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Silicon Valley Boys Club Shown as Jokes Spark Firings

Silicon Valley’s Frat-boy Culture Undermines Sandberg’s Rise
Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and the author of "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" speaks during the Multi-Cultural Women's Conversation at the Willard InterContinental Washington on March 14, 2013 in Washington, DC. Photographer: Matt McClain for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Just as the technology industry’s glass ceiling is being shattered by high-profile executives like Facebook Inc.’s Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo! Inc.’s Marissa Mayer, Silicon Valley is showing signs it’s still a boys club.

Tech blogs blew up this week with the story of Adria Richards, who until March 21 was a developer evangelist at Internet startup SendGrid Inc.

Richards received threats of violence and was fired after posting on the Internet an image of male programmers she accused of making inappropriate innuendos at a public conference. The incidents have left fissures across the industry, with critics saying Richards mishandled the offense and defenders saying her dismissal will discourage standing up to misconduct. News of guys audibly cracking sex jokes at an event that actively encouraged female participation also reinforces the image of a male-dominated industry unwelcoming to women engineers.

“The irony is that this conference, of all conferences, attempts to really be inclusive,” said Sharon Wienbar, a 22-year veteran of the technology industry and a partner at venture capital firm Scale Venture Partners in Foster City, California. “In a world where they’re trying to do things the right way, this still comes out.”

Richards had attended PyCon, a programming event in Santa Clara, California, that promotes a “harassment-free conference experience for everyone” in its code of conduct. Supporters include groups with names like Women Who Code and PyLadies.

Twitter Shaming

Yet, while attending a session on March 17, Richards was seated in front of a small group of men making jokes that she deemed sexual and inappropriate. She took a picture of them and posted it to her Twitter Inc. account, along with a message about their behavior. She then sent a Tweet with a link to the code of conduct. Then her account began receiving threats of violence, according to Gina Trapani, a prominent app developer.

Richards was fired March 21, amid a four-day social media firestorm, for “publicly shaming the offenders,” SendGrid Chief Executive Officer Jim Franklin wrote in a blog post. How she called attention to the incident “spiraled into extreme vitriol,” making it difficult for her to be effective in her role at SendGrid, Franklin wrote.

Wienbar, like Richards, has spent her career in an industry dominated by men. Women make up only about a quarter of all jobs in computers and mathematics, and 23 percent of computer programmers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The rise to prominence of Facebook’s Sandberg, who recently published a book titled “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” hasn’t altered the fraternity-like atmosphere of the programming world, said Wienbar.

Mayer, Whitman

In addition to Sandberg, Mayer recently took over the top job at Yahoo, following another woman, Carol Bartz. Hewlett-Packard Co. is led by longtime technology executive Meg Whitman, while Ginni Rometty was promoted to CEO at International Business Machines Corp. last year.

Richards, who has a blog called But You’re a Girl, didn’t respond to requests for an interview. She was hired by SendGrid a year ago with the title developer evangelist, according to her LinkedIn Corp. profile. Prior to that she worked at technology companies including Zendesk and was employed as a network specialist for companies including American Express Co.

She wrote a post on March 18, the day after her Tweet, explaining that the group of guys behind her were making sexual jokes about forking, a term that in computer speak means to take some software code and start developing on top of it.

PlayHaven Employee

Two of the men were employed by a San Francisco-based startup called PlayHaven, and one of them was fired after the company reviewed the matter.

“The result of this investigation led to the unfortunate outcome of having to let this employee go,” CEO Andy Yang wrote in a blog. The company isn’t commenting further about the matter “out of respect for the privacy of our employees,” said Laura Perez, a spokeswoman for PlayHaven.

SendGrid’s Franklin didn’t respond to a request for comment. In his blog post announcing Richards’ firing, he wrote that while the company supports an employee’s right to report inappropriate behavior, the way Richards chose to do so “crossed the line.” He also wrote that her conduct put the “business in danger,” and that the company’s primary concern is its 130 employees and 130,000 customers.

Franklin didn’t say how the business was put at risk, though the company wrote in a separate post that it had received a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, causing disruptions for clients. SendGrid’s technology helps businesses easily set up and manage the distribution of mass e-mails.

E-Mail Disruption

KISSmetrics, a Web-analytics company, was among the clients affected. The San Francisco-based company sends e-mails to close to 1,000 clients daily, updating them with data on activity on their site. Those e-mails weren’t going through on the morning of March 21 and were delayed until the afternoon, said Neil Patel, the vice president of marketing.

SendGrid is now facing criticism for its actions. Rachel Sklar, an entrepreneur, blogger and advocate for women in technology, wrote a piece yesterday for Business Insider, arguing that by firing Richards instead of defending her, the company is deterring women from speaking out against sexist behavior that may be even more egregious.

“Anyone who thinks that women won’t think twice about speaking up forcefully about this stuff is kidding themselves,” Sklar wrote. “Maybe not in the clear-cut situations, but in those blurry wait-maybe-it’s-me-should-I-just-learn-to-take-a-joke?-everyone-else-is-laughing situations that happen so often in rooms dominated by dudes.”

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