I host conferences that are prominent in the tech sector, and I've had Adria Richards speak at two of them. I could write a book about what went down last week, but none of us is in the mood for that, so I'm going to highlight just a few angles that have been overlooked or underplayed in this episode. (Incredibly, there are such angles.)
I. First off, what happened? At PyCon last week, during a keynote session, Adria heard some guys behind her making jokes that involved sexual language. The PyCon code of conduct states clearly, "Sexual language...is not appropriate for any conference venue." Adria was bothered by the jokes, and referring to the code, she tweeted to the conference organizers, asking for help. They pulled aside the guys, who apolgized, and returned to the conference. Subsequently, PlayHaven, the guys' employer and a sponsor of the conference, fired one of them. Adria then received a stream of virulent attacks and threats online. Her employer, SendGrid, was later subject to DDoS attacks demanding that she be fired, and they did so.
Although this is entirely factual, it will be controversial when I say that everyone directly involved in the incident agrees the guys were in the wrong. Adria, obviously, agrees. PyCon addressed the guys in person and, in a blog post, called out their "inappopriate comments." PlayHaven, they guys' employer agrees and also blogged about it. And at least one of the guys agrees--the one who was fired apoligized to Adria in a post on Hacker News: "She had every right to report me to staff, and I defend her position."
II. Because I'm skipping a bunch of chapters in exploring the miasma of responses to this episode, I want to point you to some other posts that give important context or offer excellent analysis:
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.
That could have describe what Adria experienced. Turns out it was an example from six years ago. Although I don't agree with all of Stanton's views here, she give a very good rundown of how common and deep harrasment is in the tech sector and how infrequently these problems end in anything other than humiliation for the women involved.
In "Why Asking What Adria Richards Could Have Done Differently Is The Wrong Question," Deanna Zandt calls out the many people saying Adria should have behaved more decorously in identifying inappopriate behavior, and notes that their request is akin to asking rape victims to dress differently. It absolutely puts the onus on the wrong people. Deanna also goes farther, making the critical point that many white women are telling Adria, a black woman, how she should have acted, adding an unwelcome layer of privileged perspective to the situation. That the privilege is likely unconscious makes it worse, not better.
It's also worth pointing out here that Adria's actions had the effect she desired: PyCon pulled aside the guys she identified and resolved the issue to mutual satisfaction. The undesired effects--receiving rape and death threats, getting doxxed, having her employer taken down by DDoS attacks with demands from the attackers that she be fired, getting fired--happened only because she was willing to identify herself. As Coda Hale tweeted, "If only you had challenged the hegemony in a slightly different way we wouldn’t have to harass and threaten you. Better luck next time."
(One of the things I'm not going to discuss here is the issue of "public shaming," which is how many people, including SendGrid's CEO, have characterized Adria's original tweets and berated her for. I have seen no efforts to define what "public shaming" might mean in this context. But I hope it goes without saying that I find it a bullshit excuse for lazy, craven and violent responses to any human interaction, let alone a situation in which there's actually no disagreement among the parties involved that the guys making jokes were behaving inappropriately.)
Matt LeMay, in "On PyCon," not only goes deeper on why it's the wrong tack to question Adria's choices, he also explains why another common refrain--that Adria shouldn't have been offended by the jokes in the first place--is irrelevant. And he provides some excellent thinking on why we continue to have these problems in the tech sector. His is the most compassionate and clear-headed piece I've read to date, two qualities notably missing from discussions on this episode. If you read nothing else--including the rest of this post--read that.
Finally, Rachel Sklar, in "The Firing Of Adria Richards Looks Like Kneejerk Appeasement To The Troll Armies," looks at why SendGrid--an infrastructure company that effectively just told us all they don't know how to guarantee uptime--was both insincere and cowardly in its decision to fire Adria. I hope others take even harder looks at their actions.
III. With all of that said and linked, I want to talk about PlayHaven (reminder: they're the employer of the guys who were making jokes behind Adria during the PyCon keynotes, and a sponsor of the conference). Sometime after Adria's complaint was resolved to the satisfaction of PyCon, PlayHaven fired one of the guys--the event that seems to have triggered the shitstorm of attacks on Adria. Now, we can't know what would have happened if they hadn't taken that step. But we can look at the history of conference kerfuffles, note that the guys' behaving inappropriately have rarely been sanctioned by their employers (or the conferences involved) and see that none of the incidents has exploded to the degree this one did.
So there's a way you could view last week and say that PlayHaven shouldn't have fired the guy. And, indeed, there are many people saying exactly that, for a variety of reasons. But here's the thing: PlayHaven acted precisely as we'd like a company with conscience to behave. In his blog post about firing the employee, PlayHaven CEO Andy Yang wrote:
PlayHaven had an employee who was identified as making inappropriate comments at PyCon, and as a company that is dedicated to gender equality and values honorable behavior, we conducted a thorough investigation. The result of this investigation led to the unfortunate outcome of having to let this employee go. We value and protect the privacy of our employees, both past and present, and we will not comment on all the factors that contributed to our parting ways.
In other words, PlayHaven is serious about their employees' behaving respectfully toward people in their community, the company cares about how its employees represent it at conferences where it has an official presence, and this employee was not meeting their standards. For legal reasons, most companies will not talk publicly about the circumstances that lead to their firing somebody. In this case, PlayHaven says it won't discuss "all the factors," suggesting there may have been a pattern of problems with this employee (perhpas of this nature, perhaps not--it doesn't really matter here).
If more companies acted with the sort of leadership PlayHaven has shown in making clear that disrepectful behavior has no place in business, we'd have a much smaller problem to start with.
IV. Here's another surprising note: not only did PlayHaven act admirably in the face of inappropriate behavior, the PyCon organizers showed perhaps the most clear and thoughtful approach to the issue that any conference in the sector has. They have a supremely direct and well-thought-out code of conduct, and they back it up with publicly posted guidlines for how attendees can report violations and how staff should respond. They appear to have made sure staff are aware of these directions, and they acted quickly when a violation was reported, apparently resolving it to the satisfaction of the people involved. Again, this is precisely the way we want accountable, credible organizations to behave.
I find it more than a bit damning of the tech sector and SendGrid that PlayHaven and PyCon, two of the several players in this episode with considerable power, acted with great respectability, and yet Adria--a player without much power--was attacked at a level we don't see often, with intent to harm and silence her.
V. In a post that has circulated widely, Amanda Blum calls this whole episode "a tragedy" and shows some empathy for Adria. But Amanda opens the post by saying that she doesn't like Adria, and then spends a chunk of time on "an established pattern of action," describing ways in which she believes Adria has acted dishonorably for publicly identifying things she found problematic at other conferences. "When Adria is offended," writes Amanda, "she doesn’t work within the community to resolve the problem."
I have seen and heard a lot of comments from people about Amanda's post, including people I find smart and thoughtful, nearly all of them saying something like, "Interesting backstory." Two startup CEOs I know have said that they'd be open to interviewing Adria for their companies were it not for the history they read about in this post. Amanda makes some good points about the systemic problems in tech, but for those of you who are tempted to focus on the personal attacks, consider the following:
- As I mentioned earlier, I've had Adria speak at two different, high-profile conferences I've co-hosted. She has been a model speaker, seeking and taking feedback on her presentation, showing flexibility in the logistics around her talks, and on one occasion, giving a high-pressure talk as she was still recovering from a bout of food poisoning (a condition that would cause many speakers to bail). I would have her as a speaker again, without question.
- Although Amanda says that Adria "doesn't work within the community to resolve the problem," Adria did, in fact, do exactly that at PyCon. She observed behavior that clearely violated the conferences posted code of conduct; the behavior bothered her; she reported it to PyCon via their Twitter account; they responded via Twitter; she thanked them via Twitter; PyCon talked in person to the guys who violated the code; the issue was resolved, apparently to the satisfaction of PyCon, Adria and the guys. That is pretty much the definition of "working within the community." (Adria subsequently chose to blog about the sequence of events, I believe to describe why she'd chosen to report this particular violation and to make the point that doing so can be important in these cases, but that was after the issue was closed within PyCon.)
- As Deanna points out, there's an obvious parallel to be drawn between saying that women should dress differently if they don't want to get raped and saying that Adria should have acted differently if she didn't want to get attacked and fired. There's also a clear comparison around sharing somebody's "history," which is a common tactic people use to discredit rape victims. Whether Adria acted previously in a way you understand or agree with has no bearing on the validity of her actions in this case. Oh, and by the way, she doesn't have to have been a perfect person in the past to be perfectly within her rights here to report a problem and do so without drawing a torrent of hatred or getting fired.
- UPDATE: See also "Digging Beneath the Surface: That Amanda Blum Article on Adria Richards Is Not What it Seems." Gayle Laakmann McDowell does a great job debunking the "facts" of Amanda's post.
VI. On our conference site, I'll write more about what I'm doing as a leader of that event, in the wake of all this (hint: look for a more robust code of conduct and training for our staff and volunteers on how to help uphold it). Meantime, I want to talk about why conferences might have and adhere to any such policy at all.
While reasonable people can disagree about what's funny, the PyCon code of conduct is dead clear that sexual language isn't appropriate at a conference. Codes like that exist because a large number of people can't tell where the line is between funny and offensive, but also because not everyone agrees. The code says, in effect: "Some language will cause some people to be uncomfortable and will thereby shut down the kinds of conversations we're trying to foster at this event." Guidelines that draw a broad fence around iffy language at an event privilege professional discussions--which is what people are ostensibly paying to be there for. This is a case in which we want privilege as a conscious act of prioritizing ideas to build community.
When she and I both worked for Boing Boing, Teresa Nielsen-Hayden--who is not only the foremost expert on managing online comments, but who also runs a blog with the best discussions perhaps on the whole internet--once pointed out to me that if you create an atmosphere in which anyone can say anything, you will necessarily give prominence to offensive comments and hateful behavior, because people who don't like or can't tolerate that sort of thing won't participate. In other words, there's a tradeoff when you have no rules. If there's a tradeoff in having rules, and it's that some of us will have to speak thoughtfully when in the public areas of events and, perhaps, apologize if we offend people, I'm all in favor of that exchange.
VII. Now what? One of the truisms about social change is that takes a lot of different kinds of battles, over a long period of time. Some of those fights are personal, some of them are private, some of them are public, some of them are at the policy level, some of them are at the legislative level. Whatever the arena, the people who stand up for change often do so at enormous personal risk. Adria, in asking for a very, very small measure of respect has paid a huge price, at least in the short term. I believe that it will pay off, though, far beyond conferences like ours putting in place stronger support for professional discussions. I believe that asking for a fair environment helps lead to one, and that we'll see the benefits in small ways as thoughtful people make real attempts to improve our communities. Perhaps next time, the person identifying men behaving badly will be a man.
A note on comments: I’m interested in a good conversation on this topic, and I welcome opinionated comments on this post. Seeing, however, as the internet tends to draw vile comments on sex and race--and in keeping with the themes of this post--I should mention that I will edit or delete hateful and phobic comments, personal attacks on me or other commenters, off-topic threads (including assholic comments on this comments policy) and things that strike me as trolling. If you dislike that approach, comment on any of the 80 billion other sites that welcome diversity of obnoxiousnes.
UPDATE: I'm no longer accepting comments on this post about whether Adria behaved appropriately by she tweeting about the guys behind her. I firmly believe she did, and the issue is not up for debate here, so I'll delete further comments trying to argue that she "went nuclear" or otherwise was in the wrong by using a common channel of communication to report a violation of PyCon's code of conduct.