In case you're not familiar with this internet-shaking shit-show-in-progress, Adria Richards—a developer evangelist and former employee of a company called SendGrid—was minding her own business in the audience of a seminar at PyCon, a conference for people who work with the Python programming language. Sounds like a pretty mundane scene, at least to an outsider. But then all of the shit hit all of the fans.
Richards was distracted, mid-seminar, by a couple of tech bros sitting behind her making some shitty sexual puns about "dongles" and "forking." (She blogged about the full chronology of events here.) Richards did not enjoy the jokes. She especially did not enjoy the disrespect shown to the speaker, who happened to be specifically, at that moment, addressing programs designed to make the tech community more welcoming to women. Meanwhile, in the audience—Richards's photos reveal a sea of men—a couple of dudes felt 100% comfortable cracking the kind of crude jokes that people generally reserve for their home turf. And that's because, to a lot of dudes, tech is a space owned by men.
Then, Richards, as a professional woman who's toiled in a boys'-club field for years (and who had already rolled her eyes through several other similarly uncomfortable encounters at that same conference), lost her patience.
Jesse was on the main stage with thousands of people sitting in the audience. He was talking about helping the next generation learn to program and how happy PyCon was with the Young Coders workshop (which I volunteered at). He was mentioning that the PyLadies auction had raised $10,000 in a single night and the funds would be used the funds for their initiatives.
I saw a photo on main stage of a little girl who had been in the Young Coders workshop.
I realized I had to do something or she would never have the chance to learn and love programming because the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so.
She snapped a photo of the offending dudes (who, she notes, were expressly violating PyCon's code of conduct) and publicly tweeted it, politely requesting that PyCon administrators enforce their own code. Administrators quickly pulled the offenders from the seminar. It could have all ended right there—essentially a lesson in professional etiquette.
But instead, the internet decided to throw one epic fucking tantrum. First, one of the men pictured in Richards's photographs was fired from his job (his company was one of the sponsors of PyCon). Richards did not call for him to be fired, nor did she celebrate the decision, according to this post. Nonetheless, Richards's company SendGrid—NOT the company that fired the dude—was subject to a DDoS attack courtesy of 4chan (their express purpose was to "ruin her life"). She's also been subjected to the usual avalanche of violent harassment and rape threats that descends upon any woman who dares to criticize male-dominated tech culture (see: Sarkeesian, Anita; also everything else ever). Sidenote to tech dudes: GET A FUCKING GRIP.
SendGrid subsequently fired Richards.
Now. A few things. Yes, in the grand scheme of the entire earth, a few offhand jokes about "big dongles" are almost completely innocuous. In fact, I made pretty much exactly the same joke one million times, whenever my nerdy former roommate said he was looking for his "dongle" or he needed to go "dongle shopping." However, CONTEXT MATTERS. And the issue that a lot of (white) men seem to have trouble grasping is that not everyone gets to move through the world wrapped in the comfy presumption that every space is their space. Many people almost never get to feel like that, outside of their own homes, because most spaces aren't inclusive of all groups.
I can only speculate, but based on my experiences in male-dominated fields (film criticism, comedy), I imagine that the relatively small number of women working in tech are on high alert all the time. I imagine that constant dick jokes, with their tacit imagery of a woman's body on the receiving end of said dick, might start to wear on a woman who already feels subtly unwelcome in a male-dominated space. I imagine that that wearying onslaught might be particularly frustrating when the woman is simply trying to do her job without being reminded, by the hundreds of strange men surrounding her, of her utility as a sexual object. I imagine that attempting to speak quietly with each individual man and instruct them in the particulars of rape culture and the subtle hostilities of gendered interaction might eventually begin to seem like a lost cause (and also, potentially, frightening). I imagine a woman might eventually just fucking tweet about it.
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. 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 fucking 2013. It is not women's responsibility alone to correct gender imbalances. We need men to help. Richards shouldn't have had to reach out to PyCon administrators to get the disruption sorted out—men should learn to police their own goddamn behavior and the behavior of their neighbors. It's not enough to be neutral. It's not enough to be nice. Forward-thinking men who work in fields traditionally hostile to women have a responsibility to be actively pro-woman in those spaces.
Richards didn't call for anyone to be fired, she wasn't hostile or irrational, she wasn't outraged over one shitty dongle joke—she was expressing an accumulated frustration at the persistent difficulty of carving out space for women in the tech community. Men, if you don't get that, it's because you don't have to get it. You are not qualified to be dismissive of a lifetime of microaggressions until you have personally experienced a lifetime of microaggressions. So if you don't get it, be thankful. Now pick some of this shit up—it's heavy.