Adria Richards

Adria Richards. Photo: Adria Richards

Adria Richards, an employee of development company SendGrid, attended programming conference PyCon in California last week. During a presentation, she overheard two men behind her making jokes; sexual innuendo about “big dongles” and “forking”. Offended, she tweeted a photo of them to her 12,000 followers, and later continued the discussion on her blog.

Everything moved very quickly from there: one of the men, an employee of PlayHaven, was fired; the internet erupted in debate; and social news site Reddit and bulletin board 4chan attacked both Richards and her employer's website.

By the end of the fracas, Richards was fired as well. “What we do not support was how she reported the conduct," said SendGrid chief executive Jim Franklin in a blogged statement. "Her decision to tweet the comments and photographs of the people who made the comments crossed the line."

<i></i>

To the casual observer it looks like a terrible injustice for Richards - institutionalised sexism 1, human decency 0. But “Donglegate” has proved to be a two-pronged issue: whether or not what Richards did was "wrong", and whether or not Silicon Valley has a sexism problem.

Let's look at the first part: was Richards wrong to address sexist behaviour that made her uncomfortable? Of course not. The question is whether or not employing her widely read Twitter and personal blog to do so was the right decision.

There is no doubt that social media has broadened the discussion of sexism beyond the borders of academia. Through exposure to commentary on such platforms as Twitter and Tumblr, plenty of people who might not necessarily identify as “feminist” or never have thought to actively seek out feminist commentary now have a greater understanding of the way sexism affects women. “I never thought of it like that” is a common response from recently enlightened blokes when they read a blog post on the topic.

Similarly, Twitter's ease of dissemination of information has led to projects such as #everydaysexism and #notbuyingit.

The flipside to that, however, is a quick-to-tweet “call out” culture that leads to scenarios like Donglegate. It's easy to snap a photo of the guys behind you and announce their bad behaviour to the world, but it's not necessarily a good idea, legally speaking.

Though I don't agree with his stance on “off-colour” humour (summary: “some of my best friends are women who like sexist jokes”), lawyer Antone Johnson makes a salient point about the legality of Richards' tweets at Forbes: “In general, we are not entitled to ambush an ordinary person on private property, photograph them up close without their consent, broadcast those photos to thousands of members of the general public while claiming on a pure hearsay basis that the people pictured are guilty of misconduct.”

That may seem like a victory for sexist dropkicks everywhere, in the context of Richards' firing, but it also demonstrates the extent to which plenty of people treat social media like a free speech wonderland where they can carry on unfettered by boring notions such as defamation.

The reality is more sombre. To put it in the plainest Legal Aid info-sheet terms: “Did you know that posting statements or pictures online to harm a person's reputation may be against the law? This is called defamation and is banned behaviour on social networking sites.”

Some years ago I found that out the hard way after I tweeted what I thought was little more than an off-the-cuff disagreement with a colleague's printed opinion. My employer didn't see it in those terms and I lost a good year's worth of work as a result.

In another Forbes piece, Deanna Zandt argues that “we're digitally asking if maybe Adria shouldn't have been drinking or wearing that short skirt, shouldn't have been walking home from the subway stop by herself, shouldn't have walked by that proverbial construction site where she knew she was going to get catcalled and harassed”. But it is possible to decry the sexism at play and accept that tweet-shaming the men involved wasn't necessarily the best move.

There's certainly no room for debate, on the other hand, when it comes to the question of whether Silicon Valley is sexist or not: of course it is.

As Eva Glasrud put it in a Quora response to the debacle: “Should she have to gather up her things, disrupt everyone around her as she exited the row and found a new place to sit - if there was one? I guess she could have done that. But perhaps the issue shouldn't be, 'Why didn't she just get up and move', but rather, 'Why were the men behind her making jokes that made her need to?'”

Indeed, the simple fact that so few complaints about sexism, harassment or assault at tech conferences have been acted upon in the past indicates an entrenched “man up and shut up” culture, and probably led to the desperation that saw Richards resort to shaming the men publicly.

Alex Clemmer, a computer science student who was at PyCon, argued as much: “Considering the precedent of ignoring complaints, Richards could not have possibly known that one of the men would lose his job.

"At other conferences, women have actually been physically molested and subject to other overt sexual harassment. The response in almost all of these cases has basically been an uncomfortable discussion on Twitter, blogs, HN and Reddit. There have been few real-life consequences.

"If you had asked me whether I thought anyone would get fired, I would have said, no of course not. No doubt she thought so as well.”

The decision to tweet and blog about her PyCon experience turned out to be a poor decision for Richards. But the harassment and threats that she received in the aftermath of Donglegate demonstrate that, beyond the legal etiquette of Twitter, something is certainly rotten in the state of tech.