The great PyCon lewd joke controversy of 2013

This one hits remarkably close to home for me. It’s a storyline we’ve seen so many times: person A sees something done/said by person B and posts it to a blog/Twitter/Facebook taking exception to it, person B doesn’t like being called out, all hell breaks loose.

Here are the relevant stories and blog posts I found, in what I believe to be chronological order:

The storyline, for those who haven’t read it: Adria Richards attends PyCon, and has the unfortunate luck of sitting in front of two PlayHaven developers who make rather tasteless computer geek jokes about “forking” and “big dongles.” Adria posts a picture of them on Twitter with a description of what’s going on. PlayHaven doesn’t like having their brand attached to this kind of thing, and fires one of the developers. Anonymous, the group responsible for generally wreaking technical havok with DDOS attacks when something happens that they don’t like, decides to launch a DDOS attack (big surprise) against SendGrid. SendGrid fires Adria.

Adria’s blog post linked above describes that the decision to post what she did was carefully thought out. She even links to the PyCon code of conduct, which I’ll quote in part (from the short version):

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.

It’s obvious to me that the sexual jokes about forking and about large dongles very clearly cross the line. In fact, there is no way that any sane person can read the above parts of the PyCon code of conduct in a way where this kind of thing would be allowed. There’s no information on whether or not they were allowed to stay at PyCon from that point forward (possibly on purpose, more on this later). Certainly, there’s a strong case for kicking them out of the conference without a refund.

There are also people saying the PlayHaven developer who was fired shouldn’t have been. It’s really hard for me to agree with that point of view. He knew the rules, he broke them, he made his company look bad, he was fired. I don’t care if he does have three kids. Maybe his kids, once they grow up, can learn from their daddy’s mistake: break the rules, lose your job. Hey, I’ve been fired from jobs for smaller mistakes before, and I have a friend who was fired from a job for little more than getting hurt on the job (long story).

Adria shined a bright light on this flagrantly unacceptable conduct. Honestly, I think it needed to be exposed. This is 2013, and while some decades ago it may have been unusual for women to work in the technology industry, that is no longer the case. The only thing that could be worse than two guys making clearly inappropriate jokes at a tech conference, is having someone bring this conduct to light–and lose her job for it. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what has happened to Adria.

PyCon appears to want to address this type of situation going forward by placing an emphasis on confidentiality and privacy, which I disagree with in principle. I think the threat of bad publicity has done far more to raise awareness of this issue than anything done under the cloak of privacy and confidentiality.

I do realize Adria’s job is developer relations, and in that context, it’s unfortunate that SendGrid decided to say “[Adria’s] actions have strongly divided the same [developer] community she was supposed to unite.” It makes me wonder if perhaps there exists a population of (mostly male) developers at SendGrid that felt they have the right to make these kind of jokes. That’s the only way I can see Adria’s actions being divisive. If that’s the case, maybe SendGrid should be beefing up their sensitivity and harassment training. Certainly this would do much more for developer relations than firing an employee for speaking out against a flagrant violation of a conference’s conduct guidelines.

I’ll close with two of the better quotes from the two blog posts. First, from Adria’s:

The forking joke set the stage for the dongle joke. Neither were funny.

And second, from Steve’s:

Want to keep your job or save face after you’ve made sexist jokes at a tech conference?

Don’t make sexist jokes at a tech conference.

That sums it up far better than I ever could.