Gender wars in the age of Twitter and in the land of the 'brogrammer'

The tech industry — land of the “brogrammer” — is now front and center in the gender wars.

When a female developer frustrated over sexual comments she was overhearing decided to publicly call out a couple of men at a Silicon Valley tech conference by taking their picture and posting it on Twitter, she set off a tsunami that got one of them fired, got her fired, sparked a DDOS attack against her former employer and more. She has reportedly received death threats.


Why didn’t Adria Richards just ask the two men she thought were making sexual comments to stop because they were making her uncomfortable? Why make it public? Richards later blogged that “I know it’s important to pick my battles,” but she thought “the future of programming was on the line.”

A woman who is acquainted with Richards — she tried to get Richards to speak at a conference she was organizing a few years ago — has written a post that depicts Richards as difficult and prone to overreaction. But Amanda Blum says the backlash against Richards is worse. “I’ve long viewed her as a bully. … But people were missing the point,” she writes. “Within 24 hours, Adria was being attacked with the vile words people use only when attacking women.”

Could this have been a “teachable moment” in the gender wars? And about the use of social media as a tool for public humiliation? Should anyone have been fired? One of the men in the now infamous photo, reportedly a programmer for San Francisco-based PlayHaven, was fired. Then Richards was fired.

The CEO of Richards’ former employer, Colorado-based SendGrid, explained Thursday why Richards lost her job: “To be clear, SendGrid supports the right to report inappropriate behavior, whenever and wherever it occurs. What we do not support was how she reported the conduct.” And in what must have been an indirect reference to the denial-of-service attacks that SendGrid suffered, Jim Franklin wrote: “In the end, the consequences that resulted from how she reported the conduct put our business in danger.”

There is plenty of talk on the blogosphere that the Adria Richards debacle could make things worse for female programmers, because companies might be more hesitant to hire them. And that’s certainly possible. But just as the off-color jokes of two male programmers shouldn’t reflect badly on all male programmers, Richards doesn’t represent all women in the tech industry.

That said, and no matter what you may think of Richards’ actions — as Dan Nakaso writes, her former boss called them divisive — the gender issues in tech shouldn’t be swept under the rug. This year’s brouhaha brings to mind incidents in the tech industry last year that Tasneem Raja wrote about in a Mother Jones article last year titled “‘Gangbang Interviews’ and ‘Bikini Shots’: Silicon Valley’s Brogrammer Problem.”  The incidents included sexist comments during a presentation by a Path executive at SXSW; marketing videos that included photos of bikini-clad women; the introduction of a female panelist at a conference as “a sexy married lady.”

Raja wrote that companies such as Klout sought to hire engineers who were attracted to the brogrammer, frat-like startup culture: The San Francisco company put a recruitment poster up at Stanford that said, “Want to bro down and crush code? Klout is hiring. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics cited in the Mother Jones piece, just 20 percent of programmers in 2011 were women. So while the Klout CEO reportedly said the poster was just a joke, many people didn’t find it to be funny.

Can anything good come out of fighting gender wars in public? Well, the issue is again in the spotlight, and it’s timely amid Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement, which calls on women to make their voices heard in the business world — although this mess probably wasn’t what she had in mind. The key thing now, after the firings and the public humiliation and the threats: The incensed and the offended should take a deep breath and back away from the Twitter — maybe just for as long as they can before they start twitching — and think about a way forward.

(Photo of Adria Richards courtesy Flickr/allaboutgeorge)

Levi Sumagaysay Levi Sumagaysay (4265 Posts)

Levi Sumagaysay is editor of the combined SiliconBeat and Good Morning Silicon Valley. She also helps take care of, the Mercury News tech website. Email: