How not to take a stand

There is continued coverage on Adria Richards, an employee of SendGrid who was recently fired after her posts on Twitter and her blog caused other tech employees at another company to be fired.  Here is the timeline:  

  1. 03/17/13 – Adria Richards attended PyCon, a Python programming conference.
  2. While listening to a panel, Richards overheard two males seated behind her making jokes about forking and dongles.
  3. Richards photographed the males with her phone and posted the following to Twitter: Not cool. Jokes about forking repo’s in a sexual way and “big” dongles. Right behind me #pycon
  4. Richards also publicly tweeted the PyCon Code of Conduct, asked via Twitter for someone to speak to the males about their conduct and texted PyCon staff, who thanked her via Twitter for bring the matter to their attention and soon after escorted the males from the room after speaking to Richards in person.
  5. 03/18/13 – Richards wrote about the incident on her blog the next day.
  6. 03/19/13-03/20/13 – Both males in the tweeted picture were fired by their employer [confirmed on 03/21/13].
  7. Richards received death and rape threats as well as racially charged comments on her blog and via social media; hackers shut down the website of her employer, SendGrid; SendGrid customers canceled service and publicly cited Richards as the reason via social media.
  8. 03/21/13 – SendGrid fired Richards.
  9. News!

I don’t believe this is a straightforward “woman was fired for having the gall to snitch about sexual harrassment” story.  As this headline from The Atlantic [“Hackers Got a Women Fired from a Startup After She Called Out Sexual Harrassment”] implies, the story has been reported in a simplistic feminists vs. sexist apologists manner.  While there is absolutely no excuse for the people who have threatened Richards, I don’t necessarily read SendGrid as a misogynist employer; it could be nothing much more than a beleaguered startup with an employee whose methods caused her to become a liability to its continued operations.

I understand that tech is yet another male-dominated industry, but I don’t know that two males joking to each other about dongles and forking qualifies as sexual harassment.  A more professional way to handle the situation would have been to  contact only PyCon directly  and privately, as opposed to thousands of its and your Twitter followers.  Even the way Richards herself wrote about the incident, the comments were not being directed at her and just to each other [and she appeared to assume that the males were making sexual jokes about women when one or both could just as easily have been gay and referring to other males].  It also doesn’t sound like she was accusing anyone of sexual harassment, per se, but of making inappropriate comments within earshot.  What is the legal line there?

Where I work, we try to keep the trading desk a loose, informal and fun environment, especially considering how stressful the work itself can be.  We have something called a naughty jar: whenever anyone makes a sexually inappropriate joke or laughs at an inappropriate joke someone else has made, he or she must add a dollar.  So far we have all contributed to the jar for making jokes and/or laughing.  In finance, there seems to be no shortage of words and phrases that lend themselves too easily to smutty wordplay: position, long/short [synthetic long/short], naked short, open/close, smack it, spread [wide, horizontal, vertical, diagonal]straddle, strangle, bond, yield, etc.

I would find it extremely difficult to not at some point joke about terms like forking and dongles, and I’m not a heterosexual male.  I probably would also have made a similar joke to the one Richards referenced in her post about looking under the table skirt.  I understand that my sense of humor is different from that of others but by making her opinion so very public, Richards asserts that such jokes should be offensive to other women.  As it truly bothered her, I cannot say it was wrong for Richards to say anything.  I merely suggest that by “taking a stand’ for the little girl coders out there, she handled the situation immaturely and unprofessionally, which is probably not the example that she intended to set for them.


More reading:

Adria Richards

Playhaven developer fired for sexual jokes after SendGrid marketer outs him on Twitter – VentureBeat

Hackers Got a Woman Fired by a Startup After She Called Out Sexual Harassment – The Atlantic

Adria Richards, Donglegate, and other abysmal failures – Business Journal


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