A recent incident at the annual PyCon conference for python developers ended up in 2 developers losing their jobs, but serves to highlight the plight of women in the industry.
Adria Richards, now ex-employee of tech company SendGrid, was embroiled in controversy following events at the 2013 PyCon conference in California. Richards, who had been speaking at various tech conferences, evoked a storm when she tweeted a picture of two men behind her who had made sexual innuendo jokes. As a result, one of the men who made the comments was fired from his company.
The decision to report the incident through social media, when Richards has thousands of followers on Twitter, was met with huge scorn, and because of the resulting job loss, was subjected to vile abuse from several corners of the internet. Ultimately, in the wake of the incident, SendGrid decided to terminate her employment, citing their discontent with how she decided to report the men as the main reason behind the decision.
The aftermath of this episode has led to big discussions on the impact of social media, as well as the culture in tech.
A majority of jobs in the tech industry are held by men, and while there has been an upward surge in the number of women in the industry, they are still rather underrepresented in the field. That Richards ultimately suffered death and rape threats, as well as numerous violent and racist tweets and even had her site taken down by hackers, only serves to show that speaking out is enough to rile up many members of the community.
Meritocracy is the champion of the technology industry. However, the much lower proportion of women, and indeed, black and latino people in the industry shatters the myth that it is truly run in this way. Especially at startups in America, it is mostly white and Asian males who dominate.
Why is diversity is so hard to find in the industry?
Many would argue it begins in education. Women are generally not as encouraged as men to enter STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, thus fostering a self-perpetuating exclusionary practice where women in the industry are seen as “different.”
Richards has written in her blog before that "Women in technology need consistent messaging from birth through retirement they are welcome, competent and valued in the industry."
Beginning at education, making sure women and other minorities can also participate in technology would be a great leap forward in eliminating the diversity problems that technology companies in the western world currently face. There are far more job openings than can be filled, so including a wider demographic into this sector would benefit both those who are currently in want of a job, and the companies who need the positions filled. As perhaps one of the most important industries in the developed world, diversifying the market and satisfying the demand for skilled workers would only bring about positive change.
The incident also highlighted the very powerful effect social media can have.
Due to the way Richards decided to report the events, it brought things into the public sphere and drew heavy criticism from numerous sides.A lot of people felt that, in condemning the men in public without letting them know that she felt uncomfortable with their remarks, and leaving them to the “lynch mob” of her Twitter followers - she did not give the men the appropriate chance to correct their behaviour.
The power of social media to escalate situations and cause embarrassment to all involved parties means people need to be careful with what they decide to publish. Perhaps, for example, Richards could have communicated her discomfort to the men and asked them to stop, possibly averting the public critique and humiliation currently faced by both.
Yet in light of all this, hopefully some good can be drawn from it. Perhaps improved communication and dialogue involving diversity in the workplace for tech companies could take place.
As the industry continues to grow and require more employees to fill the positions that are in demand, diversifying the worker base could prove invaluable for the economic growth of Silicon Valley. Creating an environment where everyone feels welcomed and able to do their best would be a benefit to all. If any real good can come from this, it is to be the catalyst for that change.