Thursday, March 21, 2013
On Sexism, Harassment, and Termination

Oh, boy. Diving into this whole Adria Richards/people-getting-fired thing is probably a mistake, but it’s reached levels at which I’m just too annoyed by everyone and everything in this to not say something. You have one of three choices: read the summary below and conclude I’m a misogynist without reading the rest; read the summary below and conclude I’m spot-on without reading the rest; or read the rest and draw your own conclusions after hearing the arguments.

TL;DR Adria Richards was right to be fired; the developer/s from PlayHaven shouldn’t have been fired; the developer/s from PlayHaven could very well be a pair of immature assholes; the rape and death threats against Adria Richards undermine the positions of those who support the developer/s formerly from PlayHaven; the content of the jokes don’t constitute sexism nor should conferences overreact this way; half the Internet will label me a misogynist for these views; and none of this ends well.

The Facts, as I understand them

Three people are sitting in a keynote at a software conference. A presenter makes a comment on stage that leads two people sitting in the audience to start making jokes with all the emotional maturity of Beavis and Butthead. (Said developers are claiming that any and all sexual innuendo was inferred by the third, but frankly, let’s assume worst case here and assume they were, in fact, making cheap tawdry sex jokes out of “dongle” and “forking”.) A third person, after listening to it for a while, turns around, smiles, snaps a photo of the two of them, and Tweets them out as assholes. Conference staff approach third person, ask her to identify the two perpetrators, escort the developers out of the conference based on nothing but her word and (so far as I can tell) zero supporting evidence. Firestorm erupts over the Internet, and now all three (?) are jobless.

(UPDATE: Roberto Guerra mentioned, in private email, that PyCon has published their version of the events, which does not mention the developers being asked to leave; Roberto also tells me that the above link, which states that, apparently got it wrong, and that the original source they used was mistaken. Apologies to PyCon if this is the case.)

My Interpretations

Note that with typical software developer hubris, I feel eminently qualified to comment on all of this. (Which is my way of saying, take all of this with a grain of salt—I have some experience with this, being on the “accused” end of sexual harassment, and what I’m saying stems from my enforced “sit through the class” time from a decade or more ago, but I’m no lawyer, and like everybody else, I’m at the mercy of the reports since I wasn’t there.)

Developers who make “dongle” jokes and “forking” jokes are not only being stupid, those jokes have already been made. So they’re stupid twice over. C’mon, guys. New material. Seriously.

Making jokes in public that others might find offensive is taking a risk. Do it on stage, you run the risk of earning the wrath of the crowd. (Of course, nobody on this blog would, say, drop “the f-bomb” something like 23 times on stage in a keynote, right?) Do it in a crowd, you run the risk of pissing somebody off around you and looking/acting like douche. Might be in your best interests to keep your voice down or just chuckle to yourself and have that conversation later.

Photos taken in public are considered public, if rude. If I walk out into the street and start filming you, I have perfect right to do so, according to US law: what happens in public is considered public domain. Paparazzi depend on this for their “right” to follow and photograph moviestars, atheletes, and other “public” figures. Adria was entirely within her rights to photograph those two and Tweet it. But if I snap a pic of a cute girl and Tweet it with “Wow, want to guess whether her code is hot too?”, it’s a douche move because I’m using her likeness without her permission. If I do that for profit, now I’m actually open to lawsuit. So photos in public are in still something of a grey area, legally. Basic rule of thumb: if you want to be safe, ask before you put a photo of somebody else, taken in public or not, someplace other than on your own private device.

Third parties who overhear conversations could arguably be violating privacy. There’s a fine line here, but eavesdropping is rude. Now, I don’t know how loud they were making the jokes—shouting it out across the room is a very different scenario than whispering it to your seatmate and co-worker—but frankly, it’s usually pretty easy to tell when a joke is meant for general distribution in a room like that, and when it’s not. If it’s not meant for you, how about you just not hear it and concentrate on something else? Chalk up the commentary as “idiots being idiots”, and if there’s no implied threat to anybody going on, leave it be.

If you’re offended, you have an obligation to tell the parties in question and give them a choice to make good. Imagine this scenario: a guy sits down next to a girl on a bus. His leg brushes up against hers. She immediately stands up and shouts out “THIS MAN IS MAKING UNWANTED SEXUAL ADVANCES AT ME!” at the top of her lungs. Who’s the societally maladjusted person here? If, instead, she says, “Oh, please don’t make physical contact with me”, and he says, “But that’s my right as a human male”, and refuses to move his leg from pressing up against hers, then who’s the societally maladjusted one? Slice this one as finely as you like, but if you’re offended at something I do, it’s your responsibility to tell me so that I can make it right, by apologizing and/or ceasing the behavior in question, or telling you that I have Tourette’s, or by telling you you’re an uptight party-pooper, or however else this story can play out. If the party in question continues the behavior, then you’ve got grounds—moral and legal—to go to the authorities.

Just because you call it harassment doesn’t make it such. Legally, from what I remember, harassment is defined as “repeated acts of unwanted sexual attention”; in this case, I don’t see a history of repetition, nor do I see there being actual “attention” to Adria in this case—this was a conversation being held between two individuals that didn’t include her.

Just because it involves sex doesn’t make it sexist. Two guys were making jokes about male genitalia. It may have been inappropriate, but honestly, unless somebody widened the definition of sexism (“making disparaging comments about someone based on their gender or sexual preferences”) when I wasn’t looking, this ain’t it. And for Adria to claim sexism in public is bad when she Tweeted just a few days prior about stuffing a sock down your shorts during a TSA patdown seems a little…. *shrug* You pick the world.

The conference needs to follow basic due process. You know—innocent until proven guilty, measured and proportional response, warnings, and so on. I don’t care what it says on the conference’s website by way of disclaimer—you have to figure out if what was said to happen actually happened before you respond to it. Nowhere in the facts above do I hear the conference taking any steps to protect the accused—a woman said a couple of guys said sexual things, so we must act quickly! This has “bad” written all over it for the next five conferences.

(UPDATE: Again, PyCon apparently didn’t escort the developer/s out of the conference, but instead according to their site, “Both parties were met with, in private. The comments that were made were in poor taste, and individuals involved agreed, apologized and no further actions were taken by the staff of PyCon 2013. No individuals were removed from the conference, no sanctions were levied.” It sounds like, contrary to what I first heard, PyCon handled it in a classy manner, so I apologize for perpetrating the image that they didn’t. Having said that, though, I find it curious that this storm blew up this way—did no one think to push those apologies to Twitter so everyone else knew that things had blown over, or did they in fact do that and we’re all too busy gawking and screaming “fight! fight! fight” on the playground to notice?)

The material shouldn’t matter. I know we’re all being all sexually politically correct these days about women in IT, but this is a Pandora’s Box of a precedent that will eventually get way out of hand, if it isn’t already (and I think it is). Imagine how this story goes for the conference if a man Tweets out a picture of a woman and says, “This woman was talking to another woman and insulted my religion, and the conversation made me uncomfortable.” Is the conference now on the hook to escort those two women out of the building? How about programming language choice? How about race? How about sports teams? Where do we draw this line?

Adria was right to be fired. It’s harsh, but as any celebrity endorsement negotiator will tell you, when you represent a brand, you represent the brand even when the cameras aren’t rolling. (Just ask Tiger Woods about this.) Her actions brought a ton of unwanted negative attention (and a DDOS attack, apparently) to the company; that’s in direct contrast to the reasons they were paying her, and seeing as how her actions were something she did (as opposed to had done to her), her termination is entirely justified. You might see it as a bit harsh, but the company is well within boundaries here.

The PlayHaven developers weren’t right to be fired. Again, nowhere do we see them getting the opportunity to confront their accuser, or make restitution (apology). Now, you can argue that they, too, were representing their firm, but unless their job is to act as an evangelist and brand recognition activities are part of their job description, you can’t terminate them for gross negligence in this. Of course, most employment is “at-will”, meaning a company can fire you for any reason it likes, but this is sort of akin to getting fired for getting drunk and making lewd comments to the wait staff at Denny’s while wearing a company T-shirt.

Sexism in IT is bad. Duh. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who said otherwise. But this wasn’t sexism. Inappropriate, perhaps, but not sexism. By the way, racism in IT is bad, and so is age-ism, role-ism (discounting somebody’s opinions just because they’re in Marketing or Sales), and technacism (discounting a technology based on no factual knowledge).

It’s politically correct to jump to attention when “women in IT” come up. This subject is gathering a lot of momentum, and most of it I think is of the bad variety. Hate speech should not be tolerated—the rape and death threats against Adria cannot, should not, and are not acceptable in any way shape or form. Nor should similar kinds of direct comments against gays, lesbians, transsexuals, blacks, Asians, Jews, or any of the other “other” groups out there. But there is a far cry between this and the discrimination and hate speech that people go through: I have a friend who is lesbian and a school teacher, and she is receiving death threats for teaching at that school. She has dogs at the house, shotgun loaded, and she is waiting for the Mormons and news reporters to vacate her lawn so she can try to resume some kind of normal life. Putting up with a few lewd jokes in a crowd at a conference, I would guess, sounds pretty heavenly to her right now.

I think we have time for a patronizing plea, by the way: Ladies, I know you’ve had something of a rough time in the IT industry, but it’s pretty obvious that it’s getting better, and frankly, you run a big risk of ostracizing yourself and making it harder if every time a woman doesn’t get selected for something (a conference speaking slot, a tech lead role, or a particular job) the whole “women in IT” banner gets unfurled and raised. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t think there’s many of you that are doing that. There are some, though, who do claim special privilege just for being female, and there’s enough of a correlation between these two things that I think before too long it’s going to lose its impact and the real good that could be done will be lost. Don’t demand that you get special privilege—earn it. Believe me, there’s plenty of opportunities for you to do so, so if you get blocked on something, look for a way around it. Demand equality, not artificially-imposed advantage.

(As trends go, quite honestly, given the declining rates of men graduating college and actually making a life for themselves, before too long the shoe will be on the other foot anyway, just give it time.)

There is no happy ending here. Nobody can fix this; three lives have been forever affected, negatively, by all of this. The ones I feel truly sorry for? SendGrid and PlayHaven—they had nothing to do with it, and now their names are going to be associated with this whole crappy mess.

Call me a misogynist for not whole-heartedly backing the woman in this case, if you will, but frankly, it was a disaster from the moment she chose to snap the photo and Tweet to the world instead of saying, “Excuse me, can you not make those jokes here? I don’t think they’re particularly appropriate.” I could theorize why she chose the one route over the other, but that’s an essay for another day.

Let the flaming begin.

UPDATE: This post puts more context around Adria, and I think is the best-written commentary I've seen on this so far, particularly since it's a woman's point of view on the whole thing (assuming, of course, that "Amanda" is in this case applied to a human of the female persuasion).

Thursday, March 21, 2013 3:25:10 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
I stopped reading after the first few paragraphs because you have some facts wrong:
1. The developers that got fired are not from SendGrid.
2. PyCon organizers did not escort the developers out. I think PyCon handled this situation adequately. The employers did not, however.

Pleas put reference to your sources. Couldn't continue reading if some of your facts were already wrong.
Roberto Guerra
Thursday, March 21, 2013 3:28:34 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
One detail not mentioned here -- Adria made a dick joke just a few days before on Twitter (suggesting a guy stuff his pants to mess with the TSA).

Hello hypocrisy.
Jason Mauer
Thursday, March 21, 2013 3:37:48 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)

Typos corrected, thanks. The developers were from PlayHaven, not SendGrid--Adria was working at SendGrid. The story about the developers being escorted out was cited in the story I linked to at the top of the essay, although, as I pointed out later, I am taking their word for it because I was not there, so I'm (like so many others) at the mercy of reports here.


I did mention that, towards the end. The "pick your world" comment.

Thanks for commenting!
Ted Neward
Thursday, March 21, 2013 6:50:41 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
After I read your post, I couldn't help but come to the conclusion that you simply identify PlayHaven guys more than Adria. You either couldn't or would not put yourself in her shoes.

To suggest that the correct course of action in this case was to confront the "jokers" speaks to a level of privilege some of us don't have there are myriad of reasons why she could have felt that a direct confrontation wasn't the best idea. I won't attempt to read her mind, but for me, I have been in a similar situation where off color racial jokes where told in my presence. I felt I couldn't directly confront him because as a 300lb black man, many people confuse confrontation on my part as an attempt to antimidate. When you are the "other" doing what comes naturally for a member of the majority might not be the best course.

Finally I'll say that when you're in the moment, and you feel weight of the humiliation words like those that where said here can cause, academic arguments about what is sexual vs sexist or racial vs racist go out the window. I have no idea what was in Adria's head, but to suggest that her pain was unfounded because this doesn't meet your definition of sexist is absurd. It's easy to be satisfied with it's getting better when it's never been bad for you.

Thursday, March 21, 2013 9:22:27 PM (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)

I sent this to you in email, but wanted to capture it in comments for others, because I think you raise some good points.

I think it's very fair to assume that I identified more with the PlayHaven guys than I did Adria. But don't imagine for a second that I couldn't put myself in her shoes--it's just that in her shoes, I think/believe I would've reacted very differently. That's not a lack of ability on my part, it's a choice of how I live my life.

I refuse to believe that she felt unable to confront those jokers--she is a well-known evangelist, with thousands of followers, and the commensurate privilege that goes with that means she can make her views heard. She's also clearly not backed down from the resulting firestorm, embracing a position of "I had to say what I felt" rather than some kind of "It was wrong what they did" position. This is not the reaction of somebody who does not feel entitled to respond. Smiling as she takes a picture of the pair also implies she knew what she was about to do--leverage her Twitter account to shame these guys.

As to your own case, I can't imagine what it's like to be a 300lb black man--but some of my friends in college were also large black men, and I saw the discrimination that can go on there first-hand when the two of us were walking through the college campus on the way to a party at night and got stopped four (!) times by campus police. I made the same walk a night later and didn't get stopped once. Just to test the theory, I did the same walk alone a week later at the same time, and never got stopped. I get it.

I myself am not a tiny guy. In fact, while walking the city streets at night, I've had women cross the street in front of me so as to not have to pass by me. They're judging me based entirely on the hoodie and the goatee and the presence I project. I have no opportunity to tell them otherwise. I have a loud voice, and I've had to learn to pitch my voice lower during arguments or else police/security will come over and assume that I'm the perpetrator or the aggressor.

I won't speak to your experience or project how I would've handled it differently when somebody tells off-color jokes in your presence, but I will steadfastly stick to my guns that there is always a way to present your offense without provoking a confrontation--in the case of a coworker, you approach a superior; in the case of a friend of a friend (in other words, no direct shared authority figure), you just walk away or tell your friend that his friend is an asshole. There is a happy middle ground here between taking the passive-aggressive role of public shaming and simply having to put up with it.

As for being in that moment and feeling that weight of emotional pressure and humiliation, believe me, I've been there. I don't recall ever saying that her pain was unfounded--I do recall saying that her reaction to that pain (real or imagined, and that is a debate we can have another day) was unacceptable, particularly for somebody who is acting in an evangelist role for the company.

Ted Neward
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