If You're Against Gay Marriage, You're a Bad CEO

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 3 2014 5:41 PM

If You're Against Gay Marriage, You're a Bad CEO

Mozilla
Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich (not pictured) has resigned under pressure over his views on gay marriage.

Photo by Albert Gea/Reuters

There was a time when supporting gay marriage made you a radical. Then there was a time when it made you a progressive. Now we’ve reached a point where not supporting gay marriage makes you unfit to lead a major Silicon Valley organization.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Some will say we’ve come too far, too fast—that it’s unfair to pillory someone for a political view that was held by the majority of Californians just six years ago. They’re wrong.

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Just 10 days after he was named CEO of Mozilla Corporation, the tech company* behind the popular Firefox Web browser, Brendan Eich resigned Thursday under pressure. Eich, the inventor of the Javascript programming language, was technically well-qualified to lead an organization dedicated to upholding the vitality and openness of the Web. But his personal views made him untenable as Mozilla’s leader.

I say “personal views” rather than “political views,” because that distinction is the key to understanding why Eich had to go.

In 2008, California voters narrowly passed Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment limiting legal marriage rights to heterosexual couples. Four years later, it came to light that Eich had been among Prop 8’s supporters, donating $1,000 to the anti-gay marriage campaign. The revelation sparked a righteous Twitter storm among technophiles, who tend to lean socially liberal regardless of their economic views. As far as I can tell, however, it did not lead to broad-based calls for Eich to resign from his post at Mozilla, where he had been Chief Technical Officer since 2005.

That changed on March 24, when a divided Mozilla board named Eich CEO. The Wall Street Journal reported that three board members resigned over the choice. Employees revolted too. And public condemnation was widespread. The online-dating site OkCupid went so far as to barricade its website for Firefox users, urging them to switch to a different browser.

Eich tried to control the damage. On March 26, he published a blog post promising to uphold Mozilla’s anti-discrimination policies, treat its employees equally, and foster an open and inclusive atmosphere. He also expressed “sorrow” at “having caused pain,” without explicitly mentioning Proposition 8. But he resisted calls to step down, and he never renounced his support for the measure. “I don't want to talk about my personal beliefs because I kept them out of Mozilla all these 15 years we've been going,” he told the Guardian. “I don't believe they're relevant.”

The notion that your political views shouldn’t affect your employment is a persuasive one. Where would we be as a democracy if Republicans were barred from jobs at Democrat-led companies, or vice versa?

But this is different. Opposing gay marriage in America today is not akin to opposing tax hikes or even the war in Afghanistan. It’s more akin to opposing interracial marriage: It bespeaks a conviction that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others. An organization like Mozilla might tolerate that in an underling, and it might even tolerate it in a CTO. But in a CEO—the ultimate decision-maker and public face of an organization—it sends an awful message. That’s doubly so for an organization devoted to openness and freedom on the Web—not to mention one with numerous gay employees.

It’s an even bigger problem for a tech company in Silicon Valley, where competition for top engineers is fierce. Mozilla’s edge over goliaths like Google and Facebook is that it offers employees a chance to work for an organization whose values they can truly believe in. A bigoted boss, no matter how well-meaning, undermines that appeal.

Think for a second: If you knew your boss rated you undeserving of the same rights as everyone else based solely on your sexual orientation, would you feel good about going to work for him every day? Would you be reassured when he insisted he wouldn’t treat you any differently in the workplace just because he felt the Constitution ought to be amended to discriminate against people like you? And how would you feel if he then defended himself, as he did in the Guardian interview, by stressing the need to appease your organization’s least-tolerant constituents? From the interview

Eich also stressed that Firefox worked globally, including in countries like Indonesia with “different opinions,” and LGBT marriage was “not considered universal human rights yet, and maybe they will be, but that's in the future, right now we're in a world where we have to be global to have effect.”

Actually, Mr. Eich, right now we’re in a world where you have to not be a bigot if you want to be an effective leader of an organization like Mozilla. And it’s about time.

*Correction, April 3, 2014: This post originally misstated that Eich was the CEO of Mozilla and that Mozilla was a nonprofit. Eich was CEO of Mozilla Corp., a taxable subsidiary of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation.

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