Forking and Dongle Jokes Don’t Belong At Tech Conferences

laptop_vivian_and_dad_girls_tech

Photo credit: “Vivian and Daddy on the Laptop” by Qole Pejorian

Have you ever had a group of men sitting right behind you making joke that caused you to feel uncomfortable? Well, that just happened this week but instead of shrinking down in my seat, I did something about it an here’s my story…

Yesterday, I publicly called out a group of guys at the PyCon conference who were not being respectful to the community.

For those of you visiting from Hacker News from the tweet and from this post, thanks for stopping by. Enjoy the context.

I tweeted a photo of the guys behind me:

I publicly asked for help with addressing the problem:

I tweeted the PyCon Code of Conduct page and began to contacting the PyCon staff via text message:

and I’m happy to say that PyCon responded quickly not just with words but with action and a public response:

What I will share with you here is the backstory that led to this –

The guy behind me to the far left was saying he didn’t find much value from the logging session that day. I agreed with him so I turned around and said so.  He then went onto say that an earlier session he’d been to where the speaker was talking about images and visualization with Python was really good, even if it seemed to him the speaker wasn’t really an expert on images. He said he would be interested in forking the repo and continuing development.

That would have been fine until the guy next to him…

began making sexual forking jokes

I was going to let it go. It had been a long week. A long month. I’d been on the road since mid February attending and speaking at conferences.  PyCon was my 5th and final conference before heading home.

I know it’s important to pick my battles.

I know I don’t have to be a hero in every situation.

Sometimes I just want to go to a conference and be a geek.

But…

like Popeye, I couldn’t “stands it no more” because of what happened –

Jesse Noller was up on stage thanking the sponsors. The guys behind me (one off to the right) said, “You can thank me, you can thank me”. That told me they were a sponsoring company of Pycon and from the photos I took, his badge had an add-on that said, “Sponsor”.

My company was a Gold sponsor as well.

They started talking about “big” dongles. I could feel my face getting flustered.

Was this really happening?
How many times do I have to deal with this?
Can they not hear what Jesse is saying?

The stuff about the dongles wasn’t even logical and as a self professed nerd, that bothered me. Dongles are intended to be small and unobtrusive. They’re intended for network connectivity and to service as physical licence keys for software. I’d consulted in the past with an automotive shop that needed data recovery and technical support. I know what PCMCIA dongles look like.

I was telling myself if they made one more sexual joke, I’d say something.

The it happened….The trigger.

Jesse was on the main stage with thousands of people sitting in the audience. He was talking about helping the next generation learn to program and how happy PyCon was with the Young Coders workshop (which I volunteered at). He was mentioning that the PyLadies auction had raised $10,000 in a single night and the funds would be used the funds for their initiatives.

I saw a photo on main stage of a little girl who had been in the Young Coders workshop.

I realized I had to do something or she would never have the chance to learn and love programming because the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so.

I calculated my next steps.  I knew there wasn’t a lot of time and the closing session would be wrapping up.  I considered:

  • The type of event
  • The size of the audience
  • How the conference had emphasized their Code of Conduct
  • What I knew about the community and their diversity initiatives
  • How to address this issue effectively and not disrupt the main stage

Added 3/19: Description and photo of ballroom

The ballroom was huge.  Here’s a photo from that morning of the keynote speaker, Guido van Rossum, creator of Python.  Each section was 12 seats wide and 20 rows deep with six sections (front and back) in the ballroom.  I would estimate it held over 1,000 people that afternoon. I was located approximately 10 rows deep from the front right screen in the top-right section and about 5 seats in from the aisle on the left of the section.

pycon 2013 ballroom

(Math inclined folks: feel free to provide your estimates on how many people the ballroom held in the comments.)

Accountability was important. These guys sitting right behind me felt safe in the crowd. I got that and realized that being anonymous was fueling their behaviour. This is known as Deindividualization:

Deindividuation is a concept in social psychology that is generally thought of as the losing of self-awareness in groups.   Theories of deindividuation propose that it is a psychological state of decreased self-evaluation and decreased evaluation apprehension causing antinormative and disinhibited behavior.

Deindividuation theory seeks to provide an explanation for a variety of antinormative collective behavior, such as violent crowds, lynch mobs, etc. Deindividuation theory has also been applied to genocide and been posited as an explanation for antinormative behavior online and in computer-mediated communications.

It very much reminded me of Lord Of the Flies.  I decided to put out the fire at the base.

PyCon has gone to great efforts to position themselves as a conference that everyone is welcome to attend according to their homepage:

PyCon is the largest annual gathering for the community using and developing the open-source Python programming language. PyCon is organized by the Python community for the community. We try to keep registration far cheaper than most comparable technology conferences, to keep PyCon accessible to the widest group possible.

and they go on to say:

PyCon is a diverse conference dedicated to providing an enjoyable experience to everyone. Our code of conduct is intended to help everyone maintain the PyCon spirit. We thank all attendees and staff for observing it.

I did a gut check and waited until Jesse finished introducing Diana who would be the new PyCon US chair for 2014. I stood up slowly, turned around and took three, clear photos. I said back down, did another gut check and started composing a tweet.

Three things came to me: act, speak and confront in the moment.

I decided to do things differently this time and didn’t say anything to them directly.  I was a guest in the Python community and as such, I wanted to give PyCon the opportunity to address this.

A few minutes later, one of the PyCon staff member approached to the left.  I stood up, went outside to talk with him and explain the situation with a few of the other PyCon staff.  They had seen my tweet.  After explaining, they wanted to pull the people in question from the main ballroom.  I walked back in with the PyCon staff and point them out one by one and they were escorted to the hallway.

As I walked back to my seat, I cannot tell you how proud I was of the PyCon and Python community at the very moment for keeping their word to make the conference a safe place to be.  A bit shaken, I took my seat to continue watching the lightning talks.  I sent an updated tweet that the situation was being dealt with and later on, PyCon tweeted they had addressed the issue.

For context, I’m a developer evangelist at a successful startup.

That means I’m an advocate for developers, male and female. I hear about demanding bosses with impossible deadlines for product launches and the overall experience of working at other startups firsthand.

I listen and offer suggestions, ideas and mentoring to help developers become problems solvers. Sometimes the answer is our API or not answering email after 7pm while other times it about being assertive and shedding impostor syndrome.

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

What many of you don’t know is that this wasn’t the first time that day I had to address this issue around harassment and gender.

I had been talking with a developer after lunch in the hall and he told me he had made a joke. He had been looking for some boxes and said aloud that he was looking under the skirt (he had meant a table skirt) in the expo hall. A woman had “given him a look” and/or made a comment after he said this so he responded by saying “it was bare, just the way he liked it” as an innuendo for when women shave off all their pubic hair. I explained that while this could be funny, it was out of context because:

  • We were at a tech conference
  • There was a job fair going on
  • Women historically have felt unwelcome at tech conferences
  • PyCon was making a special effort to be welcoming to women
  • There were several women’s groups here (PyLadies, Women Who Code, CodeChix, Ada Initiative)
  • He was wearing company logos and that meant his actions and words carried on their behalf

….much further than his sense of humor ever would.

He disagreed. I urged him to talk to someone at the conference who worked for the same company who was a guy and who would understand this issue and potential for brand/reputation damage. We were able to discuss this because we were in the hallway, not a packed ballroom.

At a conference where it was was celebrated that 20% of attendees were women

it wasn’t the place to make “jokes” like this. I felt our chat went well (as well as could be expected) and headed on my way to more sessions and the final closing talks. Why did he share his joke with me?   Maybe because I told him I’d just finished a 5 week stand up comedy class and he wanted to reciprocate. Maybe because my job as a developer evangelist means I spend a lot of time around male developers and he thought I would understand.  What I did know is I needed to say something instead of laugh.

I have been to a lot of tech conferences and hackathons over the years.  I’ve heard a lot of things said.  That means I’m more desensitized than others but it doesn’t make it ok.  Here I could go into all sorts of comparisons on things I could say around guys to make them uncomfortable but that’s not the point of this post.

There is something about crushing a little kid’s dream that gets me really angry.

Women in technology need consistant messaging from birth through retirement they are welcome, competent and valued in the industry.

Let’s unify the message to our daughters and to the women developers we work with:

“We want you to be here and we will do our best to welcome you into the world of programming.”

What has to change is that everyone must take personal accountability and speak up when they hear something that isn’t ok.  It takes three words to make a difference:

“That’s not cool.”

Not all men at tech conferences are like these guys.

Not every woman who attends a tech conference is a victim in waiting.

We need to build bridges and be aware of our actions and not discount that our words carry weight.  A guy in my PyCon sprint group today shared a beautiful French proverb today:

“Live a good life then make room for others.”

Yesterday the future of programming was on the line and I made myself heard.

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This entry was posted in Events, The Big Picture, The Devangelist Life, Women + Technology on by .

About Adria Richards

Adria Richards is a developer and entrepreneur focused on digital equality. She has been involved in more than 35 hackathon events in the Bay Area and abroad. Embracing her inner nerd, Adria moved moved to San Francisco in 2010 to pursue her passion for technology. Previously she has worked in technical and training roles for enterprise, nonprofits and startups; from Apple to Zendesk. Adria has been teaching technology and developing curriculum since 2007. Adria is a popular speaker at major tech conferences including SXSW, O’Reilly Web 2.0, Launch, The Lean Startup Conference and TEDx. She speaks at startups and coding boot camps about culture, communication and diversity. Adria has attended TED, LeWeb and MLOVE. In her free time, Adria enjoys snowboarding, yoga and bacon; not necessarily at that order. Her Twitter account is followed by President @BarackObama. She blogs at ButYoureAGirl.com and is a YouTube Content Creator.

54 thoughts on “Forking and Dongle Jokes Don’t Belong At Tech Conferences

  1. Joel

    Adria, above Snipe mentioned that it could have been her that made that type of joke(s). Would you have done the same things if it had been a woman making the jokes? Somehow I doubt it.

  2. adriarichards

    Sounds like you hit the nail on the head. All these efforts going on are to intimidate me into being a good, little, quiet woman who only speaks when spoken to. I will continue to speak up.

    And I’ll say it here again, I am not a feminist. Why? Because there is a much larger problem occurring at an institutional level and it all boils down to power.

  3. adriarichards

    @Mark,

    To be clear; the comments were not intended to build community and be inviting.

    It sounds like you haven’t experienced asking someone to stop and they haven’t.

    The guys behind me had the chance to do the right thing. It’s called “awareness”.

    While it seems you left a comment to “educate” me so i could “earn” your approval, thanks but no thanks.

    Were you at PyCon 2013? A personal experience from you own life vs you judging my actions would have been more valuable.

    When was the last time you spoke up at work or a conference on behalf of someone else? Share that story.

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