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Combatting Sexism in the Technology Community

The Day Adria Richards Said 'Not This Time!'

 

Sometimes a story breaks that touches so many issues that one is left with mouth agape. The recent news involving technology "evangelist" Adria Richards is one such story and it's burning across all kinds of media and cutting an intense divide within the techie community. It's about sexism, racism, techie culture, corporate "hide-from-accountability" amorality and the lack of job protection that jostles the ground under most techies' feet.

Adria Richards is a prominent writer and consultant within the technology industry. She's not a household name in the wider world but she's known within that demi-universe that works for technology companies, attends conferences and workshops, and posts on message boards.

It was at a conference that this controversy began.

Richards, working for an email service company called SendGrid, was attending PyCon, a huge conference dedicated to the programming language Python and to issues and matters related to it. Python is one of several computer coding languages people use to tell software what to do. It's a mature, powerful and challenging language and so the people who attended this conference were heavy-duty techies and folks who, usually for business reasons, need to reach them.
Adria Richards (r) and the photo she tookAdria Richards (r) and the photo she took
The short version of the story is that during a plenary session she was attending Richards overheard what she thought were sexual jokes being made by some men sitting behind her. By all accounts, they were silly "double entendre" jokes about "dongles" and "forking the repo" -- widely used technical terms for a device (a dongle) and the development of slightly different code in a program (forking). The jokes, however, sounded offensively sexual to Richards, so she took the two guys' picture and posted it on Twitter with a tweet asking that something be done about their offensive behavior. Conference officials were on the scene immediately. At their request, she pointed the fellows out to them and the conference organizers quietly asked the men, one by one, to come out to the hallway for a chat.

 
It could easily have ended there and I wouldn't be writing this. But one of the men, who worked for a game marketing and "community-building" company called Playhaven, was fired soon after the conference.

The techie community went bonkers with thousands of message board posts, many of them denouncing Richards' actions: Why didn't she simply ask these guys to stop before tweeting about them? Is this kind of joke really that offensive? Don't women make sexually tinged jokes? How could she live with herself after getting people fired?

Richards' website was hacked, the SendGrid website was hacked (allegedly by activists from Anonymous) and Richards received several death threats (one accompanied by a grotesque tweet with a picture of a decapitated woman on a bed).

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