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)


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  • John Reece

    A really intelligent and liberated woman would have come up with an on-the-spot putdown instead of whining over social media about guys making the kind of dongle-size innuendo woman make to each other about guys.

    • Stephen Williams

      People shouldn’t deliberately make others uncomfortable with sexual innuendo directed at them: that’s sexual harassment.

      This didn’t sound like it was directed at Adria nor was it about her. She took offense to a couple of guys joking near her. Many guys would have been uncomfortable listening to that too, and wouldn’t join in. But that doesn’t necessarily make their comedy intrinsically bad. Nor, just because it was overheard by a woman, is it intrinsically harassing or demeaning.

      To some extent, we operate in a mode where we have to estimate whether someone who we think will hear something might be offended. This is highly imperfect as social, and especially comedy, norms vary widely. This is true not just between men and women. In fact, as women assert themselves and are treated and accepted as equals, the concept of women as fragile flowers who can’t handle banter has mostly evaporated. All of the women I know, including my daughters, likely wouldn’t notice something like this, except perhaps to add to the comedy.

      Perhaps some women feel outnumbered or otherwise pressured in a too-male environment and industry. The women I know, including those that have worked for me, don’t seem to have too much problem with it, usually excelling over most others easily.

      I’m all for recognizing and countering discrimination, abuse and pre-abuse, and maliciously affecting other people. However, there are a wide spectrum of people in the real world, from the sheltered pious to the bawdy, rough and tumble. It is a bit of an American tradition, which is greatly expanded by the Internet and other recent history, to have a thick, tolerant skin, in public venues at least.

      If this were a prototypical conversation about cars, wrestling, football, guns, or politics, it would likely have had to be magnitudes more offensive before someone like this would have taken similar offense. Sex is a fact of life, and a very traditional source of humor. Lacking malicious direction at someone, it is hard to see what the offense was about here. Childish maybe, a little uncool with people around with unknown viewpoints, but hardly newsworthy.

  • Gideon

    No-one should have been fired. A note in their employment record or a quick chat with their manager should have been more than sufficient on both sides. It is sad that employees cannot rely on their employer to stand behind them if they make a mistake. I hoped for better from everyone involved and I have been disappointed.

  • The behavior of the “brogrammers” cited in Adria’s Richard’s private blog violated standard employee conduct guidelines designed to prevent unlawful, sexual harassment. As the offenders, wearing badges that identified their company, were attending in their capacity as employees, they would be appropriately subject to sanctions for violating company policy.

    One offender’s employer took the appropriate action in terminating him. It’s clear from the widespread response that such governance is exceptional, rather than the norm, in the industry.

    Richards’ firing was the wrong response on her employer’s part, on the other hand. Her job description surely did not include resolving the prevailing tribal, sexist behavior of some male counterparts in order to unite the programming community.

    The men’s behavior at the conference contributed to a hostile environment for many females, and that constitutes sexual harassment. She was victimized by the men’s behavior in the circumstances, regardless of whether it was directed at her specifically. Reporting the harassment is a legally protected activity, especially via a private blog, which is also protected by first amendment freedom of speech.

    What makes this case unusual is the rapid, immediate avalanche of public response, predominated by angry responses from males, a veritable, online lynch mob. This should be viewed as a bellwether, indicating the need for improved governance methods for behavior in this business environment, including changes that quickly impose consequences for employees engaging in hostile behavior that offends a legally protected class of people.

    The need cannot be addressed by a single individual, particularly one who was victimized by the prevailing situation.

  • Noone

    ‘Brogrammer’, really?

    This in itself can be classified as offensive and bullying. You are using it as a derogatory term to make fun of people.

    When constructing criticism . . . its sad if I have to continue this sentence.

    • Levi Sumagaysay

      It’s a term someone else came up with, which is why I put in quotes. Also, as noted in the piece, some people wear ‘brogrammer’ as a badge of honor.