How GitHub Can Detox Its Community

On Saturday, one of GitHub’s most influential women left the company because of what she termed “harassment.”

See also: Influential Developer Julie Ann Horvath Quits GitHub, Charging ‘Harassment’

As the pieces of Julie Ann Horvath’s story continue to surface, it really does look like the treatment she faced was gender based. GitHub has responded by putting one of its founders and a male developer described in Horvath’s account on leave pending an investigation, according to a blog post from CEO Chris Wanstrath.

A designer and developer at GitHub, Horvath was known for being the company’s first female developer hire as well as a vocal feminist who spearheaded GitHub’s Passion Projects, a talk series that highlighted the accomplishments of women in technology. 

See also: How GitHub Hired More Women—In Part, By Encouraging Them To Talk

By this point, the tech community is pretty accustomed to accusations of sexism within its ranks. But GitHub is under special scrutiny. It’s not just that the company has established a reputation for being diversity-conscious, and has gone from woman-friendly success story to part of the problem with the loss of Horvath; it’s also just the nature of the community. 

GitHub is a place for programmers that are just starting out. It’s increasingly used as a teaching tool in schools. In many ways, it’s a gateway to the tech community. Which is why sexism, whether it’s found within the company or inside the service, is especially important to eradicate.

Establishing “Gitiquette”

There’s no evidence that the way Horvath was treated was systemic. When I reached out to other women at GitHub, they declined to comment on my article.

But whether Horvath’s case was a one-time incident or an oft-repeated pattern, GitHub needs to implement positive change, soon. Fixing any problems in its internal culture, of course, will be job one. But it also needs to double down on its commitment to creating a safe community for all users.

And the best way to do that would be to establish a code of conduct for the GitHub community.

It’s no secret that GitHub has struggled with racist and sexist language in users’ uploaded code. Thanks to Section F of the GitHub Terms of Service, this isn’t GitHub’s problem directly; users retain total ownership of anything they upload to the site. 

GitHub employees are not responsible when its users post crude comments in code. But they are responsible for the community they create. And maybe it’s time for GitHub to establish a way for users to flag one another’s offensive code, the way users are already able to flag inappropriate content on Facebook or Twitter.

The reason there is no “flagging” feature on GitHub is probably because racism and sexism aren’t as blatant when they’re embedded in a user’s code. Perhaps a user is using hate speech as variables in an equation, or embedding rants into a Python algorithm. In neither case does the end product reveal anything unsavory to the program’s user.

But here’s where it gets insidious: Say you’re a novice programmer forking another user’s repository for the first time. But when you start editing the code, you find words that are offensive to you. You probably won’t feel welcome editing that GitHub user’s code a second time.

See also: GitHub For Beginners: Don’t Get Scared, Get Started 

People of all ages and abilities use GitHub for code, sometimes as their very first introduction to the open source community. That’s why it’s important to make it welcoming for everybody. And establishing a form of “Gitiquette,” and a way to report users who violate it, could be the first step to turning GitHub’s bad situation into a catalyst for positive change.

Photo by Ben Scholzen

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