Why We Should Just Listen When a Woman Speaks Up

“One thing is more frightening than speaking your truth and that is not speaking” -Audre Lourde

adria richards
Adria Richards by George Kelly via Flickr

Here’s the tale of Adria Richards at the recent PyCon Conference. It unfolded like this:

1. Comments from men seated behind Richards sexualizing forking and dongles made her uncomfortable. She wanted to alert the PyCon organizers in hopes something would be done about it. She choose to alert them with this tweet.

2. The PyCon organizers responded and ask the men to stop.

That should have been the end of the story. Yes, you might have an opinion about how Adria handled it or what the guys were saying, but the fact is the response that followed was way out of proportion to either part of the incident.

3. All hell broke loose. Lots of angry tweets appeared. An unnamed man who was in the photo got fired, even after he apologized. He was not fired by Richards, but by his company, PlayHaven. The PlayHaven blog said

PlayHaven had an employee who was identified as making inappropriate comments at PyCon, and as a company that is dedicated to gender equality and values honorable behavior, we conducted a thorough investigation. The result of this investigation led to the unfortunate outcome of having to let this employee go. We value and protect the privacy of our employees, both past and present, and we will not comment on all the factors that contributed to our parting ways.

Richards told her story on her blog, But You’re a Girl. Richards became the target of hate, death threats, a DDOS attack against her website and publication of all her personal information including her address and phone number. There was also a DDOS attack against her employer, SendGrid, who announced on Facebook within hours of the incident that Richards was fired. Later, SendGrid issued a statement saying,

We understand that Adria believed the conduct to be inappropriate and support her right to report the incident to PyCon personnel. To be clear, SendGrid supports the right to report inappropriate behavior, whenever and wherever it occurs.

What we do not support was how she reported the conduct. Her decision to tweet the comments and photographs of the people who made the comments crossed the line. Publicly shaming the offenders – and bystanders – was not the appropriate way to handle the situation.

4. People began taking sides and arguing their cases either for or against the joking men, Richards, the companies doing the firing, the response of the PyCon organizers and more. The arguments tended to reflect the gender and/or racial identity of the person making them, but interestingly there were exceptions to this. It’s in the unpredictable and independent-minded exceptions that I find hope. I’ve highlighted a couple of them in the reading list below – from men writing at TechCrunch and The Verge.

John Koetsier from Venture Beat managed to get through to Richards by email. He reports,

Last night, at about 2 a.m., after a series of emails with her, I said this:

Tell me at least that u will not be the next Kathy Sierra.

Kathy Sierra is a smart, passionate, funny woman in technology who essentially said her goodbyes to the online world after receiving multiple rape and death threats for, essentially, being a woman in technology.

Kathy Sierra hasn’t posted on her blog since 2007. That’s how long incidents like this against women have been a public problem. Richards responded to Koetsier with a simple,

I’m staying safe.

Can We Agree on a few Things?

We all seem to agree on a couple of basic things. Getting more women in tech would be good for the tech scene and good for the bottom line of the companies doing it. Making women feel comfortable in mostly male environments at tech conferences is worth the effort.

Many people in tech and many conference organizers are doing their part in making these two basic trends reality. PyCon, for example, published a Code of Conduct for its 2013 conference which states,

PyCon is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion. We do not tolerate harassment of conference participants in any form.

Yet many men in tech aren’t hearing the message. They set off to work in the morning with their outdated attitudes intact. They pack for a tech conference but forget to bring along their empathy. And yes, some men respond to events they didn’t even witness with disgusting attacks.

Can we agree that women are speaking out – have spoken out in incident after incident –  about this in very public ways but many men aren’t listening? For example, look at this post from last year: DEFCON: Why Conference Harassment Matters. Standardista calls it Death by a 1000 Cuts when describing the long, continued onslaught by haters and trolls against women in the tech community.

Can we agree that women in tech should not have to go up in flames each time they speak out, but should be both respected and heard by their peers?

Come on, everyone, stop yelling and start listening. Let’s stop blowing things out of proportion and ruining lives.

National flame wars like this one don’t change opinions – they merely make people speak out in defense of their current opinions. (Here I am doing the same thing.) Spewing hate only makes flamers look immature and insensitive.

I’ve been reading other articles about this, trying to find the perfect voice of reason that might change minds in Trollville. I’ve collected some of them below in a list that shows you the many opinions about what happened. Reading all sides of the story might help you come up with something that could be a change maker in future stories like this one.

More reading

  • Adria’s original blog post: Forking and Dongle Jokes Don’t Belong at Tech Conferences. You should read her side of the story first.
  • The apology from the fired developer, called Mr. Hank on Hacker news. Following the apology are miles of comments – read them at your own risk.
  • Mashable’s SendGrid Fires Adria Richards with a link to the SendGrid’s Facebook announcement, which seems to have been removed now. Even though SendGrid pulled its announcement about firing Richards off Facebook, Mashable had this quote from it: “Effective immediately, SendGrid has terminated the employment of Adria Richards. While we generally are sensitive and confidential with respect to employee matters, the situation has taken on a public nature. We have taken action that we believe is in the overall best interests of SendGrid, its employees, and our customers. As we continue to process the vast amount of information, we will post something more comprehensive.”
  • SendGrid posted the “more comprehensive” explanation on their blog.
  • At TechCrunch, On the Internet, Everyone Knows You’re A Dick written by John Biggs. He talks about “lad culture” on the Internet and says, “When this laddishness metastasize into true hate posing as defense of the herd it becomes truly dangerous. It is a waste of energy akin to methodically lighting a car on fire because you don’t like the song on the radio.”
  • At City Girl Goes Digital, Why I Stand with Adria Richards. She comments, “As a woman in the tech scene, this week has just been draining. I’m sending all positive light and love her way.”
  • From The Verge: Thug mentality: How two dick jokes exploded into DDOS and death threats. The writer, Russell Brandom, comments, “any legitimate questions have already been lost in the flood of vitriol against Richards, including outright death threats.”
  •  At Feministe, Standing with Adria. She writes, “But inappropriate workplace behavior is the problem. Not the woman who documents it. And even if there’s outrage about her documenting it, firing her from her job is beyond the pale.”
  • At Amada Blum Words, in Adria Richards, PyCon, and How We all Lost, the post starts by saying that the writer doesn’t like Adria Richards and goes on with, “There is some small part of me that appreciated the backlash she received this week, something I’m ashamed to admit, because I’ve long viewed her as a bully who uses these instances to her personal gain, driving traffic to her blog. But people were missing the point.Within 24 hours, Adria was being attacked with the vile words people use only when attacking women. They called her a man hater (this was the nicest thing they said) who robbed a father of three of his livelihood. Then the threats began- on twitter, on her blog, on facebook. She should get raped, she should be fired, she should be killed, she should kill herself.  A petition was started and people threatened SendGrid’s business. The company itself suffered a DDOS attack. All this ridiculousness made Adria look reasonable in comparison.”
  • Standardista, in Death by 1000 Cuts, comments, “It’s tiresome when you’ve heard inappropriate sexual jokes in a professional setting 1,000 times. It’s ‘Death By A Thousand Cuts’. At some point the micro-aggression kills your spirit. Adria was tired of confronting directly. Many people argued “why didn’t she just confront them.” Is that our job? How many times do we have to repeat this chore? Many people are too scared to confront people. When was the last time you confronted a mother who was smacking her child? Or a police officer who was harassing a black teenager? Why do people think it’s OK for them to insist that Adria have confronted the men behind her when they themselves don’t confront when they’re offended.”

Hold the Elevator

Imagine we are all trapped in an elevator together. It’s a common enough movie trope for when the characters in a story need to make up or get acquainted. Here we are – the offenders, the offended, the trolls, the opinionators – all together in a small box from which we can’t escape. What would we say to each other while we waited for the elevator to move? Let’s do that.

[Note: This post was also published at BlogHer. I’m closing comments on this post.]