You might not immediately notice the latest change to come to GitHub unless you’re standing in its San Francisco headquarters and looking down at the floor. GitHub has removed the centerpiece of its faux Oval Office waiting room, a circular mat emblazoned with the phrase, “United Meritocracy of GitHub.”
We thought ‘meritocracy’ was a neat way to think of open source but now see the problems with it. Words matter. We’re getting a new rug.— Chris Wanstrath (@defunkt) January 22, 2014
GitHub CEO Chris Wanstrath, who just stepped into his new role a few days ago, probably didn’t expect his first action to involve furnishings. But while a simple change in office decor may not seem like a big deal on the surface, the removal of the rug signals a shift in GitHub’s public image.
GitHub's Julie Ann Horvath, a designer who also founded the company's all-female lecture series Passion Projects, said the rug first became a problem when photos of it made their way into feminist discussions online.
In theory, a meritocracy should be a good thing. It basically boils down to a society in which people reap the rewards of their skill and effort. But as countless advocates for women and minorities in the tech world have pointed out, meritocracies are a lot messier in real life. The tech industry isn’t still predominantly white and male because white men are better at their jobs than everyone else, it’s because many white men have had more opportunities to succeed than their minority and female counterparts.
The false idea that the tech industry is a meritocracy hurts everyone. It allows Paul Graham to continue thinking that the founders who make it into Y Combinator are the best of the best, not just the best people with the most privileges. It also furthers a culture of entrepreneur worship.
Technology may be more meritocratic than many other industries, but not to the extent that you can attribute anyone's success solely to their own smarts and hard work. Opportunities, connections and socioeconomic status still matter. So do race and gender.
GitHub aspires to be a meritocracy, which explains the founders’ wording on the rug. But even though the company has made strides in hiring diversity, thanks in part to Passion Projects, it's got farther to go. Feminists like Horvath worried that the word “meritocracy” glossed over the struggles of minorities trying to join the tech community.
Horvath said that at first, the founders were hesitant to remove the rug because they didn't want to appear to be giving in to the demands of online bullies. But Horvath and other women at GitHub began to feel as if they were “bearing the brunt” of the rug’s message as well as “being excluded from other communities as a result.”
One employee, Horvath says, thought she was rejected for membership in Double Union, a feminist hackerspace, because of the rug. Double Union did parody the rug on its crowdfunding page, but denied that it would reject a possible member because of the rug.
“We may not be perfect here at GitHub, especially in the eyes of the feminist community, but it should never mean that our voices and opinions as women in tech should be ignored or devalued,” said Horvath. “We listen to one another and are working to make tech a better place for everyone. We saw a problem. We fixed it. We’re moving forward and we’re asking the community to move forward with us.”
There are no plans to auction off the old rug, but the new one has already been ordered.
Its new slogan: “In collaboration we trust.”