A month ago, well-known programmer Coraline Ada Ehmke was fired from her job at GitHub.
When it happened, she knew she was going to want to publicly speak out about her frustrating time at the company, so she did something that people rarely do: she turned down the company’s severance package. To get the money, she would have had to sign a non-disparagement non-disclosure agreement, she told Business Insider.
She found another job and a few weeks after that, after getting the OK from her current employer, she wrote a tell-all of her year at GitHub.
“I was very privileged in this case. I have a good support network, so people who care about me and support my work actually put up the money I would have gotten in severance to make sure I had enough to live on and still had the opportunity to tell my story,” Ehmke told Business Insider.
Outspoken and reprimanded
Ehmke isn’t alleging that she experienced sexual harassment, discrimination, or anything else illegal. She blames “inexperienced management” and a rough corporate culture for a frustrating year there.
As a trans woman in tech, Ehmke made a name for herself by speaking out about inclusion, writing community conduct codes to promote diversity, and other such work. She’s also been known to cause a hubbub in the open source community with her outspoken ways.
GitHub hired Ehmke in 2015 knowing she was a rabble rouser for causes of diversity and, Ehmke says, they wanted her because of that. She says her GitHub managers “constantly praised” her for her productivity but also constantly told her that she was being too abrasive. Although she was a senior engineer, Ehmke says her manager put her on weekly 1:1 meetings and reviewed “all of my written communication.”
She thought she was improving in that area and achieving other goals that put her on track for a promotion. But instead she got a bad review, was put on a “performance improvement plan,” and fired shortly after.
Of course, there are two sides to every story, and not every hire at every company works out. GitHub won’t tell its side because it has a policy against commenting on HR matters. “As a matter of company policy, we don’t comment on personnel issues. At GitHub, we have worked hard to build a diverse and inclusive culture and are committed to these values at every level of the company,” a spokesperson told Business Insider.
Still, Ehmke’s written account of her issues at the company sounds a lot like the kind of issue that Facebook COO and feminist Sheryl Sandberg has been warning about since her “Lean In” book published in 2013. Sandberg’s premise is that women who are cheered for delivering results are also often reprimanded for being too aggressive, difficult, or abrasive in ways that men are not.
The dangers of speaking out
Today, more women in tech are speaking out about the sexism, sexual harassment, discrimination, and even sexual assault they have experienced in their careers. And powerful people are losing their jobs as a result.
But this experience at GitHub left Ehmke thinking that no real progress is being made.
GitHub’s big sexual harassment scandal was back in 2014, when a female programmer made allegations. GitHub always denied those allegations but ultimately the founder CEO resigned. It has been working hard on its reputation ever since.
“Here was a company that, from an outside perspective, seemed to be taking culture change more seriously. They have hired some really good people to turn things around,” Ehmke says. “I’m not seeing systematic change. Maybe it’s too early for me to be hopeful. Maybe the wounds are still too fresh.”
Still, she believes that what’s needed for real change to happen in Silicon Valley is for more people like her, in a position to shun the “hush money,” to tell their stories.
“We need more women and marginalized people to speak up if it’s safe for them to do so,” she says.
And it’s not really safe. Women who speak out are subject to everything from threats to “doxing,” where hackers publish personal identifying information about a person and make them even bigger targets.
“Speaking out is a risk and I don’t know how safe I am. That’s why I waited until I got a new job before I wrote,” she said.
“I’ve been doxed before, I’ve been threatened before. I’ve had horrible experiences. But I’m in a position that I can handle that because I’m older, I’m well established in my career, and I have a good support network. So it’s up to people like me to take that abuse and to speak out because other people can’t,” she said.