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The Tech Community Needs to Grow Up

How one woman's tweets exposed the industry's boys club

Ten days ago, a programmer named Adria Richards was attending PyCon, the foremost conference for the popular computer language Python, when she heard the two gentlemen sitting behind her engaged in ungentlemanly conversation. They were talking about "forking," and "big dongles," and other crude and sexually explicit things. That made Richards uncomfortable. She turned around, snapped a photo of the guys, and tweeted it. She then tweeted the conference’s code of conduct, which forbids “sexist, racist, or exclusionary jokes.” Finally, she tweeted at the conference’s organizers, stated her location, and asked if someone could come and talk to the two men. Someone did, promptly escorting the men out for a scolding.

That should have been the end of the story. It wasn’t. 

What happened next included death threats, photos of beheaded women, and nearly everyone involved losing their job. Even more importantly, it opened up a long-overdue conversation about the dark undercurrents of sexism and harassment facing women in tech, and about a widespread lack of maturity in an industry that has become one of America’s main economic engines. 

PlayHaven, the employer of one of the men, wasted no time firing him. This sent the legions of Internet trolls into a frenzy: Richards’s personal information, including her phone number and address, were posted online, in one case next to an extremely graphic photo of a decapitated woman. Her personal website was attacked, as was that of her employer, email provider SendGrid. The barbarians demanded that Richards be fired. Incredibly, less than a week later, she was.

SendGrid’s decision is dubious at best—the company provided little public explanation that would lead one to believe it did anything but cave in to the mob—but that’s almost beside the point. The Richards case isn’t a singularly grotesque tale of justice subverted; it’s merely a louder and more macabre telling of a story we hear all too often, that of persistent bias in an industry otherwise fond of its image as sophisticated, enlightened, and meritocratic.

Writing in BuzzFeed, Courtney Stanton pointed out just how prevalent cases like Richards’s are. “A woman in the tech community identified people violating the stated Code of Conduct of the group. She was summarily run out of the community,” she began her piece. “Oh, wait, that wasn't just this week, that was six years ago.” What followed was a litany of examples, all from recent years, of tech men behaving badly: harassing female colleagues, groping, advertising a hackathon by touting the presence of “friendly (female) event staff” on hand to serve beer, and bullying any woman who dared speak up about her experience. It’s easy to dismiss each instance as an anomaly, but, taken together, it’s nearly impossible to deny that there’s a troubling pattern at work.

The singular achievement of the Richards case, then, is that it has drawn mainstream attention to the sexism, mild and otherwise, that the tech community usually conceals. Writing in Forbes, Zandt was disturbed by how many people, women and men alike, wondered what Richards could have done differently. Why didn’t she talk to the guys discreetly? Why didn’t she take it up privately with conference organizers rather than tweeting her complaints? That was the reasoning of SendGrid’s CEO, Jim Franklin, who wrote, “To be clear, SendGrid supports the right to report inappropriate behavior, whenever and wherever it occurs. Her decision to tweet the comments and photographs of the people who made the comments crossed the line. Publicly shaming the offenders—and bystanders—was not the appropriate way to handle the situation.” 

But, as Zandt pointed out, even if you believe that it was alright to suggest that Richards herself somehow did something wrong, asking the men in charge of the conference to swoop in and intervene was hardly an obvious solution. “As someone who has repeatedly gone to conference organizers (with offers of constructive help, no less!) on sexist behavior, panel lineups, and more, and been basically patted on the head over and over, I can tell you that’s also not the first avenue of action for many women experiencing sexist behavior,” Zandt wrote. Even more troubling was the suggestion that Richards is a mirthless woman who can't take a joke. New York Magazine ran a post titled “All of Silicon Valley is Scandalized Over a Stupid Dongle Joke,” and Amanda Blum, a tech consultant, accused Richards of overreacting, and suggested that she should have just talked to the guys, made a lighthearted comment, and put the whole thing behind her.

That suggestion is understandable—who, after all, would not have rather seen this whole thing resolved amicably?—but it ignores the scope of the problem at hand, which is not only the minority of misogynistic cretins but the majority who is willing to shrug off the cretins' offenses. And I should know. I’m one of them. 

While not a bona fide member of the tech community, I’m close enough to it, teaching video games and digital media at New York University, to have the privilege of seeing it up close. Because I’m intellectually suspicious of many of the excesses of identity politics, and because I’m on the side of the divide—white, educated, affluent, straight, tall, blond hair, blue eyes—that hardly has to think about such matters, it’s very easy for me to brush minor instances of bigotry aside when I see them. As a video game scholar, for example, I spend a considerable amount of time playing multiplayer games, where the very few identifiably female gamers are treated with a constant stream of vulgarities. Mostly, I say nothing; if things get too degenerate for my taste—talk of rape, for example, is troublingly frequent—I either say something generic like “come on now” or simply log off. And to date, in my own teaching and research, I’ve devoted little thought to questions of gender, even though it’s clear that video games, both as an industry and an art form, suffer from an acute gender imbalance.

Similar problems face the wider tech community, and addressing them will not be easy. But they're too obvious to be ignored. While we should differentiate between tech leaders and the masses on virtual communities like Reddit, it is nonetheless worth asking why we see so many examples of the Internet hordes publicly shaming racists, homophobes, and other bigots, but when a woman tweets about sexist comments, she's similarly attacked online. It may be because the tech world, broadly, is comprised mostly of men, fostering a sophomoric, boy’s club atmosphere. It might also be because of an informal sort of camaraderie, one that's valuable for building a collaborative community that values shared knowledge, but also one that could hinder efforts to establish the kinds of protocols of behavior necessary to build a more diverse community.

Whatever the reasons, Richards’s public pillorying should drive the tech industry to action. If it’s to become a progressive force in our culture rather than just a digital gold mine, and if it’s to fulfill even a fraction of the utopian promises of bringing people together, the industry has to confront these problems, starting now. It can start by reassessing its attitudes towards women, taking responsibility for misdeeds, and pledging no tolerance for those who make women feel thoroughly unwelcome. It's time, simply, for the tech world to grow up.

Liel Leibovitz is an assistant professor of digital media at NYU and a senior writer for Tablet Magazine.