If you talk with women who work in technology long enough, the stories eventually come out. A familiar thread of discrimination or gender bias connects their tales—whether they realize it or not.
It’s hard to weave those stories together into a compelling picture of the challenges women in technology face, though, unless they’re told out loud and in public.
At Tuesday evening’s “Real Talk With Women in Tech,” event in San Francisco, concerned women (and a handful of men) came together to discuss how both women and men can work together to empower female voices, and help balance the gender ratio in the technological workforce.
Developer and designer Julie Ann Horvath joined the event on Tuesday via videoconference to speak publicly about her own experiences.
Horvath’s story is notable. As one of the most prominent female figures at GitHub, a company that operates shared online workspaces and communities for coders, she spearheaded the Passion Projects campaign to get more women involved both at GitHub and the tech community at large. In March, she quit GitHub, saying she’d been harassed for months without repercussions. The company launched an investigation into Horvath’s charges and the environment for women at the company, and amid the controversy, GitHub’s founder and CEO Tom Preston-Werner resigned. GitHub’s internal investigation did “find evidence of mistakes and errors of judgment”—just not gender-based harassment.
Horvath’s story isn’t unique, but it is one that resonates with women because she has chosen to speak out.
“[GitHub] really pushed me to sign a nondisparagement agreement,” Horvath said at the event. “I refused to give up my truth, because there’s no amount of money that’s worth that to me, or at least my ability to talk about my experience.”
She said GitHub knew that if her story became public, it would impact the way people perceived the company. Horvath declined to sign the nondisparagement agreement in part because she knew an employee who had signed one and believed that woman may have come to regret her decision.
In Horvath’s experience, the startup workplace can be like Lord Of the Flies: The people who come into power are the friends of the founders, and when someone different comes in, there’s a greater chance that they will get pushed out.
According to Horvath, personal relationships played a large part in what she called a “toxic” GitHub work environment—she was punished both for dating one coworker, and refusing the advances of another.
While Horvath was working at GitHub, many women in the tech community spoke out against GitHub’s culture. (A quick peek at GitHub’s team page shows how imbalanced the gender ratio is, especially among engineers.) She said that it was hard for her to defend GitHub’s culture while experiencing poor treatment. She started Passion Projects while at the organization to create a ripple effect in the industry.
“Companies were basing their company culture around what GitHub did,” she said. “[Passion Projects] was an opportunity to throw that weight and influence behind an important cause.”
When Horvath quit, she took Passion Projects with her, and the events are no longer associated with GitHub. She hopes that these events continue to empower both women and men in technology, and amplify the voices that are so often muffled.
Nearly cried after “Thank you for not being anonymous.” I’d do it again and again if it meant women wouldn’t be made to feel like I was.
— Julie Ann Horvath (@nrrrdcore) May 21, 2014
Talk About The Truth
In the technology industry, women are an underrepresented minority.
To help close this gap and achieve professional success, women are told to “Lean In,” and put on a brave (and smiling) face. They’re told they should change how they speak and ban words like “bossy,” because they have a negative connotation, even though many women embrace the term, and are proud to be strong leaders.
Banning words is not a solution. That’s at best a linguistic Band-Aid over a problem that, when left untreated, can infect the workplace and result in women leaving their companies after suffering harassment, or continuously hitting a glass ceiling that doesn’t seem to crack.
Women represent just 30 percent of the entire workforce in the technology industry, and only 15 percent of software engineering roles are held by women, according to recent data from professional networking site LinkedIn.
Of course, it’s not just a problem in technology. Women have trouble achieving and maintaining leadership positions in business, sports, or media, too—all businesses that are increasingly infused by technology and whose (mostly male) leaders look to Silicon Valley for inspiration.
At the New York Times, Jill Abramson, the executive editor, the newspaper’s highest-ranking editorial position, was fired from her position due to what publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. called “an issue with management in the newsroom.”
Many have debated how much gender played a role in her dismissal, as they did when Horvath quit GitHub. The common thread between Abramson and Horvath is that they refused to go quietly. Abramson refused to participate in the usual ruse about “retiring” to “spend more time with her family,” forcing the Times to admit what really happened. Her departure, as with Horvath’s, sparked a necessary debate—one that could only be held in an environment of transparency.
What Can We Do?
The first software programmers were almost entirely women—a historical reality that’s erased by the present-day reality that technology is a boy’s club, and has been for decades.
People are working to change that. Programs like Girls Who Code are trying to close the gender gap in technology; publications like Model View Culture highlight diverse voices and stories in the industry; and events like Passion Projects feature talks from prominent women in technology that inspire others to help change the ratio of women in tech.
And documentarian Kathy Kleinman is highlighting the historical contributions of women to the birth of the computer industry. Her documentary, The Computers, premieres Saturday at the Seattle International Film Festival.
GitHub, too, is working to detoxify its work environment, but in order for the tech community at large to significantly change, there needs to be a perception shift—one driven by vocal supporters working to make the workplace equal.
When asked how women can be supportive about challenges in the industry, Horvath said, “My best advice would be to talk to each other.”
It begins there, but it doesn’t stop there.
See Also: GitHub Tries Again At Transparency
After Horvath’s discussion, another group took the stage to talk about how they’ve become successful women in technology—though the panel participants were quick to point out that they don’t like to be labeled as such.
“The only label I’ve ever given myself is my first name and last name,” said Sepideh Nasri, a startup advisor and former vice president of Women 2.0. “Today I’m a ‘woman in tech’ because I’m on this panel. Labels are just temporary.”
It’s important to build relationships with advocates for gender equality in technology, and create a support system that insists all voices are heard.
In the spirit of supporting one another, event attendees were eager to share their own experiences with the group, ranging from their incidences of harassment, to the challenges of picking out the clothes they wear to work functions. The recurring theme I heard over and over was, “Speak up.”
Sometimes it’s just not that easy.
“Many times I wish there was someone looking out for me to make sure my voice was heard,” said Lauren Rosenthal, a product manager and UX designer in San Francisco. “If you’re in a meeting and people aren’t speaking out, as women, or men even, we need to make sure that we stop the conversation to make sure that person who might be hesitant to speak up, is speaking up.”
Change won’t come over night. And it’s not just the ratio of women that needs to change, but the ratio of other underrepresented minorities in tech, too.
It starts with a community that’s educated and willing to be open to new ideas, and leaders that don’t just talk about Making A Difference, but enact real change. Leading technology companies have an opportunity to leverage their platforms to push for initiatives like Passion Projects that was started at GitHub.
“There are actually women in tech,” Horvath said. “You just don’t hear their voices.”
Lead image by Selena Larson; photo of Julie Ann Horvath via Twitter