the tech world gets its own little elevatorgrate

March 24, 2013

troll

Maybe it’s just me, but the older I get, the more it seems that high school actually gives teens a fairly accurate sneak peek into adult life, minus the rent/mortgage, bills, and the fear of getting fired for or without cause, of course. High school drama seems like a pretty good description of what currently dominates once immensely popular and influential skeptical blogs after the nerd gender wars in the wake of Elevatorgate as many small skeptical conferences are being quickly reduced into confrontations about sexism, politics, and gender rather than discussions about all those science and skeptical inquiry topics they were meant to facilitate. But while I get plenty of gender and political correctness discussions from big name skeptical bloggers, my tech reading has remained quite clear of them. Well, until now, when the Donglegate incident lit up the feeds of numerous tech blogs and unleashed the fury of the internet on two companies.

Unlike the basic premise of Elevatorgate, where there was something to discuss and some good points to be made before the problem metastasized into what it has, Donglegate fits the definition of a tempest in a teapot to a T. At a conference for programmers working with Python, a popular open source scripting language, tech evangelist (basically a marketer/salesperson whose job is to explain why his or her company’s flagship products are the best thing since both sliced bread and perforated toilet paper) Adria Richards, overheard two guys behind her making an off-color joke about "forking a repository" followed by one about "big dongles." So she did what seasoned pros do in situations like this and asked them if they wouldn’t mind knocking it off because there was a presentation underway. Oh wait, then we wouldn’t have Donglegate, my bad. I meant she took a picture of them and publicly shamed them on Twitter for making dirty nerd puns with links to the conference’s policy asking attendees to keep their humor audience-appropriate.

From there things quickly got ridiculous. One of the guys in question was fired, Richards wrote an amazingly hyperbolic post delcaring that she felt compelled to shame them for every little girl out there who may never learn how to program because "the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so" and concluding with "Yesterday the future of programming was on the line and I made myself heard," which unleashed the fury of the internet. She was also shown the door at her company as commercially painful DDoS attacks kept on coming for two days and her bosses most likely lost their confidence in her PR skills. And as the sour cherry on top, there was the usual assortment of rape and death threats by trolls who are attracted to these dramas much like vultures are attracted by the stench of putrid, rotting flesh, giving Richards a shot at a moral high ground, saying that brogrammers couldn’t stand to see a woman in tech stand up for herself, and, apparently, every woman and girl in the field or considering going into it.

But of course no manufactroversy would be complete without a kicker, and here it is. Richards herself is no stranger to dirty nerd puns, having used one herself on her work Twitter account a short time before the conference. By her logic, someone should’ve spoken up against it for all the boys who dirty minds like her will discourage from the field to peruse the profession. Why, if we let people make off-color jokes, they will be too offended to study, constantly in fear that the women in tech will just make jokes about their penises. </sarcasm> In the real world, people will make sexual jokes all the time and yes, a lot of them will make them at inappropriate times. The way to deal with this fact of life is to accept it and to tell the offending parties to knock it off when they cross the line rather than rush to appoint oneself as the savior of your industry’s future. As a man in the tech world, I’d be lying if I told you I’ve never heard women in IT make all sort of off-color puns about "multitasking" and "mounting drives." And yet I survived to code another day, mostly because like all adults, I’ve heard plenty of stuff like this since middle school.

Women going into IT are going to find that their problems with the industry will be institutional in nature rather than potentially overhearing dongle jokes. Graybeards who subtly imply or not so subtly declare that the programming world is not meant for women, or hiring managers who have free reign to hire whoever they think is most attractive rather than most qualified, are big issues those who want to ensure that little girls can easily become programmers if they so choose have to battle. If someone can’t handle a cheesy penis pun or joke implying coitus you can see in just about every other Superbowl commercial, this person is going to have a tough time in any job or any social circle outside of a fundamentalist religious group. If knowing that dirty jokes about the profession they want to take up exist are enough to make them abandon said profession, to me it’s a sign of a pathologically sheltered childhood rather than a real issue with the industry. It’s a downright inane argument that Richards was standing up for the future of women programmers and its self-serving nature is even more infuriating because it glosses over real problems.

I feel that it does a great disservice to women programmers when we’re told to treat them like a delicate bouquet of flowers instead of simply treating them as equals, paying them equal wages, and promoting them based on their merits as professionals. The women in IT I know want to be successful by doing something big and important, by cranking out highly visible projects. Why should we scramble to protect them from potentially overhearing a childish dirty joke and carry them to the finish line so we can hit the desired metric of female CIOs and CTOs, or architects? Isn’t that downright disrespectful to them? Why not just stay out of their way and let women in IT accomplish what they want to accomplish? It’s really not that hard to make an assumption that a qualified professional sitting across from you or next to you can excel regardless of gender. I’m not ridiculing Richards’ behavior because I don’t think there aren’t any issues for women in IT or any other STEM field. I’m ridiculing it because I have too much respect for women to think that a dongle or forking joke will deter them from following their programming dreams.

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  • Badbass

    The RR news feed and Salon both reported Ms. Richards lost her job also. There’s a kind of ironic justice in that. We’re surrounded by “ass clowns”, so grow some skin, or have the nerve to confront them, this didn’t happen in some dark alley. There shouldn’t have been any fear of reprisal, so what was wrong with her just asking these guys to shut up? No. It had to be a grand gesture to get that 5 minutes of fame, which in the end backfired on her, and possibly made the overall womens movement lose just a little bit of credibility. The same with Elevatorgate. People are more likely to listen when your complaints are presented in a calm, logical manner. Have we forgotten this? And self-induced martyrdom is just plain stupid.

  • Curmudgeon

    You’re being way too generous by saying that there was ever anything more to elevatorgate than there is to techgate.

    Both incidents are nothing more than demonstrations of how self-absorbed women with limited social skills and PR training can hijack the public discourse.

    Nothing more.

  • http://twitter.com/CultureCritic9 Cultural Critic

    You’ve expressed what seems to be the mainstream opinion of most individuals commenting on this situation. You also addressed the overblown claims about the trolls who gave her death threats. There actually hasn’t been much evidence of an “onslaught” or bombarding of threats. Only two specific threats have been identified and are verifiable by a screenshot or some other way to my knowledge.

    I find it especially interesting that such an intelligently put analysis of this situation which reflects the opinions of most people took me literally days to find on Google.