A Woman Walks Into A Tech Conference

As a woman in the tech world, I’m sadly not surprised by what happened to Adria Richards. In fact, I always expect it.

Adria Richards.

A woman in the tech community identified people violating the stated Code of Conduct of the group. She was summarily run out of the community. Oh, wait, that wasn’t just this week, that was six years ago.

A woman in the tech community takes her blog offline and stops speaking publicly after receiving death threats for a month. That was also six years ago.

A man attending a festival for the tech community harassed and attempted sexual assault on multiple women in attendance. That was three years ago.

A man attending a high-profile invite-only tech event groped and harassed multiple women in attendance. That was also three years ago.

A very high-profile man in the tech community is arrested for multiple counts of sexual assault. The tech community assumes loudly and repeatedly that the women reporting the assaults are lying. Again, this was three years ago.

A woman representing her employer at a large tech event was physically assaulted by a man attending the event. That was two years ago.

A sponsored hackathon lists “friendly (female) event staff” delivering beer to participants as a “great perk” of participating. That was last year.

A prominent man in the tech community was hired by a large computer manufacturer to be its master of ceremonies at a customer summit, where he said things like, “Men have invented everything worthwhile. All we can thank women for is the rolling pin.” That was also last year.

A woman who produces online feminist educational content ran a Kickstarter campaign to examine tropes about women in video games. In response, avid gamers sent her rape and death threats, vandalized her Wikipedia page, and created a game that allowed the player to “beat up” the woman’s image. Again, this was only last year.

A decades-old pixel standard test image is a cropped photo of a Playboy centerfold. An advertisement for servers in a technical journal is nothing but a blow-job reference. The then-president of Harvard University speaks publicly that women have a “less intrinsic aptitude in science and engineering”, a Hugo-winning author gropes the breast of another Hugo-winning author from the podium of the Hugo award ceremony at a science-fiction convention. A security conference awards a Best IT Security Girl of the Year with accompanying lingerie photos. A talk at a Ruby conference offers tips on how to “Perform like a pr0n star”. A software firm assumes “moms” don’t understand computers or hacking. A woman attending a gamer convention is sexually assaulted; volunteers of the same convention have been harassed by other volunteers working security.

And then on March 17, 2013, Adria Richards found herself sitting in front of two men who felt a professional conference was the place to yuk it up with juvenile sexual wordplay about “big dongles” and forking repos (“I’d fork *his* repo,” etc., etc., etc.). She called it out on Twitter, avec photos. She also wrote up a blog post about what happened. She pointed out that per the event’s Code of Conduct, “Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks….Behave professionally. Remember that harassment and sexist, racist, or exclusionary jokes are not appropriate for PyCon.”

Here’s how Richards explains her decision to speak out: She was attending as an employee of a company that was a sponsor of the event, PyCon. She noticed that one of the men participating in the situation also had a sponsor badge. Additionally, this side conversation was happening during a presentation about the “next generation” of Python developers, including a slideshow of participants in the Young Coders workshop. Richards says on her blog that she decided to act after seeing a photo of a young girl from the workshop. So essentially, employee of one sponsor company is making the event hostile and toxic for an employee of another sponsor company, and the latter decides she’s not going to let this stand for the next generation.

It’s also worth noting that trying to address the situation privately might not have worked very well, given the barriers to direct reporting that clearly still exist at events like this. Historically in the tech community, private is synonymous with “swept under the rug and ignored.”

Anita Sarkeesian’s photostream / Via Flickr: anitasarkeesian

Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign to examine the roles of women in video games, and got rape and death threats in response.

With all of that noted: I am not personally cool with Richards’ choice to photograph the men behaving unprofessionally and broadcast their images without their consent. While yes, this was a public event, she was clearly not a professional photographer working for said event, and it seems a reasonable assumption to me that these men did not expect to have those cell-phone photos published on Twitter to such a large audience, especially with their conversation quoted. I do not blame Richards for doing what she did, but it is not a thing I would like done to me, and therefore it’s not a thing I want done to someone else, no matter what they’re saying. If you’re making an ass out of yourself, you deserve to be notified of that — that’s actually a courtesy, because it gives you an opportunity to stop making an ass of yourself. But if it were me (either as the caller-out or the called-out), photos would feel overly intrusive.

Notice how I disagreed with some of Richards’ actions for, like, so many sentences, and I managed to not threaten to rape her to death? Yeah. My brain can hold two thoughts in my head at the same time — Men saying that stuff isn’t OK and A woman tweeting a picture of those men isn’t OK — and the one doesn’t negate the other or somehow justify flipping EVERY table on the internet in the name of making sure this one woman sits down and shuts up. I don’t need to dox her, I don’t need to DDoS her blog, and I don’t need to denigrate her race or gender in order to disagree with her. I can just say, “Hey, from where I sit, that doesn’t seem particularly cool,” and maybe she hears that and maybe she doesn’t, but either way, nobody gets stalked or threatened or afraid to leave their house.

Point of reference: One time I was afraid to leave my house because of the internet. My unforgivable sin was refusing to just be cool about rape jokes in a gamer comic and its associated fan convention’s merchandise. Sometimes the hill you find yourself dying on is weird and unexpected; I feel a lot of empathy for Richards in this. But as final lines in the sand go, “I would like to attend a professional conference without multiple instances of men being juvenile, unprofessional, and just plain gross” doesn’t seem like an outrageous demand to me. (And again, please read her blog post and try to get a sense of what she’d been dealing with throughout the event leading up to this.)

Unfortunately the situation has also served to identify at least two HR departments that don’t understand how social media works: In response to the public callout, one of the men involved was let go from his employer. This seems excessive, especially when it reads (for the most part) like he understood the problem and was genuinely sorry.

Meanwhile, in the midst of receiving death threats; being called “cunt,” “bitch,” “attention whore,” “asshole,” and “tranny”; being told to kill herself; her employer being DDoSed by 4chan; and Anonymous (supposedly) calling for her firing, Richards had her employment at SendGrid “terminated” yesterday. It always sucks to get fired; I can only imagine it sucks exponentially more when you’re being harassed and threatened for days on end.

PyCon has also chosen to signal via dogwhistle whose side it’s on, for those who can hear; they’ve updated their Code of Conduct with this: “Note: Public shaming can be counter-productive to building a strong community. PyCon does not condone nor participate in such actions out of respect.” Yes, this is the same public shaming that got their attention and action in the first place. Again, I don’t think using someone’s image without their consent is OK. But I also think that being told your behavior is sexist, inappropriate, and unwelcome is not a fun process, no matter how one does it — and if a public shaming is what it takes, then that’s what it takes. There’s a way to leave room for public callout when necessary while protecting the photo rights of attendees, and this isn’t it. This was a huge opportunity to explore what additional actions conferences need to take in order to build safe, inclusive spaces; instead they’ve clearly retreated and refocused on making sure the menfolk feel safe making their “jokes.”

As a woman who’s worked for years at both large tech companies (mobile, web) and small tech startups (mobile, video games), who currently works by day at a multinational internet company and works by night as a video game developer, this is just another thing that happens. I expect this every year, multiple times a year. Whom it happens to and what the consequences are for the individuals don’t change much year over year — and the conversation around it doesn’t seem to evolve much either. I’ve gotten so sick of it happening in the games industry, I started my own conference for game developers in part so I could attend at least one event a year where I didn’t have to expect this kind of thing.

And make no mistake: I always expect it. As someone who is unapologetically public about her history as a rape survivor, I get pulled aside at literally every large event I attend. I am always someone’s only available confidant, the only person someone can tell about their stalker, harasser, assailant, rapist — most often, someone else working in their industry. That is how lonely it is sometimes for women in tech; finding someone who will say, “I believe you” means waiting months or years and sending veiled messages like, “I really hope we can connect at [event]” and hoping the other person can read between the lines. It means trying to represent your company or your product on an expo floor while your stalker hangs out in your peripheral vision a few paces away. It means watching your rapist give talks about subjects relevant to your skill set. It means coworkers sexually assaulting you once you’re single again, luminaries in your field dismissing and shaming your gender when they think they’re among like-minded folks, friends and associates challenging you when you ask to interview any potential new hires, to be provided company-branded clothing that actually fits you, to change desktop backgrounds to something other than half-dressed anime girls during work events.

It means having your life threatened and your job stripped away because for five seconds you weren’t exponentially more professional than the men whose photo you were taking.

A woman in the tech community identified people violating the stated Code of Conduct of the group. She was summarily run out of the community. When a woman walks into a tech conference, few women who have been there are surprised at what happens next.

P.S.: Do you want even more examples of sexism in the tech sector? Try the Geek Feminism Timeline of Incidents, which starts in 1973.

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