Adria Richards, PyCon, and How We All Lost

Let me get this out of the way:  I don’t like Adria Richards. I think I have good reason to not like Adria Richards. So I should be feeling some major Schadenfreude right now. Instead, though, I think what’s unfolded in the developer community in recent days has been a tragedy. Here’s why.

  • Adria Richards was an attendee at PyCon, a tech conference, as part of her job as a developer evangelist at Sendgrid, a tech company that manages emails.
  • She took offense to a conversation two men, also developers for a company called Play Haven, were having behind her during the conference, in which they referenced “dongles” and “forking”. Both of these are tech terms, they were construed to be used sexually on Adria’s part.
  • Without ever mentioning her offense to the men, she took their picture, posted it to twitter and asked PyCon to do something about it.
  • Play Haven fired one of the developers.
  • Then the internet blew up.

An Established Pattern of Action

Why don’t I enjoy Adria? I met her in New York some years ago at a conference and invited her to speak at a conference I was organizing in Boston. She was a very good speaker and I wanted her to help our beginners. She’s not an easy person- she didn’t like the title of her talk, she didn’t like her time slot, etc.  Two weeks before the conference, we got a few emails from attendees that she had just threatened on her podcast to boycott our conference because one of our speakers, Danielle Morrill was giving a lightning talk about how to use screencasting software called “Getting the Money Shot”.


She’d never told us she was offended, she’d never told Danielle- she told her podcasting audience and blog readers that we were promoting porn.  In the end, after great drama, she attended and deep sixed her talk, instead lecturing the attendees about how porn wasn’t acceptable at conferences. The beginners in her class were less than amused and ultimately, deprived of the opportunity to learn from her.

At the time I was really angry and frustrated. We were unpaid volunteers organizing this event, and she never gave us the opportunity to try and solve the problem and was about to leave us in the lurch. By the time it blew up (an explosion created entirely by her) we felt cornered and blackmailed.

The following year, she took offense to a t shirt created for WordCamp SF, pictured below.

XKCD generously allowed their comic to be used. Instead of contacting Jane Wells , who was in charge of the project and is easily reachable, she made the situation immediately public and rallied her troops.

To be clear, I believe the tech industry, of which I am a part, is rampantly sexist. It runs so deep and so organic to the industry that even men who would see it in other places don’t recognize it in our insulated world. So rampant, often females don’t even see it-it usually happens quietly- a lack of female speakers, a male praised for something a female said earlier, unnoticed.  But at the Boston conference, great strides were made to have a strong female presence. Almost 40% of attendees at Boston were female, almost 40% of speakers (at the time these numbers were VERY high), there were multiple women (including myself) on the organizing committee.  Jane Wells has long sought to inject opportunities for women into WordCamps and the tech community at large. Danielle Morrill was a highly regarded female in the startup arena, at the time the first employee at Twilio who spoke frequently at conferences. Unequivocally, each of us would have been very receptive to Adria if she’d just approached us instead of attacked us.

What We Can Learn from Overreaction

There is some small part of me that appreciated the backlash she received this week, something I’m ashamed to admit, because I’ve long viewed her as a bully who uses these instances to her personal gain, driving traffic to her blog. But people were missing the point.

Within 24 hours, Adria was being attacked with the vile words people use only when attacking women. They called her a man hater (this was the nicest thing they said) who robbed a father of three of his livelihood. Then the threats began- on twitter, on her blog, on facebook. She should get raped, she should be fired, she should be killed, she should kill herself.  A petition was started and people threatened SendGrid’s business. The company itself suffered a DDOS attack. All this ridiculousness made Adria look reasonable in comparison.

She didn’t get the developer in question fired… Play Haven did that and there are probably details of that transaction we aren’t privy to. It is a tragedy, but one that isn’t her fault. She committed one single offense: not approaching the men like an adult and saying “hey. guys- cmon, that’s offensive to me.”.  On her own blog, she states “it only takes three words: ‘That’s not cool‘”, which I agree with. She should have said them to the developers in question. If she was that uncomfortable doing so in a full room, she could have contacted PyCon officials privately, there were certainly channels to do so. Its important to note Adria’s entire job was conversing with developers. There were multiple steps she could have taken before she once again dropped a public bomb on twitter and her blog.  In her own take on the situation, Adria claims to have considered many things like the size of the room and the audience. All she had to consider was “what outcome am I looking for?”. If the outcome is “change the way these men are speaking” she’d have taken a different route. If “make as big a deal of this as humanly possible with no thought to consequence” was her outcome, she chose right.

I emailed SendGrid via friends who worked there to inform them of the pattern: when Adria is offended, she doesn’t work within the community to resolve the problem, and how ultimately,it actually harms female developers because it forms the perception that we are to be feared, we are humorless, that we are hard to work with. I suggested that SendGrid had the resources to retrain her and teach her better techniques and that I hoped they would choose that path instead of penalty to her. This morning, they went the other way, SendGrid posted that she was no longer with the company.

How did we lose?

The last 24 hours have been some of the ugliest on the internet. The tech community, especially the Open Source community is built on respect for others. There’s a gentleman’s code for privacy (taking a picture w/o permission is not ok; spamming someone a virtual crime) and procedure dictates even security leaks to be reported privately.  Trolls aside, if you don’t believe there is misogyny in the tech world, this will absolve you of that belief. There was little reasonable chatter, instead she was attacked not as a person or developer but as a female- a bitch.

SendGrid lost – they had an opportunity to build toward a positive resolution and they instead lost business, lost a good employee (Adria is a smart, educated teacher and speaker) and lost respect first for doing nothing and then doing too much. They couldn’t seem to win this one. They didn’t respond fast enough yesterday, when they should have insisted that Adria apologize for not dealing with her offense in a more mature manner. They could have immediately seized control of the situation and turned it into a productive conversation about men and women in this space. SendGrid is a fabulous company turning out a great product, employing many great people, some of whom I know, and its gotta be a very hard day there.

Adria didn’t win. I’m not sure she’s employable as a Dev Evangelist, which has been her role. Those who know her in the way I do believe she’ll use this as a platform, but I hope instead she learns from it. This wasn’t about feminism, and she shouldn’t be allowed to sit her perch on the issue. This was about the way humans relate to each other. Either way, the past 24 hours must have been terrifying for her and for that, I’m sad.

The developer in question didn’t win. He posted a very classy apology very early in this situation, surprisingly supportive of Adria and asking what most reasonable people are: why didn’t she handle it differently?  Based exclusively on the conference code of conduct he was in the wrong and he admits that. Was there a less caustic way for him to reach the same realization?

Most importantly, women didn’t win. The ugliness I’ve seen in the last week shocks me, I didn’t know it could sink to such depths. Adria reinforced the idea of us as threats to men, as unreasonable, as hard to work with… as bitches. Her firing in some way sanctifies the ugly things said to her as effective- the social terrorism won.  It doesn’t heal the divide, it slices it deeper.

By that default, men lost too.

How it Could Have Gone

I am surrounded by great geeky men in my life, and they are smart and sensitive and protective and funny. Many are far, far more sensitive than I am. And as with all communities, a fraction of them are douches. When women in this industry are hurt, we’re all hurt.  We have issues to be worked on, but I see the women and men around me working on them. At every happy hour, conference, event, roundtable, lunch.. we have rational and intelligent discussions about the topic.  Many more are to be had, and they all start with one simple action: talk to eachother. Assume people are reasonable until they are not.

I imagine in an alternate future, Adria just turned around, smiled and whispered, “Hey.  No offense, but I’m not all that interested in hearing about your dongle, you know?’. The men would have become momentarily embarrassed, and then reflexively defensive before letting their rational neurons fire in that crowded room and say, “yeah, dude, no problem”.  Maybe one of them would have approached Adria later in the day and pulled her aside to say “hey, I really didn’t mean to offend you, I’m sorry. Hope there’s no hard feelings.” In this alternate future, at a future conference that developer quietly steers a conversation amongst friends away from this territory, without making a big deal of it.

In that future, we all won.

Thank you all for your (mostly) incredibly lucid, thought out, rational responses. For the internet, this was a particularly kind and supportive group both of myself and each other, and for that, you all win the internet today. Comments, as promised, have been closed. I’d hoped to have a conclusion of some kind to post right now, and I don’t, but I am working on it with the help of many other diverse voices. That post will likely be the last one this blog ever has. Until then, and hopefully after, continue the conversation, and I mean, conversation. Talk to eachother, respecting everyone’s right to an opinion while being open to listening. Good luck and best wishes. 


915 thoughts on “Adria Richards, PyCon, and How We All Lost

  1. Number one thing; if you are not part of a conversation – Butt Out! Number two if you are an ass hole just looking to make trouble for whoever you can then you will be introduced to Karma very soon. Leave people alone, quit trying to fit everyone into your pea sized little world. You cannot chastise everyone for things you don’t like and expect people to respect you and your beliefs when you eavesdrop on conversations and try to get others in trouble. I have been to corporate functions and have heard people approach others to let them know they were being too loud, obnoxious and to tone it down. No one got fired and the people being loud quieted down. No harm no foul, but today all we have are whiners that think it is ok to bitch about everything they do not like. Learn to live with things like this or stay at home!

  2. Amanda, your discussion here is so great. Brave, open, blunt, fair.
    Much earlier in this conversation, Palm_Strikes_Forehead got it right. You said it so well, the rest of us should just salute you. And that’s what I’m doing.

  3. This was a well-reasoned and fascinating article. I’m not in the tech community and came here via a link posted by a commenter on the Mother Jones article about the fracas. I have to say, while I am aware of the sexism in the industry, had I been in her place I’d probably have rolled my eyes and let it slide off my back. It was just two guys being guys, clearly talking among themselves and not trying to make anyone uncomfortable. The joke appears to have been an insider’s quip for techies, and less “sexist” (as some have been calling it) then sexual. And as an academic (film) who has definitely used the term “money shot” in a completely non-porn way while delivering a paper, I find her objection that that title ridiculous.

    • I am saddened to hear how the internet has gone after her and the threats she has received , and i do not condone them in any way, it is probably a small minority of kids that have nothing better to do but i honestly believe that it will be used to generate sympathy and hopefully more visitors to her blog, she just comes across as that type of person.
      The only reason i am really commenting here is that i for one am dumbstruck, when you look at her twitter feed and see the comments she has left, every bit as bad as what she has attacked in this situation, yes she tries to excuse them in some way and does not even admit they were in bad taste according to her standards of decency, it is like she thinks it is ok for her to make public and sexist jokes but nobody else , they were exactly the type of thing she made this mess about and the reason that a married man with three kids has lost his job.

  4. I don’t know the woman, men, or the companies involved, so I don’t have a pony in this race. If threats of rape and death of India-gang-rape proportion are commonplace if a woman speaks “inappropriately”, totally understandable why she didn’t approach those two guys directly. I read somewhere that the “guys were being guys” and the woman “did something really inappropriate”. I don’t really get it. The men in question were in public in mixed company (not at a strip club or in a private room) and I think there were underaged girl(s) in the room somewhere. Weren’t they doing something really inappropriate too? I personally don’t like the tattling, but of everything tattling seems the most minor offense of them all. The companies in question are complete cowards and deserve to go bankrupt. Can’t stand up for their employees! Something goes wrong in future, everybody working there should know they will be thrown to the wolves.

  5. Seriously disgusted by sections of this article and by the gross, overwhelming privilege exhibited in so many of the reactions to this incident.

    “Both of these are tech terms, they were construed to be used sexually on Adria’s part.” Um, no. That’s not how it works. Are they tech terms? Yes. When they are used in a joke? That joke has a *purely sexual context.* There is no other context in which those terms can be used and still be considered a joke; within that context, they serve as a prime example of “…that’s what she said!” This is glaringly obvious to those with half a brain who are a part of the Python community, and certainly those involved enough to attend PyCon.

    “Turned around, smiled, and whispered” to these assholes – because that’s what women are supposed to do, avoid causing any discomfort or friction by acting submissive and sweet. Women are just so DIFFICULT when they express dissatisfaction. They should just turn around and smile. But men doing the same thing? They’re taking charge! They’re leading! They set the bar high and demand the best *for* the benefit of all involved! But no, she’s just a bossy ol’ woman. Or, according to other commenters on the subject, is acting like a real cunt.

    As others have mentioned, there is simply not enough time to response to each and every response here, nor elsewhere. However, one that I did read here struck me quite strongly: “It was just a harmless joke.” No, jokes are not harmless when they hurt, and it is NOT your right to determine what is hurtful or harmful to others. This was not a comedy show, this was a professional conference. That logic simply does not apply.

    That said, I am proud of the steps organizers took to address the potential for this issue in the months beforehand – all of which was met with intense backlash by men claiming that they were unnecessary (even with some so incensed that they threatened not to attend), which, clearly, was incorrect – and by the way they reached out to handle it afterward. So much for a code of conduct not being necessary, right?

    • I’m not sure how any of my words are a result of privilege. What privilege? Doesn’t that acknowledge on your part some insight into my life, experiences, etc that we’re both aware you don’t have. Doesn’t, assuming I have privilege, cause you to make an assumption, just like you’re accusing me of?

      • Hi Amanda,

        Very thoughtful article. I am not in the industry at all but came across this while reading a cbc feed on the matter.

        Thank you

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  7. classic example of someone trying to adjust others to their world, instead of deciding to adjust themselves and making a decision not to be offended (and what’s more, by something not even aimed at them).

  8. What an amazing article. I hope one day I can write (and think) half this well. You are exactly the type of woman I pray my young daughter becomes.

    • I’m there with that. I think she’s exactly the type of smart, articulate and self-possessed woman my (somewhat nerdy/geeky) sons should MARRY.

  9. sex·ism
    Prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.

    None of that has happened.

    • Telling sexual or lewd jokes, hanging sexual posters, making sexual gestures, etc. Is however on the list of things that cause a hostile workforce. She was working, they were working, therefore they were creating a hostile workplace. They were there representing their company and should have been more professional about it, especially since they knew she was listening, since she had made a comment to them about an earlier topic. Saying this or that isn’t sexist isn’t the point.

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  11. I’m a Graphic and Web Designer, so not deep in the Dev trenches, but on the tech-dependent periphery. I’ve been at this career since 1980 and seen a LOT of douchery towards women over the years, I even did a “dues” stint in Adult Publishing. Despite the insanity and noise-in-the-signal of the past day or so, things have improved over the years…. but it’s been a LOT of years. The Design world for a while became more male dominated and sexist, as digital technology absolutely slaughtered traditional physical media, and creative professionals got to terms with their new electronic tools. Computers had a masculine aura, and a rep as “manly” gear, so the culture in the design world swung towards a more sexist culture. The Internet made things worse, with the free and easy access to remote trash-talking. Since I have entered Web Design as part of my labours, I have been blown away by the firey depths of rancor and flaming that goes on in forums, chat rooms, and now extended to blogs, FB and Twitter. Where I was raised, Coney Island, in Brooklyn, NY, that kind of confrontational and aggressive language face-to-face would earn you a punch in the face, get you stabbed, or SHOT. Likely still would.

    And I have met women very much like Ms Richards, who takes any offense as an opportunity to “look at how these pigs treat me, PUNISH them!” with a big dose of “look at ME.” We’re even the most innocuous and trivial, and as you’ve pointed out, easily addressed situation becomes feminist drama central. I’ve also experienced lots of companies that respond exactly wrong, making it worse for all involved. It is exactly true as well that even though it’s as easy as “hey, dude, that’s not cool.” and/or seeking the appropriate polite channels; it seems we have to swim uphill through a river of bad habits and self interest to make any real lasting progress.

    But looking back over 30+ years as a creative professional, there has been progress. Slow and hard, to be sure, and yes, work to do yet. But progress none the less, this conversation itself is proof of that. This weeks outcome would very likely have been much worse 20 years ago. Ms Richards on the street, blackballed from the industry, despite her talents, and those two young devs laughing over the incident over beer with their bosses… in a “gentleman’s” club.

    You’re absolutely helping here, and I appreciate that.

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  13. This is one of the most balanced responses I’ve seen to date.

    As a fellow resident of Stumptown, I see a lot of women in tech out this way (more than anywhere else outside of Cali, IMHO), and worked with a fair number of them…
    …but I have never known one who would have reacted like Ms. Richards did.

    Thank you for posting what you did – it’s excellent background info.

  14. Credit to you, Amanda.

    I’m about burned out on this whole topic, but I want to say that despite some *minor* disagreements with your opinion, you provided a rational article on the topic with the bonus of relevant personal experiences. That is way more important than any individual’s agreement or disagreement, and it’s sadly lacking from so many other articles (especially those pushing a feminist – in the warped sense it sometimes manifests, not the true equality sense – or men’s rights agenda.)

    So thank you 🙂

  15. One of the bigger questions in sociology/psychology is how much each individual mind – feeds into the collective. How do societal norms and resulting structure form? Is there genuine emergence? Is society as a whole greater than just each individual contribution?

    I think we tend to forget the complexity of the world in which we live. I believe that each individual is both adding to a societal structure as well as being influenced by it. When we publicly express disapproval with an individual and how they are interacting with our perception of what the collective should be, we are trying to define how the collective should be. This is an individual asserting one’s individual reality into the collective societal structure. This, I believe, is a good thing for us to be able to do. The problem comes when we morally qualify another individual’s actions. How much does an individual’s “code of behavior” come from that societal structure? How much is that individual contributing to said structure and causing that very structure? I feel that people make comments all the time that are really just the mind regurgitating a thought process that is coming from the emerging structure. I am not saying anyone is morally right/wrong. I do believe it is important to be conscious of other’s realities. Yet, when we feel offended I think it is best to at least give the other person the benefit of the doubt and check to see if it is this individual attempting to assert a personal belief or simply regurgitating something they do not intend to be offensive.

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  17. OK, at first I thought this was about two guys joking about dongles which, umm, the name itself (and the typical shape) lends itself, rather naturally, to anatomy jokes. Then I thought they were commenting on her, umm, dongles. But now that I read the apology, I am back to the first explanation. So they were talking amongst themselves, not sure why this happened. If they were making a presentation, or a sales pitch at a booth, well, not appropriate but private (albeit, overheard) conversation? Huh? I am a patent attorney, one who typically works in an all-male environment and, umm, sometimes the inventions we get…well, hard not to make some jokes (the vasectomy reversal device, the CCD camera in the toilet-to measure water level, get your mind out of the gutter…). Life without humor is, well, boring. With the totally out-of-proportion response by so many, I really thought there was something much more offensive that was said or that the offenders were talking about the complainant’s anatomy (which would be totally offensive). It’s like when my EE father explained male and female electrical parts and, honestly, I thought he was making it up, that it was too rude to talk about “male” plugs that went into “female” receptacles…and this was back in the early 70’s, when I was maybe 9 or 10. Maybe having two older brothers and having gone to a very male engineering school has made me immune. But I just don’t get all the fuss, sorry.

  18. This whole incident reminds me of an episode of the Drew Carey Show. Drew put up a cartoon in his cubicle of a caterpillar mounting a french fry, with said french fry crying out “hey, cut it out, I’m a french fry!”. A coworker sued him for creating a hostile work envrionment. Interesting of note, despite being set up as a straw-man (er, straw-woman) that character was more ethically justified than this Adria Richards. For one, that cartoon in the show used implied rape as the punch line, where the gentlemen involved here were just making sex puns, and in the episode the coworker actually approached him and asked him to remove it (which he refused rather brazenly) instead of making a public spectacle behind his back.

  19. My concern is that proper disciplinary actions were taken, for both the interests of each company AND their fired employee. In other words, that the action PlayHaven/Sendgrind took was not a knee-jerk reaction, but rather the result of a series of incidents.

    I do not want to see companies creating constrictive environments, where the atmosphere is constant guard. Nor would I want environments where lax guard leads to uncomfortable situations. In the end, we will all make mistakes at some point, and the better employees are the ones that correct them. On the flip side, the better companies are the ones that allow their employees to correct their mistakes.

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