Combatting Sexism in the Technology Community

The Day Adria Richards Said 'Not This Time!'

Sometimes a story breaks that touches so many issues that one is left with mouth agape. The recent news involving technology “evangelist” Adria Richards is one such story and it’s burning across all kinds of media and cutting an intense divide within the techie community. It’s about sexism, racism, techie culture, corporate “hide-from-accountability” amorality and the lack of job protection that jostles the ground under most techies’ feet.

Adria Richards is a prominent writer and consultant within the technology industry. She’s not a household name in the wider world but she’s known within that demi-universe that works for technology companies, attends conferences and workshops, and posts on message boards.

It was at a conference that this controversy began.

Richards, working for an email service company called SendGrid, was attending PyCon, a huge conference dedicated to the programming language Python and to issues and matters related to it. Python is one of several computer coding languages people use to tell software what to do. It’s a mature, powerful and challenging language and so the people who attended this conference were heavy-duty techies and folks who, usually for business reasons, need to reach them.
Adria Richards (r) and the photo she tookAdria Richards (r) and the photo she took
The short version of the story is that during a plenary session she was attending Richards overheard what she thought were sexual jokes being made by some men sitting behind her. By all accounts, they were silly “double entendre” jokes about “dongles” and “forking the repo” — widely used technical terms for a device (a dongle) and the development of slightly different code in a program (forking). The jokes, however, sounded offensively sexual to Richards, so she took the two guys’ picture and posted it on Twitter with a tweet asking that something be done about their offensive behavior. Conference officials were on the scene immediately. At their request, she pointed the fellows out to them and the conference organizers quietly asked the men, one by one, to come out to the hallway for a chat.

It could easily have ended there and I wouldn’t be writing this. But one of the men, who worked for a game marketing and “community-building” company called Playhaven, was fired soon after the conference.

The techie community went bonkers with thousands of message board posts, many of them denouncing Richards’ actions: Why didn’t she simply ask these guys to stop before tweeting about them? Is this kind of joke really that offensive? Don’t women make sexually tinged jokes? How could she live with herself after getting people fired?

Richards’ website was hacked, the SendGrid website was hacked (allegedly by activists from Anonymous) and Richards received several death threats (one accompanied by a grotesque tweet with a picture of a decapitated woman on a bed).

That surge of public debate (and there were plenty who defended her, by the way) led to an announcement last Friday that Adria Richards had herself been fired.

Firings, hirings and job changes are everyday occurences in the technology industry so, to understand why this is special, we need a bit of context.

The conference announced, with great pride, that 20 percent of its participants were women and, to be fair, that’s a huge percentage for a techie gathering. But it’s also revealing in a less than flattering way because the absense of women is one of the things that defines this industry’s culture, where locker- room libido and juvenile jerkiness is all too frequent. And having one woman to every four men in attendance is not going to change things.

In the difficult dialectic of a community, sexism in a culture prevents or at least dissuades women from joining it, and that absence of women perpetuates that sexism. Based on what we read in Adria Richards’ blog, she doesn’t see herself as a feminist or even a warrior against sexism. But there’s an undeniable fact: there was a moment, the kind of moment women often quietly suffer through, when she stood up and she pushed back, in effect saying “Not this time!”

The community’s reaction — including the digital version of a lynch mob — wasn’t really triggered by what she did. It was triggered by the fact that the guy got fired. His company claims it did a “thorough investigation” of the incident and then dumped him. It’s reported that the fired guy has a family and this firing is going to hurt him. Somebody claiming to be him posted on a message board apologizing for the dongle joke, insisting that the “forking” comment wasn’t a sexual joke. In a remarkable statement about the “lesson” he has learned, he also warned others to “watch who you talk to” when you go to conferences.

It appears this chap hasn’t emerged from the bruising with much raised consciousness.

SendGrid issued a statement that makes Playhaven sound reasonable. The statement begins by insisting that SendGrid doesn’t condone sexually offensive comments. But…

“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 [Richard’s] 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.”

To explain, a “developer evangelist” is a kind of promoter. While they do lots of different things, technology evangelists go to conferences like this to network with developers about the products their companies are offering, since most computer software gains its market by being used and recommended by developers. They are super-marketers and when SendGrid talks about strengthening “our Developer Community across the globe”, they’re talking about convincing developers to use and recommend their products.

Adria Richards was fired because her actions could hurt sales and she now joins the all too populous ranks of people who have taken a righteous stand, provoked controversy with it and then suffered because corporations don’t want controversy.

Of course, no one should have a lost a job as a result of this. Men can be jerks and when we’re called on it, we benefit whether we know it or not. It’s called learning a lesson and it’s a central part of the struggle against sexism. But if you fire the guy, how’s he going to apply the newly learned lesson? And if you fire woman for offering the lesson, who’s going to give the next lesson?

Companies, however, are hardly bastions of courage and principle, and they will do anything to avoid controversy without thinking of the social impact, the frustrated potential for human development or the obscenity of punishing a principled action. For SendGrid, the point wasn’t the sexism or her objection to it, it was that she used Twitter to object. She committed the corporate mortal sin: she publicized an abusive situation and thereby caused a division. That aversion to “division” only underscores corporate leaders’ total disregard for what sexism does, how it persists and the sometimes unpleasant confrontations that are necessary to really combat it.

The simple fact is that Adria Richards had no effective choice; she had to tweet her complaint.

Imagine yourself in a situation in which four out of every five people come from a section of the population that has consistently blocked you from participating: making fun of you, talking down to you and, most of all, forming a culture that is gender-foreign and often aggressive towards you. Its language, terminology, office behavior and general attitudes are covered in the stench of unchallenged sexism. This is the community, after all, that almost inexplicably targeted blogger Kathy Sierra and forced her to totally abandon public Internet activities — essentially because she’s a woman.

Suggestions that Adria Richards should have confronted these men rather than post a tweet wreak of ignorance and disdainful stupidity. Anyone who has been in that situation knows that such an interaction would have caused a scene. Few men allow women to tell them to stop being sexist without harshly responding. It’s close to the “room flight” reaction activists of color are warned about early in our organizing lives: if you perceive something as racist think twice before confronting it because, when called out about racism, white people often just get up and leave the room.

That’s significant here because, although it hasn’t been mentioned much in the coverage, Adria Richards is black. She was a black woman in an ocean of white men; so she’s supposed to stand up in the middle of stage presentations and give these guys a lecture?

There are, in fact, many male and female techies who take stands against sexism and racism not only because these are corrosive in our society but because they serve to exclude the creativity and strength greater diversity would give us. Those people are also very present in this exchange, hitting back, pushing back and applauding Richards. But the flood of comments denouncing her act makes clear that much of this community is still drowning in the self-harming sexism that makes it tough for women to function in it and even tougher for girls to consider working in it.

As Venturebeat’s Technology columnist John Koetsier wrote: “What do you do now if you are a woman in technology and you feel harassed or abused and want to shine a light on it, but now see this prominent woman totally abandoned by her company?…I’ll tell you what you do, unless you’re a saint or a hero. You shut up. You put your head down. You grin and bear it, because it’s a man’s world. And you leave, eventually, for a better place. And we’re all poorer as a result.”

But, for an increasing number of techies, there is no “better place” to go. In an industry where you can get fired if the boss thinks you spoke in a too-public way and there are fewer and fewer jobs available, the looming pressure to conform has a profoundly reactionary cultural impact.

The great tragedy is that this is an opportunity for the technology community to take an empowering step forward and that opportunity is being lost in am increasingly vicious shouting frenzy that blames the messenger for speaking the truth.

It is sexism, not Richards, that produced those stupid comments and that confrontational moment. It’s sexism, and a cowardly tendency to run from healthy controversy, that moved these two companies to fire people rather than confront this truth. It is sexism, and the tendency of people in this industry to try to sweep it under the rug, that produced the maelstrom of reaction that Adria Richards has had to endure.

If anything frustrates and perhaps defeats the potential political impact of the Internet it will be sexism and its sister disease, racism. An Internet and information technology dominated so heavily by white men is simply not going to make the decisions, choose the paths and incorporate the popular needs that can maximize its liberating potential. White men alone cannot unify the world, build a movement of all the world’s people or lead the technology that world’s people have developed to make communication, the main ingredient of unity, possible.

I don’t know Adria Richards and have no idea how politically conscious she is. But the name of her blog is “But you’re a girl” and the blog entry she wrote on this mess is politically profound and sharp as can be. I’m convinced by her own responses to the attacks that she knew what she was doing and she did it right.

Through it all, a question lingers: What is courage? Pulling people out of fires or fighting off some attacker can be courageous but most of us don’t get a chance to do things like that in life. We do, however, have a chance to be courageous in the “smaller moments” by interrupting some sexist joke or some racist comment, by forcing a person to confront the potential harm in what they consider “harmless jokes”, by demanding that an industry and a community doing work that is critically important to humanity’s future act respectfully and inclusively toward all of humanity.

That’s the time when all of us should step forward and say “Not this time!”

For having done that, Adria Richards deserves our collective appreciation and support.