Culture offsets or real culture change?

The tech community was shocked this week when Julie Ann Horvath announced that she was quitting her position as a software engineer at well-known online software hosting startup GitHub. She announced publicly that her reasons for departure centered on harassment by the leadership, sexism, and a hostile work environment.

For those of you who don’t know, GitHub is an online platform “for hosting and managing software projects that fosters extreme collaboration among participants.”1 In layman’s terms: GitHub is a place where software engineers can post their code for review by peers and collaborate on larger scale projects. It can also be used as an issue tracking system or idea repository. At my old company, tech start up Counsyl, everything was done through GitHub, from Engineering to Billing to HR.  In response to Horvath’s treatment at GitHub, many advocates are urging people to move their business elsewhere. However, because of GitHub’s industry dominance, “many organizations currently have workflows that are specifically dependent on GitHub & therefore cannot feasibly make an immediate switch.”2

As a solution to this dilemma, a group has created what they call the “Culture Offset Pledge.” Here’s their proposal:

[box title=”Harm Reduction” color=”#333333″]”We encourage those who can’t move to self-hosting their git projects, now or long-term, to participate in active harm reduction efforts. We specifically encourage individuals and organizations who rely on GitHub for critical infrastructure to begin donating an equal or greater amount of money to projects which work to counter institutional injustice in tech, or which use tech to counter institutional injustice.

Like carbon offsets, culture offsets are a limited tool. These donations cannot fully ameliorate the harm done by financially supporting an organization whose culture problems have harmed both their employees and the tech industry as a whole. However, all of the projects listed below could use the money. It’s a start.”

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-Culture Offset Pledge[/box]This is an interesting concept to me. As an economics major, I totally understand the need to have someone internalize the externality. In other words, the overall harm to society caused by a person or company should be offset by some good to society.

My question to all of you is this: In general, are culture offsets an effective solution? What does it really accomplish? Typically when you boycott an organization, your goal is to make them feel the heat – reduced profits and customer support – until they change their behavior. By proposing a cultural offset option, you’re taking away all of that leverage and the company would have no incentive to change their practices. The culture offset pledge group is even asking people to announce their pledge ON GITHUB! Also, is asking the “public” to donate the right idea? In economics, it is the person or company causing the harm that typically must offset their negative effects (think: cigarette taxes), not the person (society) that is receiving the brunt of the harm.

My suggestion is this: Let’s support the organizations listed by the culture offset pledge anyway.  Let’s push to make change in the gender equality of tech, not because we feel guilty for using a company accused of harassment but because it’s the right thing to do.


1Finley, Klint. (2014). An Advocate for Women in the Valley Quits GitHub, Citing Harassment. Wired. Retrieved from

2See footnote 1.


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