Dissecting Donglegate

Flickr/Chuckumentary

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 toysa 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.

Comments

Tl: dr; Sweeping inconvenient facts about Ms. Richards' actions under the rug is not going to make them go away.

What you choose call "This red herring " has NOT already been ably addressed in the link you mention. It is actually swept away there has well (Quoting from that page "One of the things I'm not going to discuss here is the issue of 'public shaming'").

I understand that not addressing it is in fact instrumental to make your point. But it ignores what most feel is a very compelling account of the incident, not to mention the main issue that is concerned. It is also the way in which Ms. Richards herself recounted it (up to point 3))

1) Ms. Richards overhears (some would say "eavesdrops on" but I am willing to assume loudness on the part of the other involved parties) a *private* conversation during which juvenile jokes were being exchanged;

2) She tweets about it *to a sizeable audience* and *with pictures* of the perceived abusers, taken *without permission* - many would say this is as close to doxxing as it gets, and I would have to agree - I doubt anybody would disagree on the privacy invasion that Ms. Richards committed.

3) Ms. Richards writes a blog entry grandstanding on the heroic ("I know, you don't have to be a hero all the time") feat she performed for the greater good of the community ("The future of women in tech was on the line, and I acted" - no less)

3a) One of the pictured parties is fired (it'd be interesting - and not meaningless to know - the time ordering of 3) and 3a)

4) Ms. Richards is doxxed by some moron and (unforgivable) net.insanity ensues.

5) Ms. Richards is also fired, which -as an entrepreuneur - I find is a reasonable course of action to take whenever blatant doxxing and privacy invasion are performed.

Many horrible, probably illegal, things have been said and posted in the aftermath of (4). They should remind us all the reasons why doxxing and privacy breeches are unacceptable, and this story contains two instances of them, at points 2) and 4): the first was done by Ms. Richards, the second by some random idiot. It may be grating to delicate ears, but the fact is Ms. Richards (which, seasoned net prossional as she is, should know better) basically fell on her own sword.

If the privacy issue seems of little import, here is some more food for thought: the smirking, bearded guys in the forefront of the by-now-famous pictures *are not* the dick jokers. I read elsewhere that common wisdom is that the person Ms. Richards took issue with is another developer in the background. So, while defending the future of woman in tech, Ms. Richards smeared a couple of innocent bystanders. I'm sure somebody will say that that is irrelevant, or even, justified.

I am not even going to address the issue of the very similar, off-color jokes that Ms. Richards saw fit to tweet few days before the incident,as I am sure somebody else will. They do, however, cast her persona in an interesting light.

The report you cite to prove your thesis has no application to a dongle joke in any way it seems to me. The report cites a study where women performed worse on tests while trying on swimsuits while men did not. I don't see how that's relevant here, but maybe I missed something?

Sorry Alessandro Forghieri, your reasoning fails at 1). If the target of sexist conversation overhears said remark, then by definition it’s public. And therefore violate the rules the guys agreed to when they signed up for the conference. And you completely ignore Jaclyn Friedman’s main point. **Sexism is a public phenomenon, and so should be the response to it.** Imagine now if the guys had been just having a bit of fun about, oh I don’t know, hanging black guys from trees. Would it still be a harmless private conversation if a black guy so happens to overhear? Somehow we think public sexism just doesn’t matter that much--women should just be able to take it, right? This research begs to differ: http://stopsexistremarks.org/studies-of-the-impact-of-sexist-remarks/

I don't understand how the comments they were making were sexist to begin with. I didn't see the part where they said the guys wanted to put their dongles in some womans PC. That would be sexist. But making jokes about the size of your genitalia to other guys is not sexist. It's not like they were harassing some woman asking her to tell them how tight her usb port was. If this is what more women in tech brings us then we need this like we need a hole in the head. She's taking offense to something that is really not offensive and creating "look at poor old victim me!" drama that is not needed in any professional situation ever.

I was disgusted to come across this article* and find the word "dick" not once, but twice in the very first sentence. At first I wasn't going to say anything, but then I thought of all the little girls who might see that word and be discouraged from becoming journalists, and I just had to act. No need to thank me--it's nothing that Jesus Christ wouldn't have done. "That's not cool!" There. I said it. Next, on my Twitter I will be posting a photo of a bunch of people standing around. Hopefully you'll be one of the people in the photo. In the future I suggest that disgusting, offensive words be replaced with G-rated euphemisms such as "dongle".

*This is NOT in any way meant to imply anything of a sexual nature

You've conveniently missed miss Adria:
- making sexist jokes over Twitter a hour prior to shaming the two guys
- bragging about playing "Cards against Humanity", a game practically designed to offend
- applying sexual context to the (asexual) forking joke - the joke was a tech mutation of "plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery", but her lack of understanding it made her find a penis joke where there was none.

In essence she kicked up the stink because she could and believed she could get away with it. At no point do I believe she was actually offended.

And to quote someone from a different forum: "If you think you can't stay in given field of expertise and must quit because coleagues are making penis jokes, then the penis jokes are the least of your problems."

@stopsexistwhatever But - to the best of everbody's knowledge, including Ms. Richards' accounts, she was not the target of anything. And the jokes (according to the said accounts) were not even sexist, they were "sexual" (there's a difference) and besides, she misunderstood them by half. And if we are going to play the non factual "what if" games you aear to like, then I could ask "what if she had used aural amplification to overhear?" But this is rapidly getting tired and silly. Doxxing is wrong, even when righteous egomaniac feminist bloggers engage in it. But if you disagree, then you'll like 4chan, methinks.

@alessandro. The fact that you think sexual comments in a professional setting aren't sexist speaks volumes. (How about comments about a pubic hair on your Coke in the office--remember that one?) If you make a remark designed to make a group of people uncomfortable—think women, blacks, gays—and you make that remark in public—as in, in earshot, of a member of said group, then that member is a target of the comment. In a work setting, it’s called “creating a hostile work environment” and is the basis for things called lawsuits under EEO law. Anyone can feel free to say whatever they like in the privacy of their hotel room, w/ their family, in the shower. Take it into the public sphere, and reap the whirlwind. As one of the fired guys said: "Let this serve as a message to everyone, our actions and words, big or small, can have a serious impact." Lesson learned. And I hope Adria files an EEO lawsuit against her former employer.

Adria Richards ran out into traffic to defend her right-of-way, and got hit by a truck.
http://fascinatingtales.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/adria-richards-dongles-and-burqas/

@stopsexistremarks

On volumes spoken:
Of course the fact that you are ignoring that taking and tweeting the photograph was in all likelyhood an illegal action (it sure as hell is in Europe) to begin with, speaks volumes.

On target audiences: Given what you say, I take you are also in
agreement with the following statement then:

"If you make a remark designed to make a group believers
uncomfortable—think muslims, catholics, born again christians—and you
make that remark in public—as in, in earshot, of a member of said
group, then that member is a target of the comment." and you also
support their right to doxx the extender of the comments, as well as
their right to demend that such comments be banned in professional
settings, because they “create a hostile work environment”. If not,
please explain.

On reaping whilwhinds:
you have brilliantly defined the spaces of free expression as "nowhere within earshot of unidentifiable members of our thoughts police". Catacombs and sewers come to mind. Have fun in your Orwellian world.

On suing:
I sure hope Ms. Richards sues, because she's quite likely to lose. In a similar vein, I also hope she is sued by the four people whose picture she saw fit to broadcast.

On everything else:
http://sax-appeal.blogspot.it/2013/03/on-donglegate-adria-richards-and.html

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