Crying Wolf and Sexism in Tech

“I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I certainly believe in equal rights.”

-Marissa Mayer

If you look up the dictionary definition, both Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg probably are feminists: they believe women are equally capable and should have equal rights etc., but unfortunately, there seem to be a contingent of women who believe that a feminist is a person with a “militant drive and sort of the chip on the shoulder.” Those are Mayer’s words, not mine.

Is that the fault of males too eager to discredit the movement, or a news media too eager to give coverage to the fringe and stoke the fires they create? Probably both, but females like Adria Richards aren’t helping, when she publicly shamed via twitter two employees of PlayHaven, one of whom was eventually fired for the “misconduct,” all for making a harmless joke about “big dongles.” Adria was eventually fired as well.

Are you kidding me?!! A penis joke? Have we completely lost it, so much so that we actually think “the future of programming is on the line" (link to Adria Richards site broken since she removed the blog post) because of a fucking dongle joke?

Let’s stop for a moment and forget the fact that Adria Richards made a penis joke, publicly on twitter for all her followers to see, only hours earlier while at the same conference, PyCon. Let’s also forget that it was a conversation she overheard and wasn’t meant for her, that she didn’t even ask them to stop, and two males making fun of their own anatomy, while that might make people feel uncomfortable and could be inappropriate, is not sexist towards women. Could this have been a publicity ploy, an effort on the part of Richards to increase her twitter followers with a sanctimonious tweet that made her out as a crusader for women’s rights. Would an equal firestorm have ensued if two women had made a vagina joke behind me in a conference? Would people even entertain the idea that I could feel like it was “sexist”?

Let me clarify something up front: I believe in women’s rights. I’m frankly farther to the left on this than probably many women: I think there should be Daddy leave like there is in much of Scandinavia, because the entire idea that child rearing is solely the woman’s responsibility, and therefore that this is even only a women’s rights issue, is kind of sexist. I think that there should be a welcoming environment for women in tech companies, etc. I also believe there is still plenty of sexism in tech, but usually in ways that don’t manifest themselves so obviously.

However, instances like this only aggravate the vast majority of rational males. It’s like crying wolf, you cry sexist too often when someone makes a dongle joke or has a “brogrammer” poster, instances where the vast majority of women would laugh or just roll their eyes (because let’s face it, the dongle joke was kind of lame) and eventually, people just start tuning you out when things actually happen.

To those of you who think that Richards was not responsible for the firestorm that ensued, you are partly right. But the reason it got so much attention is that accusations of sexism in the tech industry go very far, and can be very damaging to a company if they are perceived as being a hostile work environment to women, so Playhaven overreacted and fired the employee. Playhaven could have taken a more measured approach, instead of firing a parent with three children. At most this deserved a slap on the wrist, since it was against the conference policies, not a firing.

And Richards was definitely not responsible for the death threats, etc., that ensued, and those are despicable, and have been universally decried.

However that does not excuse her original behavior. Adria Richards, through her overreaction, has now caused a parent to lose a job, and added to a work environment where companies are so intimidated by charges of sexism that they fire an employee over a penis joke.

If you want male allies in the fight for equal rights, maybe give us the benefit of the doubt sometimes. We make the occasional penis joke.

If enough people cry wolf too many times, we’ll be too tired for the real fight, for things like nurseries in the workplace, flextime, maternity leave, etc. More of us are on your side than you realize. Even if we tell lousy jokes.

This post was also on Huffington Post.

 
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