At last Sunday’s PyCon conference, Adria Richards, then employed as a developer evangelist for SendGrid, was offended by what she believed to be sexist comments being made by two men seated behind her in the auditorium. According to her, the sexist jokes between two went “on and on and on”–and yet, she said nothing to either of the men and apparently no one else seated in the near vicinity said anything to the men either. But Ms. Richards decided that she had to act. And so she did. Ms. Richards then stood up, turned around, and took a picture of the two men. She then then sent that picture out to her 10,000+ twitter followers, along with a short statement and hashtags: “Not cool. Jokes about forking repo’s in a sexual way and “big” dongles. Right behind me #pycon.”
Ms. Richards intentions were to get the attention of the conference staff members and have the men seated behind her disciplined for their actions. That is exactly what happened next. A PyCon staff member approached where Ms. Richards was seated and she rose to speak with the staff member. She pointed out the two men who were then escorted from the auditorium into the hallway, where they were apparently asked to leave the conference.
Ms. Richards returned to her seat, satisfied and proud of herself.
But she didn’t expect what happened next.
The tweets she sent to her followers spread far and wide across the tech community and eventually reached the employer, PlayHaven, a San Francisco-based mobile games company, of the two men. One of the men ended up being fired.
And in probably the most unexpected turn of events, at least by Ms. Richards, she ended up being fired too for her actions at the conference.
So many people in the tech community were offended and disgusted by the way that she handled the situation–why didn’t she at least say something to the guys sitting behind her before taking their picture and reporting them; a “hey, you guys, I can hear you and I’m a bit offended” would have sufficed”–that they went after Adria Richard’s employer. SendGrid’s site and servers were subjected to a distributed denial of service attack. A denial of service (DDoS) attack can be done in many ways, but the end result is the same–legitimate users of a service cannot access a site or server for business purposes. The owner of the site or service loses money.
SendGrid fired Ms. Richards because her actions brought harsh and unwanted attention to their company and because she was now an alienating and polarizing figure in the developer community. SendGrid felt that she would no longer be able to carry out her job duties as a developer evangelist and she was let go.
Compare the actions of Adria Richards to Linda Renee Baker.
Linda Renee Baker previously served as the Secretary of the Department of Human Services, the Director of the Department of Employment Security, and the Assistant Director of the Department of Public Aid. All of these positions were held in Illinois.
But before Ms. Baker held any of these top level leadership roles she an aide in the Illinois State Legislature in Springfield, IL. One day while undertaking her duties she was standing with a group of people when she felt something hit her in the back. She turned to find that a rubber band had been lobbed at her by one of the lawmakers–yes, a member of the Senate or House of Representatives in the state of Illinois thought that it would be funny to shoot a rubber band at the back of a black woman. Now that’s some sexism for you.
Ms. Baker saw who had done it–he didn’t try to hide who he was–and she marched up to him, got close enough to almost touch him, and in a voice that let him know she meant business told him off for his actions and said that if he ever did anything similar again there would be consequences. He understood and nothing of that nature ever happened again and they continued to work together without incident. Ms. Baker didn’t publicize the incident to her colleagues and it was only years later that she shared this story at an event where I heard it.
A far more minor slight than what happened to Ms. Baker was unintentionally lobbed at Olivia Pope on last week’s episode of Scandal titled ‘Top of the Hour.’ Olivia went to a client’s home with two of her employees, Abby Whelan, a ginger-haired white woman, and Harrison Wright, a black man. The clients were a white couple and the wife was the CEO of a major corporation. Abby and Olivia walked through the door of the couples’s home together; the female client strode confidently up to Abby, arm and hand poised for a handshake, and said, “You must be Olivia Pope.” Olivia intercepted the strider and stuck her hand out for the shake with the words “I’m Olivia Pope”. Despite the fact that the client had just made the assumption that a high-powered fixer had to be the white women Olivia didn’t let that phase her; Olivia didn’t even mention what had happened at any later point in the episode.
So as you see, there are ways to deal with possible sexism and racism in ways that leave your reputation and business interests intact. The first step should probably always been to speak up and say something to the offender when you see something. Maybe you do it in private, maybe it has to be done publicly. But publicly shaming the offender will cause the incident to turn from what could have been a small fire into a blazing inferno.
No one should have to put up with sexist or racist comments in the workplace or anywhere else. Making sure that when these comments are possibly being made they are dealt with in the most efficient way possible–first you say something, then if things don’t get resolved you take additional steps–would go a long towards making our environment as free of sexism and racism as possible.
“Forking and Dongle Jokes Don’t Belong At Tech Conferences“–Adria Richards’ website
“‘Sexism’ Public-Shaming Via Twitter Leads To Two People Getting Fired (Including The Shamer)“–Forbes
Jamila Akil is a Senior Editor at Beyond Black and White. Follow her on Twitter @jamilaakil.