The Dongle Incident

So, there was yet another incident involving a woman at a tech conference enduring unpleasant comments that were insensitive. Sexist, some say. Crude, very likely, if indeed the word dongle was used in the way most of us are assuming it was.

I’ve read many, many articles and blog posts about the incident. And just scrolling down to the comments of any of them is enough evidence that indeed something took place that made the woman involved feel uncomfortable, maybe even threatened. A Wired article I read earlier today had exactly zero female commenters of the 100 or so comments I skimmed. Many of them were along the lines of, “You shouldn’t be offended by the stupid stuff we say. You’re too sensitive.” Wow.

Just this morning, Mark Guzdial, who is a staunch advocate for getting more women involved in computer science was surprised that ten years after Unlocking the Clubhouse, women still experience bias, veiled threats, and ostracizing. Um, yeah, a book, even a good one, doesn’t fix things. A thousand paper cuts, indeed. Every time I go to a conference, and there are very few women, cut. An ad that assumes women can’t figure out a remote, much less a smartphone, cut. The Best Buy guy who talks to your husband and not you, even though you’re making the purchase, cut. Ads for tech where there are no women because, hey, only men invent things, cut. And I have tough skin. Imagine what that does to a 14 year old girl, or a 20 year old college student. Some will tough it out, but many will decide it’s not worth bleeding over.

What Adria Richards did was try to fix things in a very public way. Thanks to social media, her little revolution was televised. In my mind, she basically refused to sit at the back of the bus. Her attempt backfired, as it did, and does, for many people. Luckily, she lost only a job and not more. At least one of the men involved also lost his job. That’s at least some sense of justice.

But how do we fix this? There’s the Sheryl Sandberg mentality of leaning in, toughening up. But that is not enough. From what I can tell, many women are already doing this, have been doing this. I offer a few solutions. One, men need to step up. I know many who do. They need to recognize that these things happen, and just because they don’t see bad behavior doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Don’t participate in the activity and tell others who do to cut it out. That’s what we tell our children to do with bullies. A bystander is as bad as a bully.

Two, companies and conferences need to be more explicit about appropriate behavior and the repercussions for it. PyCon had such policies in place. What they didn’t have, apparently, was a set of procedures. I’m not going to say that Richards’ posting the incident to Twitter was right or wrong. She did what she thought she needed to do. I might have done the same thing, but if pyCon or the company the men worked for had clear reporting procedures, she might not have turned to twitter. Hard to know, but I know if I thought sending a private message to a specific email address would definitely get some action, then that might be the route I’d go.

Three, we just need more women. I have to believe the one-sided nature of all of this leads to some bad behavior, or at least lack of perspective. It’s a vicious circle, though. Incidents like this turn women off to tech, so there are fewer women. And more incidents like this, turning more women off . . .sigh.