I’ve been watching the whole Adria Richards fiasco with a sense of horror and disgust. I’m finally going to say something, but for the most part, it’s going to be indirect.
See, I’m a white guy, born as a member of an upper middle class white family. That means that I’m awfully lucky. I’m part of the group that is, effectively, treated as the normal, default person in most settings. I’m also a guy who’s married to a chinese woman, and who’s learned a bit about how utterly clueless I am.
Here’s the fundamental issue that underlies all of this, and many similar stories: our society is deeply sexist and racist. We are all raised in an environment in which mens voices are more important than womens. It’s so deeply ingrained in us that we don’t even notice it.
What this means is that we are all to some degree, sexist, and racist. When I point this out, people get angry. We also have learned that sexism is a bad thing. So when I say to someone that you are sexist, it’s really easy to interpret that as me saying that you’re a bad person: sexism is bad, if I’m sexist, them I’m bad.
But we really can’t get away from this reality. We are sexists. For many of us, we’re not deliberately sexist, we’re not consciously sexist. But we are sexist.
Here’s a really interesting experiment to try, if you have the opportunity. Visit an elementary school classroom. First, just watch the teacher interact with the students while they’re teaching. Don’t try to count interactions. Just watch. See if you think that any group of kids is getting more attention than any other. Most of the time, you probably will get a feeling that they’re paying roughly equal attention to the boys and the girls, or to the white students and the black students. Then, come back on a different day, and count the number of times that they call on boys versus calling on girls. I’ve done this, after having the idea suggested by a friend. The result was amazing. I really, honestly believed that the teacher was treating her students (the teacher I did this with was a woman) equally. But when I counted?She was calling on boys twice as often as girls.
This isn’t an unusual outcome. Do some looking online for studies of classroom gender dynamics, and you’ll find lots of structured observations that come to the same conclusion.
My own awakening about these kinds of things came from my time working at IBM. I’ve told this first story before, but it’s really worth repeating.
One year, I managed the summer intership programs for my department. The previous summer, IBM research had wound up with an intership class consisting of 99% men. (That’s not an estimate: that’s a real number. That year, IBM research hired 198 summer interns, of whom 2 were women.) For a company like IBM, numbers like that are scary. Ignoring all of the social issues of excluding potentially great candidates, numbers like that can open the company up to gender discrimination lawsuits!
So my year, they decided to encourage the hiring of more diverse candidates. The way that they did that was by allocating each department a budget for summer interns. They could only hire up to their budgeted number of interns. Only women and minority candidates didn’t count against the budget.
When the summer program hiring opened, my department was allocated a budget of six students. All six slots were gone within the first day. Every single one of them went to a white, american, male student.
The second day, the guy across the hall from me came with a resume for a student he wanted to hire. This was a guy who I really liked, and really respected greatly. He was not, by any reasonable measure, a bad guy – he was a really good person. Anyway, he had this resume, for yet another guy. I told him the budget was gone, but if he could find a good candidate who was either a woman or minority, that we could hire them. He exploded, ranting about how we were being sexist, discriminating against men. He just wanted to hire the best candidate for the job! We were demanding that he couldn’t hire the best candidate, he had to hire someone less qualified, in order to satisfy some politically correct bureaucrat! There was nothing I could do, so eventually he stormed out.
Three days later, he came back to my office with another resume. He was practically bouncing off the walls he was so happy. “I found another student to hire. She’s even better than the guy I originally came to you with! She’s absolutely perfect for the job!”. We hired her.
I asked him why he didn’t find her before. He had no answer – he didn’t know why he didn’t find her resume of his first search.
This was a pattern that I observed multiple times that year. Looking through a stack of resumes, without deliberately excluding women, somehow, all of the candidates with female names wound up back in the slushpile. I don’t think that anyone was deliberately saying “Hmm, Jane, that’s a woman’s name, I don’t want to hire a woman”. But I do think that in the process of looking through a file containing 5000 resumes, trying to select which ones to look at, on an unconscious level, they were more likely to look carefully at a candidate with a male name, because we all learn, from a young age, that men are smarter than women, men are more serious than women, men are better workers than women, men are more likely to be technically skilled than women. Those attitudes may not be part of our conscious thought, but they are part of the cultural background that gets drummed into us by school, by books, by movies, by television, by commercials.
As I said, that was a real awakening for me.
I was talking about this with my next-door office neighbor, who happened to be one of the only two women in my department (about 60 people) at the time. She was shocked that I hadn’t noticed this before. So she pointed out to me that in meetings, she could say things, and everyone would ignore it, but if a guy said the same thing, they’d get listened to. We’d been in many meetings together, and I’d never noticed this!
So I started paying attention, and she was absolutely right.
What happened next is my second big awakening.
I started watching this in meetings, and when people brushed over something she’d said, I’d raise my voice and say “X just suggested blah, which I think is a really good idea. What about it?”. I wanted to help get her voice listened to.
She was furious at me. This just blew my mind. I was really upset at her at first. Dammit, I was trying to help, and this asshole was yelling at me for it! She’d complained about how people didn’t listen to her, and now when I was trying to help get her listened to, she was complaining again!
What I realized after I calmed down and listened to her was that I was wrong. I hadn’t spoken to her about doing it. I didn’t understand what it meant. But the problem was, people didn’t take her seriously because she was a woman. People might listen to me, because I’m also a white guy. But when I spoke for her, I wasn’t helping. When a man speaks on behalf of a woman, we’re reinforcing the idea that a woman’s voice isn’t supposed to be heard. I was substituting my man’s voice for her woman’s, and by doing that, I was not just not helping her, but I was actively hurting, because the social interpretation of my action was that “X can’t speak for herself”. And more, I learned that by taking offense at her, for pointing out that I had screwed up, I was definitely in the wrong – that I had an instinct for reacting wrong.
What I learned, gradually, from watching things like this, from becoming more sensitive and aware, and by listening to what women said, was that this kind of thing is that I was completely clueless.
The fact is, I constantly benefit from a very strong social preference. I don’t notice that. Unless I’m really trying hard to pay attention, I’m not aware of all of the benefits that I get from that. I don’t notice all of the times when I’m getting a benefit. Worse, I don’t notice all of the times when my behavior is asserting that social preference as my right.
It’s very easy for a member of an empowered majority to just take things for granted. We see the way that we are treated as a default, and assume that everyone is treated the same way. We don’t perceive that we are being treated preferentially. We don’t notice that the things that offend us are absolutely off limits to everyone, but that things that we do to offend others are accepted as part of normal behavior. Most importantly, we don’t notice when our behavior is harmful to people who aren’t part of our empowered group. And when we do offend someone who isn’t part of the empowered majority, we take offense at the fact that they’re offended. Because they’re saying that we did something bad, and we know that we aren’t bad people!
The way that this comes back to the whole Adria Richards fiasco is very simple. Many people have looked at what happened at PyCon, and said something like “She shouldn’t have tweeted their picture”, or “She shouldn’t have been offended, they didn’t do anything wrong”, or “She should have just politely spoken to them”.
I don’t know whether what she did was right or not. I wasn’t there. I didn’t hear the joke that the guys in question allegedly told. What I do know is that for a member of the minority out-group, there is frequently no action that will be accepted as “right” if it includes the assertion that the majority did something offensive.
I’ve seen this phenomena very directly myself, not in the context of sexism, but in terms of antisemitism. There’s an expression that I’ve heard multiple times in the northeast US, to talk about bartering a price for a car: “jewing the salesman down”. I absolutely find that extremely offensive. And I’ve called people out on it. There is no response that’s actually acceptable.
If I politely say “You know, that’s relying on a stereotype of me and my ancestors that’s really hurtful”, the response is: “Oh, come on, it’s just harmless. I’m not talking about you, it’s just a word. You’re being oversensitive”. If I get angry, the response is “You Jews are so strident”. If I go to an authority figure in the setting, “You Jews are so passive aggressive, why couldn’t you just talk to me?”. No matter what I do, I’m wrong. Women deal with this every day, only they’re in a situation where the power dynamic is even less in their favor.
That’s the situation that women – particularly women in tech – find themselves in every day. We are sexist. We do mistreat women in tech every day, without even knowing that we’re doing it. And we’re very likely to take offense if they mention that we did something wrong. Because we know that we’re good people, and since we aren’t deliberately doing something bad, they must be wrong.
For someone in Adria Richards’ situation at PyCon, there is no course of action that can’t be taken wrong. As a woman hearing the joke in question, she certainly knew whether or not it was offensive to her. But once she’d heard something offensive, there was nothing she could do that someone couldn’t turn into a controversy.
Was the joke offensive? We don’t know what, specifically, he said. The only fact that we’re certain of is that in her judgement, it was offensive; that the authorities at PyCon agreed, and asked the gentleman in question to apologize.
Did the guy who made the joke deserve to be fired? I don’t know. If this stupid joke were the first time he’d ever done something wrong, then he didn’t deserve to be fired. But we don’t know what his history is like. I know how hard it is to hire skilled engineers, so I’m very skeptical that any company would fire someone over one minor offense. It’s possible that his company has a crazy hair-trigger HR department. But it’s also possible that there’s background that we don’t know about. That he’s done stuff before, and been warned. If that’s the case, then his company could have decided that this was the last straw.
Did Adria Richards deserve to be fired? Almost certainly not. We know more about her case than we do about the guy who told the joke. We know that her company fired her over this specific incident, because in their announcement of her firing, they told us the reason. They didn’t cite any past behavior – they just specifically cited this incident and its aftermath as the reason for firing her. It’s possible that there’s a history here that we don’t know about, that she’d soured relations with customers of her company in incidents other than this, and that this was a last straw. But it doesn’t seem likely, based on the facts that we’re aware of.
Did either of them deserve to be threatened? Absolutely not.