against Tom and his wife of sexual or gender-based harassment or retaliation, or of a sexist or hostile work environment. However, while there may have been no legal wrongdoing, the investigator did find evidence of mistakes and errors of judgment. In light of these findings, Tom has submitted his resignation, which the company has accepted…As to the remaining allegations, the investigation found no evidence of gender-based discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or abuse.”
However, Horvath’s interview with Tim Murtaugh for the Stop Talk Show podcast gives the impression that GitHub’s investigation has produced a curiously clean sweep. Horvath related the tale of a GitHub engineer who, following her rejection of his romantic advances, took a series of “passive-aggressive” measures to undermine her work. “He’s retaliating against me”, she said, “for not dating him or fucking him, excuse my language; it’s kind of crazy where you can’t work in an environment where, you know, men especially aren’t mature enough to deal with their own feelings.”
Horvath had kept a careful record of his behaviour. “There’s proof that this person went in and ripped out my code”, she told Murtaugh. “There are emails…I spent the last two years documenting all this stuff [so that] there was solid proof of all these things happening”. There is a sense, though, that certain uncomfortable questions were left unasked, perhaps for fear of what their answers might reveal. “They hired an outside firm to do an investigation”, observed Horvath at 24:47 of the podcast, “but…I haven’t gotten a phone call, so…I don’t know how exactly thorough that is.” (My italics.)
Horvath risked her career to make these allegations, and yet their strength has remained strangely untested. This investigation does not sound particularly rigorous: in any event, it is difficult to tell, since no copy of it has been made available to the public. “There was no investigation”, tweeted Horvath. “There was a series of conversations with a “mediator” who sought to relieve GitHub of any legal responsibility.” Meanwhile, Werner-Preston has gone on to another company, issuing a defiant statement on his own website to sue anyone making “any further false claims”. As for the engineer who allegedly bullied Horvath, he was not mentioned anywhere in the statement, even though it was his behaviour that lay at the very heart of this case. Instead, he was long ago promoted to a leadership position within GitHub, something which “terrified” Horvath to the extent that she had felt compelled to leave. The picture that she painted of the tech industry for Murtaugh and his listeners was one where women, particularly those at the beginning of the careers, are forced to suffer in silence.
“Why would younger women who are just entering this industry…speak out now?” asked Horvath. “We’re setting such a bad example for them because we’re saying “oh, if you don’t have, you know, [the right amount of] Twitter followers or if you don’t have a job already lined up, like, you’re completely fucked, and you have to deal with these situations and play with the boys’ club until you can create the circumstances by which you can leave.”
Many startups, by their very nature, are close-knit and homogenous – a phenomenon that Horvath refers to as “the tribe” – resulting in structures that are far too informal to deal with serious allegations of bullying and harassment, and situations which, in Horvath’s words, become “dangerous and toxic”.
Shanley Kane, the co-founder and co-CEO of Model View Culture, published a series of compelling tweets on the Github affair. “I need everyone to know that what happened at GitHub is NOT an exception. It is part of the script of Silicon Valley”, she wrote. “To keep Silicon Valley going – sexual harassment and abuse of women MUST happen. It MUST be covered up. The abusers MUST be promoted. The women MUST be punished and silenced. The men MUST NOT suffer consequences. THIS IS INTEGRAL TO THE MECHANISMS OF POWER AND WEALTH. In order for Silicon Valley to keep going as is, this is necessary. THIS IS NOT A BUG. THE SYSTEM IS WORKING AS DESIGNED.”
Taken together, the analyses of Horvath and Kane present a world where scrutiny of the excesses of male employees is routinely passed over in pursuit of profit. The question is how many women have either been inhibited in their careers or lost them altogether as a result of these brutally adverse working conditions; one which GitHub, and other companies like it, have so far been far too slow to address.