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Dongle joke turns into ugly situation as two tech workers lose their jobs

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HANOVER, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 28: A Vodafone LTE high-speed USB dongle is shown attached to a laptop computer at the Vodafone stand at the CeBIT technology trade fair on February 28, 2011 in Hanover, Germany. LTE, also called 4G, is a new mobile broadband standard that promises speeds many times that of current UMTS and HSDPA systems and is being introduced foremost in rural areas in Germany that have thus far been cut off from broadband Internet connectivity. CeBIT 2011 will be open to the public from March 1-5. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

What started out as some vaguely sexual jokes by a programmer has led to two people losing their jobs, after a tweet went out publicly shaming the joker.

At PyCon, a conference for those who use the programming language Python in California, two men were making jokes about “big dongles” and “forking” behind SendGrid developer evangelist Adria Richards. According to Richards, she heard the jokes go on for a while before feeling like she couldn’t take it anymore, and upon seeing an image of a little girl from a young coders event on the presentation screen, she was motivated to turn around, snap this image, and post it to her Twitter account with the caption, “Not cool. Jokes about forking repo’s in a sexual way and “big” dongles. Right behind me.:”

Richards, who refers to herself as a technology evangelist, also posted about the incident on her blog to explain the situation and her rational further. The PyCon staff saw her tweet and later responded that they had “dealt with” the situation.

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But as CNET reports, one of the men identified in the image as making the jokes was then fired by his employer, PlayHaven, who was also one of the sponsors of the event. PlayHaven CEO Andy Yang posted on the company blog confirming that after an investigation, the man in question had been fired.

His firing has caused a firestorm of controversy online and amongst the programming community. The tech world is still notorious for being sexist, with recent stories of harassment coming to light ahead of the annual Game Developers Conference, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Lean In detailing the challenges she faces working in a male-dominant industry. As a result, it seems that the company was quick to distance itself from the controversy by letting its employee go.

After the firing, the man who claims he was the one in the photo making the jokes posted under the name “mr-hank” to Hacker News, where he apologized for making the comment, but added that Richards has a big presence on the web and in the programming community, and as a result, he had to leave a job he loved with three kids at home to take care of.

The comments on his Hacker News post, Richards’ tweet and the many blog posts that have appeared tackling the issue have shown a deep divide in the community, with some siding with Richards and commending her for standing up for women in the technology field, while others (both male and female) have sided with the fired PlayHaven employee, saying that Richards shouldn’t have taken their jokes personally and certainly shouldn’t have turned to public shaming as a way of resolving the issue.

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The reaction against Richards has been significant. In addition to rape and death threats on Twitter, Venture Beat reports, her employer SendGrid was hit with a denial of service attack, after which Richards was fired, too. There were initial concerns that the Facebook and Twitter accounts of the company that were announcing Richards’ firing were the result of them being hacked, but the company confirmed it on their blog late on March 21:

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.

The whole situation has served to muddy the already complex gender politics of working in the technology field. Valid arguments can be heard from both those who believe Richards was right to stand up against what she perceived to be sexist behaviour, and those who felt her actions went too far to prove her point. There’s no easy answer as to who is right and wrong in this story, but it will without a doubt fuel arguments about how women are treated in traditionally male industries, and what they should do when they aren’t satisfied with that treatment.

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