Deconstructing Donglegate: Lessons from an HR Fiasco

Stressed office worker at computer

In 2012, Julia Elman, an American IT professional, attended a tech industry conference with no policy in place to address sexual harassment. Thanks to repeated sexual advances by an aggressive male, she was forced to flee an informal gathering of event participants that should have offered her a chance to unwind and network with professional peers. Following this incident, Elman and her employer issued a call to action, which helped convince organizers of PyCon, a developer conference for the Python computing language community, to implement an event code of conduct. When announcing the move, PyCon chair Jesse Noller insisted it was not meant to take away anyone’s rights, “unless you feel your rights include sexual harassment, putting pornography in talk slides, or making sexist or racist jokes in a large group.” Attendees, he noted, would still be able to “cuss like a sailor,” just not in public or to strangers. At the time, nobody imagined the PR and HR nightmares that the policy in question would create for PyCon, not to mention two companies that fired employees for bad behaviour at a Pycon event in March, 2013. Based on research conducted for an Ivey Business School case study, this article explores lessons learned from what has become known as the Donglegate Affair.

How to deal with sexism and misogyny is a divisive topic, especially in the tech community. Some community members see the industry’s frat-like mentality and the Beavis & Butthead humour that it generates as an asset that fosters creativity. But the boy’s club culture clearly makes many people uncomfortable, especially individuals who fear or have been exposed to harassment. As a result, unprofessional behaviour is widely seen as a barrier to greater female participation in the male-dominated sector, which is why conference organizers have started implementing codes of conduct to encourage attendance by individuals who typically avoid industry events.

The PyCon Code of Conduct, which helped event organizers attract an audience that was more than 20 per cent female, was considered an important step in the right direction by feminists, including Adria Richards, a black female developer evangelist, who attended PyCon as a representative of U.S. email company SendGrid. During the closing session, Richards became offended after hearing male developers behind her using two tech terms—dongle and forking—in questionable ways. As a male computer peripheral, a dongle is often inspiration for juvenile penis jokes. Forking means to build upon another person’s development work. As a result, some developers like to say, “I’d fork you,” which often leads to fornication jokes.

This wasn’t the first code-breaking behaviour to adversely affect Richards’ conference experience that day. During lunch, a male attendee looked under the table skirt and joked to a woman about finding it “bare,” adding that was just the way he liked finding things under skirts. In this case, Richards unsuccessfully tried to explain privately to the male jokester why his remarks were inappropriate. But circumstances led to a different response by Richards to the dongle and forking jokes, which were overheard in a crowded male-dominated room as event organizers were highlighting efforts to increase female participation in the Python community.

Instead of directly reporting the code breakers to PyCon officials, or simply asking the men to stop making inappropriate jokes, Richards took a picture and used her relatively high-profile twitter account to expose the unprofessional behaviour.

Richards issued a second tweet to ask event organizers to address the issue and a third explained her actions with a link to the PyCon Code of Conduct. Conference officials sent someone to reprimand the men. They also issued a tweet of their own to thank Richards, who was elated to have been “heard.”  But unexpected consequences cost Richards her job and forced her to withdraw from the blogosphere out of fear for her safety.

At least one of the men involved in the incident was employed by the American software firm PlayHaven, which was a PyCon sponsor. And after news of his public shaming spread, company officials fired him. As CEO Andy Yang explained in a posted statement:

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. We value and protect the privacy of our employees, both past and present, and we will not comment on all the factors that contributed to our parting ways. 

The developer in question insisted the conversation Richards overheard did not include fornication jokes, but he admitted to making penis jokes. And although he didn’t think it appropriate for Richards to use social media to make her point, he apologized to the female developer evangelist, who clearly was not directly responsible for costing anyone a job. Other people in the tech community, however, subjected Richards to a flood of ignorant comments related to her race and gender. She was terrorized with rape and death threats. Hackers invaded her privacy and threatened her coworkers and her employer’s ability to operate.

SendGrid’s website was disabled. Shortly after, the company dismissed Richards, publically arguing that her actions at PyCon had crossed the line and divided the tech community, making it impossible for her to be effective as a software evangelist. As SendGrid CEO Jim Franklin explained in a written public statement:

On Sunday at PyCon, Adria Richards felt comments made behind her during a conference session were inappropriate and of an offensive, sexual nature. We understand that Adria believed the conduct to be inappropriate and support her right to report the incident to PyCon personnel. To be clear, SendGrid supports the right to report inappropriate behaviour, whenever and wherever it occurs.

What we do not support is how she reported the conduct. Her decision to tweet the comments and photographs of the people who made the comments crossed the line. Publicly shaming the offenders – and bystanders – was not the appropriate way to handle the situation. Even PyCon has since updated their Code of Conduct [to explicitly rule out public shaming] due to this situation. Needless to say, a heated public debate ensued. The discourse, productive at times, quickly spiraled into extreme vitriol.

A SendGrid developer evangelist’s responsibility is to build and strengthen our Developer Community across the globe. In light of the events over the last 48+ hours, it has become obvious that her actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite. As a result, she can no longer be effective in her role at SendGrid.

In the end, the consequences that resulted from how she reported the conduct put our business in danger. Our commitment to our 130 employees, their families, our community members and our more than 130,000 valued customers is our primary concern.

We will continue listening to the community, addressing this situation constructively, and serving our customers to the best of our ability.

Donglegate clearly demonstrated that there is a high level of sexism and misogyny in the sector. Indeed, regardless of your opinion of Richards, the extreme reactions to her tweet illustrate quite clearly the larger point that she set out to make: The IT world can be severely hostile to women who don’t support a status quo that can disadvantage them. This has serious implications for industry and society and is an issue companies need to be prepared to address.

Richards wasn’t harassed in the traditional sense. She also didn’t follow the process for filing complaints as outlined by PyCon, which stated that incidents should be confidentially reported, preferably in writing, to conference officials, who reserved the right to decide how to proceed. However, the comments that offended Richards clearly broke the stated rules: rules which had raised her expectations for a positive conference experience. And when the rules failed to deliver what was promised, she reacted in a way that made sense to her in the moment.

Many people argue Richards made a mountain out of a molehill. But according to her blog, her life has been tough, including physical abuse by men. So confronting a group of males in a room full of men was not the simple option that many observers claim. Furthermore, as a feminist, Richards has made a point of standing up to unprofessional behaviour, so ignoring men making penis jokes during a talk about increasing the presence of woman in technology wasn’t an option, either. What about leaving the conference session to complain? That would have made her miss a talk about an issue she cares about.

Simply put, Richards responded to an issue created by others in a way that would get results, but not make her feel uncomfortable or miss out. And that is something conference organizers must consider when issuing codes of conducts. Clear guidance on appropriate mechanisms for reporting wrongdoing must be issued and substantial thought must go into making people feel confident that speaking up in the requested way will get real results when warranted.

Individuals, meanwhile, need to understand that speaking up is important, but it carries the potential for negative consequences. Richards’ termination was not a case of blame the victim. She exposed herself to dismissal by not following the rules for reporting complaints while pushing PyCon to come down on rude behaviour, which was not harassment as most people see it.

Even when we strongly believe that we are on the side of right, it is critical to think through how best to get our message across, especially when acting as a company representative because any action taken will impact the reputation of employee and employer alike. What type of change are you seeking? What is the most effective way to achieve that change? Emotional reactions must be countered with a commitment to gathering all information possible in order to take actions that will be defensible.

People must ultimately be guided by conscience. But when thinking about speaking up, especially in a public manner, one must consider what repercussions will be acceptable to all concerned, including employers. And although whistleblowers are not responsible for unwise or intemperate actions taken ostensibly in response to their whistleblowing, repercussions for the subject of any complaint must be considered before taking action.

It sounds obvious, but caution must also be taken when joking around in a professional environment, especially in the age of social media. While dongle jokes are common in the tech industry, it clearly takes a serious lack of judgment for someone working for an event sponsor to make penis jokes at a conference with a code of conduct designed to help attract more women, especially during a presentation on improving female participation in the industry.

What about Human Resources departments? When employees are caught up in a Donglegate-like fiasco, HR officials need to take a deep breath and calmly gather all relevant information before making decisions. They also need to be transparent about the decisions made. True or not, Richards’ company, which gained goodwill employing a high-profile activist, seemed more concerned with avoiding a PR debacle than denouncing the hate that was directed toward an employee. That sent an unproductive message to women in the tech industry.

Furthermore, while many organizations have become proficient in the use of social media as a tool for standard promotion activities, there has been less consideration given to how the existence of social media can affect an organization in negative ways. Donglegate is just one example of the risk posed by the ubiquity of smart phones. Employees and employers alike must realize any action by any person connected to an organization can be easily documented and transmitted around the world in an instant. Clearly, this can have an adverse effect on the organization’s brand. Broader exposure can also have implications beyond the brand.  Organizations need to systematically rethink all policies and procedures through a social media lens. Expectations around privacy should be re-conceptualized to protect reputations, proprietary information and confidential personal data. To do this, there are three key steps that organizations need to take:

  • Leaders need to develop rules or guidelines for internal stakeholders around when and how information is shared.  For instance, if we do not take the time to think through what is inappropriate for our employees to do on social media when it comes to the company name, then we should not be surprised when they do not take the time to think about it either.  Not defining appropriate and inappropriate social media uses for employees, contractors and suppliers automatically places organizations into a potentially reactive position.
  • Since it is virtually impossible to control all potential exposures, leaders may want to be proactive and ensure they have less to hide.  This entails thinking through the potential hotspots and cleaning them up before they explode.
  • Finally, it is important to plan for the times when despite all efforts, negative information has been released.  Sometimes the reaction to an event is more telling than the original event itself.  Documented plans make it more likely that when there is an incident, the response will properly reflect the message the company wants to send.

Aside from the social media issues, organizations need to think carefully about the multiplicity of social identities that inhabit their environment.  Traditional responses can sometimes inadvertently highlight the differences between groups rather than build up ways to protect the potentially disadvantaged groups.  In some instances, this protection can lead to a backlash that further divides the community.  It may be more effective to take steps to develop a pervasive attitude of respect and sensitivity to all perspectives.

After almost a year in hiding, Richards recently returned to the virtual world. The response so far shows that the mob that forced her into hiding doesn’t speak for everyone in the technology community. Nevertheless, the lessons that can be learned from Donglegate should not be ignored, especially by tech sector employees and managers.

About the Author

Charlice Hurst is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario.

About the Author

Karen MacMillan is a recent graduate of the PhD program at Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. She is currently working as a post-doctoral fellow through the Ian….
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Ivey Business Journal editor Thomas Watson is a veteran business journalist and executive development consultant with decades of senior-level experience spanning management education,….
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