PyCon and the ethics of harassment in the tech industry

PyCon and the ethics of harassment in the tech industry

  • AuthorHolly Richmond
  • Published Tuesday, May 21st, 2013
  • Comments0

The tech industry’s dark, misogynist underbelly has repeatedly made headlines lately, revealing just how scary a place it can be for women, and how social media can be a tool used to share experiences of injustice and abuse. From serious allegations of rape to critiques of seemingly harmless jokes said to a friend, women are using relatively new outlets to expose harassment. However, they’re inevitably subjected to a wave of dismissal, criticism, victim-blaming and even death threats, being called whiners and much worse. Where do digital ethics come in? Is using social media this way unnecessarily and publicly shaming someone?

What happened

In what is now known as “Donglegate,” Adria Richards used Twitter to call out two men at March’s PyCon tech conference who were joking about “dongles” and “forking.” A media storm followed ­– along with both men being fired from Playhaven and Richards being fired from SendGrid. The incident stirs up multiple ethical dilemmas: Is it okay to publicly post someone’s photo online without his or her permission? Is it ethical to tweet something that gets someone else fired? Does the situation change if he or she is engaging in conduct that is offensive and explicitly forbidden? If you do something wrong, do you forfeit your right to privacy?

This is how we live now

Before the digital age, holding someone accountable for harassment was definitely more difficult. The Internet gives the powerless a direct line to power (or at least publicity), whether it’s sending an email to a CEO, posting a bad Yelp review or broadcasting a situation publicly on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. Blogging and tweeting have emerged as new ways to shed light on harassment and injustice. Just look at the plethora of sites documenting cat-calling and unwanted sexual advances, such as Hollaback or the woman who posted her rapist’s name and photo to Tumblr, then stickered her campus with the URL.

The invasion of privacy is an immediate concern. As fashion journalist Tim Blanks said in the documentary ‘Take My Picture’, “It’s a world where everything is just on display the whole time.” One tweet, photo or video posted online even for a few seconds can be preserved indefinitely via a download, copy or screengrab. Relatively harmless results might be whispers, teasing or being turned down for a potential new job. More troubling consequences include the spate of suicides by those who’ve been the subject of slut shaming due to sex-related texts, photos and videos spread by classmates (one 17-year-old, for instance, hanged herself after a photo of her throwing up while being gang-raped spread through her school). The idea that something you post online could kill someone should make anyone think twice.

So was Donglegate a case of public shaming and cyberbullying? Or was it holding someone accountable? Based on the answer to that, what ethical standards or guidelines apply to these kinds of situations?

Nothing happens in a vacuum

As Lindy West wrote on Jezebel, context matters. Sexual harassment training or diversity training are seen as laughably, unnecessarily politically correct formalities pursued to look good on paper or avoid lawsuits. But they’re obviously still needed to help create environments that are welcoming to people other than straight, white, affluent, able-bodied men. It’s the responsibility of everyone with power and privilege to be aware of the source of these things – which, uncomfortably, may not be how hard you’ve worked. The tech industry and other male-dominated spheres need to proactively address their inherent sexism and actively work to create an atmosphere that is welcoming of people who are different.

“Dongle” and “forking” jokes seem innocuous enough, but in the PyCon context, they were yet another contribution to an undercurrent of hostility. “[S]eemingly tiny, individual acts of sexism – like innocent dongle jokes – matter,” wrote Wired’s Alice Marwick of Donglegate. “Such ‘microaggressions’ combine to reinforce structural sexism.” After being told she’d only gotten a tech job because she was a “young hot chick,” one woman in the tech industry wrote on Huffington Post. “This ‘beneath the surface, only having a laugh’ sexism may seem harmless at first – indeed, any woman who calls someone out about it is liable to be labeled as an overreacting feminazi – but I’ll be honest with you: it’s exhausting.” As female Google engineer Julie Pagano put it, it feels like “death by 1000 paper cuts.”

For Richards and other women within earshot, the jokes likely aren’t simply offhand remarks, but the umpteenth reminder that they weren’t welcome at PyCon. Cyberbullying and public shaming are usually the strong picking on the weak. Considering Richards’ status as a woman of color in a mostly male, mostly white environment, and that her tweet was not a malicious personal attack, her actions fall into the “holding someone accountable” camp. Could she have achieved the same result with a direct message to conference organizers instead of a public tweet? Maybe. We’ll never really know.

Whose responsibility is it?

The depressing yet not unpredictable result of Donglegate was a massive uproar not against the jokers in question, but against Richards. The backlash against her is largely of the “she overreacted; she should’ve just talked to them” variety. But as Lindy West put it, “[A]ttempting to speak quietly with each individual man and instruct them in the particulars of rape culture and the subtle hostilities of gendered interaction might eventually begin to seem like a lost cause (and also, potentially, frightening).” A request to pipe down could’ve prompted derision from the men rather than an apology. Considering the tech industry’s hostility to women, Richards’ decision to tweet rather than risk further, direct and personal harassment is understandable.

The fact that she took a photo of the two men (rather than, say, asking them both their full names) is ethically ambiguous. If confronted, the men could’ve become defensive and refused to tell her their names. Tweeting a photo of two people who violated PyCon’s guidelines is a far cry from emailing a naked picture of your ex to everyone at your high school.

Those who say Richards responded to the men’s jokes in the wrong way mistakenly place the responsibility on individual women to single-handedly “fix” male-dominated industries. Such a response misses the point. “Women shouldn’t have to grow ‘thick skin’ to go into a technical field,” PyCon attendee Eric Matthes wrote. As long as the “it’s her problem” mindset is pervasive, we can expect the victimized to continue using whatever methods at their disposal – smartphone pictures, tweets and the like – to try to get the powers that be to pay attention and pursue much-needed, high-level reform. So yes, if you harass someone, you should know that doing so is at the risk of your face getting plastered across the Internet. No one should have to endure death threats, stalking, attacks or the like. But as is abundantly clear, such treatment ironically seems solely reserved for the whistle-blowers.


Tech blogger Loren Feldman recently made some powerful statements in a video addressing the allegations that TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington raped and beat his girlfriend. But Feldman’s remarks could’ve just as easily been addressing the PyCon scandal. I’ll let Feldman have the last word:

“This is important. And it’s not just important because of the shock value. It’s important because of how we treat women in this country, and more specifically women in tech. Women in tech have it horrible…I’m already starting to see shades of blaming and vilifying the victim, and that’s certainly not the way to go.”

Holly Richmond’s mission is to banish boring writing, which she’s done for Grist, Microsoft and others over the past seven years. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Learn more at

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