Commentary Race

Fired for Complaining About a Dirty Joke: Why I #SupportAdria

Natasha Chart

In Silicon Valley, the scruffy developer swims in a bubble of admiration and impunity not unlike being a star football player in a town like Steubenville, Ohio. This can be a bad thing, as many women in tech have discovered.

Silicon Valley is booming again after an initial wave of busts a decade ago, many of which took down companies with poorly thought out business models and shaky internal controls. But it seems that at least in one regard, not much has changed, as the backlash against former SendGrid employee Adria Richards for complaining about a dirty joke has revealed.

This week, Richards, who had been a developer evangelist at SendGrid, was publicly fired from her job after outing some tasteless jokers at a tech conference on Twitter. Since then, I’ve seen a few people on the border of the liberal politics and tech worlds who don’t get why it was wrong for the guys she outed to make a few sexual comments out loud at a professional conference. I started my professional career in Silicon Valley, so have a lot of insights into the culture.

After taking some night classes in HTML and JavaScript, I was hired from out of state into my first tech industry job at around double my then secretarial salary, plus stock options, with only a high school diploma to my name. That’s how good the job market was in 1999 Silicon Valley. It was also pretty good in my former home of Seattle, with Microsoft and Adobe booming, but not quite so good that I could break out of secretarial work.

(It’s taken me until this year, with a spell of dire poverty and the accumulation of much debt to finally get a degree, to make more in absolute dollars than I made in 2001—something joyous participants in today’s tech bubble might want to take note of. Save it if you’ve got it, folks.)

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My first Valley job involved working in the engineering department. At any given department meeting, there might have been one to three other women in the room, out of dozens of people.

My colleagues treated me pretty well, and I liked them, but I couldn’t help feeling a little out of place. My work wardrobe took a hard shift toward clothes I’d once have only worn out grocery shopping. I shocked the hell out of a co-worker one day when he came around a corner and stopped dead in his tracks to exclaim, “Natasha, you’re wearing lipstick!?” Um, yeah. I wore lipstick every single day of my life from the time my mom first let me use it until I got that job.

I went to another company, not because I was driven out, but because I got offered a raise. I was now in product management. About half the staffers in the department were women, and if I felt like putting on lipstick, dressing like a girl, or putting my hair up in braids with sparkly clips, no one was alarmed. But my status had gone down in subtle ways. I knew it. Coders don’t wear nice clothes to the office. They don’t have to. In an inverse of business culture just about everywhere else in the country, you might wear something close to a suit if you were in human resources or sales, or if you were a senior manager headed to a big meeting, but nice business clothes were usually a sign that you were easily replaceable.

Maybe it’s hard to understand if you haven’t been there, or if you work at a place where the tech-related departments are stuck in the basement. But in Silicon Valley, the scruffy developer swims in a bubble of admiration and impunity not unlike being a star football player in a town like Steubenville, Ohio. If he’s good at his job, he can forget to shower or be widely suspected of drug use, and no one will say anything. If he’s good enough, not only does he get a pass, but coworkers whose company he clearly enjoys get cover too, because the boost to his job satisfaction is worth overlooking a few things.

This has good and bad aspects to it.

On the one hand, this arrangement can be egalitarian in ways that haven’t been possible before. I met a lot of young people who got jobs in Silicon Valley straight out of college and would, in any other industry besides possibly academia, have been confined to low-level work and their talents wasted on account of their minimal social skills—smart, mostly kind people, maybe a bit “Aspie” like me, and a little too blunt, who were finally going to get a chance to shine. I felt about it the same way I felt about the richest men in the world being geeks, instead of arms dealers, like when I was a teen; it filled me with hope.

On the other hand, there are ways in which this situation magnifies the worst of toxic modern masculinity—the freedom to act like a child who doesn’t know any better without suffering any economic consequences. Boys can be boys, even when they’re grown men.

I won’t defend such behavior by citing how many code geeks were bullied in school, maybe abused at home, possibly autism-spectrum, and didn’t get a chance to be well socialized. All of that is just as true of me, and it’s not a license to stop trying, stop learning, abandon compassion, or treat other people like crap. If you can master C++, you can learn how to exercise a basic level of politeness. Even if it does take some people longer than others. We’ll be waiting for a better world for an awfully long time if each person insists on paying forward every unkind thing ever done to him or her.

What happened to Adria is reflective of the “boys will be boys” culture that still reins in the tech world. As Catherine Bracy wrote:

Adria was at PyCon sitting through a plenary session when some men behind her starting making “dongle” jokes. You get the idea. Adria (who was SendGrid’s developer evangelist), fed up with having to sit through sexist crap at tech conferences all the time, took a picture of the offenders and tweeted it at the conference organizers. She’s documented the exchange with context on her blog though you may or may not be able to see it since last I checked it was under DDoS attack. You can read more at VentureBeat.

The first question some have asked: Aren’t women capable of dealing with frank sexual talk?

Of course women can deal with frank and salty language. We might even occasionally indulge in it ourselves, among friends or in our writing. But to add historical and social context, which so many discussions in post-modern technical environments lack, when women make similar comments in public in a professional environment, we lose status. It demeans us or makes us be seen as trashy in ways that never apply to men. Women can’t generally talk, in person and among professional colleagues, like little kids looking at their first naughty pictures. We have to be more adult than that, more respectable.

But men get to break out bathroom and genitalia-related humor with impunity, and they often do so specifically to mark out a social or professional space as “no girls allowed.” Crazy as it may sound, this actually works in real life. And when those jokes inevitably become directed at a woman participating in the same realm, she’s more likely to lose status than the man indulging his fondness for juvenile humor—she may be called a prude if she doesn’t laugh at her own humiliation.

Women who copy that behavior are often considered unprofessional, or sluts. They’re called sexist hypocrites if they later on dare to complain about men’s behavior that they feel has crossed a line. You’re only allowed to be a humorless prude or a woman who’s asking for it, and very little in between.

People working in technology, many of whom think they’ve already built a utopian, post-bias meritocracy, aren’t exempt from that context.

When you talk about sexism or racism in tech, many members of the community respond by acknowledging that racism and sexism are bad but denying that it happens in their institutions. They’re also often terrible at recognizing racist and/or sexist remarks, I think in large part because they tend to disregard the idea that the race and gender of a person can completely change the meaning and impact of their actions. The real racist, some will say, is Adria Richards, who once tweeted a link to an article by a white guy about white male privilege.

In other words, you end up with a lot of privileged individuals insisting on defining the terms of bigotry in ways that exclude their own behavior—because they’re good people, and they don’t do that kind of thing, so it’s your own fault if you were uncomfortable.

Then the person who complained gets harassed. Often in shockingly racist or sexist ways.

Have you read the public comments to SendGrid’s post about firing Adria Richards? I don’t recommend it, because there is horrible, godawful stuff in there, but I will include these examples and then rest my case.

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Then you have the same hacker collective that did a lot to publicize the Steubenville rape case declaring a vendetta against SendGrid and all its customers if Adria Richards wasn’t fired immediately. Which she was.

The problem is that among many men, and even some women, rape is considered a “real” offense, while the sexist culture that permits men to think it’s OK to objectify women and ignore the conditions that exclude us from economic opportunities is not. The “it can’t happen here” mentality is the same one that leads people to make excuses for rape, claim that a rape wasn’t really a rape, say that a perpetrator is a good person who couldn’t have done something like commit a rape, or blame the victim for speaking out and “ruining her rapist’s life.”

A dirty joke isn’t an assault. It shouldn’t be punished like an assault, and it’s not even reasonable to have predicted that these men would have been punished for it. The engineering departments of most the Valley would be decimated if dirty jokes were commonly understood to be an automatic firing offense. From what little I know, firing someone over the dirty joke in question was an overreaction, and probably wouldn’t be a proportional response in most comparable situations.

But publicly complaining about a dirty joke isn’t an assault either. It does not deserve to be met with death threats, rape threats, or the threatened financial ruin of one’s employer.

The code of conduct for the conference at which the incident occurred made clear that no such jokes, from any attendee, would be tolerated, specifically because of the very well-known effect they have in creating an atmosphere that keeps women out of the tech industry and makes them uncomfortable at conferences, if it does not escalate to actively driving them out. Instead, what seems to have happened is that the industry closed ranks around a male developer who faced consequences for behaving in an unprofessional way—he was one of several men who behaved that way that day—in the presence of one woman who was milling around in a very large crowd. Think anyone will dare to complain again any time soon?

Guys, you don’t get to call yourselves committed egalitarians while you refuse to allow members of your own community to be scrutinized for violating that ethos.

Women in tech have just been told quite loudly that they need to be “good girls” and know their place. And that place is not to call out a male colleague for acting like a child in a professional venue; not even among the people who built Facebook and Twitter culture, at the epicenter of the Open Source movement, in a room likely scattered with people whose secret mission in life is to liberate private information and shame the powerful. To me, it’s a bit like being ostracized for taking a picture of the attendees at a tabloid photography conference.

Adria Richards didn’t know it that day, but she was only a guest in their culture, and not a community member like she probably thought she was. Too bad for her.

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