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Not in Public!

In case you’re behind on the news, coder and blogger Adria Richards has been fired from her job at SendGrid after posting on Twitter the picture of two guys sitting behind her at a tech conference (PyCon) who were joking about “big dongles” and “forking” someone at the conference (with additional jokes about how”forking” meant sex) and saying that this was not appropriate behavior for a conference.

The reaction to Richards’ tweet started well enough. A conference organizer saw it and took the two guys aside for a chat. That’s the ideal reaction: low-key, with room for the guys involved to fix the problem going forward or make it clear that they value their “right” to make sexual jokes over the right of other conference goers to focus on the content of the conference.

Then one of the two guys involved was fired. Companies don’t usually make the reasons for that sort of thing public for legal reasons, so we don’t know why. We don’t know whether this was part of a pattern of behavior. We don’t know whether the company has a very strict zero-tolerance policy. We don’t even know whether the firing was related to the tweet.

What we do know is that Adria Richards, being a public figure in the tech world, was very easy to track down and target for retribution. So a bunch of people complained to her bosses. 4chan initiated a DDoS attack on the company. Instead of standing with their employee who was receiving a torrent of sexist, threatening abuse, SendGrid fired her.

Perhaps because I’ve seen the reactions of far too much of the secular and skeptic movements to the kind of constant harassment many of the women doing their work have received, so I’m worn down and jaded, but sacrificing the victim to the terrorists isn’t even the part of this that has me the most pissed off. What is? This insistence that any complaints about making work environments unwelcoming to women has to happen discretely, privately, invisibly. You can see it in the people who claim there’s some violated, agreed-upon standard for when you take a person’s picture at play. You can see it in the people who insist (contrary to the evidence available) that Richards was eavesdropping. You can see in the people who come right out and say that the problem is that Richards talked about this publicly.

Let me be as clear as possible on this: Fuck that shit.

This thing where guys* think that they have some divine right to inject references to genitals and declarations of interest in sex into professional conversations with people who haven’t established that this is fine? This is not private behavior. This is political.

This is behavior that has been used to create hostile work environments. This is behavior that has been used to push women out of high-pay and high-status jobs where they were considered to be “interlopers” because women didn’t belong. This is behavior that is recognized under civil law (at least in the U.S.) as not being a legitimate part of the workplace.

Civil law. It doesn’t get much more public than our legal code taking an interest in a behavior and declaring it to be illegitmate.

There are other interests in making this kind of behavior public. It stops the women who have been subjected to it from feeling isolated. Showing how often and how casually it happens lets the recipients know that this kind of behavior isn’t caused by anything they’ve done, that they are not alone in being bothered or in understanding how this defines these professional spaces as places they don’t belong as women. It shows them the scope of the problem and lets them figure out the size of a solution that could potentially fix it.

Going public also tells any guys who engage in this behavior, thinkingly or unthinkingly, with intent to exclude or not, that people object to their behavior. It provides yet more opportunities for education on why there are objections, for which there is a seemingly endless requirement. It gives other guys those valuable opportunities to say, “Yeah, I’m not cool with this behavior either.”

All of these are political. So is the pressure to keep things private.

Amanda Blum wants people to keep these things private because she doesn’t want them to affect her. “Adria reinforced the idea of us as threats to men, as unreasonable, as hard to work with… as bitches.” Rather than go after the idea that all women are alike, Blum puts the onus on Richards to act the way Blum wants women to be viewed. This is a choice with deep political ramifications, even if it’s motivated by personal animosity.

The claim that there is some kind of standard for how badly men must behave before they lose a right to privacy is quite political. Contrast that with a tech culture that says pictures of women are to be used however the industry and users see fit. Men have a right to privacy, even with misbehavior. Women do not, even as children. Creating and defending rights is as political as it gets.

The decision of SendGrid to fire Richards is political. They capitulated to sexist terrorism (or at least in the presence of sexist terrorism), sending the message that this behavior will work in the future. They lay the blame for what happened to their company at the feet of their employee rather than at 4chan’s door where it belonged, and they opened avenues for further abuse of Richards on Facebook. Those are political choices with political consequences.

PyCon’s decision to write into their code of conduct going forward that any violations of their code of conduct must be handled privately is a political decision. They didn’t ask for that consideration. They decided that anyone who goes public with a negative experience at their con is in violation of their code. The change does not protect their attendees who obey the code of conduct or are subject to violations of the code of conduct by others. It does nothing but preserve a picture of the conference that may not be deserved.

Politics everywhere you look in this situation, from start to finish. There are going to continue to be politics as long as professions are considered to belong to one gender or another and that perception is enforced using sex and gender as weapons. And as long as the workplace and professional events remain political battlegrounds, we have every right to talk about this in public.

Take it private, my ass.

* Sure, it can happen with the sexes reversed. It’s a mark of the power/status politics involved that it rarely does. When it does, however, it’s still a political enforcement of gender roles using unprofessional behavior. It still needs to be talked about publicly for all the same reasons I mention here.

Comments

  1. says

    Let’s see. The options are:

    1. Ignore it totally. Boyz will be boyz. And therefore perpetuate and enable bad behavior.
    2. Tell the dudez to knock it off at the time. And expose yourself to instant and long-term retaliation.
    3. Rat the dudez out to the conference organizers. And expose yourself to instant and long-term retaliation.
    4. Publicly rat the dudez out. And expose yourself to instant and long-term retaliation.

    Some choices. Is there any wonder that Option 1 is the one more often used?

  2. Dana Hunter says

    If anyone’s blood pressure needs a boost, I have just the thing. Adria’s former employer has decided to explain their decision! http://blog.sendgrid.com/a-difficult-situation/

    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.

    I’m already having a ragey day. I’ve seen some outrageous behavior. This, though, is un-fucking-believable.

    His name is Jim Franklin, and he can be reached at [email protected], if you’re inclined to express your opinion of his actions.

  3. manuel moegarcia says

    [ Reader discretion is advised: possibly toxic Male Blowharding, Mansplaining ]

    It is practically impossible that I am correct, and I appreciate any criticism, in any form.

    First, I tend to agree that Adria Richards signed on to no expectation of privacy in the way she chose to deal with being exposed to squicky juvenile humor that she did not sign up for.

    Second, the real villains are the companies that seem to have a “fire first, ask questions later” approach to dealing with negative press “at the speed of social media”. It really shows zero regard for their employees, because all of the people fired in this story had every reason to expect a Human Resources process of documented escalation before termination because none of the behavior was so dangerously egregious to make a few more days of continued employment be a staggering liability. That this is rarely commented on, in all the discussion, shows how beaten down U.S. employees are, and how U.S. employees have internalized the idea that employees are perfectly replaceable on the order of a few hours.

    I tend to agree with Amanda Blum’s analysis of the situation, but I agree her prior negative experiences with Richards makes her commentary problematic.

    The initial preference for confidentiality (or at least the initial preference of not sanctioning public shaming) may be overall sound.

    [1] If a male was scandalized by a woman tech conference attendee breastfeeding, we agree it would be hideous for him to proceed to snap pictures and post them with some identifying information on social media. My ability to conjure up an extreme situation with the genders swapped is not a complete argument, but it informs the idea that a process that is based around escalation, beginning with private reporting, is more consistent with better results in many cases (the scandalized gentleman of my imagined situation being moved to another empty seat far some a designated breastfeeding area, as an example), and my imagination fails to come up with a situation that does not benefit from escalation beginning with private reporting – barring ridiculous movie-plot situations where somebody needs to instantly signal an agent monitoring a public social media feed.

    [2] It is possible for a bad actor more interested in notoriety than gender equality to set themselves up as a “morality police”, and actually reverse some gains in gender equality by letting the reactionary seize upon their bad motivation as a reason to privately and with perfect-plausible-deniability to restrict women from opportunities in the name of efficiency in business networking.

    My best take-downs of my own argument:

    [1] The preference for private reporting will necessarily hide the particulars of the misogynistic environment at a tech conference that women may consider attending, and women will be poorly served from the loss of information. (Partial rebuttal to rebuttal: If I may note that PyCon published a sanitized description of two incidents, so the information loss is not complete.)

    [2] Commenting on women being possible bad actors has the definite effect of subjecting that woman to hideous abuse that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, in the current climate. Nobody can plausibly deny that cause-and-effect.

    I am less sure about my argument than I was when I started typing, which is a good piece of information for me to acknowledge. I takeaway I have not read anywhere: PlayHaven (the company that made the decision of their own accord to fire the male joker) had a moral responsibility to try to absorb blame that Adria Richards did nothing to deserve.

    Also, I agree with #2 that SendGrid terminated Adria Richards for an infraction I am sure they never counseled against, thus leaving the powerless employee to be the fall-guy. Also, the wording “obvious that her actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite” suggests she was expected to simultaneously be an effective woman in tech and strive to be inoffensive to a tech culture that is hostile to women, which is impossible and an unreasonable burden to place on anybody. Hiring women morally implies the backbone to stand behind them when under attack by a tech culture that is hostile to women – or was it just window-dressing.

  4. says

    I have a problem with blaming the fired programmer for making a juvenile joke as much as I do for blaming the fired talent scout for childishly tweeting about it.

    You wanna pin blame, pin it on their respective employers’ for creating an environment in which juvenile human error is a terminable offense.

  5. manuel moegarcia says

    Now I am in complete disagreement with the Amanda Blum article.

    For me the main issue is: “chill girls” will have different results than “feminist activist women”. OK, that is to be expected – we can talk about strategy. When “feminist activist women” get, automatically, sickening abuse simply for the refusal to be absolutely inoffensive – the time to discuss the finer points of strategy are over.

    I feel so unintellegent for not seeing how the sickening abuse wasn’t a given once the man got fired, sure as the sun rises in the east. No time for discussing the finer points of strategy.

  6. fwtbc says

    This sucks all round.

    Now that PyCon has introduced a “no public shaming” rule, I wonder what their accepted avenues for reporting conduct violations is.

    It always seems that the person on the receiving end of the bullshit is the one who is most disadvantaged.

    I was in a movie theatre once and was getting increasingly annoyed at the noisy kids sitting behind me. I had limited options. The first one I executed was politely asking them to keep it down. The result of this was them being noisier , asking why a “blind cunt” was even at a movie anyway and then throwing popcorn at the back of my head.

    I used my phone to take photos of them and then exited the theatre and complained to staff who dealt with it.

    The thing I want to point out is that these turds ruined the first half an hour of the movie, and then, upon being forced to leave so something would be done about their behaviour, I ended up missing a key plot point and was then a bit confused for the rest of the movie.

    If I had’ve had an option where I could get the problem resolved without leaving my seat, because after all, I wasn’t doing anythign wrong, too fucking right I would’ve used it.

  7. doubtthat says

    It’s worth pointing out that just like we don’t know why the guy was fired, we also don’t know all the reasons Adria Richards was fired.

    I have no opinion on this mess, save pointing out that the internet harassment was unambiguously insane. The rest depends entirely on endless facts that I don’t have.

    I would further add that being called a jerk on twitter isn’t really the worst thing in the world, and everything that happened appears to be defensible right up to the point of the first firing.

    The guys were making their jokes in a setting where many people could hear. They were criticized in a setting where many people could read. I really see no dramatic difference.

  8. freemage says

    doubtthat: Actually, yes, we do know why she was fired; her employer made a very public statement about it.

    We also have some evidence re: the guy. Both men worked for the same employer; both were engaged in the conduct that got them tagged. Only one was fired. We can conclude, therefore, that either this incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back in regard to that one employee (ie, that there were prior incidents, and he was thus fired for conduct unbecoming despite prior warnings), or that their employer is utterly capricious and arbitrary in their firing decisions. The prior certainly seems more likely to me.

    If the con now wishes to enforce a ban on public naming and shaming, they’d damn well better have a direct-channel open for complaints that are as convenient as Twitter–a perpetually monitored email address, for instance. As noted, there’s no reason to require a complainant to lose time at the conference to make the complaint.

  9. says

    Adria’s former employer has decided to explain their decision!

    The folks at SendGrid must have a different meaning for the word “explain” from what the rest of the English-speaking world uses.

    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.

    Translation: “If a woman stands up for herself, she’s not a team player.”

    Also, that wording implies that her “not a team player” status didn’t become obvious because of her original actions — they became “obvious” as a result of the mob reaction to her actions.

    Oh look, here’s this note from the blog post:

    We will continue listening to the community…

    Then I looked a bit further down and saw that comments were disabled.

    I hope SendGrid’s business suffers for this.

  10. says

    The guys were making their jokes in a setting where many people could hear. They were criticized in a setting where many people could read. I really see no dramatic difference.

    That’s a bit like saying you “really see no dramatic difference” between an act of violence and an act of self-defense against said violence. Do you not understand that one action provoked the other? Or does that not matter to you?

  11. Nick Coghlan says

    The PyCon organisers work closely with a number of groups (such as the Ada Initiative) on issues of diversity and creating a welcoming and safe space for all attendees at PyCon. Some of the results of that work can be seen at thisispycon.com.

    The Code of Conduct page on the conference website includes direct contact numbers for the four main organisers (2 men and 2 women) for cases when it isn’t reasonable to delay before bringing the matter up with the conference staff.

    My understanding of the recent updates to the Code of Conduct on GitHub are that the organisers would prefer that *they* take the heat for handling any incidents, leaving the identity of the original reporter out of the public record. If the reporter is not satisfied with the organisers’ action, then going public with that would be entirely appropriate – all the organisers are asking is that attendees go through that escalation process rather than assuming they can’t or won’t help (which is certainly a reasonable assumption, given the poor record of tech conferences in this area).

    If the first attempt at describing that didn’t work, well that’s why it is on GitHub: the organisers would like feedback on the text prior to next year’s conference.

    (Disclosure: I am a member of the Python Software Foundation and a personal friend of several of the conference organisers, but not directly involved in organising the conference myself)

  12. says

    …all the organisers are asking is that attendees go through that escalation process rather than assuming they can’t or won’t help (which is certainly a reasonable assumption, given the poor record of tech conferences in this area).

    So you admit that tech conferences can’t be trusted to do the right thing, while supporting a rule demanding that people trust them? Methinks you’re coming at this issue from the wrong end — maybe you should be working on the poor record first, instead of trying to restrict individuals’ means of recourse.

    Also, why is it so important to keep matters like this private? Why not just tell attendees that if they act like assholes in public, they can’t expect privacy? I’m pretty sure that’s what my bosses would tell me if someone tweeted about me making inappropriate remarks on company time. That is, after all, why my company has rules against acting in ways that embarrass them: people who hear what I say can’t be expected not to talk about it.

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