Julie Ann Horvath is a designer at Github, the open-source code development startup in San Francisco.
I recently gave an interview to Dame Magazine to discuss whether or not efforts to recruit women in tech are sexist, and while answering questions over email, I realised I hadn’t really sat down and written enough about my worries, reasoning, and motivations around Passion Projects. There’s a ton of great stuff in this interview (that didn’t get written about in the article) that I think everyone needs to hear.
Here’s the full interview:
1. Some say that Women in Technology Initiatives can do more harm than good, and that they don’t want to be seen as token females. As one of GitHub’s first female developers, did you ever feel a pressure to represent all female developers? What was that experience like?
I actually still worry about this pretty often. I think there’s a misconception, even within GitHub, that I *speak* for all women at our company. Even amongst the Ladies of GitHub, we’re a super diverse group of people. We’re on different teams, some of us have families, some of us don’t, we’re from different parts of the world, have different backgrounds, different interests…It’s not my job to be the figurehead of women at GitHub…but I’m protective of the culture we’ve built and want to enable more women to do awesome work and feel like they’re valued as peers.
2. How did things change for you personally once GitHub hired more women?
I guess I hadn’t noticed how much I missed working with other women.
I remember I was helping out a friend with a side project after work one day. We sat down and spent the night writing code together. It was just so…easy. To get along, to get on the same page, our arguments were productive and from the minute we sat down together there was an immediate sense that we respected each other.
I’m not saying these working relationships can’t exist between across all genders. It was just cool to sit down with someone, write code, and assume that that other person was my peer. I didn’t have to prove that I was as smart as them nor did I have to scream to be heard or have my opinion considered.
I knew I hadn’t felt this at GitHub in a while. So when I got back from working on that project with my friend, I posted this status update on our internal communication tool we call ‘Team’:
“Made my first contribution to a friend’s project tonight. Really fun to write code and work on projects with other lady scros [reference to the movie Idiocracy / inside joke]. Something I wish we had a little more of at GitHub. Which reminded me, it’s been a while since we’ve hired a female engineer or designer. In fact, If we had a “Technical Lady Hubbers Hired” graph it would look like the one attached. Would anyone be interested in a few talks about growing an awesome female engineering culture from some amazing lady devs in the new year? I would be most willing to PRP [be responsible for] this effort.”
That was the seed that Passion Projects would eventually grow from.
There are women who are super comfortable with being the only woman in tech. Some of them see it as an advantage, you know, being the unicorn. Tina Fey has a great quote about this in her book Bossypants on career advice for women who work in a male dominated industry:
“This is what I tell young women who ask me for career advice. People are going to try to trick you. To make you feel that you are in competition with one another. “You’re up for a promotion. If they go for a woman, it’ll be between you and Barbara.” Don’t be fooled. You’re not in competition with other women. You’re in competition with everyone.”
I don’t just want to hire more badass women, I’m focused on keeping them. I don’t want to hire women and put them on a shelf like “look at all our women” (I’m sure this is the tokenism Lea’s worried about). My motivation is not for GitHub to beat other tech companies in the percentage of female employees race. I don’t care about that.
I want to empower the women I work with, the women who inspire me. I want them to be more visible and I want other people to see that you don’t have to be followed around by a fleet of nannies to be a successful woman in our industry. The women I see affecting change every day are so normal. We don’t just need role models, we need to see people who weren’t born on 3rd base succeed.
3. Do you agree that the anonymity of the internet makes it more attractive to women?
Absolutely. My coworker Kyle wrote a pretty good blog post entitled ‘Pixels Don’t Care’ you should it check it out.
4. Some argue against having female role models. You wrote in your blog, however, that seeing a woman succeed in your environment made you realise you could do the same. In your experience why are female role models important? How did it impact you to have a female role model?
You have to have a connection with the people you look up to. With your mentors. For me, it’s incredibly important for the people who mentor me to have come from a similar community, have a mixed background, or be a woman. Or all of those things. It’s about relating to them.
My role model at my first company was all of those things. She prepared me for a ton of things that I was going to run into. And that she knew would upset me. In a lot of ways, she evened the playing field for me a little bit. And I try to do the same thing for the girls and women I mentor as well as those whom I work with.
5. What inspired you to create Passion Projects around the idea of featuring female role models? How is Passion Projects different from other Women in Tech initiatives?
I don’t know how much it’s different. One thing I’ve really pushed is that I don’t want women to come and give talks about being women. I hate that. I get asked “What is it like to be a woman in tech” all the time. And I never really know how to answer that question. I think it goes back to the idea that every woman’s experience in this industry is the same. They aren’t.
I decided to ask these incredible women to speak about whatever project they’re most excited about. This has kept the talks really diverse and interesting to everyone, not just women. The typical Passion Projects audience is usually split right down the middle, half men and half women. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s just as important for men to see these women as role models as it is for women to.
6. You mentioned in your blog that you had some negative experiences early on. Can you share one story and explain how you dealt with the situation? How did that experience motivate you to create Passion Projects?
To be honest, I created Passion Projects because I didn’t want to dwell on the negative experiences anymore. I think I got to a point where I was so frustrated with the leadership in this industry. Because I would hear “We should hire more women!!” on almost a daily basis from the same people who kind of refused to respect me as a peer. So in a lot of ways Passion Projects was an attempt to call all of their bluffs. I was finally asking my founders and this industry to put their money and their support where their mouths are.
The support from my coworkers, both female and male, has been totally extraordinary and inspiring.
7. What has been the biggest impact of Passion Projects? Any surprises or unexpected results?
I’m so happy with the communities that are being built around Passion Projects. And to be honest, It’s really awesome that men are walking away from these talks inspired by these women speaking. It’s great to see faces in the crowd I don’t recognise. Because that means we’re growing our community.
8. Women in Tech Initiatives can certainly increase visibility, but what makes a company a great place for a woman to work once she’s hired? If you were looking for a job today, what criteria would you consider about the work environment?
I need to see women in leadership roles. I need to see them contributing to product decisions. And I need to see that women at these companies aren’t being tricked into competing with one another.
9. You wrote: “Over the years I’ve learned that the best way to make sure your experience doesn’t go to waste is to invest it in the people around you.” How did you learn this lesson? Why is this important?
I learned this by connecting with other women in my industry. I realised that I was internalizing a lot of problems that weren’t really mine to begin with. And that there were better ways to handle sh—y situations and conflict without blaming myself for other peoples’s shit. It’s my job to do my job, to design products and write code, and to be good at these things. It’s not my job to correct the way that other people behave. Once I started talking to other women about some of these situations I was dealing with, I started connecting a lot of dots. And with their help and advice I was able to distance myself from these toxic situations and focus on the work I do.
I really wanna pay some of that forward. That’s always been instilled in me. I think it has to do with coming from where I come from, seeing fucked up things and wanting to fix them.
10. Last but not least, is it sexist for companies to focus hiring on women? How do you find a middle ground between sexism and support?
Just to say they have? Absolutely. I struggle with this all of the time actually. And I’m incredibly careful about this internally and being clear that Passion Projects is not a recruiting mixer. I don’t want the women who attend our events to feel like they’re being preyed on. I’ve also been hesitant in partnering with other companies in any effort to scale the series specifically because I want them to have the right motivations. Sure, it’s great your company wants to hire more women. But *why*? I think there are a lot of people talking about diversity in tech right now because they think it’s what they’re supposed to be talking about.
Don’t get me wrong, I plan on taking full advantage of this to try to even the playing field for women and for people who come from different socio-economic classes, and belong to different races and ethnicities.
But not because someone told me those are things I should care about, but because that’s who I am. And I’d like to make it easier for more people like me to learn, succeed, and become leaders in tech.
Read the article Are Efforts to Recruit Women in Technology Sexist? in Dame Magazine.
Horvath is a designer and frontend developer at GitHub. She is also the creator and organiser of Passion Projects, a monthly talk series designed to help surface and celebrate the work of women in the tech industry.