Impressions Matter

Thinking & writing about belief, behavior, and change

How SendGrid and PlayHaven bungled the Adria Richards situation and how they could have fixed it

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Tech companies are doing it all wrong.

If you haven’t heard, Developer Evangelist Adria Richards was fired yesterday.

The controversy stems from a decision she made last week at PyCon (one of the largest open source developer conferences).

Essentially, she overheard what were clearly inappropriate remarks from a conference participant nearby, snapped a picture and posted it on Twitter, then followed up with conference organizers to have him removed, since that sort of language is specifically prohibited in their code of conduct. The ensuing furor led to his being fired.

I recommend you read her original full post on the original incident, both for her perspective and the intense back and forth in the comments section.

Neither of them should have been fired for the incident.

PlayHaven, the company that the offending developer worked for, revealed yesterday that there were other issues he was fired for. We’ll probably never know what those were since personnel issues are almost always kept quiet for risk of a lawsuit, so we’ll have to take them at their word. Because I don’t know the details I can’t say whether it was justified or not, but being fired simply for his comments at the conference would be overkill in my book.

In Richards’ case her employer fired her not for speaking up, but for the outlet she chose.

SendGrid released a statement that said, in part, “Publicly shaming the offenders – and bystanders – was not the appropriate way to handle the situation.”

While I agree with them on that point, I’d argue they are guilty of that same thing by firing her. Instead of having a constructive conversation about the fact that the language and social structure of the tech world is harmful to women, they simply cut an arm off. Apparently they’re a big enough company to get away with it, but if anything is going to change in tech culture that will have to stop happening.

What it says about our lack of progress.

First, I want to make one thing clear: as far as I’m concerned the PlayHaven developer made unacceptable comments. They would have been inappropriate in any setting, public or private, and I have no issue with taking him to task for it.

Having said that, I’ve made tasteless remarks, some of them sexist. Sometimes I’ve been taken to task for it, sometimes I’ve taken myself to task for it, and sometimes it’s simply gone by unnoticed.

If you’re honest, you’ll have to admit you have too.

You know who else has made tasteless remarks? Adria Richards. A couple have come out already, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who has 32,000 tweets probably has a few inappropriate jokes in there. For my part, I’ve worked hard to be thoughtful about my own shortcomings, and continue to be appreciative when people call me out or saying something stupid, even when it’s embarrassing or difficult for me.

But the bigger questions this controversy has provoked go beyond just dirty jokes.

Questions like, what’s the relationship between online and offline sexism? How do we value anonymity (which is quickly becoming rare)? And how do we engage and encourage tech culture to include and respect women?

The comments on Richards’ article are a test case for how tech culture talks about women. There are a variety of approaches. Some praise Richards for speaking out about something that many women in tech feel is a serious problem (and it is). Some respectfully but forcefully argue that she should have confronted the offensive developer in person. Others use language I don’t want to repeat here and offer simple solutions to a complex problem.

It all points to one thing: what we’re doing now is working in some ways and not in others. Women have more opportunities in tech work, but they’re simultaneously being made to feel not welcome.

How the stakes got so high

Richards’ decision to publicly shame the PlayHaven developer doesn’t come in a vacuum.

Despite the standard “cream rises to the top” and “we’re posting jobs but no women are qualified/want to work” arguments that tech leaders make, women are still not getting the opportunities in the tech world that they deserve.

Women are understandably frustrated. And even successful and important initiatives to bring more women into developer jobs are being criticized, as Lauren Bacon rightly points out regarding the Etsy engineers project.

Adria Richards isn’t just some random jerk. She’s highly educated, tech savvy, and by most accounts extremely hard working. While her decision to publicly shame a fellow developer might have been in bad taste, it was in no worse taste than his original comments.

The amplification of the situation, however, instantly made the stakes so high that emotions ran wild, and what could have and should have happened, didn’t.

How the situation could have been handled.

The truth is that social structures, language and perception matter when it comes to tech companies. Lauren Bacon points this out nicely in a post from a couple of months ago about how women are perceived in tech work, and the unspoken assumptions about who does what, and what it means. No matter what anyone says, there IS a boys club and it’s hurting all of us, especially those of us who care about innovation.

What could Adria Richards have done?

As many comments on her blog point out, she could have confronted the developer in person. She could also have talked to conference organizers offline, or gotten support from fellow developers, male or female. Her frustration is understandable, but with her social capital I think she could have made a difference by keeping the stakes low, and avoiding a highly public confrontation over it. I’m willing to bet she’s gone the low key route many times in the past.

***Update: Really Good Article about this – http://www.forbes.com/sites/deannazandt/2013/03/22/why-asking-what-adria-richards-could-have-done-differently-is-the-wrong-question/

I was talking from a practical standpoint, but the article lays out some good reasoning. Obviously this isn’t the first time Adria Richards has been in that sort of situation, and yes, lots of people could and should have supported her while acknowledging that a public shaming might not be the most effective way to deal with a problem like that.

What could the PyCon conference have done?

A code of conduct is important, but beyond just having one, was there any real reiteration about what’s respectful behavior & language at a conference? Were there sessions or talks about those things? Was there an established procedure for mediation? I didn’t see anything along those lines on their website, but would hope this gives them ideas for next year.

What could SendGrid & PlayHaven have done?

In my mind both companies failed miserably. Instead of taking the opportunity to truly acknowledge the underlying issues, they simply washed the offending parties down the drain.

SendGrid could have worked with Richards to address her frustrations in a useful way, and used it as an opportunity to change the tech culture by saying “hey, we don’t agree with our employee on this one but we know why she’s frustrated and we are too, so let’s do something to make a change. Let’s use seminars, webinars, conferences, and solicit feedback and engagement to make sure this thing that’s out in the light finally will be dealt with properly”

PlayHaven could have done the same thing. They could have owned up to their failures, and made changes structurally and had an honest dialogue with employees and the tech culture at large.

What can leaders in the tech industry do?

All of the above. Acknowledge there’s a problem, re-think about perceptions and structures, and reshape both. Learn from this situation. Refuse to become inflexible.

Care.

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This entry was posted on March 22, 2013 by in Belief, Impressions, Tech and tagged , , , , , , , .
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