Sexism, Work and The Public

I didn’t comment on the Adria Richards story because I wanted to see how it panned out before I said anything. But here goes.

To Summarise? Adria Richards overheard two men sitting behind her at PyCon making frankly childish jokes about dongles and forking. She spun round, snapped a photo of them and posted it on Twitter with a summary of their joke. PyCon officials intervened and dealt with it. However, this didn’t stop here. One of the men was fired from his job.

Angry at this, a variety of Internet heroes came out in full force harassing Richards’ own site and that of SendGrid (her employer). Both were subject to threats and DDOS attacks. Richards personally received rape and death threats including the picture of a decapitated body with the caption “when I am done”. There was a concerted effort by 4Chan to get her fired and rather than stand by an employee SendGrid caved in an fired her.

Everything about this story is stupid and gets stupider at every stage.

I don’t know about you, but I come from a culture where everyone makes “dirty jokes”. I do feel that Adria Richards responded in a bad way to this. The photo and tweet was a pretty hefty escalation. I don’t think she should have done that even if there was no backlash.

One of the men was fired for silly jokes about dongles then WTF. That does seem a bit excessive.

However Adria’s story isn’t the only one. Woman says something about sexism. The hordes of anonymous internet denizens rise from it’s murky depths and issue rape and death threats. Woman runs because she is clearly outnumbered and often leaves whatever scene this occurred in entirely.

She isn’t the only one. We remember other women who have done similar things. Some within atheism/skepticism/freethought communities. Misogyny in online spaces is rife mainly because it is easy to say things and not be held accountable to them.

Then people decide what she could have done to avoid this. It’s a common thought experiment particularly when looking at rape. Well hindsight is 20/20. If I didn’t give that con artist the money I wouldn’t be looking wistfully at sandwiches like Tiny Tim looks at turkeys. Shouldn’t have given her that money. Shouldn’t have made a fuss. Should have a better sense of humour. Should be able to go “tss! Silly Buggers” and let it slide. Shouldn’t have walked home with that man if you didn’t want sex. Shouldn’t have gone out. Shouldn’t have worn that outfit. Shouldn’t have drunk that. Should have eaten more garlic to repel him with your “Dragonbreath”.

It doesn’t matter whether Adria Richards was right or wrong, what matters is that the backlash was indicative of incredible sexism and hate.

Even today, the victims of harassment generally are the more punished. Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter while making a lot more money was then subject to demands to stick to a unfeasible time table and further harassment including lawyering up. And when she did make her video people complained about video quality and more threats. Hell let’s look at the Steubenville Rape Case. The rapists got excellent media coverage which was frankly shocking to someone living in the aftermath of the Delhi Rapes in India. In addition the fact that the school tried to cover it up was astonishing. And the most astonishing part of all that was that a single blogger traded EVERYTHING in her life to get justice for the defendant. She was harassed, given death threats and even sued for her actions. Her best friend even abandoned her because football was more important than some girl’s life.

Hindsight is 20/20. If one signed the winning numbers in a lotto ticket then one would be a millionaire. It’s easy to say that on the day of the Lotto Result. Likewise it is easy to say that if the victim of the Delhi Rape just got on a different bus the world would be a very different place. And just like the Delhi case, the Adria Richards case carried on. The victim was blamed for not behaving the way she should have behaved to avoid this situation rather than looking into the behaviour of the company involved and the harassers.

Saying “rape threats are terrible” is fine. Saying that they are terrible but she shouldn’t have tweeted that picture is trying to imply she got threatened for tweeting the picture.

Rape, Death Threats and Harassment are not the price of admission to the Internet no matter what people say. It’s not an acceptable threat to levy at anyone who breaks the rules of any society or for simply making a big noise about something. And we should not fire those who are subject to those kind of threats unless they broke a employment law.

SendGrid were wrong to fire her. As was the company that fired one of the men.

The harassers are wrong to harass her.

That’s really all there is to this. The other issues are just incidental to the event.


  1. howard says

    One thing to keep in mind is that one company employed both men, and they very pointedly only fired one of them. One presumes that this was not ‘strike one,’ and although they haven’t explicitly said so, they have indicated that there were probably multiple reasons he was let go, not just the one incident.

    I don’t know about you, but I come from a culture where everyone makes “dirty jokes”. I do feel that Adria Richards responded in a bad way to this.

    I disagree a bit. I come from a culture like that too, but there is a time and place for professionalism. Like maybe a professional conference where you’re representing your company.

  2. noastronomer says

    “I do feel that Adria Richards responded in a bad way to this…”

    That’s how I felt at first, but my thinking on this has evolved for the following reasons:-

    1. It should not be incumbent on Adria to seek the best (whatever that means) solution.
    2. Twitter has become very integrated into society, especially in techie circles. It’s the way things are getting done. Proof: PyCon responded within minutes.
    3. It was only the Internet’s collective brain-fart that blew the whole thing out of proportion.
    4. This issue needed the publicity.


  3. Sercee says

    Mike’s #4: Again, yes very much.

    The harassment Adria Richards received is proof that she needed to do what she did. Dirty jokes are dirty jokes until they happen so often that a young woman is in a conference and doesn’t feel the need to put up with it anymore, and that so many people worked so valiantly to destroy her (do these people have lives?? I’m too busy to be that hateful!) means she was right that it wasn’t just dirty jokes. Adria was the person smart enough to know it wasn’t appropriate. If she had asked them quietly to stop they probably wouldn’t have (last time I asked someone to hush in a theatre I got my seat kicked the rest of the movie) and if she had brought it to the ushers and gotten them booted they would have just spent the day whining about the bitch in the auditorium and not changed their behavior at all.

    Calling them out probably had the intent of pointing out that “Hey guys! Don’t do this!” so reasonable people would get a reminder to check their behavior but, as we all know from Elevatorgate, girls don’t get to do that. Which is why we have to do that.

  4. smrnda says

    I understand that ‘dirty jokes are common’ but just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s acceptable in every setting.

    On professionalism, I’m female and work in the tech field and it tends to permit a degree of eccentricity that most other professions wouldn’t tolerate, perhaps because it’s a bit newer and unlike professions like medicine or law, doesn’t really have such a visible public face that helps to define what’s acceptable and what’s not. People in the field are used to being able to behave in ways that would probably not be tolerated elsewhere, and there’s insufficient leadership or will to map out appropriate rules.

    With the picture, taking pictures of guys harassing you is becoming a much more common thing. Before I’d say the picture was a ‘bad idea’ I’d have to know what was said.

  5. Ysanne says

    It doesn’t matter whether Adria Richards was right or wrong, what matters is that the backlash was indicative of incredible sexism and hate.

    This. This so much.

    So the guys behind her said something she overheard and understood as a sexist joke. Maybe it was, maybe she misunderstood something. Possibly starting by twittering a photo instead of just talking to the guys was a bit jumpy, maybe not. Doesn’t really matter. PyCon reacted, they all talked and sorted it out, all good.
    The guys weren’t the problem, Richards wasn’t, PyCon wasn’t. The problem was the lynch-mob of raging assholes on the internet,who got two people fired by totally losing their shit over this already finished minor issue, only because it was a woman who visibly raised it.
    (Insignificant technical detail for context: As you probably know, the fired guy posted a written apology: He says the dongle comment was a stupid joke and he’s sorry for it, and the repo-forking comment was serious praise for a project. The latter is actually well possible: “Forking X’s repo” is the technical process used in “making one’s own copy of X’s publicly available open-source project so as to contribute to it or use it as a starting point for one’s own programming”. It sounds totally sleazy if you don’t know that it makes actual literal sense and isn’t one of those contrived tech-talk double-entendres.)

  6. HM says

    I’m also a female in tech and hate that guys seem to think “I have bad social skills” is an excuse for a lot of the sexist, racist crap that they spout. Most of these guys have been through elementary school, high school and college (min 13 years of education) and either choose to ignore the interpersonal skills they learned or don’t think its worth the effort to employ them at work

    And tech is not that young of an industry, the designation may be relatively new (~40 yrs) but there’s been computers and their operators around along time (see Admiral Grace Hopper for instance). I’m fed up with all the excuses that get thrown around for this idiotic behavior.

    And as for the photo, two white guys in fairly innocuous photo, that has all of the harassers up in arms, big f’in deal. When those harassers put in the same amount of effort to stop men who take upskirt shots, harass women via twitter.. etc, then I’ll care about that stupid photo. It seems to me, that FREEZE PEACH only applies when a man says something, posts something etc.. that’s one thing this episode has shown me. And it’s made me even more unwilling to put up with this crap at work.

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