misogyny in the workplace

The tweet read round the world.

What happens when men make boyish jokes at a tech conference and their picture gets tweeted? People get fired. At least that’s what happened this past week. The smoke’s still billowing from the internet inferno that followed the aforementioned. Let me tell you what happened in case you missed the hoopla.

Adria Richards, a developer and Tech Evangelist for Sendgrid, attended the Pycon tech conference last week. During one of the sessions, a couple men seated behind her made sophomorically lewd jokes about “big” dongles and forking. Yeah, you read right. If you’re not close to the tech world, you probably have no idea what a dongle is and forking is just a PC way of saying what happens when spooning escalates.

Anyway, she got fed up with the jokes, turned and snapped a picture of them, then tweeted the picture with a message that they were being inappropriate — hence the picture above. Conference staff saw the tweet, removed the two men from the room, and one of them was eventually fired by his employer (Haven’t been able to confirm the second man was fired). She also wrote a detailed blog post about the incident and why she took this approach.

Once the internet and developer world found out, Adria was harassed and threatened with gruesome images, the release of her personal information, reckless name-calling, and petitions for her to be fired. Hackers then attacked her site as well as Sendgrid’s, leading to the capitulation of her employer and her public termination. As an HR person, this is a PR, policy, and legal nightmare. Godspeed to whoever is processing all the paperwork.

The good things that emerged from this debacle were the mobilization of Adria’s supporters (check out the #TeamAdria hashtag) and the discussion about misogyny and sexual harassment in a male-dominated field. The bad things that came from this situation were fired employees, PR oil spills, and proof that where accountability is absent, savage tendencies prevail.

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And as I watched all this play out, I felt torn. I know Adria and I’m friends with people close to her. I know that she meant well. I know that the people supporting her mean well. I don’t believe that she nor the developers in question should’ve been fired. I do believe she was the victim of both sexual harassment and misogynistic comments after this story broke — exposing the ill effects of anonymity and confirming that the devil does indeed wear internet. I also think this whole mess could’ve been avoided had she just turned around and told the guys to knock it off, or just alerted conference staff that the men seated behind her were making her uncomfortable. However, none of this is why I’m torn.

I’d like to pivot and talk about the the use of the terms “misogyny” and “sexual harassment.”

I mentioned earlier that it was great to see the mobilization of Adria supporters. In fact, as someone that’s benefitted from her tech advice, I consider myself one of them. However, I’ve seen far too many headlines, tweets, and Facebook messages claiming that she was fired for outing misogynists and sexual harassers, when it appears she was fired for putting her company and herself in a tough spot with regard to their business and her role as a developer relationship specialist (not her official title).

Misogyny has become an overused term to describe anything said by a man that a woman finds disagreeable. Of course ALL women don’t define it this way, but there are enough that it makes me wince and cry aloud. The response to Adria’s story was yet another example of how the term is misused.

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When I look up the definition of misogyny, I see the hatred, strong dislike, denigration, and/or sexual objectification of women. I don’t see guys making sophomoric jokes that aren’t geared toward or at women. Remember, these guys were talking amongst themselves and irresponsibly loud about technological double entendres. Though you’re most likely not a geek, you’ve probably made or laughed at a double entendre at some point in your life. Jokes are usually harmless until someone tells you they’re not; at which point if you’re the jokester, you feel embarrassed, apologize, and keep it moving. This is where sexual harassment comes into play.

In the workplace, there are primarily two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. The most applicable version here is the latter, which is essentially defined as subjecting someone to unwanted sexual behavior including, but not limited to, the posting of raunchy pictures, and the consistent telling of dirty jokes and/or sexually suggestive remarks. One joke or a series of jokes does not hostile work environment make. When it gets to that level, it means the offended has voiced his or her discomfort and the jokes or comments continued. Otherwise, it’s just misconduct.

My goal in defining this isn’t to make it a legal issue. It’s to point out how terms are being thrown around without the knowledge or implications of their meanings. And as someone that’s spent a few years in sales, a male-dominated field, and HR, a woman-dominated field, I can tell you that it’s easy to drop your guard and say something off the cuff that you think is funny or status quo. It may seem innocuous to you and 90% of the people around you, but if one person expresses discomfort, you apologize and watch your mouth because you don’t want a sexual harassment claim on your record. I think this is something many men fear, which makes us filter more than most women realize. I’m not saying that we’re all heathens. I’m also not saying that all guy talk is inherently misogynistic. Jokes aside, it sucks not being able to voice an opinion or make what may seem like a harmless comment without worry of being labeled a misogynist or sexual harasser, but you gotta play by the rules. That’s life. But let’s not assign meaning where there is none.

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And that’s why this is so bothersome. I’m all about supporting open discussion on workplace inequality and communication between the sexes on hot topics. I’m all about standing against the onslaught that Adria faced once this story broke. I just can’t get behind the free-throwing of the terms misogyny and sexual harassment when it comes to the incident that started this all. And the fact I had to read the previous sentence three times to ensure it couldn’t be misinterpreted is a problem in itself. If you’re going to throw around those terms regardless of their real meaning, you’re no better than the people you’re accusing. Do your part, and I’ll do my best to do mine. Reach one. Teach one. Just don’t tweet about them first.

SBM Fam, what do you think?

Live, from the egg shell,

slim jackson

Twitter: @slimjackson