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

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?
Written by Eileen Brown, Contributor

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 pic.twitter.com/Hv1bkeOsYP

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.

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