Jule Ann Horvath’s resignation from GitHub
and the mess that led to it
If you frequent new sites that cater to developers, you’ve probably already seen the TechCrunch article on Julie Ann Horvath’s departure from GitHub and the events and atmosphere within the company that led her to leave, as well as GitHub’s response. In my opinion, the loss is GitHub’s, as her contributions were not just technical, but also social, in the form of women-in-tech advocacy such as Passion Projects.
As is now customary in our industry, whenever a woman speaks out against a toxic, sexist culture at work, at conferences, or wherever programmers gather, the was the immediate man-childish, tone-deaf, brain-dead reaction to Horvath’s speaking out, which ran the gamut from “boys will be boys” to “she couldn’t handle the meritocracy” to “chicks ruin everything”. The message in their posts was that she, like most women, didn’t have the necessary technical or personal skills to succeed at GitHub, so she’s using the power of whining to get her way.
I think they’re wrong. I’m inclined to believe in Horvath’s story because I’ve seen this scenario time and again, in which a privileged group fails to see a problem and makes speaking out difficult. I’ve also seen it happen to me.
The Frosh Week incident
If you lived in Canada and went to a high school that required you to wear a uniform, Queen’s was likely to be one of your choices for university. I chose it for its good engineering school and tight-knit culture, and had a wonderful — if someone Van Wilder-esque — stay there.
The incident took place the day before Frosh Week 1988, just before the newest wave to incoming students arrived for their week-long initiation, which was also a week’s worth of revelry and debauchery for us second-year students. My engineering classmates and I were at Alfie’s, the school’s largest pub, celebrating our return as sophomores by drinking pitchers of Lime and Lager and dancing to Bizarre Love Triangle and Yin and Yang the Flowerpot Man. I was dancing with Joan, a red-haired friend of mine, when a six-foot something blond guy walked up to me.
“You’re a fucking chink fag,” he said with gritted teeth.
“Nice day for it,” I replied. I was too busy dancing to deal with some drunk asshole. Besides, I’m a flip, not a chink. Get your hate-targets right, dude.
I found out later that he was upset because he was attracted to Joan and thought I’d beaten him to the punch in picking her up. I have two things to say: wrong, and tough shit.
He grabbed me my my shirt. “Why don’t you fucking go back to where you fucking came from?”
Oh, great. Not just a racist, but one who also uses clichés. I grabbed his neck and started pressing on his Adam’s apple. All the while, I was wondering where the hell the bar staff were. Usually, they jump on you if you did so much as stand on a chair.
“I came from across the street, asshole,” I said. That was true: I lived in a house that was very conveniently across the street from the pub.
My friend Rob, always smiles, saw the altercation and came up to us. He faced the guy, made the peace sign and said “Peace, man.”
The guy looked at Rob with incredulity, and perhaps taken aback by the message of universal peace and love, let go of me and looked like he was about to walk away.
“Well,” Rob said to me, “that looks like the end of –”
That’s all I heard. The guy spun around on his heel and clocked me right in the nose. That’s not what knocked me unconscious — the back of my head smacking the dance floor did that.
I came to about a minute later to see a lot of blood on my new shirt. Joan had completely gone to pieces and was crying profusely. Some of my bigger friends were jockeying to be the one to teach the guy a lesson.
“Just give me the word,” my friend Simon said, “and I’ll fucking waste him.” He yelled across the bar at the guy. “You hear me, homes? I’ll fucking waste you!” Simon only calls someone “homes” when he’s about to administer righteous beat-downs.
I was being carried out the back exit of the pub while Simon kept asking for permission to try out some new martial arts moves on the guy. I was in too much pain to really care about justice, or revenge and too scared to think straight. All I could ask was “Why did that guy hate me so much? What did I ever do to him?”
The worst part wasn’t getting clocked. It was what followed.
Some of my friends knew this guy and tried to “make me understand where he was coming from”. One guy in my engineering class told me “Look, Joey, he’s from a small town. All the people he’s ever known until a year ago are white. He’s also from a poor farming family — he hasn’t been out much. Be a trooper, try and understand where he’s coming from. Don’t press charges. It’ll only make things worse.”
Another guy said “Look, the world’s not fair. I think you’re a good guy, and one of the nicest engineers I know. But you look…different from most of the people here, and that’s the way things work. I wish it wasn’t that way, but I don’t make the rules. It’s not your fault. Just let it go, and keep on keepin’ on.”
Bad as it was from people I knew, it was even worse from the pub’s management, as well as the student constables (students charged with keeping order at the campus pubs and events). The head constable brushed off the whole thing with “Hey, sometimes people say things they don’t mean when they were drunk. Besides, I hear it was over a girl.”
If it was over a girl, then why did he never mention her? All I heard were racist epithets.
“It’s just a misunderstanding,” he continued. “If you make a fuss, he’ll just come down on you harder.”
“Isn’t it your job to make sure he doesn’t?”
“Well, on campus, yes,” he replied. “But off campus, no. And we can’t be everywhere. We’re not cops.”
“Well, I’m thinking of going to the cops.”
A look of grave concern appeared on his face. “That…,” he said, with great delicacy, “might not be…wise. Think about it: it’ll bring attention to the school from the Mayor’s office and the press, and you probably know that is exactly what we don’t need right now. It could jeopardize events, maybe even shut down the pub.”
As he walked me out of his office, he put a hand on my shoulder and said “Look, what happened was awful. I don’t deny that. Sometimes the world isn’t fair [Again with that line! Do they teach it in secret WASP classes?], but I’m asking you not to make things worse. For you, and the school.”
Between the omerta pressure from so-called friends and people supposedly in charge of keeping the peace, and to my own shame, I was disheartened enough not to press charges. I spent the next few weeks living with that haunted feeling that I was no longer safe in my school, that no one had my back.
“But I was okay with it!”
David Wong, who consistently writes great, insightful stuff, has this as the fifth and final item in his article, 5 Ways You’re Accidentally Making Everyone Hate You:
#1. You Assumed That Because You Were OK With a Situation, Everybody Was
This will happen to you. You will be on one side of a conflict that does not feel like a conflict to you, because that is the conflict. Trust me, there’s a great chance you’ll be oblivious to it until it’s too late. Entire governments have fallen this way.
In many cases, they mean it honestly – “I’m not angry at anyone, I just want to leave things the way they are. Which incidentally involves me having all of the power.”
This is why the same people who scream about The Big Bang Theory being “nerd blackface” also seem to be oblivious to the fact that the tech field often seems as welcoming to women as medicine or law were a century ago, or worse still, actively add their own poison to the toxic stew. The former is relevant to their interests, the latter is someone else’s problem. It’s also why it’s difficult to speak out in these situations, and why Horvath waited a year before going public.
Complicating matters is that once you’re out of school and in the “real world”, you’re no longer playing the small ball of who-punched-whom at the pub, but a much bigger game of job, money, and grown-up (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) lives. The stakes are higher, speaking out carries much bigger consequences, and the punishments for upsetting the status quo are far, far more harsh. In these cases, the decision to speak out is made with a lot of deliberation, because it comes with a huge price tag and it often seems that you’re on your own.
From my own, much less significant experience, I get where Horvath’s coming from. I’ve seen that sort of circling of wagons that follows when one speaks out — or in my own case, is about to speak out. Think about that when looking at the GitHub story, as well as the responses from within and outside the company.