Scandalous sexism in Silicon Valley

April 4, 2013

Alan Church looks at a controversy that reveals the old-fashioned sexism which permeates the high-tech culture of Silicon Valley software companies.

THOSE OUTSIDE the Silicon Valley bubble may not have heard about "Donglegate," the big tech scandal of this past month. It involves lots of sexism, two firings and disillusionment for anyone who thought either women or employees in general were making progress in getting respect in the software industry.

In brief, this is the story: Adria Richards, an employee of e-mail provider SendGrid, attended a tech conference called PyCon for her job. Two men sitting behind her at a session, developers for the gaming company PlayHaven, began making sexist puns to each other involving the technical terms "dongle" and "forking." Richards tweeted a picture of them. One was subsequently fired by PlayHaven. Richards then began receiving a flood of online vitriol, including rape and death threats--and was soon fired in turn by SendGrid.

The problem of sexism in the tech industry--and the relationship between the male numerical dominance in the field and sexist "humor" in a professional setting--has received increasing acknowledgment recently.

Adria RIchards
Adria RIchards

That's why Richards, in her tweets, asked for PyCon staff to intervene and got action. PyCon has a code of conduct that the jokes violated. As the conference organizers explained in a subsequent statement: "Both parties were met with, in private. The comments that were made were in poor taste, and individuals involved agreed [and] apologized."

But while the PlayHaven developers were apparently willing to apologize--before there was any indication that their jobs were at stake--some men are less willing to give up on sexually harassing the women around them. The online mob that got Richards fired was part of a larger backlash, as Alice Marwick explained at Wired:

The technology industry considers itself a meritocracy where the "good" ones--for example, talented engineers and programmers--will rise to the top regardless of nationality, background, race or gender...

If we admit there are structural barriers to entry and a culture that actively discourages women and men of color from participating, then it logically follows that technology is not a meritocracy. And this threatens many dearly held beliefs...It suggests that the enormous wealth generated by tech startups and founders isn't justified by their superior intelligence.

Almost no tech workers will ever see the millions or billions accumulated by people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Sergei Brin or Larry Page. But that doesn't stop many from identifying with the people who make huge profits off their labor--and feeling threatened by any challenge to the macho-geek competitive culture that dominates tech.

THE FIRINGS of Richards and the unnamed PlayHaven developer show who this institutional sexism really serves. There has been plenty of debate about whether what Richards did right or wrong--much of it putting an absurd burden on women to navigate a sexist culture.

But amid all the attacks on so-called political correctness, it is nearly taken for granted that a company can, should and will fire an employee on a whim or to meet a transient public relations need. Many thought, with reason, that making a "dongle" joke shouldn't get you fired--but the public rage of many of them focused on Richards, who came out against PlayHaven's action, and not on PlayHaven's bosses, who actually made the decision to fire the dongle-joker. SendGrid, unlike PlayHaven, was the target of distributed denial-of-service attacks which disrupted its website and its email service, until it fired Richards, after which the attacks subsided.

Companies like SendGrid and PlayHaven consistently take a public position in favor of gender equality and would certainly never officially condone the vile sexist language used ad nauseum against Richards on Facebook and Twitter. After all, they have some number of female customers and employees.

But their bottom line might take a hit if there was any disruption to a culture in which male workers get to act like adolescents with adult money--in particular if that disruption involved reasonable working hours, a say in important decisions at work, or even any examination of the real relationship between them and their employers or investors. Silicon Valley can't afford for workers to stop believing the meritocracy myth.

In discussions on social media or tech sites like HackerNews, PlayHaven and SendGrid tend to get the benefit of the doubt that is rarely extended to their fired employees. Perhaps PlayHaven had more reasons for its firing than the thin public ones? Did SendGrid have any alternative, given that Richards' job was outreach to developers and a section of her intended audience was in a misogynist fury? Who feels safe in a world where a bunch of random sexists in the Internet can get you fired, even if your employer agrees they're irrational?

In another context, these questions might point to the problematic nature of a system which actually obligates many people in positions of power to make decisions on the basis of profits rather than principle. But in practice, arguments like these have too often been used to excuse the people who casually dumped two of their workers--workers who had produced a chunk of the value of their businesses--while blaming the victims.

It would be nice to say people in tech have learned something from this. But indications right now are that the anti-feminists have won, and the rest of us have lost. PyCon is adding a "no public shaming" clause to its code of conduct, explicitly to prevent people from doing what Richards did. In practice, this will no doubt discourage some women from reporting harassment at all--and ensure that when others do, it will be dealt with as a problem of individual behavior, rather than something cultural, institutional or, dare we say it, political.

The nonprofit Girls Who Code--in theory dedicated to "closing the gender gap" in tech--is taking donations from the proceeds of a "Fork my dongle" t-shirt. This only adds to the pressure on women in tech to distance themselves from the "complainers" like Richards and endure jokes like they are "just one of the guys."

Every Silicon Valley start-up company advertises its flat management culture, the freedom of workers from petty oversight, its flexibility in work styles--not to mention its commitment to equality of opportunity. This self-congratulation isn't without its element of truth, compared to other industries. But SendGrid and PlayHaven have just shown us its limits.

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