Angry male techies retaliate against Adria Richards for speaking out about sexual harassment in the workplace

Adria Richards

Photo credit: AllThingsD.com

The timing and set up could not have been better. Right around the time media stories exploring the reasons for the lack of black women in Silicon Valley, and the tech industry in general, came the case of Adria Richards. Ms. Richards brands herself an “Enthusiastic Technology Evangelist”. That sounds harmless enough, right? Well, she also happens to have an activist streak and is not afraid to speak her mind – a combination that has not endeared her to many people in the tech community.

If you fly any kind of tech-geek flag then you probably know who Adria is by now, even if you didn’t previously, because the toxic fallout resulting from her actions at PyCon 2013 metamorphosed into its own life form and went viral to the point of drawing the attention of the international press. Almost a month later, articles on prominent business websites and multimedia stories on prominent television news shows are still being written and aired about the incident dubbed “Donglegate”.

Also still going strong is the racist, sexist, and violent vitriol being hurled at Adria from enraged men in the tech industry and beyond.

So, what happened? Why are so many men so furious with Adria?

The tweet that launched “donglegate”

Adria Richards' Twitter post

Photo credit: Adria Richards

According to all accounts, Adria was attending PyCon – an annual conference for developers who use the Python programming language – in her capacity as a “developer evangelist” for her employer, tech startup SendGrid. On March 17, while listening to a presentation in a large room filled mostly with men, Adria overheard men behind her joking about big “dongles” and “forking” repos – two legitimate tech terms – using sexual innuendo. Offended, she turned around and snapped a picture of two of the offending men and posted the picture to Twitter, along with her commentary.

The employer of the two men in the photo, PlayHaven, performed its own investigation and fired the man who actually made the inappropriate comments. When word got out about his firing, after he told his side of the story in a post on Hacker News, retaliation against Adria was swift. Insults and threats of violence were lobbed at Adria  and the hacking group Anonymous targeted her employer with DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks that crashed its Web servers and interrupted its ability to provide cloud-based email service to its clients. The group also took aim at Adria’s blog, But You’re A Girl, bringing it down, as well.

But, Anonymous wasn’t finished. Their pièce de résistance was – despite knowing about the threats of violence against her - revealing Adria’s address, and other non-public information, in a malicious act called doxing. Gina Trapani, founder of Lifehacker.com, raised the alarm via Twitter on March 20.

Adding insult to injury

In what now seems to be an ironic statement, on March 20 Adria responded to a Twitter bully by replying “@SendGrid supports me”.

On March 21, just a day after she confidently asserted that she had the support of her employer, Adria was abruptly fired. Without going into detail, SendGrid announced Adria’s firing, in a post titled “SendGrid Statement“, on its company blog. In a follow-up post, titled “A Difficult Situation“, SendGrid CEO Jim Franklin wrote that the company supported Adria’s right to report inappropriate behavior, but they did not support how she reported it. In the same post, Franklin explained the reasoning behind SendGrid’s decision to fire Adria.

A SendGrid developer evangelist’s responsibility is to build and strengthen our Developer Community across the globe. In light of the events over the last 48+ hours, it has become obvious that her actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite. As a result, she can no longer be effective in her role at SendGrid.

The aftermath

Since the doxing, Adria has laid low and let it be known through email exchanges with VentureBeat.com writer John Koetsier that she is “staying safe”. Her blog is still down, her YouTube channel hasn’t seen any new activity, and she hasn’t posted to her Twitter account since March 23 when she tweeted a short message thanking the people who have been supporting her. Except for releasing a public statement, which was first published online at AllThingsD.com, Adria has remained silent and invisible.

People who work in the tech industry like to call themselves a community. However, Donglegate has shown that not to be true. I read dozens of articles and hundreds of comments getting background information for this story. The majority of the people commenting on the articles were male, which is not surprising given that the tech industry is male-dominated.

Ninety-nine percent of the men commenting on articles placed 100 percent of the blame for Donglegate squarely on Adria, and absolved the offending jokester of any responsibility for the incident. In every one of these men’s comments the problem begins with Adria’s reaction, ignoring the fact that if the sexual jokes had not been made in the first place, Adria would not have had anything to be offended about and Donglegate would never have happened.

The future of women in tech

It’s still too early to tell, but it would not be surprising if the disproportionate backlash Adria received resulted in fewer women choosing to go into tech. Then again, this incident could spur more women to enter the industry. The only way things will get better for women in tech is by having strength in numbers – there has to be enough women to counter-balance the “boy’s club” atmosphere that pervades the industry at present.

According to this infographic by Women Who Tech, women dominate the professional workforce (56 percent) and social media networks (Twitter: 55 percent; Facebook: 55 percent; Zynga social gaming: 60 percent).  Yet, women make up a far less percentage of the employees in tech, with only 25 percent of information technology jobs (spanning all specialties) being held by women, according to the infographic. The numbers are even worse when it comes to women executives (11 percent at Fortune 500 companies) and tech startups owned by women (5 percent).

Other sources back up the statistics gathered by Women Who Tech. According to CompTIA, a provider of professional certifications for the tech industry, in January 2012 there were only 1 million women in core information technology occupations versus 2.6 million men. While this number is small, CompTIA says it represents a 29 percent increase over 2011.

comptia-chart

Perhaps most telling, if not damning, is that according to the Women Who Tech infographic, 40 percent of women in tech don’t think companies spend enough time addressing diversity, while a whopping 82 percent of men in tech thought they did.

But, how can men think this when – judging by the lopsided gender balance – most of them work in all-male environments? The answer is simple. It’s easy to think enough time is spent addressing diversity when there is no actual diversity present to address.