In recent years, the male-dominated technology industry has made some important strides in gender equality. Yet only last week a woman of color, Adria Richards, was publicly fired from her job at technology company SendGrid, following a massive online campaign of rape and death threats, racial slurs, and computer hacking. Her crime? Tweeting a picture of the two men making sexual jokes behind her at a computer conference. (Shortly thereafter, one of the men was fired by his employer, who hinted at multiple contributing factors beyond the jokes.)
Reasonable people can disagree about whether Richards should have called out the two jokesters publicly or who, if anyone, should have been fired as a result. But one thing we can agree on is that the massive onslaught of rape and death threats that followed was wrong. One threat sent to Richards on Twitter was a picture of a bloody, beheaded woman with the caption “When Im done.”
Richards’ decision to tweet a photo of the men struck many people as an overreaction, but her actions make more sense in the context of the widespread hostility to women in her field, both online and offline. That hostility is one of the reasons I co-founded a nonprofit that fights harassment of women, the Ada Initiative, after one of my friends was sexually assaulted at a computer conference three times in a single year. The Ada Initiative’s first project was helping hundreds of conferences adopt anti-harassment policies that explicitly banned pornography in presentations, groping, stalking, and other obnoxious behavior that had become common at many technology conferences.
The attacks on Richards are not an anomaly; during the more than 12 years I worked as a software engineer, I heard of dozens of women who were been similarly attacked after speaking up about abuse. Rebecca Watson, a prominent leader in the skeptic community, received an avalanche of rape and death threats after talking about being groped and propositioned at conventions. Kathy Sierra, a well-known computer writer and speaker, canceled all of her speaking engagements after an onslaught of violent rape and death threats, including a picture of noose next to her head. Adria Richards, Rebecca Watson, and Kathy Sierra are just three of the estimated 850,000 victims of online harassment per year in the United States alone (the majority of them female, according to the American Psychological Association in 2011). Keeping silent about abuse won’t keep you safe; sometimes women are harassed simply for being “a lady on the Internet.”
What makes Adria Richards’ case so chilling is the way people in the mainstream computer industry piled on, including her own employer. The attacks weren’t coming from just the darker corners of the Internet, places where people trade “creepshots” of 14-year-old girls. This time, many of the threats came from places like Hacker News, a respected computer news discussion site run by Paul Graham’s venture capital company, YCombinator. Ambitious computer professionals post on Hacker News under their real names to boost their careers—and felt comfortable posting vicious abuse under those same names. And then there is SendGrid’s public firing of Richards, just a few hours after their web site came under attack from anonymous computer hackers calling for her termination. Similar calls to fire the person who tweeted the photo of the beheaded woman? Zero, despite the quick identification of the source of the threat.
What happened to Adria Richards is a wake-up call for our self-image as a society that strives for fairness and equality. Most of us believe that men and women should have equal access to opportunities, whether jobs, education, or simply using the Internet. This week showed that women not only have to suffer sexual harassment and assault to work with (or even use) computers, but risk getting fired for reporting it. As long as this is going on, how can we say that our daughters have the same opportunities as our sons to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, or Steve Jobs, or Larry Page? We can’t.
So what can we do about it? Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor studying online harassment, says that we don’t need to pass new laws against online harassment. Instead, “we need to enforce the laws we have.” According to Citron, local law enforcement officials often don’t know about state or federal laws against online harassment, don’t take online harassment seriously, or don’t have the technical savvy to track down criminals. All too commonly, law enforcement tells victims to “Turn off your computer”—and does nothing more.
It’s up to us to change the culture of consequence-free online harassment. You can help by spreading the word about laws against online harassment, and directing victims to organizations like Working to Halt Online Abuse and Without My Consent. Companies can take responsibility for the culture on sites they run, and do a better job of stopping harassment using their services. Most importantly, when you talk about online harassment, you can focus on why what the harassers are doing is wrong, not how the victim could have responded better.
If we truly believe that women and men should have the same chance to succeed in the computer industry, we have to take action now. It doesn’t matter how many little girls learn to code if all they have to look forward to is brutal harassment.