Since this essay was originally published, GitHub has released a follow-up post that addresses many of the concerns I outline below.
Yesterday, Chris Wanstrath, co-founder and CEO of GitHub, released a brief note about the investigation into the resignation of Julie Ann Horvath. If you have not been following along, Horvath alleged harassment and discrimination from GitHub co-founder Tom Preston-Werner, his wife, and another employee, as well as an overall culture of sexism and discrimination. Horvath describes being bullied out of the organization where she had publicly fostered a commitment to women in tech, and the immense frustration and anger that this experience created. GitHub subsequently put Preston-Werner on leave and announced there would be a full investigation, while issuing Horvath an apology. Yesterday’s post purports to share the results of that “investigation.”
Predictably, the investigation turned up “no evidence of gender-based discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or abuse.” It did, however, uncover “evidence of mistakes and errors of judgment,” for which Preston-Werner has resigned. The kind or degree of said “mistakes and errors” are left to the imagination, as are the methods of the investigation and the person or persons who undertook it.
In other words, the results of the investigation disavow any liability while simultaneously making a meek admission of—well, it’s not clear, exactly. This is legal art at its finest.
Now I’m not in a position to make any evaluation of the strength of Horvath’s claims, as I am neither a lawyer nor privy to any of the evidence. To be fair, I’m inclined to always give the person with the least power the benefit of the doubt; and Horvath’s accusations are entirely credible given what we all know of behavior in the tech community at large. But even if Horvath were not to prevail in a lawsuit—or even if her allegations turned out to be demonstrably false—this is still an unacceptable response from GitHub.
Yesterday’s post was not written for the GitHub community (of which I am a member), nor for the tech press, nor for Horvath, nor for the many women in tech who have themselves witnessed or suffered many of the same categories of abuse which Horvath alleges. It was narrowly written to minimize the threat of litigation. And in doing so it abdicates any responsibility to address the underlying issues which make abuse so prevalent.
Moreover, I am extremely dubious of the need for this particular bit of legal art. I am also the CEO and board member of a venture-backed startup, so I am keenly aware of the legal obligations that position entails, and the often back-breaking efforts needed to fulfill them. At the same time, there’s ample evidence that many investors are more than willing to engage the legal system when it suits them: Airbnb, Uber and Lyft, Tesla, and Aereo—whose case is before the Supreme Court today—have all spent considerable time and money on legal challenges in order to scale their businesses. And the threat from a single aggrieved employee is unlikely to be enough to topple (or, let’s face it, even mildly shake) a company with a valuation approaching one billion.
What could GitHub have done? They could have been transparent about the methods and people behind the investigation, including how they managed their own impartiality. They could have shared the specific findings of that investigation, including their plans for addressing those findings. They could have made a substantial and ongoing investment of both cash and time in any of the many organizations dedicated to women in tech—e.g., Girls Who Code. They could have hired one of the many prominent women who consult on diversity to advise them about internal practices, and shared that advice with the greater tech community. They could have launched a scholarship program for women to learn product and engineering skills, as, for example, Etsy has. They could have named a woman to their board whose role was to advise on diversity issues.
They could have responded to this sequence of events with the same care and transparency in which they respond to a service outage.
Most importantly, they could have unequivocally stated that harassing or discriminatory behavior of any kind—whether or not it meets the legal standard—is unacceptable in their house; that reports of such behavior will be handled respectfully and promptly; and that no one will be retaliated against for making such a report.
GitHub’s apparent inability to do that—to hide behind legalese rather than speak clearly about the issues that Horvath’s allegations raise—is extremely distressing. I worry about women at other tech companies watching Horvath’s experience and deciding to stay quiet about their own abuse. I worry, too, about other founders observing GitHub’s leadership and feeling constrained to follow the same path. And I worry about the women for whom witnessing this exchange is the last straw, who will abandon the tech world for communities that don’t consistently make women feel unwelcome.
If we can’t at least speak honestly and plainly about what’s going on in this community, how will it ever get better?