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.