So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and the PyCon 2013 Incident

Women in tech, as a topic, has been popping up in the media I consume more regularly these days. In most cases, the observations are from third parties and almost universally frustrating to observe as a first party woman in tech. Case in point is Jon Ronson’s take on the PyCon 2013 sexism incident, which is included in his recently released book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In his book, Ronson examines the rising phenomenon of large-scale public shaming via social media, the primary example of which is the Justine Sacco incident wherein Sacco makes a tasteless tweet about her susceptibility to AIDS on her upcoming trip to Africa. While I’m ambivalent to Ronson’s commentary on the Sacco incident, I think he goes off the rails with his interpretation of the PyCon incident and completely overlooks the resulting positive shifts in tech towards supporting women and diversity in general.

To refresh: During PyCon 2013, a technology consultant (Adria Richards) tweeted about two men behind her during a conference session who were making juvenile and sexist jokes. Ultimately, both Richards and one of the men making the jokes [Details]. Ronson reframes the issue with a highly contested recounting of events and equates Richards’ tweet with Sacco’s thoughtless attempt at an Africa AIDS joke.

To me, Ronson’s assessment is completely tone deaf to the struggles of women in tech and the tremendous positive impact Richards’ brave actions have had on women in tech since the PyCon 2013 incident. Even more galling was that in that same podcast Ronson acknowledges the importance of public shaming for movements like #blacklivesmatter, where long-standing practices of police brutality towards African Americans are finally being regularly covered in mainstream media.

To me, the PyCon 2013 incident is much closer to the #blacklivesmatter movement than to Sacco’s shitty joke. While women in tech are not being murdered (though Richards’ has received death threats following PyCon 2013), we are being discouraged from and pushed out of an industry that, when it’s good, is both professionally fulfilling and economically empowering. Anecdotally, I have felt a positive shift in the tech industry towards women following PyCon 2013. There is also data to back this up. Consider the Google Trends results for “women in tech”:

Google Trends - %22women in tech%22

Google Trends Graph for “women in tech”

PyCon 2013 was in March 2013, which coincides with roughly double the interest in “women in tech” as observed through Google search requests. While that spike was temporary, the rate of interest in the topic has increased at a faster rate than pre-PyCon 2013. Last month, searches for “women in tech” essentially matched those of May 2013, though that peak is no longer an anomaly in the overall trend for the topic.

The Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) for Women in Computer Science – the largest conference for women in tech, almost doubled in attendance following the PyCon 2013 incident (2014 was the first GHC organized following PyCon 2013):

GHC Participation 1994 - 2014

 Source: GHC 2014 Impact Report

In addition to increased capacity, GHC 2014 had much more visible male participation from the mainstream, including the first-ever male keynote presented by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Nadella’s keynote contained some of his own tone deafness, but the response and engagement that resulted emphasized a real shift in our industry to acknowledge and address the challenges faced by women in tech.

I have also witnessed progress within Google, much of which isn’t publicly shareable, though the releasing of diversity stats has been a good step forward. The fight for women in tech and diversity in general at Google continues to be an uphill struggle, but I have felt the conversation switching from “is this really an issue?” to “how do we fix this?”. Which is why Ronson’s perspective is such a regression – he takes the conversation from “how to fix this?” all the way back to “is it polite to complain about the struggles of women in tech?”.

Polite or not, Adria Richards sounded an alarm that has been heard by and industry that has a deserved reputation for tone deafness to diversity. If tech can get it together to ask the right questions, I certainly hope Ronson can catch up as well.

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