One step backwards for WiT, continuing backwards…

I swore I wasn’t going to write a blog post on this.  I didn’t want to bother addressing my feelings about Adria Richards and the innuendo involving forking and dongles – the incident known as Donglegate.  But then this Forbes article really irked me.  So now I write.


VentureBeat did a great job of trying to cover both sides of an incident at a tech conference involving a female attendee overhearing sexual innuendo comments between two guys behind her.  Apparently there were comments about forking repos in a sexual way and comments about “big” dongles, based on this tweet:

Why I See Adria’s Move as a Step Backwards

One can only take so much juvenile humor and innuendos – I get that.   Heck, I’ve bantered with my friends back and forth over “hard drives”, “dongles” and “forking” (and the Linux-y “fscking” too).  And apparently Adria has too:

As she had the gumption to banter with her friends with inappropriate remarks in a public place, I would expect someone like her to be able to simply just turn around and ask the guys to settle down and knock it off with the innuendo.  Had it been dealt with that way, everyone would have their jobs.  Those guys would’ve probably just shrugged her off, stopped with the innuendo, and went back to paying attention to the talk.  Many guys in the field who banter and throw out random innuendos like that end up moving on if you call them out on it.  (Yes, there are a few that will continue and be bigger jerks about it.  But thankfully, those guys are the minority.)

But calling them out in public and then claiming to be a Joan of Arc for women in tech… that crosses a line.  It makes it seem as if she had an agenda behind her moves.  As for being a Joan of Arc, I’m not sure who she’s a Joan of Arc for.  Calling these guys out and watching it escalate to the drama it turned into – I know other conference organizers who are a bit nervous now, and I know many guys who are ready to walk on eggshells around women in tech because they’re afraid of offending us as a whole.  To me, that’s a huge step backwards.

The Forbes Comment That Continues Backwards

As I said, I was going to stay quiet on my blog about this (even though I’ve tweeted and talked on a friend’s Facebook thread about it).  But the Forbes article on “Why Asking What Adria Richards Could Have Done Differently Is The Wrong Question” really struck a nerve.  This was the comment that really irked me:

“It would likely have been a very big risk for Adria to confront the men in the moment.”

Now I’m going to admit – I don’t know Adria.  I’m not her, nor am I friends with her.  However, for Forbes to say that, if I were Adria, I’d be insulted.  Calling them out in public takes a lot of nerve and is an even bigger risk, as I’m sure she’s well aware of now.  Had she turned around and politely told them to quit being stupid, that would’ve mitigated a much smaller risk than going public.

I also see this statement as setting the women in tech movement backwards yet another step.  Is there really that perception that you can’t approach these guys who are acting up when they’re in a big group of guys just because there are more of them?  When you’re at a conference together, at what point do you realize that you consider yourself among your peers and it’s your job to treat each other as equals, even if you don’t know each other?

One other point I have to address with this article is the title.  While what the guys did was stupid, it wasn’t necessarily their actions that caused the turn of events to unfold the way they did.  Adria’s choice of reactions was the thing that caused the events to unfold that way – she turned it into her Joan of Arc crusade to publicly shame them.

And what if it were women making these comments?  What if it were my friends and I sitting behind her and childishly giggling about “forking” repositories and checking out the male “dongles”?  What if we escalated the innuendo to talk about software and hard drives?  Would there have been the same reaction?

How to Move Forward from Here

To the guys out there – please, please, please don’t walk on eggshells around women in tech.  Adria does not represent a lot of women in tech – there are plenty of us in the field who’ll turn around and ask you nicely to stop, or not-so-nicely if we’re having a bad day.  Rather than fearing that we’ll crack under juvenile humor, treat us as peers and equals in the field.  By walking on eggshells, we get a vibe of “Oh look… we don’t know how to handle her.” and that’s not a good vibe.

To the ladies out there – please don’t be afraid to turn around and ask the guys to settle down if they’re getting out of hand.  Even if you’re the lone female in a massive conference of guys, if you’re at the conference, you obviously believe you belong there (which you most likely do).  So act like it!  If you don’t think you can privately handle it yourself, talk with conference staff – most conference staff have been advised on how to handle incidents, as they do happen even if the organizers don’t always talk about them.  Having been both the lone female at a tech conference and working as various conference staff, I can assure you that we’d rather have you come tell us that Joe Public is being a chauvinistic jerk than for you to feel uncomfortable about attending our conferences.

To the conference organizers out there – for your own liability and safety, make sure you have a code of conduct and that your attendees are familiar with it.  This conference had their own code of conduct, and had the involved parties followed the guidelines, there probably would’ve been a different outcome.  But be sure that your attendees – loosely speaking, so including volunteers, staff, speakers, attendees, etc. – know the code of conduct and how to report an issue if such an incident arises.

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