Adria Richards did everything exactly wrong

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Adding another perspective to the conversation…

Karla Porter, my guest host on Brave Hero Radio, beat me to weighing in on the ‘Donglegate’ discussion with her post “The Match that Lit Donglegate.” For those of you who may not know the backstory of Donglegate, Karla sums it up:

A woman at a tech conference representing the company she worked for as a tech evangelist overheard men in the row behind her making what she perceived to be a sexual joke. She felt uncomfortable, stood, took their photo, and posted it to social media with comments to the attention of the conference organizers. She also wrote a blog post about it. One of the jokesters lost his job as a result. And then she too ended up losing her job.

PZ Myers, in a post titled “Ardia Richards did everything exactly right,” casts the issue as one of a woman ‘responding to sexism’ and wonders what level of response (in the case of Richards) is acceptable – “apparently no response other than silence and submission is acceptable.” Myers says the men cracking jokes “were clearly in the wrong” and that Richards’ response to the joke-cracking was “a measured response.” Myers then crafts the situation as showing women should be silent and, for whatever reason, casts the issue as one of men versus women sarcastically writing, “[t]he men can’t build a strong community if women keep speaking out publicly.”

I wonder how Richards was “responding to sexism” or “speaking out publicly.” What, exactly, was Richards “speaking out” against? Richards decided to make a joke within her earshot ‘her business’ and, instead of acting like an adult, publicly shamed a person who made a joke within her earshot by tweeting an unauthorized photograph. She could not simply tolerate a joke about dongles which is likely popular within her community, politely ask the men to be quiet, give a look of disapproval, or handle the matter in a way in which most adults behave. Apparently, the joke was so bad and ‘made her uncomfortable’ so much that she felt the need to inform conference organizers and share her photograph of the men cracking jokes before speaking with conference staff.

Had Richards tolerated the joke, spoke to the men cracking jokes expressing her disapproval, or handled it in some other way not including publicly shaming the men with a photograph via Twitter – that would have been the end of the story… but Adria, it seems, wanted to be a hero – to uncover some ‘big problem’ and show the world just how horrible it is to be a woman in the world of technology. Richards herself wrote that “the future of programming was on the line” … apparently because a simple joke threatens the future of programming. Hell, even if she informed the conference organizers and left it at that — a private matter — there would have been no story.

Might there be a ‘big problem’ women face in technology culture? Perhaps there is, but a simple joke between two men in an audience overheard by a woman in the audience is not a big problem or something which threatens the future of programming. Crafting a joke as something so bad really seems to trivialize such a problem if it exists. Is a simple joke the evidence which can be presented — something worth “speaking up” about which threatens the future of programming –to evidence an alleged problem women face in the technology community or conferences at large?

There’s been quite a deal of talk concerning ‘[anti-]harassment conference policies’ [I have written about one which was inspired by the Geek Feminism Wiki] which, according to some feminists, are required for women to feel safe because, as is implied, conferences are unsafe places which are hostile to women. Richards, rather than simply following conference policy protocol and informing conference staff about the sexual (note: not sexist) joke and how she felt so uncomfortable, photographed the men who were joking – all in, of course, her capacity as a technology evangelist representing the company she works for.

In the end, Adria Richards did everything exactly wrong. She took an unauthorized photo, unnecessarily publicly shamed people, and failed to act professionally in her capacity as a technology evangelist. She did not speak out against sexism, do anything to help the technology community (which allegedly has an uncertain future that is threatened by a simple joke), or act as a positive role model for women.

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