What happens when women call out sexism in tech

Faith Merino · March 22, 2013 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/2e4c

Adria Richards is fired after calling out sexist jokes at a tech conference

Good morning, and welcome to another edition of Sexism in Technology Clusterf*ck Friday. Last week, the world was treated to an obnoxiously sexist skit that Samsung used to unveil the lady-friendliness of the new Galaxy S4. This week, it’s the firing of developer evangelist Adria Richards.

If you’ve been following the week-long saga, you’re probably as emotionally exhausted as I am. After outing a couple of developers at the PyCon conference for making sexist jokes, earning the wrath of more or less the entire Internet, receiving numerous rape threats, death threats, and having her home address posted on the Internet, Adria Richards has been summarily dismissed, according to an announcement by SendGrid.

To recap: Adria Richards—a fairly public, controversial person herself, but SendGrid presumably knew that when they hired her—attended the PyCon event, a conference for those working with the Python programming language. She had already slogged through several sexist jokes, including one from a developer who recounted to Richards how he had been looking for boxes earlier that day, and after peeking under the table skirt, he was given the stink-eye by the woman sitting across the table from him. His response to that woman: “it’s bare, just the way I like it.” Awesome sauce, bro.

Richards didn’t call that guy out, but later in the day, while sitting through a keynote, a couple of developers from PlayHaven sitting behind her began cracking jokes about “big dongles” and “forking repos.”

“The stuff about the dongles wasn’t even logical and as a self-professed nerd, that bothered me,” wrote Richards a blog post.

Now, even the most stalwart of tech feminists will admit to cracking a few “dongle” jokes, but there’s a time and a place for stuff like that—and it’s not at a tech conference where a good 80-90% of attendees are men. It can be pretty alienating to be the lone female at an all-male tech conference. You’re already the proverbial fish out of water (or is it the metaphorical fish out of water?...I can’t remember). But then when attendees or even those running the event crack sexist jokes, the message becomes loud and clear: you’re not welcome.

So Richards outed the developers by taking a picture of them and posting it on Twitter. PyCon officials quickly swept in and removed the two men from the event.

Great. A job well done. Everyone can now go home, eat dinner, and get caught up on Game of Thrones. 

But things proceeded to go all sorts of downhill. Rather than simply apologize for its employees’ lame jokes, B2B gaming company PlayHaven chose to fire one of the two developers. Dude went on to pen a very sincere and tasteful apology:

“I really did not mean to offend anyone and I really do regret the comment and how it made Adria feel. She had every right to report me to staff, and I defend her position,” wrote the unnamed employee who posted his apology on Hacker News as mr-hank. He went on to explain that the “forking” joke was not meant to be sexual. “Adria has an audience and is a successful person of the media. Just check out her web page linked in her twitter account, her hard work and social activism speaks for itself. With that great power and reach comes responsibility. As a result of the picture she took I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have 3 kids and I really liked that job.”

And then shit really got real as Hacktivist group Anonymous got wind of the events. The group, true to form, posted a poorly written, very melodramatic open letter to SendGrid threatening all sorts of bad sentence structure and no punctuation.

“Anonymous has reviewed the situation and rendered judgment using their collective wisdom and experience. Adria Richards engaged in malicious conduct to destroy the another individual's professional career due to what she perceived as an affront to her own extremist views from a comment that was not directed at her, not meant for her to hear, and certainly not for her to provide unwarranted input on. As such, she should have her professional career destroyed just like her victim in order for justice to be rendered and balance restored to the universe. The hivemind's judgement is final and there is no appeal. No forgiveness, no forgetting remember?”

Among the poorly written threats were virtual harassment of clients, hacking SendGrid’s investors, and doxing—the act of posting an individual’s personal information (phone number, address, email, credit card numbers, etc.) online.

SendGrid promptly placated the trolls and restored balance to the universe by immediately firing Richards.

But not before Richards herself was hit with a tidal wave of rape threats, death threats, threats of violence, and was doxed herself.

This isn’t the first time a woman in technology has been collectively castigated by the Web and threatened with rape and violence for speaking out against sexism in the tech community.

Last summer, Anita Sarkeesian started a video series called “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.” The point of the video series was the highlight some of the typically sexist tropes that developers employ when portraying women in video games (think enormous boobs and provocative armor). She was immediately hit with a shit storm of sexist, racist, and homophobic comments, including: “tits or gtfo,” “LESBIANS: THE GAME is all this bitch wants,” and “I hate ovaries with a brain big enough to post videos.” Then her Wikipedia page was vandalized with pornographic pictures and links to porn. When the Wikipedia page was locked, the trolls moved on to her Kickstarter page and attempted to spam the company to get the project shut down.

It's worth noting that in all of the vitriol that has spewed out over this case, none of it has been directed at PlayHaven--the company that actually took the step of firing one of its developers. Rather, the anger has been directed at Richards for calling out the sexism in the first place.

There is an established pattern of harassment doled out to women who confront sexism in tech culture. While Adria Richards could’ve handled the situation differently (she has since said she didn’t intend for either of the developers to be fired), SendGrid’s decision to fire Richards sends a loud and clear message that the company will not only throw one of its own under the bus, but that it only supports gender diversity in technology to a point.

While CEO Jim Franklin said SendGrid supports the right to report inappropriate behavior,

“A SendGrid developer evangelist’s responsibility is to build and strengthen our Developer Community across the globe. In light of the events over the last 48+ hours, it has become obvious that her actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite. As a result, she can no longer be effective in her role at SendGrid,” he wrote.

Unfortunately, the whole “unite, don’t divide” mantra that became really popular at the Republican National Convention last year is dog whistle for “pipe down, accept your lot in life, and go back to digging ditches while the rest of us carry on our conversation.”

While everyone is in agreement that the developer shouldn’t have been fired over a 7th grade joke about dongles, sexism is more divisive than calling out sexism. 


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