When is a dick joke not just a dick joke? That’s the question at the heart of what’s being called “Donglegate,” the latest tech-industry skirmish in the ongoing battle over the sector's rampant sexism. The answer: When it's scientifically proven to impair a woman's ability to do her job.
First, the basics: Tech professional Adria Richards was attending an industry conference called PyCon. Earlier that day, a fellow (male) attendee had made a joke to her about looking up women's skirts. She knew that such sexual comments were against PyCon's explicit community standards and tried to address it with him, to no avail. Later, when she heard some men sitting behind her cracking jokes about the size of their "dongles," she tried a different approach. She snapped a photo of the men and tweeted it, along with her location in the hall and a complaint about their behavior, to the attention of conference organizers.
To their credit, PyCon officials took her tweet seriously. They pulled the two men out of the session and reprimanded them for their conduct. You would think the incident would end there, and perhaps it should have.
As Richards's tweet (and her subsequent blog post about the incident) began to spread, Play Haven, which employed the two men, fired one of them. Word of the firing got out, and the techboy hordes turned on Richards, inundating her with racist bile and rape and death threats. Via Reddit and Anonymous, they organized DDoS attacks, which render a website useless, against Richards's employer, cloud-based e-mail service SendGrid, and started closing their SendGrid accounts in protest. SendGrid then fired Richards.
The core complaint against Richards is that she took her grievance public on Twitter, instead of handling the matter privately. This red herring has already been ably addressed, so I'll just say here that sexism is a public phenomenon, and so should be the response to it.
It pains me to note the obvious, but Richards isn’t the one who violated the community’s standards. Richards also never called for either man to be fired, nor did she have any influence at Play Haven. Yet Play Haven, which did the firing, seems to have emerged unscathed from this mess, as have the two men whose actions required Richards's response. Instead, we’ve been treated to Blame The Victim Round Eleventybillion, in which, if only Richards hadn’t
worn that short skirt been such an uppity bitch made her complaint public, that poor, helpless man would still have a job. After all, it was just a joke.
Except it wasn't. PyCon has that no-sexual-innuendo clause in its statement of community values for a reason. The technology sector is so male dominated that 20 percent representation by women (which is what PyCon boasted this year) is viewed as something to celebrate. In many tech workplaces, this ratio proves fertile ground for a bro-culture suffused with misogyny, in which it's not unusual to see professional presentations peppered with images of women in bikinis (or less), men feel free to ogle, harass, and hit on women at work, and the kind of jokes Richards was subjected to are a constant soundtrack. This isn't just uncomfortable and offensive for women working in those spaces. Taken together, these constant jokes, innuendos, and harassment create a sexualized workplace that makes it harder for women to function at their jobs, and therefore makes them less likely to succeed in the industry—a vicious cycle working to ensure that tech remains a comfy boys’ club in perpetuity. In turn, employers lose out on the talent and vision of all the women hobbled by or run out of the industry, kneecapping U.S. tech companies' potential for breakthrough innovation and economic growth.
Sexualization is the phenomenon in which a person or group of people are treated as a sexual prop in someone else’s play, instead of the protagonist in their own. If that reminds you of booth babes, you’ve got the idea: The tech subculture is a constant offender in which women are treated as the spoils or enticements for the real men who both make and consume the real tech. (It’s no accident that Complex published its “40 Hottest Women In Tech” list the day after Richards’ firing—such lists are released so regularly they’re hard to keep up with.)
When you draw men’s attention to this pervasive dynamic, you’re likely as not to get the kind of response inspired by Rachel Sklar’s recent coverage of the SendGrid scandal, in which commenter “Pax Dickinson” mansplains:
"The tech world has always been a little edgy and maybe immature, but IMO that's part of its strength. … A little mild Beavis & Butthead humor is and always has been part of our community, and while we don't want to offend anyone, neither do we want to chill the fun-loving nature of our industry. Ideally men would try to be more sensitive to how women feel about these things but simultaneously women would try to realize that when we make jokes like this we aren't trying to offend anyone or make them uncomfortable."
Trouble is, intentions aren’t magic. Whatever Pax Dickinson and his cohort may wish, sexualization has a real impact. The American Psychological Association found that repeated exposure to sexualized messages can, among other consequences, impair subjects' ability to perform well on math and logic tasks. In other words, that much-hyped "biological" performance gap between men and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics? It's caused, at least in part, by dudes telling dick jokes at industry conferences.
Putting aside the crucial issues of gender justice and employment discrimination, allowing this dynamic to continue is just plain dumb. Preventing half our country's talent from contributing to our technological future means that we're settling for half the world-changing, lifesaving, economy-growing technology we could be enjoying. In a national economy that's barely wheezing to its knees, that's a sacrifice we can ill afford. And it's all so some bros can keep treating women like shiny toys—a ridiculous reason to innovate at half-speed, even in boom times. As Donglegate demonstrates (and even some men in tech are starting to realize), it's long past time to stop playing this game.