On Github and the toxic culture of Silicon Valley

Earlier this week, GitHub released a statement summarizing the results of their internal investigation into the reasons Julie Ann Horvath left GitHub.

I’m not going to go into the details of GitHub’s statement or the blog post by Tom Presenton-Warner announcing he was stepping down (he was the founder Horvath stated as the reason for leaving). Mandy Brown did a far better job describing it than I ever could in her recent blog post.

I’ll just simply say this about their response: it’s a bullshit move by GitHub that is only intended to make sure they won’t lose a lawsuit, not to actually address inequality issues in the company.

I want to talk, instead, about three bad arguments I kept hearing repeated over and over and over. These are by no means the only bad arguments I heard, far from it. These are just the ones I ended up picking first, somewhat at random.

The first horrible argument I heard was people agreeing with GitHub and saying “she must have been making it up because there was no evidence.” This reading of the situation shows a very naive, uninformed understanding of these types of situations. In these types of situations, there is very rarely any evidence at all. The problem is one of human interaction, and so is a he-said/she-said problem by definition. The only types of evidence that you could possibly have are recordings of conversations, which are going to be very difficult to gather in a business you do not own, if not outright illegal (it’s illegal to record someone without their permission in some states). In practice, the notion that “the burden is on the accuser to prove it” is a silencing technique, not an ask for a fair and balanced analysis of the situation.

Another bad argument I saw was people claiming “No one else at GitHub dealt with these issues, so she must have been making it up.” First of all, no one else spoke up recently about these issue. Others have spoken up about it in the past (see the rug of meritocracy issue they dealt with). Also, just because no one has spoken up about it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. After seeing the strong backlash against Horvath, there is tremendous pressure not to come forward. It's a clear sign that if you come forward, you will face the same wrath. Of course no one else came forward!

A third bad argument I heard was "it wasn't sexual harassment/gender discrimination, just some employees who didn't get along," or something along those lines. This was such a frustrating derail, focusing on the details of whether this is legally considered sexual harassment. Who fucking cares! Leave the legalese to the lawyers. What matters is that a lower level employee had to deal with a hostile work environment created by other co-workers and a c-level executive. There may not have been sexual harassment according to the letter the law, but the power dynamics at play were the exact same ones that allow sexual harassment to flourish. The root problem is the same.

I remember talking with a fellow coworker at my previous company, and he was lamenting how few women there were at the company and in the industry in general. He explicitly said he wanted more women in tech because he wanted a girlfriend. This statement so perfectly illustrates the essence of the problem: many of the men in Silicon Valley want more women in tech for the wrong reasons, and it is those very reasons that push women away. So few people care about diversity and equality because, ya know, they're a public good in and of themselves. Many of the men in this industry only talk about women in tech because a) they want someone to fuck or b) they are pissed that a woman is calling them out on their bullshit.

I'm going to end with a quote from the ever-incredible Ashe Dryden and her spot-on, and sadly prescient, blog post at also ever-amazing Model View Culture (seriously, just go read the entire thing right now):

Demographic is probably too broad, but there’s definitely a type. Most commonly they’re white, male, and educated, but lack the critical thought processes to consider experiences outside their own. They pride themselves in the idea that they’ve gained their power and success through intellectual prowess and business sense, while being ignorant to or dismissive of systemic injustice. Many of them were bullied as kids for being geeks and believe that makes them incapable of bullying or oppressive behavior...

Above all, they consider themselves logical and rational, believing that none of their decisions are colored by emotions or unacknowledged biases. Often they’ll criticize small or seemingly inconsequential things as a way of demonstrating their intelligence, avoiding responding with actual substance. They’re fiercely competitive and love to win - a dangerous combination that allows them to justify overt violence and abuse.