This year’s PyCon conference stirred up some serious drama.
Adria Richards, a noted technology evangelist, was in attendance at PyCon. To give a little perspective, here is a photo Adria provided that shows what the conference room looked like on the day in question:
It looks like your typical big, crowded conference room.
By Adria’s own account, two men sitting directly behind her made some crude, immature jokes about the tech terms “forking” and “dongle.” Adria took offense at their comments and posted the following message (complete with a surreptitious picture of the offending guys) on her Twitter account:
Of course, all hell broke loose. As Russell Brandom at The Verge reported, in the aftermath of Adria’s tweet, both Adria and one of the men in the picture were fired. What’s more, Adria was subjected to rape threats, death threats, and hacking attempts from various seedy corners of the internet.
In the past few days, several feminist websites like Jezebel and Feministe have come out to defend Adria against the sexist attacks. That’s completely understandable. But Jezebel, Feministe, and others go astray when, in their zeal to defend Adria, they unfairly smear the two men as sexists.
“Forking” and “dongle” are giggle-inducing tech terms. It’s juvenile, but most people make stupid jokes about sexual-sounding words from time to time. There’s nothing particularly insidious or sexist about what the men said. There is no indication that the crude jokes were directed at Adria. Nor were the jokes directed towards any other woman or towards women in general. And as the picture above shows, PyCon was not a threatening, uncomfortable environment. The two men appear to be guilty of nothing more than making tasteless jokes at a tech conference.
In other words, it’s unreasonable to read sexism into what actually happened at PyCon. So why then do feminist commentators characterize the initial incident as sexist?
For instance, here is how Jill Filipovic at Feministe characterized what Adria did when she tweeted the photo:
[Adria's] intent was to stand up for women who always have to tolerate sexist crap at tech conferences…. Crude, sexist jokes are part of tech culture, and a lot of companies are run by young white guys who don’t seem to understand appropriate workplace behavior.
Sexist jokes might be a part of tech culture, but that has little bearing on what actually happened here. Two men making ostensibly private dick jokes is not sexist.
Jezebel didn’t get past the title of its initial story about the Adria Richards incident before labeling the two men as sexist. Its piece was titled ‘Woman in Tech Tweets About Sexist Dudes in Tech. Dude Gets Fired. Internet Meltdown Ensues.‘
Later in the story, Jezebel unleashed this bit of analysis:
Regardless of what you think of the joke itself, it is sexist to contribute (willfully or cluelessly! Ignorance is not an excuse!) to a hostile work environment for women. Full stop. If you didn’t realize you were doing it, that means you haven’t bothered to think critically about women’s comfort and needs.
So we women are such delicate flowers that the mere utterance of a male-oriented sexual pun like “dongle” will cause us to clutch our pearls and faint? Isn’t that itself a sexist assumption? Anything that makes a woman uncomfortable is now contributing to a hostile work environment for all women?
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: rape threats, death threats, hacking attempts, and other abusive, illegal, or criminal actions are never justified. The feminist commentariat is absolutely correct in rallying against the hate-filled misogyny leveled against Adria Richards. No woman should be made to fear for her well-being (physical or otherwise) because of something she says on the internet—even if what she says is wrong and gets another person fired.
My issue isn’t with the rightful criticism of sexist attacks against Adria. I only challenge the characterization of what the men said at PyCon as sexist. It was immature and stupid, not sexist.
Another aspect of the Adria Richards scandal is that her response to the situation—tweeting the guys’ pictures to the whole world—was overblown and uncalled for. Jill at Feministe says that pointing this out amounts to “victim blaming:”
[T]he focus on what Richards could have done differently is the wrong question. It’s a question routinely lobbed at women who are sexually victimized: Why did you go home with him if you didn’t want to have sex? Why did you drink so much? Why did you wear that? Why did you stay at that party? Why were you walking down that street? Why didn’t you yell louder or fight back harder? Why did you fight back, knowing it would only make him angry?
This is a ridiculous comparison, if only because it assumes that the two men at the conference harmed Adria in the first place, making her a “victim.” Adria was victimized by the people threatening her online; she was not victimized by the guys whose photos she tweeted. The criticism leveled against Adria has to do with how she responded to the two men, not to how she responded to the criminals threatening her online. They are two separate issues, and being a victim in one respect does not give you immunity from criticism regarding another issue.
The fact that some extreme elements have attacked Adria Richards should not foreclose discussion about how she initially responded to the situation. There is a conversation to be had about whether we want employers firing employees because of dumb, immature things they say while only nominally “on the job.” We should be able to rightfully denounce misogynist attacks against Adria Richards while simultaneously questioning the ethics of her tweet.
Employers are able to use technology in increasingly intrusive ways to control employees outside the traditional workplace. Yes, PyCon is technically “on the job” for many of the people in attendance, including the two men in question. But these men were out of the office, having what they thought was a personal conversation in a crowded conference room. Before smartphones and Twitter, this incident would have stayed at PyCon.
Instead, the two men have their faces plastered all over the internet, and one of them lost his job. It would have been much better if Adria had privately contacted the PyCon staff, or simply told the men to knock off their immature antics.
Hopefully this incident will make people handle situations like this more intelligently in the future. As unfair as it is, employees should be very careful about what they say when they are even nominally on the job. And eavesdropping, taking surreptitious photos, and posting private complaints on Twitter is probably not the best response to a minor offense like a “dongle” joke.