By Dan Nakaso San Jose Mercury News
A female tech developer who outed men on Twitter for making inappropriate sexual comments at a Santa Clara, Calif., technology conference last weekend is being hailed as a champion for women in technology.
But the backlash against Adria Richards has been brutal and swift. Richards, who is based in San Francisco, has been fired from her job as a “developer evangelist” at SendGrid, a Colorado-based email delivery company, according to tech blog VentureBeat. And she has received disturbing comments on her Twitter feed and violent images referencing rape and murder.
“Every woman who works in this industry, including myself, has stories like this or worse,” said Catherine Bracy, who has worked in technology and written about Silicon Valley’s struggles with diversity. “The vast majority of the time we just suck it up and stay quiet. And nothing changes.
“These events certainly will make women think even harder about speaking up when they encounter sexist or inappropriate behavior at tech events – or even in the office – in the future. Everyone in the industry should be concerned about that.”
The uproar over Richards’ experience at this month’s PyCon conference comes after Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg sparked a broader conversation about women in the workplace, a particularly hot topic in the male-dominated Silicon Valley tech industry.
No one at SendGrid returned phone calls from the San Jose Mercury News for this report, and Richards did not respond to tweets, Facebook messages or telephone calls. But her use of social media to air her complaints at the conference brought immediate results, and much of the backlash.
On her blog at ButYoureAGirl.com, Richards wrote that last weekend “I publicly called out a group of guys at the PyCon conference who were not being respectful to the community.”
A group of men had been sitting behind Richards inside the conference ballroom, making inappropriate comments in response to a speaker, Richards wrote.
“I was telling myself if they made one more sexual joke, I’d say something,” she wrote.
She finally turned around and tweeted out a photo of the men that referenced comments they had made.
Richards tweeted her location in the ballroom audience and asked, “Can someone talk to these guys about their conduct?”
She then met with PyCon staff members, who escorted the men from the ballroom.
She later received a tweet back from PyCon that said, “Thank you adriarichards for bringing the inappropriate comments to our attention. We’ve dealt with the situation.”
In a sign that companies are taking complaints of inappropriate behavior seriously, Andy Yang, CEO of PlayHaven, a mobile-game company in San Francisco, wrote on his company’s blog that it had fired an employee because of comments he made at PyCon.
“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 honorable behavior, we conducted a thorough investigation. The result of this investigation led to the unfortunate outcome of having to let this employee go.”
Twitter has been buzzing about the fallout. While some voiced support for Richards, others referenced a photo that had been posted of a bloodied and beheaded woman that implied Richards could be raped and murdered. Still others called Richards dumb, said “I hate you” and hoped that she would kill herself.
Aminatou Sow, co-founder of the TechLady Mafia group, wonders if the male-dominated tech industry will ever accept women as equals.
“This isn’t the first time that a woman has heard a comment at a tech conference that makes their skin crawl,” Sow said. “But we live in an age where we can broadcast these things far and wide, and Adria had a platform. I think it’s crazy that people at a tech conference would be shocked that this kind of behavior would be broadcast to the entire world.”
Sow believes that Richards was acting on behalf of untold numbers of female technology workers who have endured even worse comments and behavior.
But after the publicity over Richards, Sow hopes even more women will call out similar behavior via social media.
“Somebody has to be at the forefront,” Sow said. “It doesn’t fix the problem. But it’s important to realize a lot of women are really frustrated. Social media now gives us this voice, and we’re going to use it to our advantage.”