On GitHub and speaking out

by Joey deVilla on March 17, 2014

on github and speaking out

Jule Ann Horvath’s resignation from GitHub
and the mess that led to it

shadow octocatIf 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

douglas library

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 –”

punch

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.

stop snitching

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!”

sheldon

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.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Amy Hoy March 17, 2014 at 3:48 pm

I’m sorry you went through this and that nobody backed you up in the way that you needed them to.

I respect you even more now, not only for what you’ve said, but how you’ve said it.

You are absolutely right — no matter who strikes you, the follow-on suppression, shame, blame, & avoidance is worse than the blow. Shows you who your friends really are (or aren’t, sadly). Even most well-meaning people are cowardly when it comes down to it, and that’s a shame, because being brave for your friends is its own reward.

Just wanted to add this for anyone who is or has been abused:

It’s the #1 trick of abusers to think it’s some quality that YOU have that made THEM hurt you. Don’t believe a word they say. Don’t let them persuade you that it’s because of your sex or race or clothes you wore or what you did that day. Every time they open their mouths to explain it, know that lies are spilling out.

The facts of your existence cannot reach inside their heads and turn them evil. You don’t have that kind of “power.” (Even if they claim that you do.) You are not responsible for their actions, not in a good way or in a bad way.

People abuse because they’re abusers, and you just happened to be the handiest target. That’s all the “understanding where they’re coming from” you could ever need.

2 Peach March 17, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Further to Amy’s point: The one thing that all abusers have in common is that they genuinely believe that they are the victims. Sure, look at things from his perspective … then ask yourself what prevented him from getting smarter when given the opportunity. He had no desire to stop being a big fish in a little pond, and he had no need to do it when he could convince others that the big, bad world was oppressing him. Heck, maybe he didn’t have to convince them of anything because challenging his position of privilege was too much like an admission that their own status should be challenged.

Queen’s will always put the reputation and balance sheet of Queen’s first.

3 John Locke March 17, 2014 at 5:22 pm

People, institutions, companies or systems that have nothing to hide should never fear people from the outside seeing what is going on inside. People know when things are not right, but they do nothing because they fear repercussions on themselves.

While the tech/web industry is a place of lofty ideals, it is still rooted in the real world. Pure meritocracy is a worthy goal, but it is naive to believe that our industry has achieved something that has never been achieved in any other industry or system, in short, Utopia.

People are frail and fallible. And while most people seek to do good, even good people are hesitant to challenge a system, hierarchy or Kulture on the behalf of what is right if it means that they will have to suffer for their choices.

Societies and cultures are changed by people constantly challenging what is flawed. Societies can be persuaded, but it takes a long time. This is why in the United States we are still feeling the effects of outdated and immoral institutions such as slavery, the Sedition Act, the Trail of Tears and women not being allowed to vote.

I was a person who was bullied daily as a youngster. Gradually I learned to fight back. I can say as an adult that high school never ends. People still hold their prejudices, people still worry about being liked and being popular, and very few people change their mindset after a certain age.

At least the jerk who punched you in the face was honest, and you knew where he stood. It is common for adults, especially in an office or technical setting to use passive-aggressive techniques as opposed to straight up violence. The damage that physical bullies do can sometimes be easier to deal with, sometimes not.

If anyone asks you to be quiet in a situation that is clearly wrong, the question becomes “Will the consequences of speaking up be something I can live with?”

The web industry is a guy-dominated culture that is only twenty years old. Yes, it is cool to have fun at work, but it is time for the industry as a whole to mature. Startups and companies need to remember that it is a *business* and act accordingly.

Thank you for sharing your experience. I hope it will allow others to speak up where they would otherwise remain silent.

4 Jacques March 17, 2014 at 5:33 pm

Hi, I see what you mean, because I have starred this role before too, not exactly like yours, but also trying to make myself heard in the middle of a vast injustice against me motivated by racial prejudice. Believe me, if you had stood up and made a strong point about how things were totally wrong, you’d be the villain of this story. Everybody, and I mean literally everyone, would be against you. You’d loose friends and be alienated from that university community forever. This happened to me a couple of times. It hurts a lot when everyone turn their backs at you because you don’t “accept life as it is” (you are probably crazy or what not, they think). I know, it hurts, but sometimes it’s the only (not the best) choice to adapt and proceed. Julie’s attitude has open up yet again the discussion that is frequently dismissed in high tech community. It’s past the time of computing to assume an adult persona and let it go of the man-child frat boy mythos.

Even some people who support her now by sending warm tweets will be the ones asking someday “Isn’t this job candidate the girl of githubgate? She’s trouble, it’s best not to hire her.” I admire her immensely for having the guts of opening up about her trouble to the public. Julie has sacrificed her career as a software developer/designer, and I hope her sacrifice is not in vain. Today, I read that situations like hers have been happening at Github for a long time, and perpetrated by the same couple, but the women were usually convinced to sign NDAs before leaving.

5 slfisher March 17, 2014 at 8:16 pm

I’m so sorry people did that to you. Thanks for speaking out.

6 Greg March 17, 2014 at 10:20 pm

“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.”

Wait… so, you fight arrogance and prejudice by … arrogance and prejudice? WTF is wrong about being from a small town, about only knowing white people, about being poor, about being from a farming family, about not having been out much?

I call fucking hipsters and liberals! And I’m allowed to say this as I’m a fucking hipster and liberal myself. One that hasn’t lost the ability to self-reflect yet though.

I know that spending half a year working on a poor mid-western small-town farm would have given me a better understanding of the world’s diversity and people’s sorrows than studying two years at a liberal elite university abroad, spending most of the time meeting likeminded hipsters only.

I’m not saying one prejudice is better than the other. I just want to make clear that both are, in fact, nothing but arrogant prejudices.

7 SourcePlease March 17, 2014 at 10:25 pm

Can you provide links to those “man-childish, tone-deaf, brain-dead reaction[s]”? We must frequent different sites because I didn’t read any of those.

8 Deirdre Saoirse Moen March 17, 2014 at 10:28 pm

Here’s my own tale of woe. I protected myself better than you did, but no one came out ahead in the end.

http://deirdre.net/once-upon-a-time/

9 Le Soliat March 18, 2014 at 1:09 am

Horvath chose to have her case tried in the media and so far the only evidence we have is her words. Let’s look at some of her words published in the TC article.

Two women, one of whom I work with and adore, and a friend of hers were hula hooping to some music. I didn’t have a problem with this. What I did have a problem with is the line of men sitting on one bench facing the hoopers and gawking at them. It looked like something out of a strip club. When I brought this up to male coworkers, they didn’t see a problem with it. But for me it felt unsafe and to be honest, really embarrassing. That was the moment I decided to finally leave GitHub.

From what others at the event have said on the ‘net, the context is a party of Githubbers and their friends at Github offices. She felt “unsafe” because men were “facing the hoopers and gawking them.” The idea that her male colleagues and their friends might be triggered into uncontrollable violence, presumably rape, at the sight of a couple of female hoopers is some serious Sharia shit. Given that she probably isn’t a fundie, what other conclusion can I come to other than she is a neurotic misandrist? How unduly sensitive must you be and how much hatred for men must you harbor to think like this?

Her other claims are much more serious, if true. In the absence of other evidence, however, I have to assume her other claims are just as hyperbolic is this one.

10 Joey deVilla March 19, 2014 at 9:54 pm

SourcePlease: Well, there’s comment #9 to this post, for starters…

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