Wednesday, 20 March 2013

This is not a meritocracy


An hour ago, SendGrid publicly announced Adria Richards’ termination. They say,

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.

In other words, they heard the thousands, if not millions, of people calling for Richards’ termination, and delivered. In an effort to do… what? Save their customer base? This is a hell of a message to send—if you embarrass a man for making tasteless jokes at a technical conference, and he gets fired and complains about it, we’ll throw you to the wolves.

The joker’s behaviour at the conference earned him disciplinary action (whether or not he should have been fired or given sensitivity training is academic)—he was acting as a representative of his company, at an event they had sponsored. Necessarily, he should have been on his best behaviour. Richards was probably representing SendGrid as well, insofar as SendGrid probably paid her to be there, and it was probably all over her nametags—and she may have been wearing company gear too. However, what was Richards’ offense? Saying “that’s not cool” loudly, really.

Rather than go to bat for Richards, and say, “we believe that the software industry is best served by a culture of universal respect, and we don’t condone anyone making inappropriate sexual commentary in the workplace or at a technical conference,” SendGrid has sent the message that they don’t have their employees’ backs. That they either don’t believe that the industry is rife with misogyny, or perhaps that they don’t think it’s a bad thing, or maybe just that it can’t be fixed.

I don’t hold with any of this. I believe that the misogyny that pervades this industry must be confronted head-on. New hire sensitivity training that says little more than, “don’t make dirty jokes around girls” is staggeringly insufficient, and if Human Resources requires this training, then everything that company does in public must reflect the beliefs that that training espouses.

SendGrid has told the world that they believe offensive jokes are okay in the workplace, and that if you call it out, you will be silenced.

Is my calendar right? Is it 2013, or 1963?

This week is a bad week for how I feel about my gender.

We got an early start on Sunday with shockingly insufficient sentences for a pair of teenage rapists, followed up by horrifying apologia from, well, all the major news outlets, CNN included. I’m not going to comment on it here, but I will suggest that you read I Am Not Your Wife, Sister or Daughter, a fantastic article (that my wife Anne wrote) that’s getting a fantastic amount of coverage. She’s absolutely spot-on when she points out that we, as a society, really need to stop trying to humanise rape victims to rape apologists by suggesting, what if it was your wife? Your sister? Your daughter?. It’s not just objectifying, but it also reinforces your audience’s misogynist worldview.

I could really get into it, because it makes me mad… but the way that the professional software community is treating Adria Richards—and, by extension, every woman in the industry, has got me so upset I can hardly see straight.

You probably know where I’m going with this, but let’s review the facts, shall we?

Richards publicly shamed two attendees for cracking sexual jokes about, among other things, “forking his repo” after a suggestion that forking is the highest form of flattery. I understand the pair of them were going on for quite some time, and the PyCon organiser dealt with the situation privately, and the guys were chastised for their behaviour, and that seemed to be the end of it.

Until when they got back to work, when at least one of the pair of jokers was fired. He then posted a strange apology that suggests that he believes Richards was trying to make that happen. Richards sent her own public apology to him and urged his employer to reconsider their decision.

Regardless of this, the male developer community has worked itself into a mouth-foaming rage. People are specifically calling for her dismissal, and there was at least one suggestion that the guy who was fired should sue her. There’s a whole host of men insisting that “dick jokes aren’t harassment”, as though sexual harassment can only occur through individually-directed comments. I’ve lost count of how many people are suggesting that Richards’ fragile female sensibilities caused her to overreact to a “private joke” (one, I’ll point out, was told in a crowded conference hall, and thus is anything but private, unless it was whispered directly into the other person’s ear).

Virtually every comment I read on the thread following the non-apology is coming to his support, and attacks Richards.

Virtually every commenter seems to believe that a man’s desire to make offensive jokes in a public space, while representing his employer, somehow trumps every other person’s basic right to be in a room without being made to feel uncomfortable because of their race, gender, religion, sexual preference, or even no reason at all. That bad jokes are somehow sacrosanct, and that people who are offended by them should simply “grow up and get over it.”

Look, this isn’t the way adults, and professionals, are supposed to talk to each other. This isn’t the way the developer community constantly tries to describe itself to outsiders. We insist, adamantly, that everyone is considered equal, and that the developer community is a meritocracy above all else.

This is, unfortunately, not the reality. Women have never been afforded the respect they deserve within this industry. RADM Grace Hopper invented the compiler, and assembly language, in order to make programming that little bit easier than having to remember and decipher opcodes, and her male peers couldn’t possibly have taken her less seriously… but because of her, I don’t have to have any idea what the x86 instruction set looks like in order to do my work.

And yet marketers at computing events like CES and E3 continue to hire booth babes—in other words, human furniture to make their booth look good. I’ve read of women who have produced games, who later staffed the conference booth for the game, and tech reporters asked her to get the producer, or technical director, as though the idea of a woman being responsible for creating something as complex as a video game was a foreign concept.

I’ve worked in a variety of companies, some larger and some smaller. But the reality is that I’ve worked with far more men in technical roles than I have with women, and that, invariably, when there haven’t been women in the technical group, it’s turned into a boys’ club.

This is unacceptable. The current software developer community is openly hostile to women asking to be treated like human beings, and this shit has to stop. You wouldn’t make racist jokes at a conference (or would you?), so what makes it magically okay to make jokes that objectify sex, and women?

Right, nothing does, because it’s not okay.

It’s not okay to compare an object to a person’s body. It’s not okay to compare a development process to sex. It’s not remotely okay to tell someone who says, “I’m offended”, that nothing offensive happened, and that they’re overreacting.

And it isn’t fucking okay to make death threats against a person who called out inappropriate jokes. Yes, this happened. Yes, the post has been deleted. Yes, I hope YCombinator does the right thing and assists the police in any investigation that might occur, and yes, I hope that investigation happens.

Finally, it’s not even a little bit okay to attack someone for acting on having been offended. That someone got fired for making inappropriate comments while representing his company at a conference shouldn’t be remotely surprising.

Technologists really need to start showing each other a lot more respect, because right now, it really feels like we don’t show each other any.


Luis Velarde said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Luis Velarde said...

You're implying in your whole article that sex is something taboo that should never be talked about in public.

Really? Stop being so close-minded and idealistic thinking that sex jokes and comments won't ever be made in public. Where are the penis and aids jokes Adria made on twitter mentioned in your post? Where's the mention of blatant hypocrisy on her part? Nowhere of course because you don't bother to add any objective context to the story.

I'd like to pose one question to you Daniel: Was the man's "offense" bad enough to leave a family without an income? Adria's intentions are irrelevant, the outcome is what matters, and the outcome may have ruined this mans life over a joke he made.

Second of all who says that all the people criticizing Adria are from the tech community? I sure am not. Nice generalization.

Third of all you say that women can be sexually harassed by comments not even directed at them? That implies that women are WEAK. That they can't handle the jokes men make. Nice job in taking feminism a few steps backwards, friend.

You, Adria and your wife I presume need to lose the persecution complex. It doesn't help anybody.

- A real feminist

Sara Hanna said...

Would you be getting this worked up or heroically defend this guy if he'd been fired for making racist or homophobic jokes? I guaran-fucking-damn-tee not. Misogynists like you are the reason feminism exists, and rightfully so. Its a good thing we have men out there like matt to balance out all the douchebags or else we may all have become lesbians and the human race would've dies out.

Alys said...

Thank You for saying what needs to be said and understood by everyone.
I have spent my adult life in a technical area that has been deemed male territory and what you are describing is an every day occurance that should never happen.
Respect for others, always.

Diane said...

The only context in which misogynistic "jokes" would be appropriate would be if it was a convention of comedians. But it wasn't that type of convention, was it? It was a convention for software developers and sex as an appropriate topic for conversation is OFF THE TABLE, Luis. Grown-ups don't discuss private matters in public, not on their employers dime. If you want to talk sex, talk about it on your own time. And the guy that lost his job made a foolish decision by making the jokes, but it's not the woman who complained about the jokes' fault that he lost his job -- it's his own fault for not understanding what professionalism is all about. I agree, however, that this could have been a "teachable moment" -- that it would have been better to send the man in question to a sensitivity seminar and help him understand his sexist ways rather than send him packing, which will probably only fuel his misogyny.

twoleftfoot said...

bullshit! yawwnnnnn she crossed a line! if she was so angry why didn't she just stood up there and told them on the face about their words, instead she turned back, smile, click their pictures and wait for some "twitter" moment.
no wonder the term pussy is used to explain a headless person! she is a shame to your feminism

Post a Comment