An incident involving sexism accusations, social media, and speaking out recently resulted in two people losing their jobs and a wide conversation about women in the male-dominated technology industry.
Self-described “technology evangelist” Adria Richards had been on the road since mid-February, attending and speaking at various tech conferences. At PyCon, a major conference for developers in California, she overheard the men sitting behind her making sexually-charged jokes.
They were using tech terms like “dongles” and “forking,” and Richards felt her face getting flustered. As the jokes continued, she became fed up. She reported them in a tweet with a photo and a summary of what she heard them say.
Organizers at the conference responded and escorted the men out of the session.
After the events, Richards composed a long blog about what happened, writing, “Accountability was important. These guys sitting right behind me felt safe in the crowd. I got that and realized that being anonymous was fueling their behaviour.”
As an advocate for digital equality, my actions today at #pycon made me feel like Joan of Arc, minus the visions
— Adria Richards (@adriarichards) March 18, 2013
The incident blew up in technology circles, and escalated after one of the men she’d photographed at PyCon was fired from his company. Richards became the target of trolls and online bullies on her blog, and on social media, threatened with death, rape, and racial slurs. Her personal information was publicly exposed on the web. Ultimately her employer, Internet startup SendGrid Inc., fired her, believing she acted inappropriately in how she chose to report what happened.
Under the PyCon code of conduct, harassment is clearly not tolerated. It reads, “Be careful in the words that you choose. Remember that sexist, racist, and other exclusionary jokes can be offensive to those around you. Excessive swearing and offensive jokes are not appropriate for Pycon. Report the harassment incident (preferably in writing) to a conference staff member…when reporting the event to staff, try to gather as much information as available, but do not interview people about the incident.”
“The first, the good part of the story is that PyCon knew that this was unacceptable,” said Melissa Harris-Perry Saturday. “They got what kind of environment this was.”
Richards’ critics maintain she shouldn’t have publicly shamed the men the way she did, and her supporters say the way things transpired is an example of the enduring “boys club” attitude in some technology circles. Forbes contributor Deanna Zandt thought questioning Richards’ decision to tweet the photo is the wrong question to ask, writing last week:
Is it possible that by asking this question, that we’re digitally asking if maybe Adria shouldn’t have been drinking or wearing that short skirt, shouldn’t have been walking home from the subway stop by herself, shouldn’t have walked by that proverbial construction site where she knew she was going to get catcalled and harassed?
Why are so many of us focusing on what Adria could have done differently?
The problem wasn’t Richards, argued Nation sports editor Dave Zirin during Melissa Harris-Perry’s Saturday panel. “The tech world itself has a horrible reputation as being a sewer of sexism and jokes and frat culture and all the rest of it,” he said. “The whole reason PyCon put down that directive was a way to actually fight against that perception. There’s a crisis in the tech world as far as the number of women who go into it, the number of people of color who go into it, and PyCon was trying to address that.”
“If you think of yourself as a good person, you can just take the words ‘it was just a joke’ out of your lexicon. Just take that entire phrase out of your vocabulary,” said Rinku Sen from the Applied Research Center. “If you ever find yourself saying it, it’s probably in the context where somebody didn’t find it funny, and there’s a reason that somebody didn’t find it funny, and that reason needs to be examined.”