Much Ado About A Dongle

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How one female reader interprets the controversy surrounding Adria Richards:

Basically, she overheard some pretty innocuous, vaguely sexual joking and decided the best course of action would be to post about the guys on the Internets. Then one of them got fired. Then the Internet freaked out and all sorts of REALLY inappropriate abuse was heaped on her and she got fired. Everyone was in the wrong and everyone loses. But that she’s sticking by her behavior as remotely appropriate – these guys weren’t catcalling, they were making nerdy techy jokes that didn’t even involve profanity – is really annoying. Should the guys have been making sex jokes at a conference? Probably not. But making a big deal out of it makes it harder for women in the tech industry to complain when there’s actual harassment.

Another highlights the crux of the offense:

There is undoubtably a lot of sexism in Silicon Valley and it’s a problem that we should fix. However this incident was not an example. From the New York article that you linked to:

But this year, on March 17th, two employees of PlayHaven, a company that develops tools for video-game marketing, made a couple of jokes while sitting in the tenth row of a “lightning talk.” One of the jokes was about “big dongles.”

This was a private joke that Ms Richards overheard and she tweeted a complaint to her 6000 followers along with a photo of the offenders, one of whom was fired for it. You might say that jokes about dongles are silly and have no place at a professional conference and I might agree. But I’d have to confess that I have snickered over a dongle joke or two in my term. The very word dongle is silly. It’s almost as though the coiner of the term wanted to make people snicker. I’d wager that the vast majority of software developers – male and female both – including most of the people at PyCon have snickered over a dongle joke despite their better judgment.

Perhaps everyone who ever snickered over a dongle joke is a sexist who should be fired but if it’s officially no longer permissible to laugh about dongles in Silicon Valley because someone might get offended and cause me to be fired, I don’t want to work here any more.

For the record, a dongle “is a small piece of hardware that attaches to computer, TV, or other electronic device and enables additional functions such as copy protection, audio, video, games, data, or other services that are only available when it is attached.” Example seen above, from Flickr user txGeek. Another reader goes into much more detail on the foofaraw:

Adria Richards gave a statement recently. (And here is another article voicing support of her, and another.)  Her situation is frustrating to me because I feel and agree that there is a problem with sexism in the tech industry (and others for that matter). But I thought your post glossed over important details of this situation.

My frustration stems from I agree that there is a problem, but the way Adria Richards dealt with it was wrong. You don’t post complaints to Twitter to encourage a teaching moment. And now her MO is changing. Recently she wrote “I don’t think anyone who was part of what happened at PyCon that day could possibly have imagined how this issue would have exploded into the public consciousness the way it has.” That is inconsistent with her previous blog post soon after Pycon: “I realized I had to do something or she would never have the chance to learn and love programming because the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so,” and “Yesterday the future of programming was on the line and I made myself heard.” (The grandiose self-importance of that blog post is interesting in itself)  The two posts completely conflict, if in her eyes “the future of programming” was on the line, then one would indeed want this exploding into the public.

Everyone is making this a complex issue, but appears to be a simple textbook situation out of ‘The Office’ (US version) where Adria is Angela Martin, and the guys were Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute. Angela has a point most of the time, but goes about dealing with it in such a way that even if you agree with her, you don’t want to be on her side. Michael Scott says ‘That’s what she said’ and makes bad puns. Dwight doesn’t know how to interact with women and voices outdated opinions on gender roles.

The point is a majority of men and women like ‘That’s what she said’ jokes, however they also know not to tell them in front of Angela. Why? She will make your life difficult by complaining to the Toby in HR instead of talking to you, or maybe even go straight to corporate.

Adria said that the puns of dongle and forking made her uncomfortable. And if her uncomfortable feeling is deemed reasonable, it makes the offending party lose by default. If someone is uncomfortable, a hostile workplace has been created. And whoever creates a hostile workplace is at fault. It is a great strategy because right and wrong no longer matters in what makes someone uncomfortable.

There is a degree to which being uncomfortable is the individuals’ own problem though. A PETA member might be uncomfortable by overhearing hunters’ conversations. A woman who had an abortion might be uncomfortable to hear a pro-life conversation. A ‘traditional’ marriage person might be uncomfortable overhearing a same-sex marriage conversation. And vice versa for all the above situations. Those situations might even be worse in terms of uncomfortableness compared to Adria’s. However, if one of them complained they were uncomfortable from individuals having those conversations, they are told ‘Well those individuals are entitled to their opinions.’ Then there are situations with racists, homophobes, and misogynists who have conversations that make others uncomfortable. Their conversations are deemed in the wrong, and if someone complains they will most likely either be fired, given sensitivity training, or written up. So there is a line of when someone’s uncomfortable feeling is their own problem, and when it becomes the offender’s problem.

I think bad puns of a sexual nature do not deserve the same treatment for sexist, racist, and homophobic remarks. And if they are inappropriate, there are certainly more professional ways of addressing it instead doing it in the most public way possible by putting it on Twitter. I’m sure that the certain bloggers who make a living off of making hay out of nothing or are overzealous will come to her defense (you aren’t either, so that gave me pause and I delved into it even more to see the whole situation), but I doubt working women in tech circles are praising Adria for now making bad puns a firing offense in the workplace. Odds are they are annoyed because this is not a battle that needed to be fought, unlike other worthy fights like being denied a promotion, or discriminatory hiring practices, or promoting women going into tech.

A software developer sympathetic to Richards nevertheless points to this tweet and writes, “I’ve made jokes like that in the past, most of my friends have, and Adria herself makes dick jokes.” One more reader:

As a guy in the tech industry, I feel like it’s my responsibility to make the industry less “brogrammer” and more inclusive, and part of that is listening to the women in tech to see how we can do better as men. Your link to the post by a Google developer was enlightening. The sly sexism, the constant feeling of being under a microscope – these are things that we can and should address as a subculture.

That said, Adria Richards also participates in a different culture: social justice culture. And among the ideas encouraged by the online social justice movement is the idea that “calling out” bad behavior as often and publicly as possible is always a smart idea. This piece captured it well, but there are plenty of examples out there.

On the one hand, heck yes. If you’re a woman who is consistently hollered at, ihollaback.com supports your dismay. If you’re a man who surreptitiously takes photos of women in public without their consent, expect to be publicly shamed. If you say something racist, sexist, or homophobic on a popular website, don’t be surprised when that website’s favorite bogeyman paints a target on your back.

Most of the examples above are pretty cut-and-dry, but the Adria Richards drama highlights what happens when there’s honest disagreement about the behavior in question. Let’s be honest with ourselves, men: it’s pretty easy not to make forking and dongle jokes at a conference, right? We can agree that it’s not exactly professional behavior, right? Good!

Does making that kind of joke rise to the level of, “I should tweet their pictures and write a blog post explaining why these guys are the problem that keeps women out of the tech sector”? Well, maybe, but it’s not nearly as black-and-white as “don’t holler at women on the street.” And in the absence of near-universal revulsion at the behavior being called out, you end up with the same old people making the same old complaints about social justice: she’s “overreacting.” She’s being “oversensitive.” In its most misogynistic form, she is the exemplar of “women causing drama in the workplace.”

The saddest part is that she says she tweeted her complaint because she “didn’t want to be heckled or have [her] experience denied,” and that is precisely what has happened.