“DongleGate”: Adria Richards & Female Inclusion in Technology

This week “Technology Evangelist” Adria Richards was fired from her job at SendGrid for the way she handled her complaint against a sexual pun at San Diego’s Python conference, PyCon, as was one of the men who made said pun.  This resulted in an amazingly (though not entirely surprisingly, considering other examples) vitriolic lash-back from social media, naturally ranging from general disappointment in the way Richards handled the situation to threats of rape and other violence.

Adria Richards' Tweet

(dailydot.com)

What Happened

You can find a pretty succinct summary on DailyDot.com, but I’ll attempt an even briefer one here:  essentially, at one of PyCon’s sessions, Richards took note of a pair of men behind her making a joking sexual comment about the phrases “big dongle” and “fork that guy’s repo”.  While she was initially going to brush it off, she shortly thereafter decided to report it to the PyCon administrators, as there were young female developers present at the conference and she wanted to stand up for less of a “boy’s club” atmosphere in the fields of technology.  She snapped a pic of them on her phone and posted it on Twitter, with a request that they men be talked to about their conduct.

This ended with one of the men in question being fired from his job and subsequently for Richards to be fired from her job as well.  To his credit, the gentleman who got fired, while upset over losing his job, apologized and attempted to explain himself, and Richards in turn voiced sympathy for him losing his job and better clarified her thoughts too.

From HackerNews:

Hi, I’m the guy who made a comment about big dongles. First of all I’d like to say I’m sorry. I really did not mean to offend anyone and I really do regret the comment and how it made Adria feel. She had every right to report me to staff, and I defend her position. However, there is another side to this story. While I did make a big dongle joke about a fictional piece hardware that identified as male, no sexual jokes were made about forking. My friends and I had decided forking someone’s repo is a new form of flattery (the highest form being implementation) and we were excited about one of the presenters projects; a friend said “I would fork that guys repo” The sexual context was applied by Adria, and not us.

Adria’s response:

Thanks for speaking up, contributing your viewpoint on HN and not attacking me.

I’m sorry to hear your employer deciding to not to work with you on this and I hope they reconsider, bring you back on and dealing with it constructively.

For context, I’m a developer evangelist.

That means I’m an advocate for developers, male and female. While I hear abou demanding bosses with impossible deadlines for product launches, I also hear about the experiences of women working at startups.

In both cases I offer suggestions, ideas and mentoring to help the developers become problems solvers. Sometimes the answer is our API or not answering email after 7pm while other times it about being assertive and shedding impostor syndrome.

The forking joke set the stage for the dongle joke.

Yes, this time I decided I didn’t want to argue my perspective. I decided instead to accept it bothered me and took action based on the PyCon Code of Conduct. It sounds like if I’d said something about the forking you would have denied it having a sexual association. Not sure if I smiled but I’m also unsure what facial expression you would have expected.

It’s too bad that the resulting discussion had to happen after the fact, though I’m glad that it happened at all.  It’s also too bad so many people still disagree with Richards’ core concept, and feel the need to threaten her.

Sexual References in Technology Fields

I spent 4 years in a technical college getting a degree in Computer Science and because of that spend most of my time surrounded by dudes, as well as other females in the same situation (that being, an engineer surrounded by dudes).  I got used to all manners of jokes, ranging from simple-and-nerdy (“IT’S A TARP!“) to intentionally-poorly-veiled sexual innuendos (“in YOUR-endo!”).  None of these ever bothered me.  It wasn’t that they did bother me, but in an attempt to fit in I pretended they didn’t.  It was that they never bothered me at all.  Why is that, exactly?  I’m not entirely sure, but a lot of it, I think, had to do with the fact that for one I got used to the dude-culture over time, since mid-way through high school, and for another, I was lucky enough not to have been a target for bullying through my teenage and young-adult years.  I was gregarious enough to get along with just about anybody who sat next to me, but low-key enough not to be noticed by anyone who might have considered picking on me.  Additionally, I had 2 loving parents and a brother who encouraged me to follow my dreams and, in short, not to put up with any shit.

So jokes about “big dongles” or being willing to “fork someone’s repo” actually make me genuinely giggle.  They’re silly, immature, and I know are typically said without meaning to inhibit my status as a woman (another area in which I’ve been lucky – I have never had coworkers or friends put me down or make me feel inferior as a woman in technology).  I also know being able to hear these and laugh gives me a bit of an edge in a male-dominated field in that it gives me the appearance of a mellow coworker who doesn’t get easily bent out of shape.

While sexual or otherwise inappropriate innuendo has rarely (if ever) appeared in my workplace, I know it’s still part of the culture.  I play enough video games, read enough blogs, and have enough friends and acquaintances in the field to know that these references are common.

So What?

I say all this to explain that while I don’t find a reference to “big dongle” particularly offensive, I think Richards made the right choice in reporting these men.  It’s because jokes like these are so ubiquitous and because some women aren’t like me that I feel like we should try to weed these seemingly innocuous comments out of our technological culture.  The world of technology can’t become more inclusive if we insist on clinging to phrases and jokes that make the people we’re trying to include uncomfortable, even if for whatever reason we find them hilarious.

Many tweets and blog posts have been devoted to accusing Richards of not acting “like an adult” in this situation, which I find sort of hilariously ironic – what could possibly be less adult than a joke about “big dongles”?  Do I think she should have tweeted a picture of the 2 gentlemen?  Nah, I don’t think so.  Do I think she was absolutely in the right to report them to a PyCon authority?  Sure!  I think in an effort to include all types of people in a traditionally one-sided community, it’s within everybody’s rights to say “Hey, this is actually a little bothersome to the people you’re attempting to include.”  It’s about being able to have a real discussion.

Wait…An Accusing Tweet is NOT Real Discussion!

Yeah, I agree.

Logistically, I get that Richards probably didn’t want to get up during the session and figured it’d be easier to tweet about it (plus get in a little bro-shaming, I suppose).  Because the session was on-going, and because she had no idea how these 2 men would react by confronting them, she probably didn’t want to turn around and have an immediately discussion with them concerning their choice of jokes (and considering the insanely violent vitriolic lash-back on the internet, I can’t blame her).  Still, I can’t help but think there could have been a happy medium here.  Perhaps simply tweeting about the gentlemen to PyCon directly, and then going with them when they were escorted out to explain her thoughts would have worked out to everyone’s benefit.  Perhaps waiting until the session was over and speaking to them directly may have worked some magic.  I’m not advocating that she should have stayed silent, but rather should have considered a different method of addressing the situation – which is exactly what SendGrid mentioned in their reasoning for firing her.

All That to Say

There’s been a big push recently to get more women into technology and STEM in general, and helping them feel welcome in these fields is going to take change.  That change is going to have to include altering the occasionally offensive culture.  Nobody likes change in their own little cosmos and “nerds” are especially notorious for this aversion these days, but we’re going to have to work on it if we want to expand and improve our world of developers.  Do I think this could have been handled better and it’s a shame 2 people had to lose their jobs over this?  Yeah, I do.  Do I think it’s nuts that people are becoming so violently angry over this?  Absolutely.

But do I think the underlying message of eschewing out sexual comments aimed at the group we’re trying to include is appropriate?  Sure.  Is that so crazy?

Mary Gezo

Formerly of both n00bcakes and !Blog, the two magically become one on Spatialdrift; expect some lazy baking and serious nerditude. Also, I love semicolons.

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7 Comments

  1. Steven says:

    I’d just like to point out that this story is really about three people behaving like children. Two little boys make a few crude jokes, and a little girl overhears them and tells the teacher. As a result, one of the little boys parents grounds him for misbehaving, and the little girls parents ground her for being a tattletale.

    The backlash afterwords may have evolved into a civil rights issue, but the way it started was silly. Would anyone applaud someone being kicked out of pyCon for making a fart joke?

    • NotBlogger says:

      I agree with you that it was essentially 3 people handling the entire situation badly exactly how you describe it. Where we disagree is that it sounds like you think she was out of line for complaining in the first place.

      As I mention, being a woman in a technological field I *know* that this sort of joking happens all the time, and I *know* that there are women who dislike it. Calling her a tattletale isn’t exactly fair – is she not entitled to speak up for her gender? How many young women feel unwelcome in tech fields because of language and jokes like these?

    • Steven says:

      So, what you’re saying is that crude humor is exclusive to males, and it offends women’s sensibilities? That women are above potty humor, so males should cut down on it to make young women feel more welcome?

      • NotBlogger says:

        No, I’m not saying it’s exclusive to males – I actually mention that I find it funny! It’s not that women are above it either…it’s that often times dick jokes make women uncomfortable, and yes – men AND women in tech should consider toning it down if we want to be more welcoming to other women in the tech community.

    • joe says:

      “So, what you’re saying is that crude humor is exclusive to males, and it offends women’s sensibilities?”

      I think Steven summed up my reaction nicely. This story would read very differently if the guys had been making misogynists jokes, or discussing how big the speaker’s boobs were or something.

      I don’t see what this has to do with feminism.

  2. Dale says:

    I think the core problem here is the increasingly social and public nature of the world. The men thought they were making a private inappropriate joke but chose to do so at the wrong place and the wrong time. Rather than try to resolve the matter privately Ms. Richards escalated the situation by taking it to the masses and hoping social justice would handle it.

    I do believe that the men hadn’t intended it to be offensive but that was out of their control once they did it in public. They were wrong. Plain and simple. But there’s a big difference between being privately and publicly wrong. The lesson to be learned here is to be more aware of your surroundings if not necessarily to be more aware of your conduct.

    That said, Ms. Richards used the opportunity to make an example of them. As you pointed out, she had options that could have been taken that could have had the same result. Instead she chose to call them out publicly. While that was certainly her choice and I can see value in trying to shine a spotlight on the misogyny in technology public debate is rarely civil; especially in the age of the Internet. Calling that sort of attention to yourself can have consequences as well no matter how well-intentioned.

    Both sides made mistakes. Both sides had valid points. It’s unfortunate that the anonymity of the Internet empowers people to take disagreement to absurd levels.

  3. Michael says:

    As persons familiar with this site will know, I recently wrote on a similar topic regarding sexism within skepticism, and I think I draw the same conclusion here as I did there. Namely, had Richards made a constructive attempt to voice her opinion then it would be much more difficult for people to justify bashing her (not that many wouldn’t still try). By publicly shaming these two man, with the end result that one of them lost his job, it is difficult to sympathize with her situation. I agree with Joe’s comment above: had the comments been directed at someone else, or had they been misogynistic in character, I would understand her feelings.
    It’s not that she did not have a right to address the situation; it’s that the way she did it was completely unacceptable. Even if she did not feel comfortable directly confronting the two men, she could have personally contacted the PyCon staff during the event and had them take it up with these two guys privately. No one loses their job, she doesn’t come off as over reacting, and the issue is addressed appropriately.
    In the words of the legendary Ron Burgundy, “That escalated quickly.” I don’t think the man who made the dongle joke deserved to be fired. I also don’t think that Richards necessarily deserved to be fired, but I do think her actions – actions which dragged her companies name into an uncomfortable spotlight – warranted her being fired more so than dongle-dude.
    I understand the need to not be exclusive via the culture of a group. No one deserves to feel they don’t or can’t belong to the “boy’s club”, but I think this situation shows that many people feel there is a point where enough is enough. As an adult, minor things like this should not generally be a problem. At some point, people can say you are being too sensitive, or perhaps that your being sensitive is not something the group at large has to accommodate. This is a matter of trying to find where that line is, and I commend anyone willing to participate in the discussion. I only wish Richards had not Tweeted her response to the situation, because she might have then been effective in making a change without polarizing a large swath of the tech community around an issue that should be important to everyone had she handled it like an adult. There’s a reason no one likes a tattler and that we teach our kids not to be such.

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