Is Adria Richards a bully, or was she bullied by the internet?

Is Adria Richards a bully, or was she bullied by the internet?

Summary: Adria Richards complained about inappropriate comments made by guys at PyCon. She lost her job, as did one of the guys. But was the backlash, abuse, and threats disproportionate to the complaint?


The flamers and the feminists have been vocal this week.

Adria Richards
(Image: Adria Richards/Pinterest)

Adria Richards was at PyCon last week. Her company, SendGird, was a gold sponsor of the event. She was sitting in the ballroom listening to Jesse Noller thank the sponsors.

Two guys behind her were making jokes about Dongles and forking builds. She was offended by their attitude, which contravened the PyCon conference code of conduct.

The code states that:

PyCon is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion.

We do not tolerate harassment of conference participants in any form.

All communication should be appropriate for a professional audience, including people of many different backgrounds. Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks.

Be kind to others. Do not insult or put down other attendees. Behave professionally. Remember that harassment and sexist, racist, or exclusionary jokes are not appropriate for PyCon.

Richards took a photo of the guys who were making the comments that were offensive to her. She then posted a picture of them on Twitter, captioned:

Not cool. Jokes about forking repo's in a sexual way and "big" dongles. Right behind me #pycon

Richards felt uncomfortable with the comments and tweeted the organisers of PyCon, asking if someone could "talk to these guys about their conduct".

Within 19 minutes, someone from PyCon came to speak to the individuals, tweeting that it had "dealt with the situation".

The guys making the joke were removed from the main ballroom of the event. Richards explained her actions, and put the "Dongle" event into context on her blog.

The guy who made the joke about big dongles apologised on Hacker News. But he lost his job. So did Richards.

SendGrid released a statement on Facebook, which has now been removed. The statement said:

Effective immediately, SendGrid has terminated the employment of Adria Richards. While we generally are sensitive and confidential with respect to employee matters, the situation has taken on a public nature.

We have taken action that we believe is in the overall best interests of SendGrid, its employees, and our customers. As we continue to process the vast amount of information, we will post something more comprehensive.

Was this a knee-jerk reaction to the amount of media coverage that SendGrid received? Perhaps Richards' sacking was a response to concerns that she had alienated part of the developer community.

SendGrid came under a DDoS attack to the company servers after the news gained momentum.

Richards has had to endure a backlash of violent and abusive tweets and death threats on Twitter and her blog.

The outcry from both sides keeps rippling outwards.

Whether you decry Richards for being overly sensitive or laud the fact that she was doing the right thing for her sex is irrelevant. Her personal tolerance threshold was crossed and she responded in a way that she felt comfortable doing.

Your own personal tolerance might be high for some topics, lower for others. You might have responded differently, you might have done exactly the same as she did.

The two guys might have been acting unprofessional, lewd, or even offensive in your opinion.

That’s just it. It is your opinion.

You have no idea what other people think or feel deep down. You do not know where other boundaries of personal tolerance are. The important issue here is that Richards felt that her own boundaries were crossed.

And boundary crossing happens far too often in our industry.

I remember the backlash in 2007 against Kathy Sierra, who was subjected to death threats and harassment. She felt forced her to cancel a trip to speak at a conference, and was too afraid to leave her home.

The original post is no longer on her blog, but you can read it on the wayback machine if you want context. (Hat tip to Courtney Stanton from Buzzfeed, who found the Timeline of incidents of sexism in the geek communities going back to 1973.)

Reading the incidents in the timeline makes me wonder how many more issues would have been reported if people could have had easy access to the web to report similar cases.

Crossing personal tolerance thresholds and offending others is not exclusive to the technology industry, either.

Ford India and ad agency JWT has apologised today about an creative ad for the Ford Figo. The image showed Silvio Berlusconi in the front of the car and women tied up in the back.

The tagline reads "leave your worries behind with Figo’s extra large boot". The ad did not run, nor was the creative accepted by the Ford team. Instead, it was posted to Ads of the World — now removed.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, it cannot be returned.

Soraya Chemaly has chilling details about the constant and unrelenting violence against women, and the global pandemic that women face daily. And there seems surprise, too, when women are successful in other roles such as science.

The popular Facebook page I f***ing Love Science has over 4.3 million likes. The owner of the page posted a link to their Twitter account. Comments started to pour in — because the owner of the Facebook page is female.

I cannot believe how many people are saying "you're a girl?!" Yes, girls do science. They're people too.

I had no idea you were a beautiful girl. I guess I pictured a 55-year-old man with a cat in his lap.

Yesssss you are a girl! and a cute one!

As Elise herself tweeted, "EVERY COMMENT on that thread is about how shocking it is that I'm a woman! Is this really 2013?"

It is often difficult to know who to contact to privately report an issue at public events and conferences. If you report something, do you know whether your plea has been heard — and, more importantly, actioned?

Twitter is used extensively for reporting outages and customer service issues. Why not then use Twitter to report issues when your own personal tolerance threshold has been crossed?

Look at the #fail hashtag on Twitter. People complain about issues that have crossed their own tolerance threshold.

I have had experience of both misogyny and sexism throughout my career.

I started my working life as Shell Tankers first female Deck Cadet in the UK. I know about the challenges that females face in traditional male environments. There have been few women in every job I have done since then — from shipping to technology.

And yet, I do not class myself as a feminist. I think of myself as an "Equalist".

I get upset when people are not treated as equals — whether that is offering your seats to someone on the bus, or doing something nice for someone else.

If I had been in the same situation at PyCon would I have tweeted an image? Probably not. I might have retorted with a witty comment, a put down, or a joke in response.

I might have been offended — some jokes totally cross my personal tolerance threshold. Jokes that others find hilarious.

And that is the point.

We are all unique individuals — trying to get along in a world populated by other unique individuals. Some exhibit behaviour we like, some exhibit behaviour we find offensive or abhorrent.

Dishing out abuse because someone defends their personal tolerance threshold shows a lack of sensitivity and understanding.

Having a difference of opinion is OK — death threats directed toward someone with a different opinion is not.

And that is what needs to stop.

Topic: Social Enterprise

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  • Both are true

    Too many people are using the hate and misogyny that Adria received *after* this incident to justify her actions and paint her as a victim. IMO, this is classic "live by the sword, die by the sword". If you decide to screw over a couple guys for the sake of internet attention, be prepared for some of that attention to be negative. Maybe even unfairly, dangerously negative.
    • Her actions were far in excess of the unwarranted behaviour

      The behaviour that annoyed Richards was silly and immature. Her response was way in excess of the behaviour of the men. There were far less intrusive and invasive ways for her to have dealt with the matter. She need only have spoken to the men or organisers of the conference. Richards has only herself to blame. I agree with her employer's decision to sack her.
    • The problem...

      is she made a public tweet about it, in such a way that it was bound to kick up a storm.

      I feel sorry for Adria, she probably didn't want to kick up such a storm, but that is what you get, when you air your laundry in public. I have a feeling that this is a by-product of social media, instead of dealing with things properly, discreetly, many people now post them straight away, without thinking of the consequences.

      If she had "gone through channels" and made a direct message to PyCon or had contacted the organisers at the location, they would have dealt with the problem quietly, she would have received satisfaction and the guys would have been chewed out and / or ejected from the event. Then PyCon could have made an announcement and kept it anonymous, justice would have been seen to be done and nobody would get abusive replies on Twitter.

      As it is, 2 people have lost their jobs over this, which is a real tradgedy.
      • Escalation of Committment

        Her response of publicly tweeting a picture of the two jokesters is akin to burning down a house due to termites, as supported by multiple people claiming she "went nuclear". Personally, my opinion is that she thought "Finally! I've got the power to bust somebody!" and skipped over appropriate escalations, but that's of course speculative.

        Had she asked them to keep it quiet (or didn't feel comfortable enough to do so), and they didn't, then she should have gone to the organizers directly. Had they not done anything, then I would agree with making the situation public (regardless of how (un)offensive the jokes may have been). At that point, she could have justified her actions by saying "nothing else worked, and I'm tired of the boys' club/misogyny rampant...", etc. SendGrid would then have had a very tough time justifying letting her go.

        Instead, she jumped right to the public outing (and humiliation) of her peers. As SendGrid's customers are also her peers, and are rightfully (IMO) angered by her actions, letting her go became a viable option (I'm undecided on whether I agree with that decision, but that's besides the point).

        In short, she effectively brought this possibility on herself by escalating this to something it never should have been. Fair or not, her actions opened this door.
        • I agree with you

          Had she kept it private, nothing much would have happened (aside from the guys being embarrassed that someone else had heard their childishness), however she went public and tried to create a s#it storm out of the incident, however the s#it flew in a different direction than she anticipated.
          There was no good reason for either party to be fired. Both companies overreacted, a "counseling" session by either a supervisor or HR would have been appropriate.
          Death threats are never appropriate, it is too bad that the internet seems to be a hiding place for social cripples who think it is funny or cute to "act up" in the worst way they can think of. Trolling, name calling and threats are just not the actions of a mature balanced individual.
      • Reply

        How about she just stop acting like such a baby about it in the first place. This was a private conversation between 2 people, the joke was relatively tame, and she made a penis joke on her twitter earlier that day. She was perfectly happy getting a husband and father of 3 fired over practically nothing. To me she's a bad person and I feel no empathy for bad people.
  • It's just a sad tale of social network incompetence.

    I'd imagine she's been removed under the companies social media rules. I'd assume it'd be the easiest way for a suit free dismissal.

    I think the point is that they are both wrong. The men were unprofessional for making the jokes and she was unprofessional for posting it online. The point is they were all representing their companies, not on heir own free time.

    All bullying is wrong no matter what the context. The abuse she has recieved for this is unacceptable, but so was her name and shame tactic. There are always complaints routes for these kind of things. She chose the wrong one. That does not excuse any of the bullying behaviour surrounding this.
  • How comfortable is it to turn a room of men &ask them to cut out the smut?

    I have to say, I have never had the idealised 'thank you for enlightening me that my behaviour made this space unwelcoming' response people have suggested that turning round and asking the people making the joke to stop would produce - especially as none of the men around were saying to them 'hey, that's not cool'. Equating speaking out with bullying isn't the way to get more people to speak out when they see bad behaviour. And yes, smutty innuendo in a professional, public environment does tend to make women disproportionately uncomfortable, even if the joke itself isn't specifically sexist. Did Adria step off the moral high ground for a moment? Maybe. But if dongle jokes in public are the pinnacle of the moral high ground, it isn't that high either.
    • Other avenues available

      Ms Richards was completely aware of the event's Code of Conduct and indeed used that as she should by reporting the annoying behaviour behind her. The organizers where quick to pull the gentleman aside and apologies where made in a context in which she was completely protected from any further potential abuse. So in this regard, she knew her options and did the correct thing without being a bully, and it all should have, and would have, ended there.

      Her bullying began when she decided this event would make a great story for her 10K, or so, twitter followers and blog, which would have also have been ok if she didn't also snap a picture of the guys to make her story more believable. Even the event's Code of Conduct instruct that reporting should be done in confidence. The photo pretty well made her tweet and subsequent 2000+ word blog post about pervasive sexism in tech circles all about these particular fellows--poster boy sexists caught red-handed! It was extremely inappropriate of her to present her larger arguments and frustrations and direct them at a single target this way! Completely unfair and uncalled for. Probably even illegal and worthy of a suit for invasion of privacy or defamation. She abused professional position and social media power (followers) to make a public mockery of these guys. She turned her pulpit into a true bully pulpit and that's why the community turned on her.

      Also, Richard's highground is already shaky. Apparently she was tweeting her own dick jokes while attending this event (see links in posts bellow). And it would appear that her overreactions to small issues are becoming a pattern ...
    • Stepped down...

      she stepped down from the moral high ground into the quagmire of social ineptidue the moment she decided to post pictures.

      She didn't have to tell the guys to grow up, she could have, and should have, contacted the organisers discreetly and asked them to deal with it. She could have tweeted about it afterwards, without photo and it probably would have been a win-win, she would have acted positively, PyCon would have reacted positively and the guys involved would have been reprimanded or possibly ejected from the event.

      Was she trying to be a bully? No. Did she act, before thinking of the consequences? It looks very likely. Should she have tried to resolve the situation by going through proper channels, before taking it public? YES.

      This whole story, apart from the joke, has nothing to do with sexism or bullying, it has everything to do with inappropriate use of social media. Some people are so used to tweeting every little thing in their lives, that they don't think twice before tweeting / posting something that can have grave consequences. If she had tweeted without the photo, it would have been much better, but the correct thing would have been not to tweet it at all, maybe a tweet after the fact, thanking the PyCon oraganisers for handling the problem effectively...
    • I've responded just in that manner.

      I cannot think of a single time where I've said/done something that another person found offensive (there is a significant sample size, trust me), let me know that, and I didn't apologize and feel embarrassed, especially if I crossed a boundary related to gender or race. It happens, and I think most educated people (as devs tend to be) would have a similar reaction.

      Many people are confronted with uncomfortable situations daily, and mature adults should be able to handle them appropriately. Yes, this includes gender issues. The fact is, the 2 guys may have thought they were being quiet enough amongst themselves (who hasn't cracked jokes at boring keynote speeches, graduations, seminars, etc.), they weren't, and now one has lost his job due to her inordinate response.

      Of course, had they really gone over the line in making very lewd comments or worse, then asking them to stop is way too passive of a response. However, that was not the case here.
  • It's just a huge mess

    If you actually read SendGrid's response you'll see they have quite the valid reason for firing Richards.

    "On Sunday at PyCon, Adria Richards felt comments made behind her during a conference session were inappropriate and of an offensive, sexual nature. We understand that Adria believed the conduct to be inappropriate and support her right to report the incident to PyCon personnel. 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. Her decision to tweet the comments and photographs of the people who made the comments crossed the line. Publicly shaming the offenders – and bystanders – was not the appropriate way to handle the situation. Even PyCon has since updated their Code of Conduct due to this situation. Needless to say, a heated public debate ensued. The discourse, productive at times, quickly spiraled into extreme vitriol.

    A SendGrid developer evangelist’s responsibility is to build and strengthen our Developer Community across the globe. In light of the events over the last 48+ hours, it has become obvious that her actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite. As a result, she can no longer be effective in her role at SendGrid."

    More reading on the Adria Richard's scenario:

    In my opinion if Adria Richards felt uncomfortable by the jokes, she should have confronted the two men or contacted PyCon in private.

    Also, Richards herself is quite the character.

    Here, she claims "Black people CANNOT be racist against White people."

    Here, she compares herself to Joan of Arc.

    Not to mention she's a hypocrite.
    Dick joke 1
    Dick joke 2

    Sexism in the technology industry is a huge thing, but I wouldn't exactly want Adria Richards leading the charge against it.
    Jimmy Chen
    • After the fact

      You note that PyCon adjusted their Code of Conduct after the fact. That means that at the time, the two men broke the code of conduct, but Adria did not.
  • For the last time, forking a repo is not a sex joke

    Eileen, you and Adria Richards are doing women everywhere a disservice by continuing to show your ignorance of common tech terms like forking a repo. As developers, we fork repos all the time all day long. It's got absolutely nothing to do with sex. That conference was intended for developers, not for people who pretended to be developers. Adria Richards did not belong there if she honestly thought forking a repo had anything to do with sex.

    Regarding the dongle joke, yes it's a joke about male anatomy. Are you saying that women have such delicate ears that any mention of how funny the word dongle is will kill those women?

    The only reason those men suffered for those very lite jokes was because of political correctness. It was nothing more than a PC stunt to ask those guys to leave at the conference and it was nothing more than a PC stunt to let one of them go from the company.

    If Miss Richards can't admit that she didn't know what forking a repo was or that dongle jokes have nothing to do with sexism, then she doesn't belong in the tech industry to begin with.

    Speaking as a feminist, this whole incident just made me uncomfortable being to friendly to women again. I'm gay and have been in a long term relationship with a man for years now. Nothing bothers me more than oversensitive women taking my words out of context and think I'm hitting on them or harassing them. Trust me, It's happened to me before. The only reason I haven't been fired yet is because most people here have met my partner and know I don't care much for women.

    If you want more women in the industry, then please learn what these common geek terms mean to us nerds. I just can't believe the next time I tell someone about forking a repo I might lose my job.
    • You're missing the point

      One of the guys clearly admitted that his use of the word 'dongle' was sexually laden. She reported the guys to the event organizers and apologies where made and the issue was clearly resolved there and then. Ms Richards accepted those apologies and even tweeted that the issue had been handled to her satisfaction, so things should have ended there and then.

      The real crime here is Ms Richards use of the photo of these guys in tweets and a long blog post which directly attaches them, via their likeness, to larger issues and arguments about pervasive sexism in the tech community. It was completely unfair and uncalled for and probably illegal.
      • SO WHAT?

        Well, I kept getting a message telling me that my reply contained profanities. I couldn't find any, even deleted words I thought the filter might consider profanities. I can't figure out which words it was objecting to.

        Yea, censorship.
        • You Were Censored

          Let's face it. For a man to say what he really thinks is a slap in the face to political correctness and MOST women would never let a challenge to their way of thinking or a swipe at their "sexual harassment weapon" go unchallenged.....
      • Holy Moley

        I found the word that the censor called "profanity"...

        author (ess).
  • Had all parties used some common sense....

    Had the 2 guys not made the comments none of it would have happen.

    Had she PMed or better yet spoke to a Pycon Rep personally none of this would have happened.

    Should all parties have been fired, I would have to say yes. Because it brought so much negative media attention. They were representing a company and did a very poor job of it.

    If you are a professional, representing a company or someone else, act professional.
    • Personally..

      Wanted to insert, Personally I feel she should have asked the Men to stop, most likely it would have ended there. That I feel should have been step 1. Step 2, if it continued, would be to notify the PyCon Rep.