EDIT NOTE: Earlier we reported on the controversy involving Adria Richards, her employer SendGrid, and her tweet at a conference about two men behind her making what she thought were offensive jokes about “dongles.” The story has ignited a firestorm in the tech world, in part because the issue of the ongoing debate about how women are treated in the industry. Activist and entrepreneur Rachel Sklar was kind enough to give us her take on the situation.
You don’t have to agree with Adria Richards’ actions at PyCon to be appalled by the sorry mess it’s become.
I think SendGrid made a massive mistake here – presumably they hired Adria Richards based on her record and experience. Presumably they interviewed her. Presumably they knew she had a blog and that it was called, “But You’re A Girl” – which presumably they understood to mean she’d be writing about her experiences being a woman in technology (presumably with a little edge). And presumably they’d done a little research into her methods. They hired her as a developer evangelist which means that they were presumably on board with the perspective from which she’d evangelize. And up until two days ago, they got a lot of goodwill from it.
Who knows what went on in the minds of SendGrid management. But it seemed like an awfully kneejerk move, a clear attempt at appeasement to the troll armies. But that gets you on board with the troll armies. And however you may disagree with how Adria handled the incident at PyCon – and there is ample room for disagreement – the reaction against her specifically was wildly disproportionate, explicitly gendered, actively threatening and puts all the blame on her. PyCon, which responded to her tweet and immediately removed the men in question, has gotten off pretty unscathed. (Perhaps because its Code of Conduct and Attendee Procedure For Handling Harassment both supported its decision.) PlayHaven, which summarily fired its employee, has not received such umbrage. This demand letter from Anonymous is, shall we say, fairly extreme.
And yet SendGrid complied, letting Richards go. Company CEO Jim Franklin claimed in a blog post that it was because Richards behaved inappropriately in tweeting the photo and accusation. He drew this distinction:
“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 behaviour, whenever and wherever it occurs. What we do not support was how she reported the conduct.”
Fair enough, but that all happened Sunday, and Richards blogged it Monday. Things began swelling Tuesday, but it wasn’t until late Wednesday that SendGrid became directly implicated by DDOS attacks. The firing was announced Thursday. So there is something logically inconsistent here. It seems clear that SendGrid and Franklin were aware of Richards’ conduct as the situation unfolded, yet the decision to fire her *only* came after the attacks. (And indeed, by Franklin’s own admission Richards abided by the PyCon Code of Conduct incident at the time, since he notes that the code was since updated.)
We live in a world now where everything is tweeted and Instagrammed and tagged and now, God help us, Vined. Calling out grievances over Twitter has become an industry norm. (Just ask any airline.) So on Sunday or Monday, even if SendGrid may have thought it was an extreme way for Adria to have dealt with the situation, it still would have been hard to argue that it was contextually inappropriate. (The PyCon code of conduct affirmed confidentiality for those reporting incidents, not for those being reported.)
So SendGrid – and Franklin – are being seriously intellectually dishonest here. They fired a female employee for speaking up in about feeling uncomfortable within a specific professional environment, in a manner which – like it or not! – was consistent with the rules and regulations of that environment. That’s not ‘supporting the right to report inappropriate behaviour, wherever and whenever it occurs.’ That’s a warning shot for women not to speak out, pure and simple.
Because Adria made a judgment call and look how crazily she got burned. Anyone who thinks that women won’t think twice about speaking up forcefully about this stuff is kidding themselves. Maybe not in the clear-cut situations, but in those blurry wait-maybe-it’s-me-should-I-just-learn-to-take-a-joke?-everyone-else-is-laughing situations that happen so often in roomfuls dominated by dudes, in an industry that often chides women to just get over the booth babe thing, learn to take a joke, stop complaining. It’s really easy to take a big swashbuckling stand on the easy, clear-cut cases. But this is much more nuanced and cumulative – death by a thousand cuts.
Adria doesn’t represent all women in tech – that is a huge, sprawling, diverse range of people across what is now a massive and diffuse industry. But the hateful reaction to her has been breathtaking, and frightening, and unequivocally gendered. You cannot brush off repeated threats of rape. And honestly, check out a comments section on this stuff once in a while. (I don’t plan on checking out this one.) It’s when things blow up that it becomes impossible not to notice that women get treated scarily, threateningly and very specifically worse.
And THAT’s what SendGrid capitulated to. Their actions have been cowardly and intellectually dishonest. They could learn something from the employee they just cut loose.
Rachel Sklar is a writer and social entrepreneur based in New York. She is the co-founder of Change The Ratio, which increases visibility and opportunity for women in tech & new media, and TheLi.st, launching soon with that same mission (supported by the Knight Foundation). A former lawyer who writes about media, politics, culture & technology, she was a founding editor at Mediaite and the Huffington Post.
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