No one should have been fired. Now can we all just calm down?

Backstory: At PyCon, a python developers conference which purports to have a relatively large percentage of women (only 20% still), two guys made some jokes to each other laced with sexual innuendos (something about the word “dongle”). Adria Richards, a Developer Evangelist, was bothered by these comments and took some a picture of them. She then reported it via Twitter (with their picture) and asked PyCon staff to speak to the men, which they did. Then, she followed up with a blog post. As a result, one of the two men was fired. The internet got mad and then Adria was fired.

Okay, look, some guys made some immature jokes. They were not harassing her or other women directly, but the comments did bother Adria for whatever reason.

  • Conclusion: Everyone, including these guys, should probably be more mindful of their words in public. This is especially true when using sexual language in a context where women have been traditionally discriminated against. It’s likely to make some people feel uncomfortable.

Adria, then, took a picture of the guys and posted it to Twitter, asking PyCon staff to look into it. She followed up with a blog post, re-posting the picture and explaining what happened.

  • Conclusion: She shouldn’t have done that. The embarrassment / impact to these guys is disproportionate with their actions. However, we do need to look at her actions in context.
  • An analogy: Imagine the nerd who gets picked on by his classmates everyday. One day, someone makes a comment. It’s not even that bad of a comment, particularly in comparison with the other comments he hears. But he’s had enough and he lashes out and he punches the “bully.”Is he right to punch him? No, of course not. But, at the same time, I think we can all have a little bit of sympathy for the nerd here. (In fact, I’ve seen a number of YouTube videos “celebrating” the nerd who did just that.)
  • The Context: She’s a woman in tech who puts up with a lot of sexist / sexual comments. And I do mean “puts up with.” Like the rest of us, she virtually never says anything. Finally, one day, she got sick of it and took a stand. This “stand” was, admittedly, disproportionate with the actions the guys took, and that’s unfortunate. It doesn’t make what she did totally okay. However, it’s worth taking into account that this was her reaction to a pattern of behavior she witnesses; it was certainly not a pattern of her behavior to do this.

Of the two guys, one was fired.

  • Conclusion: This was stupid, and I don’t understand why he was fired. He was not facing a negative backlash, nor was his company. Maybe his company felt that making some silly sexual jokes was enough to justify firing him, but again, that’s stupid…. unless there’s more to the story — i.e., he was really being fired for something, and this was just a convenient excuse.

People got all riled up about what Adria did. Then, Adria was fired.

  • Conclusion: Okay, I get it. Adria is a Developer Evangelist, and developers are not exactly loving her right now. I understand her company deciding to do some damage control and fire her, particularly given her role.At the same time, no, I don’t think it was appropriate for the company to fire her. In doing so, they’re sending a message: We don’t care how many times you’ve put up with sexism. Speak up in the wrong way once, and that’s it.It’s like the school expelling the nerd who lashed out and punched the bully, and failing to understand that the nerd has sat their quietly taking this abuse, every prior time.

    How comfortable do you think other women and minorities will feel speaking up about sexism? Remember: if you publicly name the person who you feel mistreated you, you’ll get fired. If you speak up in a way people think is overreacting, you’ll get fired. I’d sure think twice (not that I don’t already!).

Seriously, everyone just needs to calm down here.

  • To the guys: think twice next time about what you say, but I think you already know that.
  • To Adria RichardsI sympathize with your position, but you made an example out of two guys who didn’t deserve all that. Please do talk to staff about inappropriate comments, and have them talk to the offenders. Please do tweet and blog about sexism you see. More of us need to do that. But before naming someone publicly, really think about if they deserve the backlash that they may face. Remember that if all people know about someone is one action, they’ll assume that one action is representative. It’s not fair to those guys. (Nor is it fair how people are treating you.)
  • To the guy’s company: If the whole reason you fired this guy was his actions here, you screwed up. I just don’t get why you fired him. You really didn’t need to protect yourself from bad PR here, because there really was none. And, frankly, it doesn’t reflect well on you that you were so desperate to cover your own butts that you were willing to penalize someone who’s relatively innocent. Next time, at least wait a few days and see how the story develops.
  • To Adria’s company: Like I said, I get why you fired her. She’s a Developer Evangelist who just pissed off a whole lot of developers. You wanted to distance yourself from her. I get it.Unfortunately, your actions here have repercussions for women and other minorities in tech and at your company.Next time, distance yourself in a way that doesn’t penalize her so harshly. Why not post a notice like this?

    We are sympathetic to Adria’s concerns, and understand that the comments she overheard made her uncomfortable. Her feelings are valid and she is fully entitled to them. We also understand that, as a woman in tech, this is only one of many sexist / sexual comments she hears on a regular basis. Her actions must be taken under that context.

    We have spoken with Adria at length about this incident. We do not support her posting a picture of the two men publicly, and we are very sorry that this resulted in one of those two men being fired. (If you’re open to considering our company, the entire SendGrid team — including Adria — would welcome your application.)

    However, her actions were hers and hers alone. She stands behind them, although we do not. We understand that there can be many, equally valid views on this matter, and we also understand that employees should be allowed to have different opinions from their employees. We do not feel that one misstep should necessarily terminate someone’s career — and that goes for all parties in this matter.

    Thus, although we do not support Adria’s exposing the men in this way, we do respect that employees must be given some latitude to act as they feel is appropriate. This is a tough issue on both sides, and there are no easy answers for how to deal with sexism and related issues. A single action does not speak for a person’s entire life and one person does not speak for an entire company.

    Regardless of the merits of this situation, Adria has been a strong advocate of developers. We look forward to her continuing to do great work for our company, and we hope the tech community can move on and learn from this incident.

    See that? You can distance yourself from her actions without sending a terrible message to women and minorities.

Frankly, I’m sick of seeing people — developers, politicians, etc — fired for one mistake. How many of us are so perfect that nothing we say or do could ever, if blasted all over the media, reflect quite poorly on us?

Gayle Laakmann McDowell

Gayle Laakmann McDowell is the founder / CEO of CareerCup, and the author of Cracking the Coding Interview, Cracking the PM Interview, and The Google Resume. Gayle has worked as a software engineer for Microsoft, Apple and Google. She holds a bachelor's and master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Computer Science, and an MBA from the Wharton School. She currently resides in Palo Alto, CA.

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