Support grows online for American woman who gets fired from her company after tweeting about sexist comments

Is the online space as unsafe for women as the real world, especially if the woman in question is outspoken?

The case of Adria Richards, a technology evangelist from San Francisco, has been trending on social networks over the past week, bringing to the fore issues ranging from the prevalent misogyny online to whether crude sexist jokes no longer matter.

On March 17, Ms Richards, while attending a technology conference, tweeted a photo of some men in the audience with the message: “Not cool. Jokes about forking repo’s in a sexual way and ‘big’ dongles. Right behind me #pycon”.

By invoking the conference’s code of conduct, she ensured that the men were removed from the auditorium. “Have you ever had a group of men sitting right behind you making jokes that caused you to feel uncomfortable? Well, that just happened this week but instead of shrinking down in my seat, I did something about it,” she wrote on her blog, www.butyoureagirl.com.

One of the men who was removed is said to have lost his job. And in the ensuing days, Ms Richards faced an online backlash with “dongle” jokes, crass abuse and even rape threats. Groups of hackers launched DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks to bring down her blog and the website of the company she works for.

In a dramatic turn of events, her company, SendGrid, fired her. On March 21, the company’s CEO Jim Franklin reasoned on the company blog: “Publicly shaming the offenders — and bystanders — was not the appropriate way to handle the situation … 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.”

Since her firing, several people have shown their support to Ms Richards on her Twitter handle, @adriarichards. A search on Twitter for Adria Richards or the keyword “donglegate” throws up the polarised opinion online.

Misogyny is becoming a persistent problem online on forums and social networks.

In September last, a Sikh woman from Ohio State University, Balpreet Kaur, was the subject of a tasteless post on the Reddit social forum when a user going by the name “European Douchebag” posted a candid photo of her commenting on her facial hair.

Having discovered the post, Ms Kaur joined the conversation. “Yes, I’m a baptised Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realise that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women,” she wrote and explained how Sikhism propagated not altering one’s natural appearance. The person who posted the photo eventually apologised.

Closer home too, Twitterverse does get uncomfortable for women. Active Twitter users, poet Meena Kandasamy, actor Gul Panag and singer Chinmayi, often have their Twitter timelines cluttered with abusive remarks.

In some cases, the anonymity that the Web offers seems to fuel the hatred more.

karthik.subramanian@thehindu.co.in

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