Naming, shaming, victim-blaming: thoughts on Adria Richards and PyCon.

By now many of you will have heard the news about Adria Richards attending PyCon, notifying the conference staff about attendees behind her telling jokes during a conference presentation (about, among other things, making the coding community more welcoming for women and girls). Richards felt the jokes were sexualized enough to harm the environment of the conference. PyCon had a Code of Conduct for the conference that encompassed this kind of issue. In a room with hundreds of attendees, in a context where she hoped this harm to the conference community would be dealt with rather than let go (which gives it tacit approval) but where she also didn't want to disrupt the presentations underway, Richards took a picture of the men telling the sexualized jokes and tweeted it with the conference hashtag to get the conference staff to deal with the situation.

The conference staff addressed the issue with the men telling the jokes. Subsequently, one of them was fired by his employer, although it's in no way clear that he was fired on account of this incident (or even if this incident had anything to do with the firing); Adria Richards started receiving an avalanche of threats (death threats, rape threats, we-know-where-you-live threats, you-should-kill-yourself threats); Adria Richards' employer fired her; and PyCon started tweaking its Code of Conduct (although as far as I can tell, the tweaking may still be ongoing) to explicitly identify "public shaming" as harmful to the PyCon community and thus not allowed.

So, as you might imagine, I have some thoughts on this situation.

My big-picture thoughts on naming and shaming are posted at my other blog. This post focuses on issues more specific to this particular incident. In no particular order:

1. There is NOTHING a person could do that deserves to be met with death threats, rape threats, or encouragement to kill oneself -- not even issuing death threats, rape threats, or encouragement to kill oneself. Let's not even pretend that there are circumstances that could mitigate such threats. The worst person you know doesn't deserve such threats. Making such threats is a horrible thing to do.

2. People disagree about whether the joking Adria Richards identified as running afoul of the PyCon Code of Conduct was actually sexual/sexist/inappropriate/creating a climate that could be hostile or unwelcoming to women. (A person claiming to be the joker who was subsequently fired seems to be ambivalent himself about the appropriateness of the joking he was doing.) But it's worth remembering that you are a good authority on what kind of conduct makes you feel uncomfortable or unwelcome; you are not automatically a good authority on what makes others feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. If you're a social scientist who has mounted a careful empirical study of the matter, or if you're up on the literature describing the research that has been done on what makes people comfortable or uncomfortable in different environments, maybe you have something useful to add to the conversation. In the absence of a careful empirical study, however, it's probably a good idea to listen to people when they explain what makes them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, rather than trying to argue that they don't actually feel that way, or that they're wrong to feel that way.

In other words, that certain jokes would not have been a big deal to you doesn't mean that they could not have had a significant negative impact on others -- including others you take to be members of your community who, at least officially, matter as much as you do.

3. So, if Adria Richards was bothered by the joking, if she thought it was doing harm and needed to be nipped in the bud, why couldn't she have turned around and politely asked the men doing the joking to knock it off? This question assumes that asking nicely is a reliably effective strategy. If this is your default assumption, please [I just noticed myself typing it as a polite request, which says something about my socialization as a female human, so I'm going to let it stand] cast your eyes upon the #Iaskedpolitely hashtag and this post (including the comments) to get some insight about how experience has informed us that asking politely is a pretty unreliable strategy. Sometimes it works; sometimes, buying a lottery ticket wins you some money. On a good day, politely asking to be treated fairly (or to be recognized as a full human being) may just get you ignored. On a not as good day, it gets you called a bitch, followed for blocks by people who want to make you feel physically threatened, or much, much worse.

Recognize that the response that you expect will automatically follow from politely asking someone to stop engaging in a particular behavior may not be the response other people have gotten when they have tried the approach you take as obviously one that would work.

Recognize that, especially if you're a man, you may not know the lived history women are using to update their Bayesian priors. Maybe also recognize, following up on #2 above, that you may not know that lived history on account of having told women who might otherwise have shared it with you that they were wrong to feel the way they told you they felt about particular situations, or that they couldn't possibly feel that way because you never felt that way in analogous situations. In other words, you may have gappy information because of how your past behavior has influenced how the women you know update their priors about you.

I try to recognize that, as a white woman, I probably don't really grasp the history that Adria Richards (as a woman of color) has used to update her priors, either. I imagine the societal pressure not to be an "uppity woman" falls with much, much more force on an African American woman. Your data points matter as you plot effective strategies with which to try to get things done.

3.5. An aside: About a month ago, my elder offspring was parked in front of her laptop, headset on, engaged in an online multiplayer game of some sort. As the game was underway, one of the other players, someone with whom she had no acquaintance before this particular gaming session, put something pornographic on the screen. Promptly, she said into her headset mic, "Hey, that's not cool. Take the porn down. We're not doing that." And lo, the other player took the pornographic image off the screen.

I was pretty impressed that my 13-year-old daughter was so matter-of-fact in establishing boundaries with online gamers she had just met.

I thought about this in the context of #Iaskedpolitely. Then I realized that I maybe didn't have all the relevant information, so today I asked.

Me: That time you were online gaming and you told the other player to take down the porn? Is it possible the other player didn't know you were a girl?

Her: Not just possible.

My daughter has a gender-neutral username. Her voice is in a low enough register that on the basis of her voice alone you might take her for a 13-year-old boy. This may have something to do with the success of her request to the other player to take the porn off the screen in the game.

Also, she didn't bother with the word "please".

In the three-dimensional world, where it's less likely she'll be assumed to be male, her experiences to date have not departed nearly as much from what you can find in #Iaskedpolitely as a mother would like them to.

4. Some of the responses to the Adria Richards story have been along the lines of "A convention or professional conference or trade show is totally not the same thing as a workplace, and it's a Bad Thing that organizers are trying to impose professional-environment expectations on attendees, who want to hang out with their friends and have fun." I'll allow that even a professional conference is different from work (unless, I guess, your entire job is to coordinate or do stuff at professional conferences), but in many cases such a conference or convention or trade show is also still connected to work. One of the big connections is usually the community of people with which you interact at a conference or convention or trade show.

Here's a good operational test: Can you totally opt out of the conferences or conventions or trade shows with no resulting impact on your professional life (including your opportunities for advancement, networking, etc.)? If not, the conferences or conventions or trade shows are connected to your work, and thus it's appropriate to expect some level of professionalism.

None of which is to say that conventions one goes to off the clock, for fun, should necessarily be anarchic events, red in tooth and claw. Unless that's how the community at that particular con decides it wants to have fun, I suppose.

Also, this is not to say that companies should necessarily fire their employees for any and every infraction of a conference Code of Conduct. Depending on what kind of violation (and what kind of ongoing pattern of problematic behavior and failed attempts at remediation an employee might have displayed) firing might be the right call. I have seen none of the personnel files of the persons directly involved in this case -- and you probably haven't, either -- so the best I could do is speculate about whether particular firings were warranted, and if so, by what. I'm in no mood for such speculation.

5. On the matter of tweeting a photo of the PyCon attendees who were telling the jokes Adria Richards felt were inappropriate in the circumstances: Lots of people have decried this as a Very Bad Way for Richards to have communicated to the conference staff about bad-behavior-in-progress with which she felt they should intervene. Instead, they say, she should have had a sense of humor (but see #2 above). Or, she should have turned around and politely asked them to cut it out (but see #3 above). Or, that she should have done something else. (Email conference staff and hope someone was monitoring the inbox closely enough to get promptly to the location ten rows back from the stage so that Richards could point the jokers out in a room with hundreds of people? Use a Jedi mind trick to get them to stop quietly?)

She alerted the conference staff to the problem via Twitter. She made the call, given the available options, the fact that she didn't want to generate noise that would disrupt what was happening on the stage, and probably her judgments of what was likely to be effective based on her prior experiences (see #2 above).

Maybe that's not the call you'd make. Maybe the strategy you would have tried would totally have worked. I trust you're prepared to deploy it next time you're at a conference or convention or trade show and in earshot of someone behaving in a way likely to make members of the community feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. I hope it's just as effective as you imagine it will be.

Even if Adria Richards was wrong to tweet the picture of the jokers, that doesn't mean that their joking was appropriate in the circumstances in which they were doing it at PyCon. It wouldn't mean that the conference staff would be wrong to investigate the joking and shut it down (and deal with the jokers accordingly) if they judged it in violation of the Code of Conduct.

Also, one of the big complaints I've seen about the tweeted photo of the PyCon jokers is that using Twitter as a tool to report the problem removes the confidentiality that ought to accompany allegations of violations of the Code of Conduct, investigations of those allegations, penalties visited on violators, etc.

There's a couple things I want to say to that. First, dealing with bad behavior "privately" (rather than transparently) doesn't always inspire confidence in the community that the bad behavior is being taken seriously, or that it's being addressed consistently (as opposed to, say, being addressed except when someone we really like does it too), or that it's being addressed at all. Especially when the bad behavior in question is happening in a publicly observable way, taking the response completely private may be nearly as harmful to the community as the bad behavior itself.

Second, shouldn't the people who want us to trust that the PyCon staff would have dealt with the PyCon jokers fairly and appropriately in private themselves trust that the PyCon staff had addressed any violation of the conference Code of Conduct Adria Richards might have committed by tweeting the picture of the PyCon jokers (rather than emailing it or whatever) -- and that they'd dealt with such a violation on Richards' part, if they judged it a violation, in private?

There's just a whiff of a double standard in this.

6. On the post-conference update to the PyCon Code of Conduct to to explicitly identify "public shaming" as harmful to the PyCon community and thus not allowed: I'm hopeful that PyCon organizers take account of the effects on the community they have (and on the community they are trying to build) of opacity in dealing with bad behavior versus transparency in dealing with bad behavior.

It's not like there isn't already reason to believe that sometimes conference organizers minimize the impact of instances of harassment reported to them, or deny that any harassment has been reported at all, or back off from applying their own explicit rules to people they judge as valuable to the community.

These kinds of actions may harm their community just as much as public shaming. They communicate that some harassers are more valuable to the community than the people they harass (so maybe a bit of harassment is OK), or that people are lying about their actual experiences of bad behavior.

7. There has been the predictable dissection of Adria Richards' every blog post, tweet, and professional utterance prior to this event, with the apparent intention of demonstrating that she has engaged in jokes about sex organs herself, or that she has a history of looking for things to get mad about, or she's just mean, and who is she to be calling other people out for bad behavior?

This has to be the least persuasive tu quoque I've seen all year.

If identifying problematic behavior in a community is something that can only be done by perfect people -- people who have never sinned themselves, who have never pissed anyone off, who emerged from the womb incapable of engaging in bad behavior themselves -- then we are screwed.

People mess up. The hope is that by calling attention to the bad behavior, and to the harm it does, we can help each other do better. Focusing on problematic behavior (especially if that behavior is ongoing and needs to be addressed to stop the harm) needn't brand the bad actor as irredeemable, and it shouldn't require that there's a saint on duty to file the complaint.

8. Some people have opined that it was bad for Adria Richards to call out the PyCon jokers (or to call them out in the particular way she did) on account of the bad consequences that might befall them if they were known to have violated the PyCon Code of Conduct. But the maxim, "Don't call out bad behavior because doing so could have negative consequences for the person behaving badly" just serves to protect the bad behavior and the bad actors. Being caught plagiarizing can be harmful to a scientist's career, so for heaven's sake don't report it! Being convicted of rape can end your future as a football player, so your victim ought to refrain from reporting it, and the authorities ought to make sure you're not prosecuted!

Bad behavior has bad consequences, too.

The potential bad consequences of being caught behaving badly should, perhaps, help motivate people not to behave badly, especially in cases where the harms of that bad behavior to individuals or the community are not themselves sufficiently motivating to prevent the behavior.

9. Finally, some people have been expressing that it makes them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome when they are not allowed to act they way they want to, tell the jokes they feel like telling, and so forth.

I don't doubt this for a minute.

However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In the end, it comes down to a question of who you want in your community and who you want out of it. Personally, I don't want my professional communities to be comfortable places for racists or sexists, for rapists, plagiarists, or jerks. Other people, I imagine, would prefer a professional community that's a comfortable place for racists or sexists, for rapists, plagiarists, or jerks to a professional community that's a comfortable place for me.

But here's the thing: if you say you want your community to be welcoming to and inclusive of people who aren't yet represented in great numbers, it might require really listening to what they say about what's holding them back. It might require making changes on account of what they tell you.

It's still possible that you'll decide in the end to prioritize the comfort of the people already in your community over the comfort of the people you thought you wanted to welcome into your community. But in that case, at least have the decency to be honest that this is what you're doing.

* * * * *

Also, pretty much everything Stephanie says here.

* * * * *

UPDATE: So, there are people who seem very eager to share their take on this situation (especially, for some odd reason, their autopsies of every wrong thing Adria Richards did) in the comments, but without engaging with anything I've written in the 3000 words here -- including the things I've written here that directly address the points they're trying to make.

There are many, many places on the internet where these not-really-engaging-with-the-conversation-we're-having-here contributions would be welcome. But it's probably worth updating some prior probabilities about whether those comments will make it out of moderation here.

74 responses so far

  • Rob says:

    Hmmm... I quit reading after I realized how biased this piece was.

    • Runolfr says:

      You mean, you quit reading when you realized that the author's bias did not conveniently match *yours*.

  • Jim Glidewell says:

    It is pretty clear to me that Adria's primary motivation for doing what she did was self-promotion, pure and simple. She saw an opportunity to take offense, ran with it, and caused some poor schmuck to lose his job. She has apparently made a career out of being offended. Sadly for her, she lost control of this particular morality play. Joan of Arc, indeed...

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    I quit reading after I realized how biased this piece was.

    What an ... interesting way of putting it. And your critique is quite enlightening, too.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    @ Jim Glidewell,

    Did you actually read any of my points (some of which are perhaps relevant to the points you seem to be trying to make)?

  • Morgan Price says:

    I think that naming and shaming is seen as a bigger violation of norms than sexist jokes are. Everyone can see that naming and shaming has a clear victim while with sexism, any one incident can seem ambiguous.

    Given that, perhaps naming and shaming is a poor strategy, more likely to create a large backlash than to push behavior in the right direction. It is too soon to say what the ultimate impact of Adria Richards' tweet will be, but what about historical experience of "naming and shaming"? Does it work?

    • D. C. Sessions says:

      Given that, perhaps naming and shaming is a poor strategy, more likely to create a large backlash than to push behavior in the right direction.

      Our Gracious Hostess covers alternative approaches and finds them fatally flawed. Does this mean that we should all just resign ourselves to the status quo?

    • Nick in Tacoma says:

      Come on Morgan,

      You've got to be kidding. Adria's naming and shaming was a direct response to inappropriate behavior. It is a push in the right direction. That is making sure the sexist jokers are called out for their actions. What could be wrong with that?

      Adria wasn't the one who instigated the behavior she tweeted about. Stop blaming the victim.

    • Lauren says:

      Everyone can see that naming and shaming has a clear victim ...

      So would you consider perpetrators portrayed in wanted posters, the police blotter in the newspapers, "crimestoppers" TV programs, etc. to be "victims"? It seems that the only people who take issue with "naming and shaming" are those who don't think the underlying behavior is really a problem.

      • Pseudonym says:

        It seems that the only people who take issue with "naming and shaming" are those who don't think the underlying behavior is really a problem.

        I would say that's true in many cases. However, it's certainly not true in all cases, and the most obvious example is the PyCon organisers themselves.

        The jokers' behaviour was, to many if not most people, an honest mistake. A lot of people recognise this. These guys are not predators. They are (or, rather, were) just ignorant. But, of course, we're all ignorant.

        Anyone with any kind of privilege whatsoever can empathise with these guys, because we've all been there. I certainly wouldn't want some of the stuff I said when I was young published for all the world to see. Hell, some of it is still in Usenet archives. At least it doesn't have my picture next to it.

        However, what many of said people-with-privilege don't seem to realise was that Richards' public naming and shaming was also an honest mistake. The difference is that the jokers' mistake was completely avoidable, where Richards' mistake was only obviously a mistake in retrospect. They should have known that their joke was inappropriate. She, on the other hand, had no way of knowing that of all the events at the conference and in her life, this is the one that would go viral.

        The only people I have no sympathy for in the whole saga are the faceless moron brigade who sent all the threats. If anyone deserves naming and shaming, it's them. Close behind is SendGrid, who gave in to the faceless moron brigade. That's pretty close to unforgivable, but to be fair, they had understandable reasons for panicking.

        • Lauren says:

          The jokers' behaviour was, to many if not most people, an honest mistake. A lot of people recognise this. These guys are not predators. They are (or, rather, were) just ignorant. But, of course, we're all ignorant.

          Thank you for illustrating my point.

          • Pseudonym says:

            You're welcome.

            Incidentally, I do indeed consider that many (if not most) people in wanted posters etc are victims. I think we all know that much crime is caused by poverty. Most of us know that the vast majority of women in prison were abused as children. We all know this stuff.

            That doesn't mean they shouldn't be punished for breaking the law, of course. But we also shouldn't commit the Fundamental Attribution Error.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    @ Morgan Price, it's not at all clear to me that naming and shaming is any worse a strategy than asking politely. And it has the benefit of making people clearer about declaring or demonstrating the members of the community they really value -- sometimes, even more than the values they say they value.

    Maybe the real problem is that it's left to individuals to try to address harms that communities ought to be addressing in a coordinated way.

    • Martin says:

      I note you said it was not at all clear to you that naming and shaming is any worse a strategy than asking politely.

      Did it occur that perhaps "what is clear to you" is not exactly the benchtest? That that is essentially an apologia for willful blindness?

      • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

        @ Martin,

        Fair enough. Here's what a professor of Organizational Behavior (who studies this kind of thing for a living) says:

        It's individually adaptive to go along with or try and act like members of the majority group when one is outnumbered. There are even rewards for criticizing others for not doing the same. But this individually adaptive behavior perpetuates the status quo.

        Adria Richards reacted harshly. It's usually best to give people the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to correct their behavior. Richards' reaction may have done her more harm than the comments that inspired it, but it may have done women in Tech more good than a private confrontation. If you read her blog, that seems to have been her intention.

        • psanity says:

          I think it's also worth mentioning, regarding your #5 above, that we're talking about public behavior here. People who are behaving boorishly in public do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding how that behavior is addressed. If someone representing my company behaves in such a manner at a professional conference, it reflects badly on my company whether it ends up on Twitter or not, because it's already public, and disciplinary measures would reflect that.

          If PyCon changes their policy to exclude public shaming of public behavior, then shame on them -- they're simply making it clear that they no longer intend to interfere with obnoxious or unprofessional behavior at their con.

          • Pseudonym says:

            "Public" vs "private" are two ends of a spectrum, and there is a continuum of stuff in between.

            I had never heard of either of these guys, or Adria Richards, or PlayHaven, or SendGrid, or even PyCon, before last week. (Admittedly, had I thought about it, I could have worked out that there were Python conferences, but I couldn't have told you what they were called or where they were held.)

            The worldwide viral media circus is a different scale of "public" than a conversation between two people which occurs within earshot of other people, or Adria Richards' twitter feed for that matter. Both are in a sense "public", but neither is anywhere near as "public" as the whole thing has become.

        • Zorku says:

          I know that when I'm pretending to be part of a majority so that they don't all turn on me, I'm REALLY comfortable and prepared to contribute to the group with my unique abilities.

          -Worried that what I'm doing isn't obvious I turn it up a notch-
          I sure don't hide myself while I'm busy hiding myself.

  • Shridhar says:

    " you are a good authority on what kind of conduct makes you feel uncomfortable or unwelcome; you are not automatically a good authority on what makes others feel uncomfortable or unwelcome"

    I think the conflict arises from this very correct argument. People have no right of saying how comfortable other people should be. But for this very same reason, it's impossible to know if you're bringing discomfort to people around you. This essentially nullifies any attempt of making a truly comfortable environment for everyone.

    There are comments that are obviously offensive to most reasonable people and those should probably be sanitized from public discourse. But problems, as usual, are in the huge gray area, which I think is the case here. People that say his comments aren't offensive aren't saying Adria shouldn't be offended, they just claim that the average person wouldn't be offended. I'm sure if you go through all your comments you made in public find remarks or jokes that may have been offensive to someone or some class of people, comments that you wouldn't even know could be offensive.

    Then there is the problem of communication itself. If you're to believe the guy who was fired, he admitted the dongle joke was a dick joke but said that the forking one was a misunderstanding. And these things happen. Once, in a college church, two friends talking about an organic chemistry exam said something to the like of "the orgo one was tough". The lady sitting next to me publicly shamed them saying that you shouldn't be talking about those things in a house of worship, thinking they were talking about orgasms. Suddenly these two college kids were being stinky eyed by a lot of people and they didn't know why.

    This is a hard problem to solve, the balance to be engaging/entertaining and being welcome. I understand where Adria Richards is coming from and I am sympathetic towards her. I am also sympathetic towards the guy who got fired because he made a dick joke. Human conflicts of this sort always end in tragedy anyway: her being flamed by everyone on the internet and him losing his job.

    • D. C. Sessions says:

      People that say his comments aren't offensive aren't saying Adria shouldn't be offended, they just claim that the average person wouldn't be offended.

      The fundamental problem with the "average person" standard is that the "average person" isn't blind, or paralyzed, etc. and therefore singling them out is no problem.

      In this case it's women of color in a US-dominated conference where women and people of color are both very much outnumbered. Which is why that particular session was held, please note. So we're going to make our community more welcoming to women -- who already feel, with justice, like sheep at a wolf banquet -- by telling sexualized jokes?

      Speaking as a sixty-something male engineer: not only no, but Hell, NO!

      • Shridhar says:

        So, you're proposing to erase all sexualized jokes from the vocabulary?

        • Hermitage says:

          My God, no sexualized jokes in a professional setting? Someone bring the smelling salts! Next thing you know, we'll all need to wear pants, or something.

          • Zuska says:

            Back in the old days, the men were strong and hardy and told sexualized jokes in professional settings long into the night; the ladies were quiet and decorative and knew their place, much like a potted plant. Now the sexualized jokes are facing extinction and their habitat is being destroyed by these GMO talking harridans in their rapacious quest for "equality". We can only weep softly for science.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    @ Shridhar,

    I think the conflict arises from this very correct argument. People have no right of saying how comfortable other people should be. But for this very same reason, it's impossible to know if you're bringing discomfort to people around you. This essentially nullifies any attempt of making a truly comfortable environment for everyone.

    Wouldn't listening to (and believing) the people around you be a way to know whether you're bringing discomfort to others?

    And maybe a larger problem here is that we're conceptualizing the comfortable environment for everyone as a precisely balanced weight on a knife's edge, a nearly impossible achievement that we then need to hold our breaths to maintain.

    I suspect a better way to imagine it is like chemical equilibrium, where what looks like all the participants being at rest actually requires small but steady movement by each of these participants to keep the environment in balance.

    • M. Hunt says:

      Wouldn't listening to (and believing) the people around you be a way to know whether you're bringing discomfort to others?

      How does this suggestion help in this particular instance, in which Ms. Richards publicly identified those making her uncomfortable and expressed her discomfort to the world at large before informing them? Are you suggesting we should all scan those around us for visible signs we are causing them discomfort, even when we are having conversations we assume to be private?

      • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

        @ M. Hunt,

        According to Richards' recounting, she was talking with one of them right before the inappropriate jokes began. That (plus the presence of lots of people around them) might have been good reason to believe that the presumably "private" discussion could have an audience of people on whom it could have an impact.

        So, with those people around, before direct feedback about whether the impact of such joking had been delivered (by whatever means), should the PyCon jokers have had any reason to assume the jokes would be totally OK versus not? Two things might have helped them here:

        1. Having listened before to what women in the coding community identified as behavior that made them feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.

        2. Having read the PyCon Code of Conduct (which might at least have put the comfort of other people who were not them on their radar).

        In other words, I can't quite buy that they were n00bs who were totally unaware that sexualized joking could make others -- including the members of the community who have to spend a lot more time dealing with sexual harassment and objectification as they try to make their way in a male-dominated profession -- feel uncomfortable.

        • I consider there is significant probability that the guys were exactly these kind of unaware but no-harm-meaning noobs. Many are and I could have been. I would estimate that very small number of people are reading the full "code of conduct" texts of conferences they are attending. Even if that would be the "right thing to do" (like reading license agreements of software packages), it is still arguably unlikely. Also I do not consider it a high probability proposition that average conference goer would have a good experience and understanding of what women in coding community have said of these issues before (and how much the sayings of some individuals can be generalised to the wider group of women).

          Given this, I would say that justice was not done when Richards did not give these guys even the benefit of doubt of being noobs who were not having "good authority on what makes others feel uncomfortable or unwelcome". Richards should indeed have "turned around and politely asked the men doing the joking to knock it off" before shooting with a bigger gun. This does not require assumption that asking nicely is a reliably effective strategy but stems from basic principle of not judging someone from a crime before their guilt has been proven beyond reasonable doubt. Justice simply requires trying softer methods first - just like policemen who are after an escaping fugitive should shout a warning before starting shooting.

          • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

            @ Robert Brotherus,

            Adria Richards should have given the PyCon jokers the benefit of the doubt that they were total n00bs with no understanding of what women in the coding community have (politely, repeatedly) communicated about their experience (including about the particular ways sexualized joking might harm their participation in that community),


            We DON'T have to give Adria Richards the benefit of the doubt that she dealt with the situation in the best way she could under the circumstances; rather, she should have gone through a careful calibrated series of responses that make sense to [lots of people who are not necessarily women of color in the coding community] after the fact.

            I'm not buying that this is a fair way to apportion responsibility for the well being of the coding community here.

    • Shridhar says:

      "Wouldn't listening to (and believing) the people around you be a way to know whether you're bringing discomfort to others?"

      Yes. I'm not really debating the abstract perfect comfort but the concrete one. It's really hard to tell when someone is open to some joke or not. There are clear no-no jokes in public places but, as I said, there's a huge gray area. And indeed, you use environmental queues around you to readjust. But, from the guys story,

      "She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate."

      So... he had no access to normal social queues that would've helped him to tone down, apologize or be even aware. Indeed, social interactions are dynamical equilibriums, but to abuse of your analogy, one important feedback that permits self-correction was gone in that very moment.

      Again, I don't think what she did was wrong or unconscionable like some people seem to feel, it was more a case of unintended consequences.

  • amy says:

    "But it's worth remembering that you are a good authority on what kind of conduct makes you feel uncomfortable or unwelcome; you are not automatically a good authority on what makes others feel uncomfortable or unwelcome."

    Why give anyone this pass? The courts have been quite explicit about behaviors that create a hostile environment, and inescapable dick and fucking jokes fit neatly. Every professional woman should be aware of these things.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    @ amy,

    Presumably every professional man should be aware of these things too, yes?

    Also, what I wrote right after the part you quoted mentions the value of listening to others about how they experience the environment -- and presumably, there was something like this kind of listening involved in crafting harassment policies, legal decisions on workplace harassment, etc.

    • amy says:

      Yep, the men should be aware, too. But as always, it falls to the person with the most at stake to protect that interest.

      It's also true that listening's important. "Don't be rude," though, is somewhat milder disincentive to many than "You will now have to pay lawyers and, possibly, a judgment."

      Also, what I see in this debate is that we've more or less lost the concept of a hostile workplace environment, and that was hard-won. Without these things marked out clearly, we get this devolution into "you're just too sensitive". It's territory worth defending, I think.

    • Ben Reynolds says:

      Agreeing with you Janet, that it is virtually impossible to work anywhere in the U.S. and not have heard that it's a bad move to tell sexual jokes in a professional situation (conferences are professional situations) and that if you do tell those jokes, bad things are going to happen, starting with your employer wanting you out of the company for fear you are creating a hostile environment in the company.

      The noob argument for innocence just doesn't hold up.

  • David says:

    Thank you for this article and for advancing this conversation. Hallelujah, especially, to your first point.

    There are two issues that complicate matters for me. The first is the question, "who determines what is offensive?" One answer that is clearly untenable, is, "those who take offense." You seem to acknowledge this in point #9, yet are close to endorsing it in point #2. At the very least, in point #2, you seem to be trying to shut down discussion on, "what is offensive," and in point #9 you're suggesting dishonesty in those engaging in that discussion. I have no doubt that most of those in the "there-was-no-offense" camp are lacking in empathy and making shallow, untenable arguments, yet ... telling them their negative feelings may be a good thing (#9) while telling them they're not listening enough (#2) --- I just have trouble seeing this as helping. (OTOH, my stereotypes tell me such people are not reading blog posts of this length, anyway, so ...)

    The second issue is the principle of "innocent until proven guilty." It is claimed that the comments of one of the speakers was misinterpreted, yet his public shaming began before any clarification could be offered. I hope that what is really behind the objections to public shaming is an objection to judge-jury-and-executioner-in-one justice. (One can always hope.) I tend to agree that public shaming is a necessary tool in fighting sexism. However, over the long run, every misapplied public shaming for a misunderstood or misheard comment will serve to lessen the effectiveness of the punishment --- in addition to being inherently unfair.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    @ David,

    I think looking for an objective reading from an offense-o-meter is the wrong approach. What's important isn't whether a particular joke would be funny or offensive (or both) in Plato's heaven, but the impact it actually has on the people in its path, and what that does to a professional environment or community and the people in it.

    Indeed, point 9 isn't about who's "right" in judging particular behavior problematic. It's about recognizing that different people within a community may experience different harm (or different levels of awareness about how the behavior impacts others) -- which means, a community may have to make a decision about who it's really serious about fully including (including taking harms to them seriously) and who it's willing to not-include in a meaningful way. Ignoring point #2 makes it hard to fully grok the choice I'm describing in #9.

    To your other point, my sense is that communities in which people are serious about the well being of people other than themselves are ones where people who are called out on their bad behavior will at least try to understand the harm their behavior has caused, and mitigate its effects, rather than just saying "I didn't do anything wrong!" or even "I didn't mean to do anything wrong, so stop making me feel bad!" It's not about convicting bad actors or keeping score, but about working out how to behave better moving forward.

    • David says:

      I suspect the conversation has moved on, but I have a few more thoughts, in any case.

      Re: "I think looking for an objective reading from an offense-o-meter is the wrong approach." I agree, it is problematic. The type of argument that (kind-of) sidesteps this and has some traction with me goes like this:

      "We live in a world with bad people. Some of those bad people /actively promote/ the use of speech to degrade women and undermine their self-confidence. (An example would be some of the 'pick-up artists.') One purpose of the conference regulations is that your behavior and speech should be /unambiguously distinct/ from such bad men engaging in such bad behavior. One of the tactics used by such people is to make provocative/inappropriate/unnecessary comments and when called upon them, defend them with 'it was just a joke' or 'I wasn't talking to you'.
      Unfortunately, this means that some comments --- even comments that are not inherently or universally offensive --- can be 'guilty by association' with a pattern of speech that is clearly unacceptable. The conference guidelines intentionally curtail free speech in order to fight pernicious and persistent problems of discrimination. This may cause you some inconvenience, discomfort, and lost opportunities to crack wise. However, to attend this conference, you must agree to be drafted --- if only briefly --- in fighting this social ill, and that fight does have a cost. This is perhaps the least cost you could be asked."

      I think that everything you said in #2 is true --- it's good advice. Maybe it is just that it abuts arguments that I find dubious, including: if someone perceives harm, then there /is/ harm; everyone should be able to use their individual feelings as justification for vetoing speech; and there is a consensus among all women as to what is offensive and/or threatening. I don't think you said any of these things, but I suspect negative reactions are partly to such positions.

      Often it seems that when I am accused of "not listening," I am in fact listening; however, I am not accepting what is said uncritically. Usually, it is us privileged white men who need to adjust our Bayesian priors --- but that is not unique to us. If I listen to a woman say, "I don't feel safe around so many black men," "I think the warning label, 'Smoking while pregnant may cause birth defects,' is sexist," or an explicitly sexist remark (against men or women) then I need some additional strategy and decision mechanism beyond 'listening.' Even if I listen --- even if I empathize --- I cannot always agree, condone, or accommodate.

      If someone tells me, "I'm afraid of flying," then their Bayesian priors appear to be in direct contradiction with empirical evidence. If I tell them, "actually, flying is one of the safest forms of travel," then, in a sense, I am telling them what to feel. (I have been chastised in similar situations.) I can refrain from providing statistics, or try to express the point gently, but at some point, I'd be "protecting" them from knowledge and that seems condescending.

      Obviously, I am /not/ saying that any woman's perception of threat or offense is false, or that it does not deserve respect and attention. All I am saying is that perception does not make reality. Also, reality has to count at some point.

      In short, listening is a great and important strategy --- even a necessary trait for a decent human being. But listening alone is not going to resolve all differences. I expect some of the people who say, "it wasn't offensive," think that they have listened and feel they are now in disagreement. Though, in reality, they have not, and they may need to accept your point #2. So ...

      Again, thank you for the article, and taking the time to respond.

    • David says:

      Re: "It's not about convicting bad actors or keeping score, but about working out how to behave better moving forward." That seems to be a bit at odds with other comments. You've argued --- pretty effectively --- that public shaming is an important strategy. Public shaming is a punishment. If we're talking about punishment of bad actors without a process for "convicting bad actors," then --- at some level --- we're talking about vigilantism.

      I can believe that this level of vigilantism is necessary to fight sexism --- as I said, I find that your arguments and others are effective on this score. However, it is not surprising that there would be push back. Perhaps explicitly addressing or acknowledging those concerns could help to lower them?

  • Cloud says:

    There are a couple of things I think a lot of people are missing about this story.

    1. The man who was fired was NOT fired for violating the PyCon standards of conduct. He was fired for violating HIS EMPLOYER'S standards of conduct. Which he has presumably read, or at least he signed a form saying he read them. That is standard HR practice. So really, his firing doesn't really have anything to do with PyCon or Adria Richards- PyCon was just the venue and Richards was just the reporter. He was fired because HE CHOSE to do something that violated an employment policy he had previously agreed to. The real agency here is his and his company's. In fact, I've read that the company has said his firing was for a collection of actions, with the PyCon behavior just being one of them.

    2. Even if Richards' actions were not optimal, the reaction to them is way out of proportion. The internet is full of people doing suboptimal things, many of which do indeed have real consequences for other people. The difference here seems to be that a woman did something and a man experienced the consequences. My initial reaction to this story was something like this: So, there are entire sites dedicated to unauthorized upskirt photos and naked photos of women posted by their exes as revenge, and women are told to chill out, that's just how the internet is. But one woman posts a (fully clothed!) picture of two guys, associated with a description of actions they do not dispute making, and she receives death threats and rape threats. Awesome.

    • D. C. Sessions says:

      The internet is full of people doing suboptimal things, many of which do indeed have real consequences for other people.

      Do we know that? I ask because the last I saw was that we don't know why he's out of a job. Which is common -- employers are generally reluctant to risk asserting dismissal for cause publicly for liability reasons.

  • becca says:

    On the one hand, I'm really revolted by the whole situation.
    On the other hand, in actually reading what you've written, I feel compelled to point out- if we don't know why the joker was really fired (sorry Cloud, but CEO speak is ambivalent for legal reasons-, we don't really know why Adria Richards was fired either.

    However, we're people, and making judgments in the face of imperfect knowledge is what we do.

    As far as the data I know of can be interpreted, the joker was fired for acting unprofessionally at a conference. Perhaps there were other factors, but had it not been for the conference he would presumably still have a job. And, importantly, his "unprofessional" behavior was defined post hoc in a fashion he couldn't necessarily have been expected to know (NB: only one of the two people in the conversation and tweeted picture was fired). This isn't due process, and if he was in a collective bargaining environment (or if he had tenure), I strongly suspect he'd still have his job. But "innocent until proven guilty" is for our criminal courts, not our civil courts (which use "prepoderance of the evidence") and *not* in our employment relations (which generally follow an "I don't like how you look, you're gone, with the exceptions of a few legally protected categories of reasons I can't officially fire you, like race, gender, and veteran's status).
    In an imperfect but just slightly better world than this one, somebody would have sat both jokesters down with a bunch of people who were damaged by the kind of environment their comments exemplified, and gotten through to them in a way less drastic fashion than firing one of them (which, let's face it, sends a really ODD message, but probably one that protects the company's legal hide). Not everybody gets this benefit for every kind of job, but that really does say more about how disposable employees are than whether people are actually irredeemable. I've also read what the fired individual wrote on the internet about it- let's just say, if I had to guess he isn't even in the bottom 10% of jackhats in technology- I might even rate his chances at redemption (prior to the firing) as better than average.

    Also, as far as the data I know of can be interpreted, Richards was filed for doing something that made a vociferous and relatively (surprisingly?) powerful group of individuals very angry. This happens all the time without the person having done anything wrong, particularly in fields like public relations. A bad twitter advertising campaign can be the end of your job. And no organization likes bad press that comes with DoS attacks.

    So I don't think anybody should have been fired over this. I can even offer some sympathy to the viewpoint that both firings were equally big screw ups for the employers, because I sure as hell would never EVER EVER want to do business with SendGrid OR Playhaven. If we're going to name and shame, these companies are the problem. I'll grant Playhaven's mistake is more akin to using a water fire extinguisher on a chemical fire- I can see exactly how they thought they'd make it better by firing this person, but.... yeesh.
    And I'm appalled/disgusted/horrified yet not entirely shocked about the denizens of 4chan. Because, well, it's 4chan. It should really just be burned to the ground.

    • amy says:

      Sendgrid's CEO's blogged about why they fired Adria. Boiled down to "we have a business to run and she made trouble." He also invited comment at

    • Cloud says:

      Becca, I'm not sure which point of mine with which you disagree.

      Here is my point: employees almost always have to sign a document indicating they've read company policy. Company policy almost always forbids sexist jokes. Did this particular guy read the policy? It doesn't matter, because he will almost certainly have signed a paper acknowledging it. That is standard HR practice in industry. Did this particular company's policy explicitly forbid sexist jokes? Who knows, but most forbid offensive behavior.

      None of that changes the fact that it was the company that decided to fire him, based on actions he does not dispute making. He made a choice to make the dumb, sexist joke. His company found out and decided to fire him. In fact, it shouldn't matter how his company found out or what particular workplace he was in when he made the joke. As far as I'm concerned, PyCon and Richards are secondary players in the initial firing event.

      I'll also add, from the Daily Dot story I read, he was the one who decided to go public about his firing, albeit using an internet handle, not his full name. Why is no one calling that decision "immature" or "ill-judged?" If we're going to expect Richards to forsee his firing based on her tweet, should we not also expect this guy to forsee the ugliness that his post unleashed? (In actual fact, I think it is unfair to expect either to have predicted how this would play out.)

      I'm disgusted by the behavior of the 4chan crowd, but like you, not really surprised. I'm also disgusted by the reaction of a lot of more mainstream tech types. Sadly, I'm not really surprised by that, either.

      • becca says:

        Cloud- my point is, the exact criteria used to decide to fire the employee are not known. Playhaven's code of conduct was not cited in the public commentary about the dismissal, and the CEO explicitly said "we will not comment on all factors that contributed to our parting ways".
        Furthermore, we can speculate that it couldn't have been simply because of participating in a conversation about dongles, because the person looking straight at the camera in Richard's picture is still employed.

        Now, let's be clear- the company is probably well within it's legal right to fire him because they don't like his beard, particularly if they put it in writing that beards are potential grounds for termination and he signed off on it. My point is that the fact companies can require ridiculous things is a sign of a very skewed power relationship that we endorse by not passing laws against.
        I don't think companies should be able to dictate beards, or premarital sex, or even a single one off dongle comment (no matter how stupid)

        For what it's worth, we agree on the role of PyCon and Richards being secondary players, as well as the gross double standards applied to judgements of Richards vs. the joker's publicity decisions, AND the distastefulness of 4chan.

  • Sharon says:

    Excellent, thoughtful post, thanks.

    I would just add these few points.

    Reasonable people can disagree on whether the behavior in question constituted harassment. But that is something for the organizers to decide. Richards is entitled to feel any way she likes about it, and she is entitled to report it. And then the organizers can determine whether it was a violation of the code of conduct. As a woman in tech and a feminist, I don't personally find it offensive, but maybe I would if I had her history and background and had just that day been subjected to tasteless comments on male the preference for hairless vaginas, and she was. My point is, that is up to the organizers to decide.

    As for whether she should have confronted them directly, I wonder how many people would not find it intimidating to be surrounded by a sea of people who did not look like you and came from a different gender and racial background than you, especially if your own were historically disadvantaged. Is it not enough for women in tech to combat sexism, but now we have to personally police every offensive comment? What a burden that adds to the already burdensome lot of women in a male-dominated industry. I am an assertive person, but I find it both intimidating and burdensome.

    Then, people are blaming Adria Richards for the employer's action in firing one of the guys in question. But why on earth is she to blame? She is not the one who did the firing. She merely reported the incident, and people are entitled to come to their own conclusions about it. The company used this piece of information to make a decision regard terminating his employment; if they were wrong, that is entirely their fault, not Richards'.

    As for the rape and death threats... These are the same people wondering why women in tech are sensitive about sexual harassment. So take a memo, jackasses. You're it.

    In short: you might disagree about whether the comment is offensive. You might disagree about whether she should have posted the picture. But that is separate from blaming her for feeling harassed in the first place, or causing the man to be fired. And it goes without saying that none of it justifies the campaign of abuse and intimidation that has since been directed against her.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    The impossibility of knowing what strangers find offensive is the original reason for ritualized social courtesies. If you stick to the formulas, you're on reasonably safe ground (barring a society that insists on formalizing offensive behavior, in which case you get lost in the larger problem.)

    In other words, laddies, maybe you should have paid attention to your mum when she tried to teach you manners.

  • Personally, I have no problem with her tweeting the pictures (it does make it easy to find the accused and pull them aside). Once everyone agreed to a resolution though, I would have taken the picture down, and I certainly wouldn't have featured the pictures in my blog. If anything, I would have focused my praise on the Code of Conduct.

    PyCon was notified.

    Actions were swiftly taken.

    A resolution was reached.

    If you reach a resolution that's satisfactory to all parties, then that should be the end of it. If, however, it's moving past PyCon (into other legal spheres), or if the resolution wasn't satisfactory, please, blog the hell out of it. Be loud. Get attention. But this... She told the guys "It's cool, we're on the same page", then backed out.

    Of course, her actions deserved a sigh at best, not the crazed reaction that came from the rest of the Internet.

  • Carole says:

    Naming and shaming is as taboo as it is.... because it WORKS. It puts attention on the (alleged) wrongdoers. That's why it's the LAST thing that a wrongdoer or someone who sympathizes with them (or thinks that what they did isn't wrong) wants to see.

    The unfortunate side effect is that those named and shamed, and their sympathizers, reliably then turn and attempt to name and shame the person who named and shamed them, as happened here.

  • Sugar says:

    In my experience, do the "Hey, that's not cool" approach almost always works. 1. Because you are not asking you are making a statement. 2. That statement is being made in a casual manner. This is what is important. It clearly defines the behavior as bad not the person. Which is why you get the desired effect. The person doing the bad behavior doesn't feel the need to defend said behavior because it was made in a casual tone. So they don't get made to feel like they are the bad guy (even if they are.) 3. I have noticed that asking in a polite manner can come off formal and formal language will make it seem much more serious than it is. The person you are dealing with may never understand the deeper issues that stem from such behaviors so stopping it with out ruffling feathers will get the immediate effect you are looking for with out making a bigger issue out of it. Sadly it take a person to not be emotionally effected to come from the neutral state of mind to be able to pull this off effectively.

    Personally I would have waited and spoke to the individual one on one and the wrote who ever was in charge a message explaining the incident. Then again when it comes to things of this nature I am very private.

    • Jacob Schmidt says:

      In my experience, do the "Hey, that's not cool" approach almost always works.

      In my experience, it almost never works. Casual comments can be easily ignored. A quick, casual comment will get me dismissed (I'm male, btw). To get my co-workers to stop making crass comments, it usually takes a bit more. I often have to resort to open mocking and/or contempt for their behaviour. THEN they get the message. A casual comment can work, but depending on it is often a bad idea.

    • becca says:

      I can often employ that kind of a strategy successfully with people I already know and with whom there is a base assumption of some level of mutual-trust-of-good-intentions.
      That said, it's important to realize not every strategy will work for every person in every situation. Imagining what you'd do in a scenario and envisioning it going well is very understandable (heck, I do that when I read *novels* for ridiculously implausible situations!), but you come across as a little critical of Richards here.

    • Isabel says:

      The ideal face-saving situation would be where the companies involved are pro-active and have educated their employees. Nobody is asking how in 2013 these guys still don't realize this is not cool.

      People who are being obnoxious and creating an uncomfortable environment for others (even unconsciously) are being aggressive. The assertion that it is nothing for a now uncomfortable member of the marginalized group to speak up and criticize these offenders, who are part of the powerful majority group and are already signalling their aggression, is so ludicrous I can't believe people keep suggesting it. At best, in a relatively comfortable situation with people you know such as co-workers, you will probably be resented and called a prude by some behind your back. With strangers at a big event, who knows what will happen.

      In the 1990's I had to work with some guys in a male-dominated industry who would listen to Howard Stern while they worked and I would have to walk in the room and discuss issues with them on a regular basis while everyone was laughing about some stripper who was visiting the radio station or whatever. At the time this was considered hip and acceptable, and I am sure it would not have gone over well if I had put a stop to it no matter how it all went down. They would have retaliated in some way if I had gone to management, and who would expect me to speak up in a room full of men and tell them it was not cool? Hopefully that is no longer the case, though women still lag in the field, and the sexism was one reason I left. But my point is the people who are being made uncomfortable are the last people who should be burdened with dealing with the situation.

      "Furthermore, we can speculate that it couldn't have been simply because of participating in a conversation about dongles, because the person looking straight at the camera in Richard's picture is still employed."

      Of course it could have been, if the guy who is still employed did not have a pattern of such offenses.

  • MNb says:

    One question: what if Adria Richards was Adrian Richards and harrassed by a bunch of giggling girls fooling around and making silly remarks about men, while he tried to concentrate on the speech?
    I think the conclusion would be quite uncontroversial.
    PS: I'm white and male; it's a shame that that is relevant in any way - a shame for all the white males who refuse to get it.

    • Martin says:

      I think if Adrian had taken a picture of said giggling girls and tweeted it, Adrian might have found himself in a whole heap of other trouble. and pretty quickly labelled with a few unpleasant names himself.

      And the odds of the giggling girls being fired for their giggles would have been close to zero.

  • BrokenCastle says:

    I simply have to disagree with point 5. Publicly naming and 'shaming' offenders at a conference is not ok regardless of the reason. From a business standpoint doing so alienates your company from the company that the offender is in and potentially gives them bad PR (this being a prime example of how it can go wrong). This also puts your own company at risk of bad PR (again this being the perfect example.) This goes double if you are a 'technology' expert who has a following on twitter. This point has nothing to do with sexism or the reasons for the shaming.

    You then point out "Even if Adria Richards was wrong to tweet the picture of the jokers, that doesn't mean that their joking was appropriate in the circumstances in which they were doing it at PyCon". I agree with this fully, there are many discussions that are workplace inappropriate and making jokes dealing with anatomy is one such example. This simply puts both Adria and the jokers in the wrong here, there is no requirement for one of them to be right.

  • Trophy says:

    Okay, I've definitely read your article and I'll be commenting on your points, as you requested.

    1. Definitely agree. There is no excuse for that kind of reaction, period.

    2. Actually, I'm disappointed a bit that you don't address this because as we will see, this is important. For many of the upcoming points, it would be important to establish whether or not those comments were sexist or not.

    I have no disagreements with your point on listening though.

    3. I'm not sure I follow this. I cannot see how "public confrontation" is safer than "private confrontation". I would agree it is more effective but I doubt it is safer.

    4. I don't disagree.

    5. You contradict yourself here. You claim email is not good enough because you cannot expect the organizers to check their emails. Wouldn't the same argument also apply to twitter? Also you seem to be denying that using twitter *and* the picture of the guys was done in purpose to "out" them publicly. That's a very naive interpretation. If she wanted to inform the organizers and "hope[d] someone was monitoring [twitter] closely enough to get promptly to the location ten rows back from the stage", then there was no need to put also the pictures. She wanted to out them publicly, let's just admin that.

    6. I believe it is wrong in general for people to publicly out others. If those allegations are not true or based on misunderstandings, then it is much harder to dispel them. So I don't see why banning public shaming communicates
    that "harassers are more valuable to the community than the people they harass".
    It simply communicates that they prefer such incidents handled through proper channels. For example, we do not let people be the judge and the executioner of the crimes that are committed against them not because we value criminals more than the victims, but because we know that it is better to have neutral bodies judge the disputes between people.

    7. I agree with your points. However, one might connect her tweets to point 2, that is, what if someone finds her tweets offensive or sexist?

    8. I agree.

    9. I'm not sure what you write reads as intended. Are you saying that people who now feel unwelcome to tell jokes of sexual nature are "racists or sexists, for rapists, plagiarists, or jerks"? Isn't it possible that someone who is neither of them, could be scared or intimidated by this incident?

  • Jamie says:

    The naming and shaming was being done by the perpetrators of the bad behavior by engaging in said behavior in a public place. Adria Richards did nothing more than gather the evidence.

  • PatrickG says:

    My willingness to even comment on this subject is really low by this point.... but I felt I had to jump in and emphatically agree with basically everything you've said. The material I don't agree with is so minor... I reread the comment before posting it, and it came down to "but I disagree with your ordering of these words/I would have phrased this point slightly differently". Thus I won't even bother to say those things. 🙂

    Great piece. I'm also glad you're moderating this. As you say, the people who have no interest in engaging with your points already have plenty of places to opine without actually discussing anything.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:


      Comments about word order/phrasing that have a material impact on the meaning being conveyed are welcome. (In a post this long, written around the edges on a day when a lot was going on in the three-dimensional world, it's quite likely that there are places where I was not as clear as I could have been.) But I could take those by email, too.

  • Andrew Dalke says:

    Here's something hopefully new for you, but still part of the conversation.

    I've seen very few people mention EEOC and Title VII protection for harassment complaints in a workplace. If PyCon were a workplace, then someone who files a complaint is given broad anti-retaliation protections. They can talk to a newspaper reporter, they can picket, they can write letters to key customers and more. And the workplace cannot do any adverse action based on practicing those civil rights. Plus, Title VII protections are based on civil rights, and not on giving offense. ("Title VII Does Not Create a General Code of Civility in the Workplace") Therefore, all of the discussion on "who determines what is offensive" isn't relevant, and nearly all of the issues people have talked about for this case are long settled, with good documentation and relevant case histories.

    I think it's interesting to compare the workplace protections under Title VII to the PyCon Code of Conduct, and see how much better Title VII would have protected Adria Richards, if PyCon followed those rules instead of its CoC. (BTW, I believe that her employer violated Title VII by firing her.)

    Title VII says that someone who complains has anti-retaliation protections. PyCon's CoC does not grant any anti-retaliation protection. Your comment #5 ("tweeting a photo is inappropriate") doesn't make a difference for a company because the Title VII protections don't let any company under Title VII law make an adverse response on that basis.

    The EEOC suggests "It is helpful for the victim to directly inform the harasser that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. The victim should use any employer complaint mechanism or grievance system available." But Title VII does not require a victim to talk to harasser first, or ever at all, as part of the complaint process. Thus, #3 ("effective strategy") doesn't affect a title Title VII complaint. A complaint is a complaint is a complaint.

    Title VII says that the complaint does not need to go through the defined/formal channels, and that a complaint through the EEOC or through the public (eg, newspaper or picketing) is acceptable. PyCon staff seems to want complaints to only go through official and preferably private channels. #5 ("tweeting") is not a useful thing to think about because the only concern is if the complaint reached the company managers. Some methods are faster or more likely to reach the managers, but none are 'inappropriate'.

    Title VII says that managers must be proactive in obvious cases of discrimination. (For example, managers must get sexist graffiti cleaned up even if no one has complained.) PyCon does not say that any of its staff, or even the conference organizers, have any obligation until a complaint has been made. Someone has to complain first. Specifically, it appears that the PyCon organizers believe that tweeting the picture is a violation of their CoC, but they did not investigate it because no one complained (or rather, that the two men involved specifically declined to complain). I believe this is not allowed under Title VII.

    (Requiring proactive staff at a conference is a tricky one though, since volunteer staff are definitely not similar to managers, and don't necessarily have the training or experience in being proactive. They may not want to take on that obligation, and would prefer just helping out with badges and being a contact point for a complaint. The metaphor between workplace and conference is not perfect.)

    As to the other comments, Adria Richards' "primary motivation" doesn't affect things under Title VII unless there is a clear attempt to abuse the Title VII protection system. (Something like "not one reasonable would agree in its merit.") This is weighted heavily in favor of the person who made the complaint, because it's inappropriate to let the company to have the final say on how to interpret the complainant's motivation.

    Nor does Title VII depend on "the average person", nor even "being offended" ("aren't saying Adria shouldn't be offended, they just claim that the average person wouldn't be offended.") The person who makes the complaint doesn't need to offended by a dirty joke, only say that it's unwanted. The courts have established that an organization may be discriminating on the basis of sex should the company not act to stop unwanted dirty jokes. The law also doesn't use the "average person" definition. A complaint is valid even if only one reasonable person might think there may be a complaint, and even if the complaint was later found to not be a form of harassment.

    My current feeling is that the PyCon organizers view themselves in this matter as impartial judges in a criminal court, with a victim and alleged perpetrator. While Title VII is a civil matter. If something gets to court then it's the company which is the defendant, not the harasser. The goal for the company is to show that it's not discriminatory.

    PyCon is not under Title VII regulation, but many people who go to PyCon go there as part of their job. If they understand the basics of Title VII protections at work (because it's posted in the public area, or because the company has provided EEOC training) then they might reasonably believe similar rules apply at a conference, especially if the conference promotes its CoC as they did at PyCon.

    I think that either Python's CoC should be more in line with the principles behind Title VII, and grant some of the protections I listed, or that Python's CoC should highlight the differences so that people who expect a Title VII system might be aware of the key differences.

    I am a (not very influential) member of the Python Software Foundation with no special knowledge of the incident. This topic has special interest to me. I don't like the implications of #6. I'm trying to see if I can change the CoC to include Title VII-like protections, or at least give an actionable definition of "name and shame". I don't think that conversation can start in earnest for another few months.

    I've also been curious about if other conferences have looked towards Title VII for inspiration on how to structure their code of conduct or anti-discrimination policies, especially in anti-retaliation clauses. Do you know if any?

  • CEHoban says:

    Hello Janet, great post and great discussion, thank you for being active here in the comments. There is an issue I would like to raise for consideration following from something you've said. I have no difficulty with anything in your points 1 to 9 (though I have a minor quibble with phrasing in your point 2, but I'll raise that separately), but the opening sentence in your point 8 raises a concern, one I have not seen properly addressed in other blogs.

    You say: Some people have opined that it was bad for Adria Richards to call out the PyCon jokers (or to call them out in the particular way she did) on account of the bad consequences that might befall them if they were known to have violated the PyCon Code of Conduct.

    If someone agrees to abide by a Code of Conduct and then breaks that agreement, they are primarily to blame for the outcomes of their behaviour. But change the word "known" to "alleged" in your sentence. How does that change things? My issue is that I am finding it hard to always agree to the use of Adria's tactic in these instances. I don't think Adria was wrong in this case. I know Adria was NOT wrong, but I know that after the fact. What if someone made an allegation in this way and WAS wrong?

    Imagine Person A posts an image of a PyCon attendee saying "this Person B is telling sexist jokes, PyCon please deal with them". And imagine that PyCon staff speak with Person B and perhaps with other people seated nearby, and find that the allegation was wrong. "Sorry Person A, it seems you misheard / misunderstood / whatever" or "that's not what we consider a breach of rules". In that case, Person B could potentially have their reputation smudged by being placed in the foreverland of the interwebs in an image with the allegation "sexist joker in a professional setting". Or what if PyCon did nothing to respond to the Tweet? Maybe they don't see it, or think its not an issue worth pursuing. We might say they are remiss, but still then an allegation about someone is broadcast but is not verified, and Person B is on the web with a sexist label. There is also the issue of possible negative repercussions for Person A in this case.

    My point is that whilst in Adria's situation we (i.e. the whole world) can clearly see the validity of the allegation after the fact (Adria was considered correct by PyCon, they took action, one of the guys made a sort of admission etc), that might not always be the case. And what if someone sitting beside an alleged sexist joker is wrongly implicated by a photo? Unless you're sitting close enough (as Adria was) to be able to have an obvious focus on the person(s) causing a problem, someone else could potentially be misidentified (by others viewing the image) as being involved or associated. So unless you know for certain that you have interpreted a situation exactly correctly, and that an investigation will be forthcoming, and what the outcome of the as-yet-to-occur investigation will be, and you have a photo that is definitely not going to be misread in days or years hence, can you be clear that calling someone out at a conference via a photo on Twitter is really an ethical thing to do?

    I can say yes, the tactic was useful in Adria's case (the ensuing nonsense notwithstandng) - but I can say that after the fact. I've worked through the discussions on other blogs and see many saying that essentially Twitter is fine for this, "shame the sexists!" and I'm not sure I can agree when really what could happen in many cases is closer to "make allegations of sexist behaviour".

    That's where I see an ethical problem. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

  • CEHoban says:

    Regarding point 2:

    But it's worth remembering that you are a good authority on what kind of conduct makes you feel uncomfortable or unwelcome; you are not automatically a good authority on what makes others feel uncomfortable or unwelcome...

    ... it's probably a good idea to listen to people when they explain what makes them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, rather than trying to argue that they don't actually feel that way, or that they're wrong to feel that way.

    Exactly right. But to me "feeling uncomfortable or unwelcome" in some of the current arguments veers a little bit towards the issue of being offended. I think the issue of "offense" is usually horseplop. We frequently hear rational / humanist arguments against restrictions on free speech based on the "that's offensive" claim. We hear "there is no basic human right to 'not be offended', and offense is purely subjective " - which in my opinion is entirely correct.

    In Adria Richards' case, suggestions of her "being sensitive" or "seeking to be offended" are daft and irrelevant. What's relevant is that she observed / heard behaviour that was in breach of PyCon's Code of Conduct and reported it. Whether it offended her or not is a total red herring (I personally doubt she found the lame jokes offensive per se). Even is she was offended, my argument would be "so what?" That's still not the issue, because she did not tweet "here's a picture of some guys who are offending me". Her complaint was investigated by PyCon staff and they agreed that the people in the image - who by attending the event had agreed to abide by a Code of Conduct - had breached that agreement, and therefore PyCon needed to take whatever action was warranted. If she had merely claimed offense but no rules were breached, I guess PyCon would have offered her tough love and told her "there ain't no part in the code of conduct that says people must not be offended". Imagine a fundamentalist evangelical Christian overhearing a conversation about evolution at any conference - they could claim offense, and who's to say they wouldn't be offended? Offense can't be policed, and Adria Richards is smart enough to know that. Anyone claiming "she was looking to be offended" is talking total nonsense.

    In short: your point 2 makes sense but to me it reads as if addressing a subjective and somewhat ancillary matter; I think Adria's stance was objective - clear rules established for the good of the community, rules broken, action needed.

  • ben says:

    1: Adria Richards was not a "victim" of the conversation that two people were having. She was not a "victim" of two people talking to each other saying "dongle" and "I'd fork his repo". No-one was.

    2: Conflating the hideous, violent misogyny that Adria Richards was subsequently subjected to, and all the other things you're conflating -- talk about porn and so on -- with the original conversation is unacceptable and unethical. The two guys who were talking to each other and one of them said "dongle" are not responsible for that.

    3: If Adria Richards or anyone else felt "uncomfortable and unwelcome" because someone behind her said "dongle", is that it? Is that judge, jury, and executioner? All someone has to do is say "I feel uncomfortable and unwelcome because of a word you said" and all discussion is over, expulsions and firings are mandatory? Because that makes me feel pretty uncomfortable.

  • Noele says:

    Janet - we went to RHS together. I saw your name on Pharyngula and clicked through. I'm only commenting here to give you my full support. I've been an avid reader of atheist blogs for years now but have never commented on anything and frankly since seeing how Rebecca Watson and others have been treated see no reason to jump into the fray. It just seems pointless.

    Anyway, you're a stronger woman than me. Keep up the good fight sister.

    All the best,

    Noele Pace (formerly Krug)

  • Andrew Dalke says:

    CEHoban:"Person B could potentially have their reputation smudged by being placed in the foreverland of the interwebs in an image with the allegation "sexist joker in a professional setting". Or what if PyCon did nothing to respond to the Tweet? Maybe they don't see it, or think its not an issue worth pursuing. We might say they are remiss, but still then an allegation about someone is broadcast but is not verified, and Person B is on the web with a sexist label."

    An "allegation" is nothing more than an allegation. I can accuse you of anything, and make the accusation on Twitter, Facebook, the evening news, the newspaper, in a book, or even in skywriting. I'm hard pressed to imagine situations where a single unsubstantiated claim causes a smudge with much adverse impact on a person's life. It can happen, and someone can sue for defamation. However, the bar for that is pretty high and factual statements can't be used to claim defamation, nor can ambiguous or vague ones, even if they may smudge one's reputation.

    To the contrary, if the goal is to prevent any smudging then I think that will seriously and inappropriately chill open debate. I could tweet "That's some awful Python code!" where everyone else knows I've been taking about Person B. Now Person B has an allegation forever of being someone who writes awful code. It doesn't mean that allegation is true, and it doesn't mean that PyCon should investigate the claim or even get involved. Even worse - it might have been Person C I was really talking about, and I had just forgotten the Twitter context! That's why defamation lawsuits don't use first impressions as the basis for a case.

    CEHoban: "... there ain't no part in the code of conduct that says people must not be offended"

    Have you read the PyCon Code of Conduct? It says that attendees must "Be kind to others. Do not insult or put down other attendees." If the people discussing evolution said to a Young Earth Creationist that "your belief that the world less than 10,000 years old is pure poppycock", then I think it's enough for the Y.E.C. to complain to PyCon that the others were not kind and in fact were insulting him to his face. I get the idea that the CoC does imply that people shouldn't expect to be offended while at PyCon, and that staff will do the policing.

    As for ben, "Adria Richards was not a "victim" of the conversation..". I agree. This is why I like the Title VII interpretation. Richards doesn't need to be a "victim". Richards filed a complaint about a possible violation of the CoC, which happened to affect her. In a Title VII view, the (possible) plaintiff is Richards, the defendant is PyCon, and PyCon's goal is to address illegal discriminatory behavior so that if the case does come to trial they can show that they are not a hostile workplace. Big difference in viewpoint, no?

    Under Title VII, a person can say that dirty jokes are unwanted, and if the company doesn't respond then it's a possible sign of sexual discrimination. That's all. If PyCon's stated goal is to be a place which minimizes sexual discrimination, then what they are doing is correct - respond to a complaint that people are saying unwanted dirty jokes. There's no need to try and figure out if someone is "really" offended or if the average person would be offended. Only the objective statement that someone didn't want to hear dirty jokes.

    As to ben's third point, it's not reasonable to say that someone making a complaint is public, even if shaming is involved, is the same thing as passing a sentence of "public humiliation" and that the person making the complaint is judge, jury, and executioner. Why? Because if that person filed an EEOC lawsuit, describing exactly the same events, then those details will still be public and certainly the plaintiff there is not the judge.

    If making a public complaint by filing a lawsuit doesn't imply passing a sentence of public shaming then I don't see how making a public complaint but not filing a lawsuit can be a sentence of public shaming. It's only an allegation. Someone might feel bad about it, but they will likely feel bad with a lawsuit too.

  • Jafafa Hots says:

    I dislike the phrase "naming and shaming."

    I prefer the older terms: "tattletale" or "being a snitch" because they more accurately reflect the mentality of those who claim the action is inappropriate.

    • Andrew Dalke says:

      Your terminology preferences add little to the discussion. Almost by definition, someone is a tattletale if they make known something you think is inappropriate. The neutral term is "complainant", the positive term is "whistle-blower", and the legal term under Title VII (which would cover this case in a workplace) is "charging party." The term you pick reveals your mentality more than that of the person being labeled.

      • Jafafa Hots says:

        "The term you pick reveals your mentality more than that of the person being labeled."

        That's what I just said.

  • David says:

    On another note, the story about your daughter's handling of inappropriate behavior in her online game is great! Thank you for sharing it.

  • [...] 3-27-13: I think this post does the best job of any I’ve seen so far in responding to the [...]

  • Miriam Ruiz says:

    [...] Scientiopia: Naming, shaming, victim-blaming: thoughts on Adria Richards and PyCon [...]

  • [...] For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, here's the nutshell version, shamelessly cribbed from Janet's blog: [...]