Dick Jokes Considered Harmful

Posted on Mar 21, 2013

Software developers as a bunch tend to consider themselves smart, enlightened people. We like to think we understand epistemology, logic, and rational thought. We believe we can think critically as it is a cornerstone of our practice.

Why then is sexism such a large problem in our industry? Why are there smart, rational software developers who honestly believe that dick jokes are harmless and appropriate to be making at a conference in a public hall among thousands of their peers? The majority of us can agree that sexism is a problem but struggle to realize that many of us are perpetuating the problem.

Let’s start with dick jokes.

The PyCon Incident

On the Sunday of the conference two men made the mistake of making lewd jokes of a sexual nature while sitting behind a vocal, female developer evangelist, Adria Richards. She recounts the details of the event on her blog and I highly recommend reading it.

Essentially the jokes were interjected into an otherwise benign conversation. She turned around to snap some photos of the offenders and posted them along side some tweets. The conference staff promptly handled the situation. That is all that happened.

Except that one of the two men involved with making said jokes was fired from his job. And there are more than a few who are uncomfortable with the way Adria Richards had responded to the situation. Many consider it an over-reaction if not completely wrong and are demanding an apology both from her and the company she represents.

The Aftermath

A thread of acidic vitriol erupted on Hacker News yesterday when an anonymous person made a public demand for Adria to make an apology to the man whose job was lost as a result of her public shaming of him. The open letter makes some claims to insider knowledge of the event that often run contrary to the events recollected by Adria Richards on her blog. Unfortunately the anonymous nature of the letter forces me to call into question the validity of such claims.

Amongst the out-cry lies the central question of whether Adria’s response was appropriate and not an over-reaction. There are many who fear that public shaming is not an acceptable response and more discreet measures should be taken in these sorts of situations. While I would agree that vigilante justice is not a form of justice we should aspire to I am left wondering whether the more discrete approach would have been as effective.

Maybe this community needs a wake-up call. While it is unfortunate that this man lost his job it does have the side effect of causing each and every person about to make a dick joke in a similar situation to think twice (at least I hope it will). And therein lies the problem with the more discrete solution: it does nothing from preventing dick jokes to perpetuate in the future. A public shaming like this one may cause more than just these two men to reconsider their behavior well beyond this one incident.

I myself had to endure a rather uncomfortable situation at PyCon when a male colleague felt compelled to make inappropriate sexist remarks. I took the discrete approach. I told him that it was inappropriate to be making those comments and did my best to end the conversation. His face is not on the Internet and he will likely keep his job.

As I read Adria’s post and the thread of hate-filled comments on Hacker News I came to think that perhaps her response was appropriate. There may come a time when the little girl depicted in the slide for whom Adria was concerned will attend a conference. If we continue to quietly, discretely handle each “harmless” dick joke we encounter then we’re not really doing anything about dick jokes. That little girl may end up having to face these same questions herself at a conference she would rather be enjoying than suffering.

We need to stop being so quiet about sexism and be more vocal. Dick jokes are not the end of the world but there is a time and a place for them. It’s not in a hall full of people attending a conference. I hope that this event will make those of us who think dick jokes are harmless to think twice before making them in an inappropriate setting. Let us not forget what happened.

Adria: DO NOT APOLOGIZE! And I hope her employer will continue to stand behind her. It’s time this sort of thing is put to an end.