Of photographs and misogyny


I hate getting my picture taken. Most photos really never look…well, right. No big deal. It's just a long-standing nerdy discomfort with a lens pointed in my direction seeming to demand chic and stylish as opposed to (proud) geek and (distinctively) unstylish. 

Two code developers – captured in a photo tied to a controversial tweet made a couple months ago that launched a multilayered controversy spanning the tech industry – look like quite the nerds themselves. After all, the shot was taken at PyCon, an annual conference dedicated to the open-source Python programming language that is traditionally overrun by predominantly male attendees – surprise, surprise. Of course, the IT space in general is largely male-dominated. SC Magazine research conducted over the years has revealed this fact time and again, along with the plodding growth of diversity in the space year to year.

Most of you know the details of this particular story and the questionable actions on all fronts that propelled it to its now crazily inflated state. Adria Richards, the former software developer evangelist at SendGrid, a cloud-based email service provider, heard the two men in the aforementioned photo making arguably sexist jokes about “big dongles” and “forking repos” (fork, as you likely know, is a programming term, and repos, assumingly, refers to software repositories). She subsequently decided to take their photograph, post it to her Twitter feed that has close to 15,000 followers, and make a request that conference officials talk to “these guys.” The fellows in question were ejected from the conference and, later, as Richards opined in her blog, rightly so.

Drama quickly ensued. One of the two men was fired from his job as a result of his behavior at a professional conference where he was representing his company. Richards was doxed and disgustingly threatened with violence by any number of trolls who disagreed with how she handled the situation. Accounts of everything from death to rape threats reportedly poured into Twitter officials from folks on Richards' behalf. Then, within maybe a couple of days, Richards herself was fired by SendMail execs because they did “not support how she reported the incident,” calling it “public shaming.” (Check out the company blog for more.)

If ever an example of how social media use can go rapidly to hell in one damned messy hand basket, with questionable decision-building upon plain nastiness that turns into something like mob madness, this is it. Just think about it: Had this situation gone down with no social media outlet, quite a bit of the ensuing craziness could have been skipped; the option of posting a photo snapped of two people from whom permission was not attained to use publicly would have been absent. 

Had Richards not skipped what I believe to be the first and really obvious option to directly confront these probable sexists herself, instead of going directly to conference staff to report them, some of the news we've seen on this drama never would have occurred. All the gross trolling, the misogynist threats directed at Richards, and still other unexpected results would never have come into play. 

Still, some argue that the action she took is irrelevant, but that's just nonsense. It caused the proverbial snowball to turn into an avalanche that swallowed the jobs of two individuals and prompted still more dubious happenings to take place. Take, for example, the formation of a group on Reddit, “The Feminist Victims Fund,” which notes that “feminism has caused some serious changes to our culture,” and which states as its goal the encouragement of “men to speak out, to be men, to not fear oppression and enjoy their freedom of speech.” Have mercy, gents. Since when did a white guy in the U.S. of A. not enjoy more freedom and privilege? 

The fact is those two dudes in that photo screwed up, and big time. If they had enlisted the sexual innuendo they were using at PyCon at their own workplace and a fellow employee reported it, they likely would have suffered the same fate or, in the very least, been seriously reprimanded. A conference that your employer is paying you to attend is an extension of the office, pure and simple. So, the fact is, you must act just as professional at these things as you do at your own place of business.

Now, on the flip side, Richards, who I've never met, really did compromise the privacy of these two guys by taking their photo and then going public with it and what they said. She simply didn't get their permission, and this among a group of professionals who likely are well equipped to opine about the privacy and security controversies magazines like ours cover. Freedom of speech extends only so far, and the limit typically sits right ahead of when one begins stomping on the rights of others, i.e., publishing their photos and comments they made in a smaller setting to a wider audience without the speakers' permission. 

I mentioned above that these events are an extension of the corporate environment where the same rules back at the office apply. So, now for the reality check: How many booth babes do y'all have roaming your corporations handing out pens or keychains? 

Misogyny in business, overall, is a problem. In IT and IT security, it's a bigger one. More well-formed movements must be the force for change. For example, in our December edition, we called out the Ada Initiative's Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner for their efforts to call out individuals for sexist behavior at DefCon and Black Hat. This could include coordinating efforts to pressure event organizers to disallow sexist activities that market products at conferences. Others might involve a push to get more young females showing promise in the technological field to hone their skills through mentorship programs or get them to compete for scholarships to attend universities (some of which I'm aware is happening now). 

Richards argued that the two men at PyCon knew better – knew that their comments were alienating and wrong or, at least, they should have. Consequently for her, tweeting their faces and comments to a wider internet audience was the only way to put them and others like them who perpetuate sexism in this industry on notice. 

As a woman in this space, I empathize with the frustration that led to Richards' actions, which she recounted in her blog. But, it's difficult to relate to the sense of pride and self-importance she voiced in these actions. But while she called wider attention to the sexism that has long-existed in the IT industry, she did little to eradicate it. Instead, if you take time to read the endless comments on the incident, it and its wider effects only made the issue even more divisive, especially splintering the wider group of female pros of which I'm a part who one by one defy such behavior on a daily basis.

Richards, a bit after the controversy went full-blown viral, tweeted that she felt like the Joan of Arc of our times. But, a modern-day martyr for all women in IT, she is not.

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