Github, Boeing, and Hooters: The need for critical voices in tech

Github has come under scrutiny after their first female employee, Julie Ann Horvath, quit after two years, citing sexual harassment and intimidation. Of all places, Github! That was unexpected, but in some ways, not surprising at all. Github was a bastion of open source goodwill, and in the same way that the everyday mundane of the tech world is sexist, so Github is too. Can anyone imagine her experience — replete with a co-founder’s wife showing up to work every day to intimidate her (a wife who wasn’t employed!) to a romantically spurned coworker “ripping out [her] code from projects [they] worked on together” — happening at a larger, more mature company?

Well, unfortunately, yes. Jane Doe (“It’s now time to remove my name from this experience,” she said) graduated from Bryn Mawr in ’98 and I met her in McCabe when my old roommate Chris and I were talking about jobs in engineering companies. Chris said, “It’s a shame that Swarthmore doesn’t have strong alumni connections with engineering companies like Boeing.”

And Jane said from across the room, “I used to work at Boeing.”

It turned out that not only had she worked at Boeing, but she had stopped working at Boeing, for many of the same cultural reasons that Horvath cited at Github. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Jane since then, and she came to speak on my radio show. On the air, she recalled how she was, in a way, “one of the guys,” but soon the jokes got out of hand.

“It was fun, [but] then some guys were making comments later toward me, and then they really took it to another level. … Some people who weren’t even my friends, just coworkers, were saying really inappropriate things to me, without even any discretion, right at my desk.”

The same pattern reoccured with Horvath. Here’s a paragraph from her interview with TechCrunch, “[S]he ‘participated in the boys’ club upon joining,’ but when her ‘character started being discussed in inappropriate places like on pull requests and issues,’ the situation changed.”

The final straw for Horvath was when two female employees were hula hooping as a “line of men sitting on [a] bench” stared at them. Jane Doe had a similar epiphany at the smaller company she worked at after Boeing. A company lunch was catered by Hooter’s, served by “Hooters girls” wearing their trademark outfits, and yet nobody seemed to get it when she expressed disbelief. When she complained to her boss, he told her she was overreacting. She quit on the spot.

What is it about being one of the boys that just doesn’t work out? The attitude that women should be able to survive in a men’s world, that one should “lean in” to conflict, has come under attack in certain quarters of tech culture criticism. There is a new magazine, Model View Culture, that has recently released its fourth issue, and I recommend it to anyone interested in a fresh voice in radical dissent. There’s bravery from people who are telling their stories rather than staying silent, and people calling for allies to “lean against” the dominant orders of old money and old prestige and to form communities around their own small, independent businesses instead. But this involves making sure that marginalized people can acquire the skills and confidence necessary to become entrepreneurs in the first place.

The “boys’ club” culture that plagues these companies is still a white boys’ club. A 2013 study from the National Science Foundation reported that only 13% of scientists or engineers were underrepresented minorities (as in, not white or Asian), compared with 30% of the general population. Compare that to Asians, who represent 5% of the population, but an astonishing 18% of scientists or engineers. Comparable statistics can be seen from our computer science department here.

We need the type of open inquiry into tech culture that we have unequivocally leveled on ourselves in the past, that sort of minute analysis of microaggression and culture. We also need to report honestly upon our experiences at internships and work. The Swarthmore alumni network should feel like a massive safe space for anyone who experiences issues related to discrimination. Positive stories of good experiences are important too since this isn’t about negativity so much as making life palpable.

I realize that as an upper-middle class Asian-American male I’m implicated in the equation. I can relate to Philip Guo’s article about silent technical privilege (pgbovine.net/tech-privilege.htm), about how every step along the way people never made the assumption that I was incapable of learning, so they gave me the time and patience to learn, especially compared to people who may have had to deal with stereotype threat in the process. Mostly I feel that this is a big enough problem that I am willing to risk starting the conversation. There are also a host of issues related to Asian-Americans being perceived as “silent”, and of engineers being politically detached, that give me reason to speak. If there’s anything about the way that I write, or the things that I write that bother you, please tell me (or someone else).

Meanwhile, Jane is looking for a new job, and she’s been getting interviews with kind people at companies who reassure her that what she went through was unusual. Was it unusual? The media tells me not, but that just means that it almost certainly happens more than I’d like to think. In either case, when marginalizing behavior does happen, the Swarthmore community should always be a place of support. Come to think of it, I would love it if our career counselors started keeping a blacklist of known bad-reputation companies to help us navigate the minefields after graduation. As a start, I nominate Boeing (at least their Philadelphia office) and Github.

 

2 thoughts on “Github, Boeing, and Hooters: The need for critical voices in tech

  • March 22, 2014 at 8:14 pm
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    Thanks for you op-ed Sam! I really appreciate knowing that people like you care.

    You mentioned you would “love it if our career counselors started keeping a blacklist of known bad-reputation companies to help us navigate the minefields after graduation” I wonder if it would be better for people to avoid joining these companies or join it in hopes of changing company culture. It seems like companies like Boeing and Github will continue their sexist practices if no women join.

    Reply
  • March 26, 2014 at 6:31 pm
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    Hi Meiri,

    I think that’s one of the most interesting and pressing dilemmas about conducting activism, and I can’t say what the right course of action is for any individuals specifically, but I STRONGLY disagree with the idea that people should join companies to fix them, for moral reasons or otherwise. It’s unreasonable to expect anyone to have to bear that burden. Secret non-hiring agreements between tech giants aside, it’s a wonderful job market for engineers, and the onus is completely on the companies to adapt or to die. There are aerospace companies with much more positive track-records on diversity issues, like SpaceX, for example, who I would gladly watch take over Boeing’s market share because Boeing’s engineers are too busy going to the beach to watch Girls Gone Wild (another anecdote from Jane Doe).

    In some sense, yes, it helps to be at the center of a culture to change it, but where is the center? These companies aren’t spinning sexism out of nothing, so infiltrating them isn’t exactly the answer. It’s an industry-wide ailment. As an engineer at a company, you’d be under the mercy of a million different factors. If they don’t like your political leanings, they can fire you under whatever pretense they please–performance reviews, poor communication, not fitting in with coworkers, boss’s wife stares you down, etc. In the TechCrunch article, there’s a screenshot of an anonymous message one of Hovarth’s coworkers posted online about her, doing exactly that sort of discrediting that makes within-company activism so hard (“‘Queen’ [their nickname for Horvath] has a history of RAGING against any professional criticism. […] [S]he lied about contributions, threw hardworking coworkers under the bus (again and again)[…]”).

    Industry leaders are looking to _each other_ to see how they should behave. That’s why it’s so important for people with strong commitments for diversity to start (or join) forward-thinking companies that anticipate and buck the status quo.

    Sam

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