RSS
The tech world's chronic sexism problem: How a Twitter-shaming spiraled out of control [Updated]
"One tweet. Thousands of comments," says Kashmir Hill at Forbes. "Four days later, two people have been fired. Welcome to the digital age."
The key players in this messy he-said-she-tweeted.
The key players in this messy he-said-she-tweeted. Twitter/adriarichards
A

dria Richards, a well-known tech evangelist for the email app SendGrid, attended the PyCon developers conference last weekend. Behind her, two male attendees from PlayHaven, a gaming company, were making what she saw as sexually charged bro jokes — relatively innocuous but juvenile stuff about "dongles" and "forking." So Richards turned around, snapped a picture, and sent out this tweet:

The men later conceded that they had acted inappropriately. They apologized. However, that didn't stop PlayHaven from firing one of the developers. He apologized again, this time on Hacker News, a popular aggregator and forum for the tech crowd:  

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.

My second comment is this, Adria has an audience and is a successful person of the media. Just check out her web page linked in her twitter account, her hard work and social activism speaks for itself. With that great power and reach comes responsibility. As a result of the picture she took I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have 3 kids and I really liked that job.

She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate. Let this serve as a message to everyone, our actions and words, big or small, can have a serious impact. […]

Again, I apologize. [Hacker News]

And that's where things started to get nasty. The whole thing quickly turned into another example of the male-dominated tech industry showing the world its sexist underbelly.

Richards — who said she never intended for the man to be fired — began receiving vile threats over Twitter, on her blog, and on Facebook. One representatively disgusting tweet seemed to revel in her hypothetical rape and death.

Someone started a petition to get Richards fired. SendGrid suffered a DDoS attack. Then SendGrid fired her.

"It's no secret that Silicon Valley is lousy with brogrammers and short on women," says Janet Paskin at Bloomberg Businessweek, "and that imbalance — combined with a culture that eschews meetings, titles, and pants — probably leads to a lot of questionable jokes and uncomfortable situations."

That said, "the last 24 hours have been some of the ugliest on the internet," says tech marketer Amanda Blum at her blog. "The tech community, especially the Open Source community, is built on respect for others. There's a gentleman's code for privacy (taking a picture w/o permission is not ok; spamming someone a virtual crime) and procedure dictates even security leaks to be reported privately. Trolls aside, if you don't believe there is misogyny in the tech world, this will absolve you of that belief. There was little reasonable chatter, instead she was attacked not as a person or developer but as a female — a bitch."

No one wins here: SendGrid, PlayHaven, Richards, the fired developer — they all lost.

"The ugliness I've seen in the last week shocks me, I didn't know it could sink to such depths. Adria reinforced the idea of us as threats to men, as unreasonable, as hard to work with… as bitches," says Blum. "By that default, men lost too."

Well, "regardless of what you think of the joke itself, it is sexist to contribute (willfully or cluelessly! Ignorance is not an excuse!) to a hostile work environment for women. Full stop," says Lindsey West at Jezebel. "If you didn't realize you were doing it, that means you haven't bothered to think critically about women's comfort and needs. It's f--king 2013. It is not women's responsibility alone to correct gender imbalances. We need men to help."

"One tweet. Thousands of comments," says Kashmir Hill at Forbes. "Four days later, two people have been fired. Welcome to the digital age." So what's the lesson?

While Richards was right to call out fellow conference attendees for making sexual jokes that made her uncomfortable, it would have been better to do so in person — at the very least by shooting them a snide look! — with the possibility of clearing up confusion around terminology. Alternately, she could have snapped their photo and sent it to the conference organizers. But we as a society have become very quick instead to call out wrong-doing publicly, through social media, rather than in person, because it's easier to point the finger digitally than having to deal with the discomfort and awkwardness involved in doing it to people's faces. [Forbes]

Update (12:17 p.m. EST): SendGrid CEO Jim Franklin posted an official statement at the company's blog.

Chris Gayomali is the science and technology editor for TheWeek.com. Sometimes he writes about other stuff. His work has also appeared in TIME, Men's JournalEsquire, and The Atlantic.

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week