On Adria Richards, PyCon, and SendGrid

As many people are already aware, a woman named Adria Richards, who worked at a company called SendGrid, was fired yesterday. Both Richards personally, and SendGrid as a company, have been under attack by individuals, and by Anonymous. These attacks are “retaliation” for the firing of a developer at Play Haven, by Play Haven, after that developer was ejected from the PyCon conference taken aside and spoken with by PyCon staff (Update: the accounts I initially read said he’d been removed from the conference, but that was evidently not the case. My apologies for the misinformation.) following Richards’ reporting to the conference that he was making inappropriate jokes in the audience of a talk.

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled already on this topic, and as a cisgender, hetero white man, whether or not my understanding or ideas are correct, my voice is not among the ones that need to be heard most. (This is also a big part of why I haven’t been blogging nearly as frequently as I used to.) That said, I wanted to list a few links covering the story-so-far, as best I’m aware of it, and make a few short remarks on the matter.

First, Richards’ own account of the incident at PyCon.

Next, a Venture Beat article discussing the incident and some of the fallout, including DDoS attacks against SendGrid.

Here’s the Facebook post where SendGrid announces firing Richards.

This post by Amanda Blum has been getting a lot of circulation (perhaps because, I uncharitably speculate, Blum leads with “I don’t like Adria Richards,” imputes to Richards a history of being “unreasonable”, and insists “This wasn’t about feminism, and she shouldn’t be allowed to sit her perch on the issue.” and “Adria reinforced the idea of us as threats to men, as unreasonable, as hard to work with… as bitches.”). I think there’s a lot wrong with it.

Here’s a further post on SendGrid’s blog about Richards’ firing. Interestingly, they make the same mistake I did yesterday: they interpreted a proposed change to the PyCon code of conduct as a confirmed change intended to prohibit public discussion, like that Richards engaged in, of harassment incidents. My friend @quarteringsea, however, pointed out to me that PyCon say the proposed change (under considerable discussion on their GitHub repository) was intended to target the kind of doxxing and attacks Richards has been subjected to, rather than her initial report:

(Further update: it is actually now completely unclear to me which behavior the change is meant to address, so I’m cautiously holding out hope, but PyCon really needs to do a better job clarifying the situation. A Code of Conduct should be unambiguous.)

Finally, Melissa McEwan has an excellent response at Shakesville to some of the most common criticisms of Richards’ actions; and my friend Courtney Stanton has a thoroughly documented piece at BuzzFeed linking these incidents to the whole disgusting history of sexism and harassment in the tech and gaming worlds.

Here’s what I want to say, and it’s almost certainly redundant with some of what I’ve linked above, but the right way to articulate what bothered me most about the common insistence that “she should have just asked them to stop” instead of publicizing the photo: There is no fucking reason the onus should have been on Richards to politely ask the men to stop. She had a right to expect professional behavior, and moreover the odds of a man responding constructively when confronted by a woman — especially a woman of color — over sexist behavior are, in our society in general and in the male-dominated, “proudly-politically-incorrect” tech world in particular, extremely low.

Maybe the persons in question would have responded calmly, apologized, and improved their behavior in the future, but anyone who knows anything about how women who complain are treated in male-dominated fields (allow me to again recommend Stanton’s BuzzFeed post above) knows that, without already knowing them personally, there is no reason to assume they would. The odds are much, much stronger that they’d be defensive, dismissive, passive-aggressive, or just plain aggressive, and quite possibly escalate their inappropriate behavior — and that they’d feel themselves perfectly justified in doing so, that no one around them would step in, and they’d later deny having done anything wrong. (For an excellent account of how this sort of thing often works, I recommend my friend Maddy Myers’ writing on the fighting game community.)

“In an ideal world,” as the device goes, would it likely be preferable for a person witnessing inappropriate behavior to try asking those responsible to stop before taking any other action? Well, in an ideal world, no one would be behaving inappropriately in a professional setting in the first place; but let’s set that aside and stipulate that yes, if you have a reasonable expectation that a polite admonishment and request will be effective in both stopping the current problem and reducing future problems, without compromising your safety, that’s the fastest, lowest-friction, best response. We do not live in a world where women, especially in male-dominated spaces, can reasonably have that expectation. Keeping it private doesn’t necessarily result in any less harassment, but making it public does make it harder for everyone else to deny it’s happening.

A final note: As my friend @lastnora pointed out, the “don’t publicly shame people, that hurts the community, let’s just deal with it internally” logic being deployed in a lot of responses to this incident is precisely the logic of abusers. Don’t make the family look bad, don’t make the church look bad, don’t make the [whatever group] look bad — but a group that protects hostile or abusive behavior is bad, and to try to keep it looking good is deeply dishonest. Nora’s tweets, referring to the proposed PyCon Code of Conduct language:

6 comments

  1. I’m really only interested in moving the conversation forward, and you’ve quite clearly thought this out articulately. I entertain that my opinion is uniquely mine, I speak for no one, and I would be very open to hearing yours. please email w some thoughts, if you feel so obliged. I’m trying to figure out how we make something good out of the overwhelming bad. (this is literally the only post or blog out there I’ve commented back on and I say the above with all sincerity).

    1. Hi Amanda, thank you for commenting and for the kind words, and my apologies for my delay in replying.
      But as I said in the post, I don’t really feel that I should have a prominent voice in any ongoing conversation; I wrote this post to get out some thoughts that were rattling around my head, and I’m certainly gratified if anyone else found it valuable, but the views of people more directly affected by harassment and hostile environments at cons and conferences should be weighed much more heavily than mine. I’ve tried to include a good selection of such views in links; I’m afraid I don’t think I can speak with anywhere near as much authority on the matter as someone like Courtney Stanton or Maddy Myers.
      I certainly also hope that, ultimately, a positive result can come out of this. My further apologies for so gracelessly backing away from additional discussion, but in good conscience I don’t think I should put myself forward that way.

  2. Thank you for this article. I can weigh in as I’ve been subjected to sexual harassment, isolation for being a female in male dominated industry, and all manner of things Adria can only write about yet clearly hasn’t suffered.

    Please forgive my tone. As Ms. Blum commented, this article is the only one i’m trying to reply to besides the article Ms. Blum wrote herself. I’m incredibly deeply frustrated and angry about this entire situation. Adria is in the wrong. It will take me many paragraphs to explain why. I’m actually, as a woman in her late 40′s, completely stunned that this much discussion has gone on and so few seem able to see this for what it is.

    My comment is under my name, Carrie, on Amanda’s blog on this page – https://amandablumwords.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/3/comment-page-2/#comments
    Apart from there, i’ve only commented on my personal twitter account about this situation.

    If I may say, your article…the last paragraphs beginning with “Here’s what I want to say…” arrrghhhhh! I appreciate that you’re trying to understand and get something out of all this. So please, consider my input.

    Adria screwed up. If other accomplished woman who *have* shared her experience, and much worse, cannot be heard so she can finally learn, how do you expect women and men to get anything positive out of this? Some of us are correcting her and telling Adria she handled this badly and wrong because SHE DID. And she needs to finally learn this lesson for her own sake as much as everyone else’s. I dearly want women, and men, to get there, to get something positive out of this mess. So please bear with me.

    The onus WAS on Adria to handle this properly. She’s a professional public figure with a job requiring her to be able to function appropriately in a public setting. Right there, from the standpoint of professional responsibility, she is accountable.

    This was a private conversation between these men. They were using industry slang, commonly known and used in her industry, which Adria interpreted in a way she needed to so that she could lash out for her previous long frustrating days at conferences. If women expect men to not be men, to not allow them their individual interests and conversations, why do women want to work in industries dominated by men? If a woman does not like how men speak amongst themselves, does not appreciate that they adjust when directly speaking to and with women, how do women expect the workplace to ever evolve so everyone is safe, protected, productive and enjoyable to work with? If you are a woman, you have to walk in that door aware you are a different gender but not bashing everyone over the head with it and demanding everyone else walk on eggshells. If you are in a position with a loud voice, responsibility, representing your company or organization publicly, you have to know how to do that effectively and have effective communication skills. Adria failed – not because she’s a woman – but because she thinks she has all the answers, she has apparently few skills, a serious chip on her shoulder, and yet she expects to be rewarded simply for being female and having a job. Give me a break.

    I’ve been sexually harassed, to the point of nearly assault, at work. I know what that is and how hard it is, day after day after day, to brush off the 1 comment a man makes only to have many more men repeat similar comments all day long. These men had no idea their counterparts had already made a comment. They didn’t know I had heard this stuff all day until I finally said “one of you saying something, ok. But when 20 of you come after, every freaking day, also making comments, it’s gets too much.” They heard me, they understood, they adjusted. Except for one vile man who took it too far and tried to get physical in my own office. I was management. Who do I run and tell? Today, that experience culminating in physical altercation, serious intimidation, isolation, etc etc etc took my health and I’m no longer an accountant in manufacturing. I’m now disabled with a life threatening illness brought on by 2 years of repeated constant daily sexual harassment from 1 jerk enabled by 20 other men and a weak male boss.

    Listen, there is a lot worse road women have travelled in ALL industries and professions than what Tech and Adria are dealing with today. Go back to the 50′s and onward. Doesn’t matter what profession, what industry, what job – women have walked through hell and a lot of abuse. Many still do and that’s wrong. But there is a difference between the real and the imagined. If Adria doesn’t learn how to handle things and shut them down before they really get scary, she is going to take everyone down with her. To no good end. Adria is damaging all the progress that’s been made to date. She deserved to be fired. You don’t get a pass for being incompetent just because you’re a woman. Not anymore. At least I freaking hope not.

    Last point. If you are a woman in a high profile or high demanding professional career position, as Adria was, you have to learn and know conflict resolution. You can’t be ‘afraid to speak up’. Men in authority positions don’t have anyone speaking up for them. Why do women expect it? Hillary Clinton doesn’t and hasn’t. What is Adria going to do when she owns a home, has a surly neighbor (try a 6 foot tall biker! that’s fun), how is she going to resolve that? Like she did with her apartment neighbor and knock on his door? If she can do that – and I know how that feels, to be strong enough to do that, to work up the courage and hide your fear – she’s done it already, so if she could do that, I don’t buy for one second that she couldn’t turn around in her chair at that conference and whisper to those men “hey guys, keep it down please?”

    One thing women are very good at is calling out other women who are phony, calling out those women who take pleasure in making progress difficult for others. If you see women doing this in response to Adria, you owe it to yourself to consider their point. Adria is not a victim here, though it’s clear she dearly wants and needs to be. I wonder how much that earns in terms of annual salary? What’s the going rate for victimhood… and do health benefits come with that?

    1. Hi Carrie,
      Thank you for taking the time to comment here, though we certainly end up disagreeing pretty strongly. I apologize for taking so long to publish the comment.

      As I said in response to Amanda, I’m pretty uncomfortable with my post — the opinions of a cis, het, white man — becoming a site for discussion of this issue. I don’t want to seem like I’m just trying to have the last word, so I’ll just say that while I still disagree, I really do appreciate your sharing your perspective. You’ve given me a lot to think about; but I also think maybe dudes in tech could stand to walk on eggshells a bit.

      In any case, I’m going to close comments on this post now.

Comments are closed.