Adria Richards and Dongle-gate: What Now?

If you haven’t been unplugged for the past two weeks, you’ve probably read about, or have at least had a fleeting interest in, Dongle-gate and the firing (heard ‘round the internet) of developer evangelist Adria Richards for, what basically amounts to, reporting sexism/sexual harassment at a tech conference she attended.

Brief overview: During a keynote session at this year’s PyCon event, Richards (a black woman and well-known tech developer and consultant) overheard a group of developers behind her making lewd “dongle” jokes in a way that wasn’t conducive to what the hardware is actually used for. She was offended, reported them to event staff, they were told to cut that shit out and that should have been the end of it… except, once Adria uploaded the guys’ picture to Twitter with a linked copy of PyCon’s code of conduct, one of the group’s company got wind of it and promptly fired him (something Adria decried and did not wish to happen). He spilled-open on a tech forum where he admitted wrongdoing, expressed regret over the loss of his job, and mentioned that he has three kids… then all holy-hell broke loose and the wrath of Pinhead and his Cenobites was unleashed.

Adria Richards became public (tech) enemy numero uno, and was immediately besieged with death threats (someone sent her a picture of a dead woman’s decapitated body lying on a bed), rape threats, racist and misogynist vitriol (further illustrating her larger point), and was criticized for engaging in public shaming. In a bid to protect their own business interests and perhaps bowing to hackers after a retaliatory DDoD attack, SendGrid (her now-former employer) very publicly fired Adria . SendGrid’s CEO later posted a follow-up statement to the company’s site, in which he derides her for being a divisive force in the industry, but failed to adequately address or denounce the abuse and threats Adria received.

People within and outside of the tech community definitely expressed strong opinions about how this incident unfolded, it’s a situation that resonated with many. Conversations dissecting call-out culture, public shaming and the way Adria decided to highlight the unwelcoming boys club environment the tech community conveys, have been hashed out. Lawyers surmised that Adria’s case could be groundbreaking if she decides to sue SendGrid and that the company would have a difficult time defending their reasons for firing her.

Perhaps one of the most crucial arguments has been over– What does and doesn’t constitute sexist behavior and harassment? When is it appropriate to crack dirty jokes? And how Adria should or should not have felt or done. An overwhelming number of men, who’ve weighed in, think the accused developers were “just joking”, that they were having a “private discussion” and that Adria should have minded her own business—(They were guffawing openly in a public space within earshot of others, so no) —, that Adria “overreacted” (gosh!); and continue to gloss over the fact that the tech industry can be a hostile space for women developers (remember how game developer Kathy Sierra was run offline?), especially women of color, who don’t get enough kudos for the strides they’re making in the tech world.

In a bit of a misguided passage of an otherwise fair assessment of the situation, Slim Jackson of the blog Single Black Male writes…

“(…) it sucks not being able to voice an opinion or make what may seem like a harmless comment without worry of being labeled a misogynist or sexual harasser, but you gotta play by the rules. That’s life. But let’s not assign meaning where there is none. And that’s why this is so bothersome.

I’m all about supporting open discussion on workplace inequality and communication between sexes on hot topics. I’m all about standing against the onslaught that Adria faced once this story broke. I just can’t get behind the free-throwing of the terms misogyny and sexual harassment when it comes to the incident that started this all.”

adria-richards-slim-jackson-single-black-manHere’s my problem with that partial excerpt of Slim’s blog post; as a man who benefits from male privilege within a system that, not only values white imperialism over black and brown, and men over women, especially in the worksphere, it’s not for Slim Jackson or any other man to dictate what does and doesn’t constitute misogyny or sexual harassment to a woman.

And while we’re certainly entitled to our opinions about this situation, it’s essentially not our respective places to determine what Adria should have done, particularly since we weren’t there and we don’t know how offensive the developers were being. We only know the outcome and that it elicited a feeling of grave discomfort for her. Adria was certainly within her right to report the behavior… particularly since PyCon’s policies ensure a fair and safe environment for everyone to navigate during its event.

To feel annoyed that you have to be more conscientious about your interactions with female colleagues or friends, is akin to a white person getting all mealy-mouthed about having to not be racially insensitive towards people of color lest they be called racist. When you are a person in a place of privilege, and aren’t constantly at the receiving end of continued gendered or race-based infractions, of course you don’t want to be bothered with having to reconsider or modify your behavior… and you certainly don’t want to deal with being held accountable for it.

Adria, who has been quiet since this incident exploded, finally released a statement Wednesday…

“(…) I do believe there is good to be found in this situation. Debate and recrimination can and must give way to dialog that explores the root causes of these issues in the tech industry. As developers and members of the startup community, we can welcome newcomers, women and people of color who, as of now, are under-represented in our ranks. And, all of us can learn a great deal from those who are well-established in the field. We can solidify the values of our workplaces (yes, conference spaces are workplaces!), and set new, positive and inclusive examples for other professional disciplines.”

Perhaps Adria stepped over the line when she tweeted a picture of those men to her followers … which is, admittedly, a fair argument, but continuing to point out that one element as an excuse to drag her for it because of some personal vendetta, to act as if it’s the only thing that’s wrong, or to go off on some tangent about how dark-sided feminism is, doesn’t contribute work towards resolving anything, and neither does condescending to women about how they should or shouldn’t react to sexism and/or sexual harassment.

What you, as a man in a professional space, view as a simple dick joke, may not be funny to the woman it’s being shared with or who overhears it. No amount of anonymous trolling, threatening, or racial epithets will change that.