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Two people fired over PyCon 'dongle' joke

After a man made a "dongle" joke at a tech conference, two people lost their jobs: the man who made the joke — and the woman who publicly called him out.


After a man made a "dongle" joke at a tech conference, two people lost their jobs: the man who made the joke — and the woman who publicly called him out.

(Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET Australia)

There's no denying that some pretty awful sexist things can happen at tech and gaming conferences — from sexist keynote speeches to groping and harassment. These things are harmful and ought to be called out as they make those spaces unwelcoming to women.

Perhaps that was what was on Adria Richards' (a developer evangelist for the mail service SendGrid) mind when she heard a couple of blokes behind her joking around at PyCon, the annual Python conference. When she heard "forking repos" and "big dongles", her response was to stand up, snap a photo, then tweet it publicly with the PyCon hashtag, citing the PyCon Code of Conduct: "Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks."

The conference organisers were swift to attend to the issue and moderated between the parties. The chap who had made the quips — an employee of PlayHaven, an app monetisation company — apologised. And that's where it should have ended.

Until Richards made a blog post outlining the incident; and the man popped up on Hacker News under the name mr-hank, revealing that he'd been fired:

I really did not mean to offend anyone, and I really do regret the comment and how it made Adria feel. She had every right to report me to staff and I defend her position. However, there is another side to this story. While I did make a big dongle joke about a fictional piece [of] hardware that [we] identified as male, no sexual jokes were made about forking. My friends and I had decided forking someone's repo is a new form of flattery (the highest form being implementation), and we were excited about one of the presenters projects; a friend said, "I would fork that guys repo". The sexual context was applied by Adria, and not us.

My second comment is this: Adria has an audience and is a successful person of the media. Just check out her web page linked in her twitter account; her hard work and social activism speaks for itself. With that great power and reach comes responsibility. As a result of the picture she took, I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have 3 kids and I really liked that job.

She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate. Let this serve as a message to everyone: our actions and words, big or small, can have a serious impact.

Andy Yang, CEO of PlayHaven, added, "PlayHaven had an employee who was identified as making inappropriate comments at PyCon, and as a company that is dedicated to gender equality and values honourable behaviour, we conducted a thorough investigation. The result of this investigation led to the unfortunate outcome of having to let this employee go."

This led to a massive internet backlash against Richards, including internet vitriol , DDoS attacks on her blog, a 4chan campaign to get Richards fired and a concerted DDoS attack on SendGrid.

Which, at around 3am AEDST, led to Richards' position being terminated. The company gave a statement that, while it supported Richards' right to report inappropriate behaviour, it could not support her methods.

A SendGrid developer evangelist's responsibility is to build and strengthen our developer community across the globe. In light of the events over the last 48+ hours, it has become obvious that her actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite. As a result, she can no longer be effective in her role at SendGrid.

It's a situation that could have been absolutely avoided at several junctures and has had a massively negative impact on the image of the parties involved — most of all Richards. Public discourse is absolutely important in some cases, but we've seen over and over how badly things can go when people take their grievances public and leave tact behind.

PyCon, for its part, has updated its Code of Conduct with the note: "Public shaming can be counter-productive to building a strong community. PyCon does not condone nor participate in such actions out of respect."