Why GitHub’s Unconvincing Investigation Harms Women in Games Development


Two years ago, Julie Ann Horvarth had a simple message for women in software development: Know your stuff, don’t talk about feminism, make great things and you’ll be fine.

Last month, Horvarth had a public about-face, claiming she was bullied out of a job at one of the most prestigious companies in tech – bringing harassment allegations against GitHub that shocked the tech industry. Github founder Chris Wanstrath immediately promised a “full investigation.” He personally apologized to Julie, and said he was “certain that there were things we could have done differently.” The results of the investigation came out yesterday.

The outcome, according to GitHub’s self-selected investigation team? “The investigation 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.” Additionally, they “found no evidence of gender-based discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or abuse.”

The founder allegedly behind the bullying has just moved to a prestigious position at a large venture capital firm, and another of Horvath’s alleged harassers has been promoted within the company.

This is not a story with a happy ending. The message is chilling for women in software development: you can be destroyed at any moment. No one is coming to help you. Your harassers will say what they have to say, but the only person suffering fallout will be you.

When I first heard about Julie Ann Hovarth’s allegations of gender-based harassment at GitHub, my stomach churned. Not because sexual harassment is a dreadful subject, which it is – but because I knew another female software developer was about to go through hell, regardless whether her allegations were true or not.

And she did go through hell. When the Verge reported on the story, legions of Silicon Valley programmers speculated on her sex life. They called her a slut. Commenters took pieces of her story out of context and attacked her with it.

A friend of mine described the comments at Hacker News as “going into a horror movie basement.”  For speaking up against alleged harassment, Horvath endured the fury of a mob. 
I wasn’t there for what happened with Horvath. I cannot speak to the validity of her claims against GitHub, and I cannot speak to the methodology of the investigation.

But I can absolutely speak to this: “Does the investigation give the public the impression that Github took these accusations seriously? That answer is an unqualified, “Hell no.”

As others have pointed out, if Github was serious about doing a third party investigating Horvath’s claims, then then the entire results of the investigation should have been released to the public.

GitHub could then amend them with any factual clarifications they deemed relevant. The public, including female software developers like myself, could have slept more easily with the knowledge that a powerful institution in tech was taking claims of gender-based harassment seriously.

In the end, GitHub certainly gives the impression that it is choosing to protect itself. Horvath has been vocal on Twitter about how investigators had minimal contact with her, and seemed to be conducting an investigation with a predetermined outcome.

It’s seriously worth considering the silencing effect GitHub’s choice will have on other women in tech.  Writing on her blog, “I’m angry because I’m afraid,” Ellen Chisa made the point that this resolution should rightly terrify any woman in tech today.

“That answer [from GitHub] isn’t reassuring for women in technology at all. What happens if (when) something like that happens to you? Will your company throw you under the bus to protect themselves legally? Will they try to discredit you, even while taking actions [that] make it clear something happened?…

We wonder why we don’t have women in tech – yet we don’t address when we terrify them! We focus on the facts instead of the overall climate.”

Personally, I know a lot of women in game development like the 2012 version of Julie Horvath. When the subject of feminism comes up, they chime in with a message of bored detachment. The best way to get along in a male dominated industry is to be one of the guys as much as you can. As women, we’ve been socialized to deprioritize our feelings and emotions, and we’ve been trained that men are uncomfortable when we speak up.

For the most part, it’s an effective tactic. Until things go wrong.

The New York Times recently reported that 56 percent of women leave tech at midcareer. You can have all the app camps for girls you want. You can hold diversity sessions at GDC cheerily preaching to the choir. But, until we address the culture that led to GitHub in a way that inspires confidence, women will continue to leave tech mid-career.

The elementary school lesson of sexism is “Girls can do anything boys can”. It’s the Spice Girls shouting, “Girl Power!” and Kim Possible saving the world in time for cheerleading practice. Society approves of this message. You’d have to be a blatant misogynist to disagree, and more importantly, it feels good while not requiring you to do anything.

This is where we, as a society, don a flight suit and proudly declare “Mission accomplished!” It’s like collecting pink yogurt tops to fight breast cancer. It’s unclear how it addresses the problem, but it does provide a distant sense that we’re good people who care.

The real work to be done is in ending the systematic marginalization that happened to Horvath. The thing that has to change is GitHub launching an investigation without any credibility. We have to ask men in tech to consider the unconscious privilege that makes tech a hostile place to work in ways they haven’t even considered.

And make no mistake, if you try to change these things you will be bullied to the point of losing sleep.

I have a personality made of pure adamantium. I’ve received seven rape threats so far in 2014 for speaking up on women in tech issues. Just last week, I appeared on a panel about sexism at PAX East.  Afterward, I received an email in which someone told me I should be “raped and dismembered”, that I should kill myself, and that my corpse wasn’t worth fucking afterwards.

It’s not hard to understand why so many women simply decide these battles are not worth fighting and leave.

In her excellent essay, Dissent Unheard Of, Ashe Dryden explained the culture that leads us to the outcome at Github.

“Above all, [harassers] 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…

[I]f marginalized people continue to be the only voices that are calling out this behavior – especially in professionally dangerous situations – they’ll continue to be punished for it. It is not enough for allies to simply commiserate; they need to recognize that their positions of privilege lend credibility to the valid criticism and they have far less to risk in standing up.”

I have a part to play in standing up and so do you. And if you agree with me, I suggest letting @github know about it.

Brianna Wu is head of development at Giant Spacekat, an all-female gamedev company making cinematic experiences with Unreal. She’s frequent speaker on women-in-tech issues, and has worked as a politico, and an investigative journalist.

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Susana Polo thought she'd get her Creative Writing degree from Oberlin, work a crap job, and fake it until she made it into comics. Instead she stumbled into a great job: founding and running this very website (she's Editor at Large now, very fancy). She's spoken at events like Geek Girl Con, New York Comic Con, and Comic Book City Con, wants to get a Batwoman tattoo and write a graphic novel, and one of her canine teeth is in backwards.