Shared publicly  - 
 
+Peter Senna Tschudin asked (about the Pycon incident):  "What I can't understand, and I would like help to understand, is how talking about big dongles to a friend in a conference can become a real problem to a women who is listening. Why did she felt uncomfortable about that? Did she felt threatened? How the dongle size talking could turn into something against her? Can the content of the two guys talking be considered a lack of respect? What are the limits to what can be considered offensive?"

I'm going to take you at face value, and assume you really do want to understand how making simple jokes can cause issues for women in tech.  I'm making this a post, because I think lots of my male friends are worried about cracking jokes right now.

"Did she felt threatened?"

Adria may not have felt physically threatened by the jokes, but her body was reacting like she was being threatened.  If you look at her original blog post, she mentions her mind was racing, her heart was beating fast, and after she tweeted the photo, she started physically shaking.  That's a bodily reaction to stress.  To explain why women in tech might have that response, I have to go into a lot of detail here, so bear with me.

A coworker of mine tried to explain it like this.  "Say you have a dog, and every morning you read the newspaper.  Now, randomly, before you open your newspaper, you beat the dog with it.  Not every day, just sometimes.  After a while, when anyone reaches for the paper, the dog will flee the room."

It's the randomness here that's key.  The dog doesn't know whether it's going to be beaten or not, so it learns to fear the newspaper.  It has a psychological fear reaction to a simple object.  At that point, its lizard brain kicks into "fight or flight" mode, and it choses to flee.  Years later, even if the dog is moved into a loving home, the dog may still flee from the newspaper.  Anyone who has fostered or adopted shelter dogs has seen this.

In conversation, inappropriate jokes shared between friends sometimes start to wander into sexist, racist, ageist, etc. jokes.  We all agree that it's ok to call someone out on those kinds of jokes.  The problem is that when women ask politely for people not to tell those kinds of jokes (or stop being sexist or stop harassing them), randomly, there are very very negative consequences for them.

Whomp! Here comes some baggage.

Adria got rape and death threats.  Other responses on the #iaskedpolitely   tag on Twitter include:

"#IAskedPolitely and was laughed at and told there were better uses for my mouth than talking."

"#IAskedPolitely and was told that objecting to rape jokes is feminist (he said, horrified.)"

"#IAskedPolitely to move to an empty cubicle away from a guy who leered at me every day. Instead, I got fired. I no longer ask politely."

"#IAskedPolitely for a dude to stop touching me in the workplace, and he apologized and then continued the behavior."

"#IAskedPolitely whether some of the interviewees were women and got yelled at in front of my entire team and called sexist."

There is a real and serious threat in our culture for women to speak out against men, even politely.  The everyday sexism we experience constantly tells us to sit down and shut up, or there will be consequences.

Often those consequences include threats of physical harm, rape, or murder.  Adria's not the first woman in tech that has experienced those threats, nor will she be the last.  I know lots of women in tech, and many of them have stories of speaking up that end in physical threats, getting fired, or being driven from a technical group. These stories women in tech share, the backlash we see on the internet, the dismissing tactics our co-workers use, and the personal scars we bear are all baggage that most technical women carry with them.

When technical women go to a conference, they get subtle and not-so-subtle cues that they are walking into the boys' clubhouse.  They get asked if they're here for the partner's program, there's only mens t-shirts, there's booth babes, and they're constantly asked, "What's it like being a woman in tech?"

Now say that woman is standing in a circle of men (some of whom she might know, but most she won't know), or maybe attempting to listen in a keynote, and someone cracks an inappropriate joke.  Maybe it's the old unix joke that someone mentioned to me recently: "unzip; strip; touch; finger; mount; fsck; more; yes; unmount; sleep". 

There's that moment where the woman in the group might consider saying something, but all that baggage kicks in, and the woman suddenly becomes hyper-aware that she's the only woman in a group of men.  Does she say something and risk being ostracized, or just let it slide and try to "fit in" with the boys?  Will there be consequences at work if someone thinks she's "too sensitive" and her coworkers decide to coddle her?  Will people accuse her of being a "prude", a "bitch", a "feminazi", or worse?  Will someone make rape or death threats to her later?  All these thoughts zip through her head and completely immobilize her, as her brain attempts to process whether this situation is a threat.

In that moment of hesitation, of social anxiety, someone else cracks a joke that we should optimize our command lines, so we could very well do away with the "finger" and asking if the person wants "more" or waiting for them to say "yes".  Some people chuckle uncomfortably, and the joker takes that as social approval, and starts telling border-line rape jokes.  An inappropriate joke opened the door for something more serious to occur.

At this point, the woman's "fight or flight" instincts may start to kick in.  It's a physical reaction to potential psychological and social trauma.  Her lizard brain completely takes over.

Say her lizard brain choses flight.  She may even be physically unable to say anything, because her body is telling her to disengage.  She may simply leave the group without a word, because her body is screaming to run away.  Or she may politely laugh along with everyone else, because her body is telling her to hide social signs that she's uncomfortable.  The point is that a psychological reaction designed to prevent trauma is preventing a constructive physical or vocal reaction from occurring.

If her lizard brain chooses "fight" the consequences are also harsh.  Maybe, like Adria, she chooses to publicly tweet what the person said.  Or snipe at the person with a blunt, "That's not cool."  I can't personally say what other fight responses are, because in those situations, my lizard brain always chooses to flee.

That's why it's harsh to say, "You should have just spoken up and said something" or "You should have asked politely".  By saying that, you are telling someone they need to control a part of their brain that 100,000+ years of evolution has shaped to avoid physical and psychological harm.  Women in tech face rape and death threats when they speak up about seemingly simple things, and some women will have lizard-brain reactions they cannot physically control or reason through.

Bringing this conversation full circle, and returning to the dog analogy, inappropriate jokes are the newspaper.  They are the silly, innocuous thing that is setting off some women's psychological trauma triggers.  However, it's really not fair to ask people not to read the newspaper, or not to tell inappropriate jokes to their friends.

Instead, we need to focus on helping women not have that fight or flight response.  That means taking out the randomness of responses to reports of sexism, and making sure women feel comfortable in the community.   Until there are 50% women in conferences, that means you probably shouldn't crack inappropriate jokes at conferences, even if you think you are among your friends.  Yes, that may seem extreme, but until the gender balance changes and our culture changes, tech women are going to have extreme reactions to inappropriate jokes.  You just may not see them because the "flight" mode kicks in.

That also means when a woman complains that to a conference organizer that they don't have a t-shirt in her size, or that someone asked if she was here for the partner program, or that scantily clad female dancers are not appropriate speaker dinner entertainment, the conference organizers should act on it.  Anything that makes tech conferences feel like less of a boys' club will make it less likely for women to have that "fight or flight" response.

So, you wanna crack inappropriate jokes?  Go out to a bar and do it with your friends.  Don't do it at a conference, or even at the conference party.  If you are making jokes outside of conferences, make it clear to people that they can call you on your jokes, and you'll stop.  Simple.
142
125
Dan Lüdtke's profile photoNiklas Schnelle's profile photosimona uguccioni's profile photoJasna Benčić's profile photo
86 comments
Dan Lyke
+
1
1
2
1
 
The big thing that I think nearly everyone, including me, missed the first time around: A careful reading of her blog entry describing the situation shows that it wasn't something overheard. She was in a conversation with the guy behind her, and the guy next to him piped in with the jokes. It wasn't "talking big dongles to a friend who was listening", it was inserting big dongles into a context in which one of the parties was unknown, and female.

That's a different thing, and I wish we'd had a little more emphasis on how this wasn't just guys joking behind her.
 
Very nicely put. The jokes don't bother me anymore, but I can see how they would bother some. Also as stated above, they were inserted into a conversation she was having with someone else. Lesson learned here, leave it at home, not in a professional environment of any kind.
 
It's hard to disagree with your premise, but I also think that you've slightly missed the point of Peter's question.

He should be allowed to make any joke or comment he wants to a friend as long as the friend finds that joke appropriate. Especially if he was doing so in a private conversation. The location of the conversation shouldn't matter, only it's audience (I'm unsure how being in a bar suddenly makes it ok - as you suggested in the last paragraph).

We all have lots of work to do to make technical conferences a safe haven for everyone; but we also have to ensure that we look at the CONTEXT of issues we raise. 

I think we need to look at the real issues about why women in tech don't come to conferences, which only helps the ones that do feel alienated, and I severely doubt its because they might overhear two people talking about penis' in a private conversation.

We absolutely need to rid our conferences of all discrimination, sexism being the most obvious and prevalent, but we also need to come up with a better way of doing it. Suggesting to people that they can't have a private conversation incase a female overhears it seems to me at least, to be a step in the wrong direction.
Matt Kerr
+
29
30
29
 
It's not a "private conversation" if you're in a room of hundreds of people, seated in rows, waiting quietly for a speaker. Get over it.
 
> He should be allowed to make any joke or comment he wants to a friend as long as the friend finds that joke appropriate.

+Kevinjohn Gallagher So, I can sit in a crowded conference talk and tell racist jokes to my friend as long as my friend likes to hear racist jokes -- even if I'm obviously within hearing distance of people of the races that I'm mocking -- and I should be immune from any criticism?

I think your opinion is way off the deep end of the spectrum here, assuming I understood it correctly (and assuming you don't now want to change what you said).
 
+Kevinjohn Gallagher You're suggesting the conversation was private but it clearly wasn't. Adria had a powerful physical reaction to their conversation. That means they were unaware of their audience. Just as you shouldn't watch porn on an airplane while children can see your screen you shouldn't have a conversation with the person next to you if there's a good chance it'll trigger this kind of reaction in those who overhear it.

The context of the conversation was that the two men were packed shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers and at least one of those strangers felt unsafe from their comments. That's the context.

> Suggesting to people that they can't have a private conversation incase a female overhears it seems to me at least, to be a step in the wrong direction.

I disagree. When you're in public there are always constraints on what you get to do. If these men were off in private then anything goes but in public its their responsibility to be aware of their surroundings. As members of the community they need to do their part to make it a safe place for everyone.
 
Chris and Mark, I don't want to edit my statement, and I don't have any more context about the incident that what Sarah has quoted.

At no point in time in the quote from Peter did it say that he was seated in a quiet room with "hundreds" of people able to over hear the conversation. Thats different, again, thanks to context (it's the part in my comment in capitals).

My comment was based purely on what Sarah quoted. I have no more info, or context, but you two obviously do.

The idea though that it's impossible to have a private conversation in a public place is ludicrous. I've had private conversations in conferences, churches, packed dining rooms and funeral homes.

If said conversation was of a volume to be overheard then thats a separate issue, but thats not written anywhere above.

Frankly, we have bigger fish to fry in the fight against sexism!
Ian Muir
+
9
10
9
 
I can completely understand Adria's initial reactions, and I agree 100% that women have a right (and all of us an obligation) to make these events welcoming and safe for everybody.

Unfortunately, there are 2 aspects of this particular incident that I think started the snowball.
1) When Adria took the photo and posted the tweet, it was a fight or flight situation. She was in a position where she felt uncomfortable, and she did what she felt was needed to make the situation safe. She reacted, PyCon staff stepped in and did what they could to resolve it. Later that day, she wrote the blog post that not only drew attention to the dongle comments, but also outlined other sexist statements and general issues in a post that implicated 3 specific people. The blog was not a fight or flight reaction, it was done well after the situation has passed. I can understand taking whatever action you need to to stop a bad situation, and I don't expect Adria to put herself out there to politely ask, but the blog post was far from a fight or flight response.

2) There was a lot of confusion from both men an women about what Adria felt was appropriate at a conference. She was playing Cards Against Humanity at PyCon and tagged it with a pycon hash tag and had a few sexually charged jokes on her Twitter feed. These things don't in any way reduce her right to report the comments that made her feel uncomfortable, but it presents a conflicted and confusing message to those of us who want to know what's appropriate. If it's not appropriate to make a dongle joke at PyCon, but it is ok to play a game with "pixelated bukkake", "mechahitler", and "getting your dick stuck in a chinese finger trap with another dick" at pycon and tag it with a pycon hashtag, how are we supposed to know where the line is.

Everybody agrees that the death and rape threats she received are way beyond acceptable in any context. However, focusing only those threats prevent us from identifying and solving the more complex issues that really started the controversy. Our industry is definitely a massive boys club and I don't think Adria deserves any blame for what happened. However, I do think we can look at this situation and better define what's appropriate and provide a better path to conflict resolution.
 
Perhaps a related point: when did the default setting for our society become R-rated? I'm no prude, I enjoy ribaldry and have a bizarre sense of humor, but there are times and places in which these are appropriate; professional conferences shouldn't be among them.
 
Thank you for posting this. While I don't agree with a lot of what's being tossed around, and honetly, the "feminism in tech" thing makes me extremely uncomfortable, I do my best to empathize and try to understand what you're saying. There's no doubt in my mind that a social movement this big is not manufactured, and many people obviously have very strongly held beliefs on the subject.

If you're open to the dialog, I knocked out a blog post on the topic, and I'd love your thoughts: http://www.lyndsysimon.com/pycon-drama.html
 
+Kevinjohn Gallagher Yes, the context is "the Pycon incident" (as Sarah mentions at the top of the post), which involved a conversation that was "of a volume to be overheard", because it was overheard.  (How could it make sense for us to talk about how people should react to conversations that they didn't hear?)

> Frankly, we have bigger fish to fry in the fight against sexism!

We're not stopping you from working on those apparently-bigger things, but you seem to be trying to stop us from caring about this one.  You say you want to listen to why women say they don't want to attend conferences, but that's exactly what Sarah's done here, and you seem to be suggesting that we ignore her.
 
Thank you, Sarah, I agree, nicely put.

Here's another perspective on a woman's experience in tech that I think is relevant to this conversation (and not just because of the newspaper example :)): http://juliepagano.tumblr.com/post/46206589124/my-experiences-in-tech-death-by-1000-paper-cuts

Yes, it was "just one joke" at PyCon, but the jokes, dismissiveness, and outright bad behavior piles up and I think a lot of guys don't realize that. I hope more do now and are able to be more thoughtful of their behavior (and not from fear, but because it will have a tangible positive impact on fellow members of their community). If so, then there will be one really wonderful outcome from this sad story.

I'd also like to thank all of you men on this thread who not only "get it" but say so. It means a lot to me. Please keep it up!
 
Thanks for writing this up; I'm bookmarking it for use when I need to explain to someone why it's not always as simple as "an innocent joke among friends".
 
This is the dumbest thing I've read about so far this week. 
 
Sarah, could you please quote verbatim of what exactly was said by those guys at PyCon?

I checked Adria's Twitter posts. Nothing.
I checked Adria's blog post. Megabytes of text and still nothing.
I checked two Techcrunch coverages. Nothing again.

It looks like people are discussing something they don't even know for sure. the whole thing is based on something someone presumably heard, but didn't bother to quote properly and in context.

So why all the rage?
 
+Alexandre Prokoudine The person who told the jokes has admitted (in a Hacker News comment) that "the dongle joke" was sexual in nature, which is enough detail for everything in Sarah's post to make sense.
 
Thanks a lot for taking the question at face value and providing such a clear, detailed explanation! Still, a few questions, from someone who's trying his best to be an ally...

Would it be a good thing, as an ally accompanying a woman (knowing each others) in such a context to agree on a subtle signal so that the ally can be the one raising the issue in their place when the woman might consider saying something? So instead of a few uncomfortable chuckles and things going downhill, a man would put a stop to it, take the flak, and keep things on the right path?

I might not be directly uncomfortable with a joke, but I'm definitely not cool with the environment becoming threatening to some of the audience, so, to me, it seems sound to say that I'd like the joke to stop, even if I'm not made uncomfortable by it.

Also, I'm deeply steeped in my privileges, obviously, and I sometimes honestly do not realize it when things are becoming uncomfortable for some people. Also, intent is of limited importance in these situations, the joker may have not meant any harm, but it doesn't change that someone is uncomfortable. They might not have gone down that "slippery slope" (toward rape jokes and such), and would react well to being told to stop, but the message has to be communicated, and I'm wondering if it would be helpful for an me to do so (based on a previously agreed upon signal, say).

Finally, I'd like to know what people think of +Ian Muir's second point: how do you tell where the line is? I understand it's not a simple question, and that it's heavily context dependent (a small group of known, trusted friends versus strangers is a huge difference!). This is also why I'd generally prefer for the uncomfortable person to be the one raising the alarm (directly, or through a signal to an ally, as I suggested above), rather than be posturing that "someone might be uncomfortable with that" when it's really fine (or, much worse, the reverse situation!).

Thanks again!
 
+Chris Ball Two things.

1. sexual != sexist, and that really is important.
2. You did read the second part of his explanation, didn't you?
 
+Alexandre Prokoudine It's a bit sad (and very annoying, I'll grant you that), but at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what the trigger really is, because the only thing that ends up mattering is that it did trigger discomfort.

In Sarah's example, the newspaper has nothing to do with anything, and is a fine household item to have, and occasionally hold, possibly while having some fine coffee. And yet, it freaks out that dog. It's not that you should stop reading the newspaper, or that all dogs will have a problem with that, but when a dog that has been beaten with a newspaper is around, it's not the time to check the sports section, that's all.
 
I must say I'm finding it hard to work out the "sexist" angle of all this - it's just about sexual, in a primary school playground kind of way. But sexist? No. 
 
+Alexandre Prokoudine (and +Jim Cheesman) I'll try to explain why I personally consider "sexual" to be equal to "sexist" here.

I think that sexism consists of failing to consider the preferences of one gender to the same degree as another.  Sarah's post has described a way that women have a different preference to men -- women (usually) suffer as a result of sexual jokes at technical conferences, and men (usually) don't.

So, I'd say that failing to respect this very clearly articulated preference of women not to hear sex jokes at technical conferences is sexist by virtue of being inconsiderate/disrespectful to women.

As for the second part of the Hacker News comment, I did read it but I don't think Sarah's post is about that incident in specific; it's about the topic of sexualized interactions at technical conferences in general.  All that's necessary to show how this incident contributes to her point is to explain that it's undisputed that the man made a sexual joke during a conference talk.
 
I can appreciate that a (IMO barely) sexual comment is inappropriate in a tech conference, but to assume that all women care about this or are offended by it is far, far worse, and far more sexist than the original comment.

Perhaps it's a cultural thing, but I find it hard to imagine anyone in either the UK or Spain (the countries I'm most familiar with) being offended by this kind of comment. "Look at the tits on that!" - yes. Blatently sexist, and offensive. A weak play on words that makes no reference to women? ("fork my repo!") - no.
 
+Pierre Phaneuf Au contraire, the trigger is important, unless you want these cases to happen again and again.

You see, I'm a journalist. I'm used to dealing with exact quotes and facts I can verify. If there's no way I can get an exact quote or a fact I can verify, best I can do is either mentally file it under "interesting, but not usable" or use it with tons of "presumably" and "reportedly".

As far as I can tell, none of the people who wrote coverages of the story bothered to do the latter. They just trusted whatever was published by Adria, because hey — it's a story on a trending topic. Who cares about facts?
 
While I don't in any way condone the sexist comments made at the conference I hardly think posting to twitter is a 'fight or flight" response +Ian Muir . 
 
+Brian Hunt not so sure, never sent an email in anger then regretted it later? Maybe not exactly "fight or flight", but certainly not 100% rational/pre-planned behaviour either. 
 
that's true +Jim Cheesman but I keep seeing this 'extreme physical reaction" or "lizard brain reaction" being mentioned as if there was true physical danger present.Twitter does not strike me as defensive behaviour. Was it low ,unworthy behaviour on the "jokers" part? absolutely but to claim it caused a danger reaction is reaching especially in a room full of people. This same situation on an elevator on the other hand....
 
+Brian Hunt dunno, you have a bad day (for whatever reason) and something triggers a reaction. Blogging about it later, however... 
 
+Jim Cheesman I agree that not literally all women prefer not to hear sex jokes at technical conferences; but I think the vast majority do.  (That's why these behaviors are covered by the Code of Conduct for these conferences!)
 
+Alexandre Prokoudine Ok, I do agree that the reporting here has suffered quite a bit, and this is probably part of why it snowballed into this monstrosity of an event. And before anyone gets fired, you'd sure want the facts to be checked, especially those coming from the protagonists!

But I think this post is more about the root cause of why these sort of things happen. It might be a sexist joke, or a sexual joke, or a joke about polka dot shirts, but if you've lived a life of oppression under the polka dots (!?!), you might become uncomfortable. Sex{ist,ual} jokes are both highly correlated (but not by causation) with women being uncomfortable, to varying degrees.

So what I'm saying is that even if Adria did it all wrong, somehow, and it's "all her fault", it's still worth discussing what people think happen, because that's what people base their actions on, not necessarily on reality (and that's kind of mind-bendingly painful to admit). The reality is probably something in between, to a degree, and I do strongly support some objective, non-judgmental fact finding.

What's pretty clear, though, is what's coming out of all this. Asking for more information is one possible sensible response to Adria's calling this out, death/rape threads is not, even if she completely made this up. I just can't see those threats as a valid response, no matter what really happened, and I feel justified in calling out those.
 
I think the issue here is a tiny bit more delicate than that. I can understand anecdotal evidence from other people's experiences and I don't doubt that it is somewhat true. Yes, the world is full of assholes and jerks than when caught off guard (like when they are telling tasteless jokes) they will go on the defensive and look for peers support (and in this case retaliate on a single woman). But this is something that is in the nature of humans, not just men.

It happens in the reverse a lot of time, there are countless examples of anecdotal evidence of women bullying single men or just sympathizing with each other towards a common goal (aka single out the man and make him miserable). The blame should not fall on "men" or "women", just on individuals and how they behave.

Asking politely is not the solution to everything but should always be the first step towards finding the solution. Hiding behind the (maybe legit, maybe not) excuse of "I could've tried but sometimes it doesn't work so I couldn't bother" is not plausible. Especially when you, yourself, are acting with malicious intents (maybe not voluntarily at first or just as a defensive mechanism).

This whole thing could've been stopped by behaving correctly like mature and sensible human beings. This applies to both parties, one should not have made silly out-of-place jokes (which weren't sexist and arguably not even sexual), the other should not have reacted like that. Obviously we all make mistakes, we all make slips and err, for we are all humans. We should forgive sometimes and not always condemn.

It goes without saying that I 100% agree with the fact that people take it way too far (on both sides) with death or rape threats, that stuff is never appropriate for anything (male, female or even animal, just no.).
 
+Chris Ball Maybe, maybe not, but if the tech conference in question had a clear policy about this it's clear the two guys were in the wrong, and that Adria could reasonably expect that kind of comment not to be made in a public situation. Up to that point she has my full support (for whatever that might be worth :) ) What I still disagree with is the conflation of sex and sexism, two separate topics.

I also personally find this (very American) obsession with sex to be somewhat bizarre - why should a comment about willies be any more offensive or inappropriate than, say, a comment about last night's game? But I doubt discussing the merits of Liverpool's strikers or Tiger Wood's swing is explicitly prohibited...
 
+Jim Cheesman Yes, the tech conference did have a clear policy about this, and everyone (including the man) agrees that the man violated it.  (For the record, the policy's now been updated to discourage first-reporting of violations in public, too.)

I used to find this situation somewhat bizarre too -- and for the record, I'm British, not American -- but then I asked some women in tech about it, and they explained all the ways that this sexualization in tech makes their life worse, just as Sarah did in this long and detailed post with plenty of examples, so now I understand.  It's not that the word "penis" is bad, it's that the consequence of being a woman in an environment where the word "penis" is being used a lot while you're supposed to be at a technical conference is (usually) bad for you, if you're a woman.

It's our luxury that we get to ignore that it's bad and wonder why most women in tech are upset by it, as you're doing here.  But now that you (and I) have read Sarah's post, I don't think we have that luxury anymore.  If you're still confused about why it's more offensive than a comment about last night's game, all I can suggest is that you read her post again with a thoughtful mind.  Thanks.
 
Yeah, that sucks. As an (electric) engineer student what most bother me is my friends always looking like lizards/vulture or some animal of that kind,to the news female student in engineer, it's pathetic and it makes me angry, and again there are the insults to me or the jokes because of the fact I don't like what they do: "Your more lizard than us" or something like that.

I like when I found more new women students not because of there are new and more preys to hunt, but because there are fewer scared or submissive women in engineer school, that they aren't scared about some asses whom believe they're the owners of the world.

When I do a compliment to partner women, I do it but just making compliments I also can do to men, so they're like "10/10 in Lineal Circuits I envy you and I'm happy 'cause of you" or sort of.
 
+Chris Ball I have thought about it, I read the post with an open mind, and yet I still have mixed feelings about it - on the one hand I would like my daughters to be able to work in IT without prejudice, but on the other I'm deeply troubled by the censorship implicit in avoiding offense, and this unhealthy desire to exclude all sexual content from the public arena.  

(And I use the word "unhealthy" very literally - when sex becomes a taboo, so does discussion of sexual health issues.)
 
+Jim Cheesman It's not censorship, and it's not excluding all talk of sex from public -- if you want to blog publicly about sex, I totally support that.  We're talking about excluding talk of sex from technical conferences where it's not on-topic.
 
"this unhealthy desire to exclude all sexual content from the public arena"

Why in the world is this unhealthy? Sexual content is simply inappropriate in many, I daresay most contexts.

Do you think you might see things differently if you were hit on or stared at sexually several times a day, every day, for most of your adult life?
 
Thank you, Sarah.  Thank you.  I admire you.
 
"Instead, we need to focus on helping women not have that fight or flight response."
yes
"That means taking out the randomness of responses to reports of sexism, and making sure women feel comfortable in the community."
yes
"Until there are 50% women in conferences, that means you probably shouldn't crack inappropriate jokes at conferences, even if you think you are among your friends."
no! With tech conferences having participants from a wide array of cultures, from different genders, sexual orientation, religion and whatnot, there is no consensus on what is appropriate and what is not -- and there cant be (because you cant sync 100 people and their culture in a few hours). This is one of the fundamental flaws that doomed the creeper cards at 29c3 for example. That was essentially a case study of why this is not a promising approach: By giving out the creepercards as a "weapon" (and a underdocumented one at that), the perception of a black-and-white fight-or-flight choice was deepened, instead of lessened.
As such in contrast the approach of the e.g. 29c3-awareness team of having a set of people that are well prepared and can respond quickly to deescalate conflicts and create a broader awareness from (ignorant) offenders is the way to go -- reassuring those under a perceived or real thread that they are in civilization and discourse is a more promising option than fight-or-flight.
Thats what really makes this a tragedy here: Way too many participants escalated the issue(*) -- until everyone was fired. A terrible precedent.

(*) either because they just did a bad decision, or because they were left with no other choice under the given circumstances, or while there were better choices, they were not known to them. The first is impossible to prevent for an conference organizer, but the second and third are even more important to get right. And no: I wont even try to make a call on what happened in this case. As I have not been there, it is irrelevant anyway.
 
Hi +Sarah Sharp, thank you very much for such an open and honest, and shall I say, insightful post.

Now for the disclaimer. All opinions I share here are my own. I do not represent my employer, conferences, the Linux community, nor anyone else. I want to be absolutely honest myself. To me life is one big joke and death is the punchline. You can either laugh at your life or choose the alternative, which is to see it for what it is (I'm talking about my own life not anyone else's).

I understand that people can react with the "newspaper reflex", that still does not excuse it. I have two teenage daughters that are currently going through a tough time in their lives, and I've been working hard in helping them get through it. I see a lot of what girls see through their eyes, and how self image is such a crippling factor. But what they are learning to do is to train themselves to not do the fight or flee. Actually, my oldest has learned to walk away, get her thoughts together, and then come back to confront the situation. A moderate form of both, flee than fight.

The problem I have with your suggestion of not doing any jokes (what's the definition of inappropriate, all jokes can fall under that category) until there's a 50/50 women/men ratio, is I don't believe I'll still be around when that happens. I look at the kids in school, and the software portions is still lacking the girl ratio that would help us achieve this. Seems that the other sciences are picking up the smart girls. Biology, astronomy, and other things seem to have better ratios, but the math side still isn't there. My oldest wants to be an architect. She took a cad class, and there were 28 boys, and 2 girls. She said the other girl wasn't even trying. My youngest loves computers, but doesn't want anything to do with software :-(

Now, I may be judging this unfairly, because my sample is just one school in a small upstate NY town. Maybe things are much better elsewhere. I don't know. I hope so, but my gut feel is it isn't. I don't know why girls are not getting as involved. From those that I have talked to, it seems more of a lack of interest than a lack of skill. Maybe there is a perception that math related subjects are a boys club and that turns girls off?

"Until there are 50% women in conferences, that means you probably shouldn't crack inappropriate jokes at conferences, even if you think you are among your friends"

Now the key word above is "inappropriate", as this can be a relative term. "big dongle" is immature, and as such, is labeled as inappropriate for a conference. But what about "Wow, I'd love to fork his git repo!", but saying it with a slight hint of sexuality. But in honestly, you really would love to fork his git repo. Should people get reprimanded for that? I say this because as people know me, I like to joke a lot. Some of my jokes do have a hint of sexuality. But I still try not to be offensive. I'm 44 years old, and have been doing this for as long as I can remember. If I have to stop all jokes, I would rather stop attending conferences as I will become a nervous wreck myself. Speaking of dog analogies: You can't teach an old dog new tricks.

I guess what I'm saying is, because I like to kid and joke a lot, but have yet been told by anyone I was being inappropriate, I'm now getting paranoid that I can't act myself anymore. And to be honest, I may avoid talking with women at a conference because I wont trust myself. I wont be able to concentrate on the topic at hand but instead, I'll be thinking whether or not I'm being offensive. I joke around without even thinking about it, it's a natural reaction for me. Ask anyone that knows me.

What I'm saying is that I believe the solution is mostly awareness, education, and most of all, communication. Perhaps we should be pushing at conferences where people can speak up, and even more importantly, they should be protect from being shut down. Have a campaign to push speaking out, and a campaign to listen as well.

I've always been a advocate for communication. I hate it that in politics, the US President or his administration can't talk to the leader of Iran (I'd add a joke about his name, but I'm now afraid to), because it would give "credence" to him. The best way to solve a problem between enemies is to have the two sides talk. That doesn't mean the problem will be solved, but its better than no negotiations at all. (BTW, I don't feel that you or anyone else in the tech world is my enemy). 

Also, you added to the things you have to deal with  "What's it like being a woman in tech?". I think I even asked you that. And it was more to get your view on these subjects. I would love my daughters to get into the tech field, and wanted to hear your perspective. It is obvious that it's a boys club, one joke I say (and probably isn't appropriate either), is that our conferences seem to be the only places where the men have to wait for the rest room and the women don't. BTW, my wife made that joke first when she came to one, I just repeat it.
 
I'm in high school currently, would you consider that a appropriate environment for jokes like this? I understand it may be a completely different topic and some of my colleagues would think I'm crazy, just a thought.
 
hey +Sarah Sharp, thanks for posting this. I found your post via +Greg Kroah-Hartman's share. i have been following things lately, and what you wrote cleared things up and gave me a better perspective on the matter.  
 
The breakdown of male to female comments on here is fascinating.
 
Very well written. In my opinion people (regardless of gender) should have respect for each other. Such sorts of jokes shouldn't be on tech conferences, they really fit better to a bar. Somehow this reminds me to something used on IRC like 10 years ago. "You're a woman using Linux? Wow. Let's marry!" usually answered by /ignore. :-)
 
First world problems. Seriously, I have seen parts of the world where they would be happy if all sexism to complain about were jokes about whatever a non-techie might think a dongle is. I really tried to understand the whole mess every tech conference has been pushed through lately, but it always turns out being an overreaction. Maybe I just had the luck to never see someone being physically threatened at a conference whatsoever. 
 
Very interesting post, thank you for that. I'd like to way in though, just to personally understand this a bit more.
But first let me start with a personal experience I had last week on a computer science conference. Thanks to many deep discussions about sexual harassment in the tech community I consider myself quite aware of the problem. So we were staying at a hotel and had a banquet at the beach that was an official part of the conferences. As entertainment someone (I actually assume it was the hotel itself) had hired a group of young and attractive hula dancers (all female). I happened to be sitting with some of only a few female attendees (let me note that I'd have said the same thing with only males around) and  decided to point out that I found this choice of entertainment a bit questionable and that I wondered whether that was an American way of hiding sexualized entertainment behind folklore. I mean of course this isn't comparable to say strippers but to use the lizard brain analogy, as a heterosexual man I feel myself unable to shutoff my sexual attraction towards beautiful women shaking their various body parts, so it definitely feels different than say tango dancers with mixed couples.
As I pointed that out most people around didn't get what was questionable about it. Therefor I kind of get the feeling one has when pointing out those small things that people often don't notice.
On the other hand I believe that it seems unreasonable to expect people to shutoff who they are during conferences and I believe that sexual orientation and attraction (or lack thereof) is an inherent part of every persons character, denying that part of oneself thus seems counterproductive to me. For example I personally find women talking about math and/or technology especially attractive both as conservation and sex partners. Denying this attraction would therefor be denying my own personality. Realize that seeing someone as a potential sex partner is as a zeroth step independent of their attractedness towards me, marital status and sexual orientation.
What I mean by that is that of course it might change how I approach that person but of course all rules of ettiquette, respect and politeness do apply, we humans aren't lizards after all.
I strongly believe that being attracted to someone sexually does therefor not pose a problem by itself, it only becomes a problem if people then lose their respect, ettiquette and general manners.
Thus I fear that many efforts of making tech more inclusive create an atmosphere where all sexuality is banned from the tech world thus banning a large part of being a community of humans, instead of promoting a natural but very respectful interaction. To use your dog analogy we must not ban newspapers but speak out loudly against hurting the dog. Not every man should have to restrict their interaction to an unnatural hyper desexualized subset of normal interaction just because some a-holes can't keep their behavior in check, otherwise we risk making tech unpleasent for everybody.
Instead of throwing people out of a conferences for a e.g. a Unix sex joke, which by the way doesn't lean towards either a sexual orientation or gender (it easily applies to all sex). It should be clear that the really really bad behavior is threatening rape or worse, that is the problem and that should have consequences. Neither should we let things like the mouth joke slide, for me this is an entirely different beast than a joke among men because it's directly aimed at someone, thus there should be clear differences in the consequences.
 
If we stay with the dog analogy, a dog would attack the newspaper or the one holding it. What Adria did was not to fight but to stigmatize. Some already summarized that our may be safer not to let any women attend smaller conferences at all because of this.
I'm no English native speaker and I have a European cultural background. I would never imagine the word "dongle" could produce such a response. Merriam Webster, my usual source for American English, does not show any sexual meaning for this word. So the whole problem is what he meant or better what another person thought he meant.
 
+Dan Luedtke "first world problems", really? As in, "you're not going to get gang raped right here and then flogged for your crime, so why not show a bit more gratefulness instead of complaining?"
 
I am a girl in a tech world and I learned the following: you have to be sharp (as your surname), you can't let anyone to sweep the floor with you and the most important do jokes like a man and stop being so sensitive or else they will eat you.. If you have to be rude that someone takes the hint. Do it just like Billy Connolly says in his video (don't let the name of the video insult you) --> Billy Connolly - Fuck Off
 
Adina was offended, tweeted and bloged about it. That's ok, she has a right to be.

Should any of them lose their jobs?  No.

Are these jokes appropriate at a conference? Yes

We are all offended by lots of things. She was offended by these jokes. I'm offended by other things.

For example, I'm offended by Westboro church and extremist islamists, and converservative christians who are against Gay marriage.

The world is awash with humour that people consider inappropriate.

#TimeToMoveOn  
 
If an inappropriate dongle joke triggers the same amount of lizard brain emotions than a rape threat, then someone has a personal problem they should work on. Having a job which involves attending male, harsh and sexists conferences is probably not the best way to tackle it and take care of oneself.
 
+Pierre Phaneuf I think having allies agree on a signal is a good idea. It's much less confrontational than the behavior cards someone else mentioned.

Of course, you personally can't be around your female friend all the time, so you would have to get several male friends to help out.
 
What makes this whole argument stupid is that WOMEN make sexist jokes ALL THE TIME! Really gross period jokes, vagina jokes, menopause jokes, saggy boob jokes, small penis jokes ALL. THE. GOD. DAMN. TIME!

I also DO NOT CARE!

I stand for the right for all women to make as many horribly gross incredibly nasty vile and disgusting jokes at all times!!!! Public or professional venue!!!
 
Thanks for the great explanation. But the suggested actions spoil it a little. I have seen much more effective and positive actions in real life.
 
+Ingo Oeser I ran out of mental energy to write more about suggested actions.  I'm happy to do a follow-up post.
 
+Zachary Bittner And you should be able to call them on it if it makes you uncomfortable.  An explanation of why women find it hard to call males out on inappropriate comments does not in any way imply that males don't have a right to call women out.
 
+Sarah Sharp thank you for insight into your Lizard Brain.

I think your post highlights a key problem with the whole gender issue. In particular the conflation of "R-rated humour", "anti-female" sentiment, unpunished illegal behaviour & raw statistics.

Some examples:

#1: R-rated humour

The Unix joke is not "sexist", in fact, it's genderless. However, it is inappropriate for a tech conference.

#2: illegal stuff

> Adria got rape and death threats.

It happens to elected officials and public figures in general. Public figures receive threats of death and bodily harm. This is unacceptable and completely illegal.

> "#IAskedPolitely to move to an empty cubicle away from a guy who leered at me every day. Instead, I got fired. I no longer ask politely."

That sounds like a slam dunk court case. The court case is annoying. It's painful, it's scary, it feels unnecessary, it feels unfair. But it's the system we have agreed on to resolve poor behaviour.

There are clearly men acting with their Lizard Brains here too. But these men are not in the majority. When they do illegal things they need to be prosecuted. 

#3: raw statistics

>  Until there are 50% women in conferences, that means you probably shouldn't crack inappropriate jokes at conferences...

Given current enrollment rates, 50% is likely a few decades away.

Of course, the nursing field is currently 95% female and it is 100+ years old. So it's not clear that parity is an easy state to achieve.

Given that "pace of change" is on the order of a "a generation or two", basically every woman currently in tech is going to be "outnumbered" for the remainder of their career.

At the very least they will be "outnumbered" within their peer group.

#4: anti-female sentiment

Woven into all of this is an anti-female sentiment and bias. We have lots of data that women are being paid less and promoted less. It's not 100% clear why this is happening, but there seems to be an ingrained social bias.

It's also clear that people on all sides of this are working their Lizard Brains over time..

========
What does this mean to a conscientious observer?
========

I cannot fix Lizard Brain problems. You said it yourself, even in a loving home the beaten dog is still scared of newspapers.

I can do my best to provide a "safe home" and if you look at PyCon that's exactly what they did. They have a code of conduct and people responsible for handling this type of behaviour. But Adria bypassed those people and went straight to the mob.

However, I am also not female and will never be. Odds are, I am not going to be on the receiving end of this inappropriate behaviour. It's likely that I won't even be a witness. This makes this extremely hard for me to correct.

And from the woman's side, the stats are not in your favour. Reporting mis-behaviour could very well become a regular conference event. A woman may have to report mis-behaviour on 8 out of 10 conferences she attends before behaviour starts improving.

*This is completely unfair for women.*

It's a lot of extra work for the women that they "shouldn't have to do". But I don't know of a way that is fair. We're trying to re-map social norms. If fights by Gays or Blacks this century tell you anything, that re-mapping can be extremely difficult and unfair.

At the end of the day, most men in tech are in a very tough spot over this issue. I just wish I knew how to make it better.
 
My fear is that I'll end up like Raj from Big Bang Theory. I wont be able to talk anytime a women walks into the room (unless I have some alcohol in me, and just like Raj, will probably say much worse).
 
+Sarah Sharp thank you so much for that very insightful and educating write-up. I believe I have been guilty of what you described myself and will watch out for it.
 
Thank you for writing this up, Sarah.  I've wanted to take some time to do the same thing in my own spaces, but haven't found the energy to properly capture this, and you've done an amazing job of capturing the physical sensations of being in these scary positions, which do indeed regularly override any sort of rational (neo-cortex-based) response.  

There's a third option for the lizard brain, of course - "freeze", or the "imminent death" response.  Trauma specialist Peter Levine mentions that the freeze response is how disorders like PTSD show up, and existing within the tech space has made activation of the "freeze" response really easy for me these days and it's even more disruptive physically than the fight or flight response.  It makes sense that my body chooses that option, but it also means that being in tech is taking a legitimate long-term health toll. Our bodies weren't meant to maintain chronic hypervigilance.

Nevertheless, pretty disappointed that some people still see this as an opportunity to nitpick over details instead of using this as a chance to develop some increased compassion for why this is a legitimately threatening and terrifying situation for many women, and we above all others are eager for it to feel less so.  I'm trying very hard not to feel silenced by all of this and posts like yours keep me encouraged.  Most of the (overwhelmingly male) commenters on this thread are sort of cancelling that out though. Quite a bit of victim blaming.
 
+Sarah Sharp Ok, good to know that the idea makes sense. There's a few issues still, you have to keep this signal covert (so it doesn't get traced back to the woman), and as you point out, I can't be there all the time (but every bit helps, I hope). With any luck, one could "recruit" a few allies to help out, and get reasonable coverage.

I'm still curious about +Ian Muir's second point, from way above. Follow up post, maybe?

Thanks again!
 
Let me propose an alternate theory for Adria's physical response: she knew (on a sub-conscious level) that she was about to do something wrong, and her body was trying to tell her "No, no, don't do this."

There's a ton of reasons why she screwed up, big-time. I'll only give one, right here: she mixed causes. As a developer evangelist, her job was to promote her employer's product. Her job was not to make conferences safe for women. She mixed those two causes together, and made herself unable to do the first, so her employer released her to work on the second. It's possible that she can't make a living off the second job. That would kinda suck. But now she gets to try again, only this time with the knowledge that mixing causes is a bad idea.
 
+Sarah Sharp Yup, Men can call Women out, Girls can call Guy out. I don't think women want a PR machine staring at them at work or conferences or whatever any more then guys do. I found this whole thing absurd but the thing that bothers me the most about it is how bloggers started commenting on how "freedom of speech is a complicated thing"
Its not and I think both Men and Women are People and People should never want freedom of speech to be a "complicated thing"
 
The most surprising thing for me: the physical reaction described seems to resemble a lot the reaction by many men when you tell them: "No, it's not okay to be inconsiderate of others' feelings. Yes, that means that you'll have to bite your tongue from time to time." Oh, the irony.
 
The only thing that makes me a bit uneasy about this justification is that it involves the autonomous action defense.  I'm not entirely convinced that she had that little control over her actions, or that we can excuse (as opposed to understand) actions on the basis that a person was enraged.

The incidence of gender scandal events at tech conferences seems to be a self–perpetuating theme.  I've seen it happen before, a small event happens, is addressed appropriately by the organizers but subsequently everyone starts arguing about it and before you know it, there's the real–life equivalent of a Usenet flamewar.  And it doesn't take long before the word “feminazi” is invoked, marking the end of any useful productive debate as Godwin's law predicts.

The original discussion might have been disgraceful, or charitably you could say impolite and unbecoming.  Taking the photo and posting it was probably a bit over the top.  Tweeting is publishing and public accusations are technically libel.  Not the smartest move but understandably human.  On the other hand, the community reaction was batshit crazy, not to mention the employers' callous dismissals.  Again the conference organizers were the only ones with any sense of proportion: because the feminists (male and female) have put policies and procedures in place.

So here's my suggestion: don't say stupid, impolite things when people who aren't very close friends are in earshot.  Not because it's wrong, but because people love to turn it into a drama and you just don't want to be a part of it.  If you don't agree with that, find a different reason to be polite.  But just be polite.
 
I'm uneasy because I have been accused, and automatically (because I was accused) found guilty of various things in my life that I was in no way guilty of.

In the most far reaching episode, I was accused of harassing two people that I was actually protecting from the bureaucrat dead set on being rid of them on a centralized computer system.  Having lost my protection, they soon lost their access, and the accuser went on to get people actually killed in the Philippines in the early 1980's (I predicted this when I heard where she had been and up to, and a mutual friend confirmed it).

If we are all just scaleless lizards, this and much more is what my brain conjures.  So to exorcise the lizard, I try to figure out who did what to who rather than just automatically believing the accuser.  Apparently, this sort of rational thought is branded "blaming the victim" because the accuser is always right or something.

I'd actually prefer cool headed polite mutual-respecting human brains.  How do we get there if we justify our actions with the lizard brains?  I'd think we'd have to keep trying to use our human brains and talk politely to each other until equality happened.

I've met several women who could handle the situation verbally and directly.  Perhaps they should teach other women how to do that?  And even if you fail at #iaskednicely and/or some imaginary #iaskedatall and get rude-bombed, so what?  Seems like a pycon is a great place to hone your skills, since you have the ushers (?) there onsite and on-call if things go awry.  The two men weren't asked at all.

I also doubt that the entries in #iaskednicely are a random sample of all such experiences, but the bad experiences are indeed revolting.
 
+Sarah Sharp I apologize for not elaborating this enough. I hope that someone else has already pointed out what I'm about to say.

As a woman working in IT, I will never accept a preference treatment.
Women are physically weaker than men but not mentally. We have the same verbal abilities, some studies even assert that we can better talk. I will quote the links if that interests you. 

Anyway, I find your words a little offensive to the female gender.
And even the analysis shows some flaws. When a dog feels threatened in a systemic way it shows aggressiveness and growls.
In your example you forgot to mention that. 

There are dogs that would prefer to go to the other room because they know this way nothing will happen to them; there are others who would respond with their teeth if they are beaten up too frequently.

Leaving aside the fact that comparing women to dogs demonstrates that it is outrageously accepted to consider men and women social relationships as a pattern where the woman is subordinated to the man - seriously, we're spitting on decades of feminism here -, I have a lot of difficulties understanding how you may ask people to limit their conversations in a country where sexual harassment laws are the strictest.

Aren't women able to reply with a similar joke? Can't they use sarcasm and beat the verbal offender on the same ground?
I hope I am not an exception to the gender in using these techniques all the time.

To all the women who posted on #iaskednicely  I would suggest to #asklessnicely  next time, better if they can reply with a joke and make the men laugh. Seriously there's no other way to earn some respect.
 
My problem with "#iaskednicely" is that they're all war stories of failure. Where are the war stories of success?

Also, let's say that the 80-20 rule applies, and 80% of the people making rude jokes are rude people, and 20% of the people making rude jokes have good intentions and simply didn't perceive that the joke would be offensive. Should you take an aggressive action (as Adria did) against 100% of the parties? Do you throw out the 20% of people you can reach? Do we punish everyone equally?

My fear is that going nuclear on everyone whose offense crossed your tolerance level is going to get you the same backlash as Adria got.

My point: yeah, you gotta ask nicely even if you're going to get a hostile response 80% of the time. Just like the police have to treat everyone like they're innocent even though 80% of the time they're not.
 
+Pierre Phaneuf Thanks again for wanting to take action to help make the tech community more welcoming to women--I really appreciate it!

"The line" is a mushy place because everyone is different of course. But when you hear a comment or joke, it might help to ask yourself:

Would I repeat that joke back at the office? Or, to a new, valued client, or be worried about the impression that client is getting about this community if he/she were here with me?

How would I feel if my mom/SO/sister/daughter was the object of that joke or comment?

If I swapped the gender part of the comment with race or religion, would it be considered offensive?

Is the heart of the comment meant to be demeaning or at someone's expense?

John Scalzi's excellent post on conference behavior might also help: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/08/09/an-incomplete-guide-to-not-creeping/

His post on privilege is also worth a read: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/

One other suggestion about behavior: I've heard many women say that one of the hardest things to bear is the dismissiveness--the constant assumption that they're in marketing or a recruiter or some other non-tech role. So another action to take to make the tech world more welcoming: assume women you encounter at tech events are your technical peers.

Personally, I tend to avoid making remarks about religion, race, politics, and gender in both professional and social situations, reserving those sometimes divisive issues for when I'm with people I know well. It's not that I don't love talking about issues--I do. But the where and who is critical, and yes, sometimes I don't say what I'd like to. But it's worth it to me--I have much more to gain being positive than I do shutting people down. As others have noted, keeping the conversation on-topic, particularly at tech conferences where there are probably all different kinds of people, ensures that there's common ground for discussion for all.

Thanks again to Sarah and everyone on this thread for keeping this important discussion frank and constructive!
 
+simona uguccioni I do understand that not all women react this way. Some feel comfortable using sarcasm or blunt words. I have some very out spoken female friends who still get punished for calling out males' bad behavior.

I also want to make it clear I don't think there's an inherent flaw in women that causes these "flight/fight/freeze" reactions. Instead our society trains women through a series of negative consequences to think twice about calling out males on inappropriate behavior. It's sort of similar to how males are trained out of crying. They may become physically incapable of crying because of social conditioning. See this link for a more detailed example of societal conditioning (trigger warning for rape):

http://www.ted.com/talks/tony_porter_a_call_to_men.html
 
Everyone gets "punished" by everyone else for reporting bad behavior, that's how it works.  Being outspoken isn't necessarily the way to succeed at being heard, you have to resort to tactics appropriate to the situation.  I'm not that good at it, but I've seen it done.  One subtle thing is to get up and sit somewhere else.   Makes them wonder and introspect.  If you are talking to them as someone here suggested Adria was, stop and turn away.  Being abruptly rude to someone in the wrong isn't going to evoke a reasoned response a lot of the time.  You are a nice person, use that instead of being rude, which you probably aren't good at.  Don't get flustered when they blow you raspberries, nice them to death.  I've seen that done well.

Maybe the key is to give them time to consider a reasoned response instead of the first retort that springs to their mind.  If "fight" is what is wired into their lizard brains, give them time to reason out of it.
 
Thank you for taking the time to reply +Sarah Sharp .

Maybe you're right and it is a cultural problem. I don't live in the US and I've never worked outside Europe. As for my personal experience, I have never been punished for speaking out my mind.

Once a senior developer, a very productive and appreciated one, threatened to fire me (I was a contractor then) by writing an e-mail explaining to the CEO that I outspoke him and that I did not deserve to be in the company. I had a chat with the technical director and finally he and the CEO decided to believe me instead of him. They did not remove me from the position. Do you know why? Because I could provide evidence that I was right. This senior developer was never around and he was not answering e-mails either. Everybody knew that. Of course I was careful enough to request his presence and make him overreact only once I demonstrated my value and he was to blame about something. Knowing when to speak and being smart is the key to it.

IMO, there are different levels of being nice and the nicest of it can sometimes be perceived as sign of weakness. It is difficult to understand why Adria felt threatened by the jokes of two strangers. To be punished you need to confront with someone who has the power to punish you, not two random guys at pycon.

Let's step down into the situation, I want to make clear that I do not suggest to be rude or cross the borders of socially accepted behavior.

You hear two people in front of you telling a presumably sexist joke (i.e. you perceive it as sexist) around a dongle, What could you possibly reply to them?

I'm sorting the answers from what I consider the the nicest (A) down to the lesser nice (D).
A) "Excuse me, could you please try to avoid this kind of jokes? People heard you and it is not nice"
B) "Excuse me, do you realize that what you just said might offend some people? Please try to moderate the language"
C) "Ehm, ehm, are you 5 years old still making jokes about dongles?"
D) "Well, then watch out about your "dongling around because some day your dongle might get cracked. Women today are getting stronger on IT security :-)"  - the smile is very important to show that you're not being too serious in this case.

None of these replies gets you punished. There have been no rapes or episodes of physical aggression at developers conferences, why should you feel threatened? As I pointed out, the dog example is not relevant, because dynamics between humans and animals are different from relational patterns between men and women.

Please make me understand, because we're not talking about India or Egypt. At which point of their career/education do women in the USA become so insecure?  
 
+simona uguccioni I think we come from very different backgrounds, and we may be unlikely to agree about this. :) I think one of the issues is that in many different countries, both women and men are looked down on for not studying science and math. In America, only men are looked down on for not studying STEM subjects. This starts as early as primary school. I think this causes a very different dynamic in adult life than in countries that value both men and women going into STEM.

As for the claim that there have between no rapes or aggressions at tech conferences, that's not true in the open source world. For example, one of my friends got sexually assaulted at Apache Con, wrote about it, and got same horrible backlash from the community and the internet:
http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Noirin_Shirley_ApacheCon_incident

Read some of the comments on her referenced blog. It's the same vitriol that was used against Adria. Luckily Noirin came back to apache con and the open source world, but it other women like Kathy Sierra have not:
http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Kathy_Sierra_incident

I would really suggest you read the timeline of incidents in the open source world to see what I mean by "these stories we share":

http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Timeline_of_incidents

"Unlocking the clubhouse" is another good book to read for a perspective on how the american culture drives women away from technology at a very early age.
 
+Sarah Sharp I've been in this industry for quite a long time. I'm American and have lived in Russia and England. I've worked next to some beautiful women writing code. I've slept with some beautiful women who write code. Believe it or not, people in the tech industry actually copulate!

Personally, I have never witnessed anything out of the ordinary or in greater event per capita in the tech world. Sure, people will cut crude jokes and there will be sexual harassment, but that happens in every sector of every industry. The tech world is overwhelmingly male, but I still have never witnessed anything abhorrent. 

As for sexual assault, this is very bad. Again, it happens everywhere. People are who they are because of where they came from. It is meaningless when it comes to career choices. 

There are females in the open source world that get 10s of 1000s of male followers for the simple reason they are female. They take advantage of this, too. Reverse sexual discrimination that is. 

However, it really doesn't matter. Humans are animals. We will experience behaviour that is not politically correct. We will never eradicate this behaviour 100%. So, we just have to deal with it within reason.

As for me, I think a father losing his job and therefore children at risk of not having food or a roof over their head for the simple reason he was cracking crude jokes is well over the top of reason. Clearly, she should have said something or walked away. But no, she had to take a pic and Tweet it while making public accusations. And, for what reason?

She doesn't deserve the vitriole she has received, although I will say there is reason for anger given the way she handled the situation. Correction was in order, but correction wasn't given. It was a ridiculous political response.

The United States wants to believe it is the leader in everything. However, it is not. This is a clear indication that silly mishaps can be grossly mishandled on both sides. I will say, I am American and have lived in both eastern and western Europe. So, I can say it like it is: her actions were petty. She was looking for something. She is a self-appointed industry starlet. In reality she is simply a vigilante. However, she made a mistake and paid the price for it.
 
Yes, +Justin Cook, where do you think little geeks come from? My daughter doesn't think of herself as computer-savvy, but she's not afraid of hacking at HTML when a wysiwyg editor fails her. She pfffts when I say that she really is good, but ... she really is good. By comparison with her brother and I and her expectations, no, but with most of the population, yes.
 
Point taken on sexual assaults at dev cons +Sarah Sharp .
Thanks for linking sources.

Yet all the episodes happened during parties after the conference. When you're listening to a speech and there are a lot of sober people all around you that cannot be considered a threatening situation.

Her reaction was wrong and the death threats a horrible consequence. She lost her job and one of the guys too. I think we all agree that she should not have posted on twitter.

Therefore I do not accept any justification claiming that since women in IT are verbally mistreated all the time they should receive special treatment.

I am strongly convinced that it is possible to handle all kind of situations like adults and discuss things.
 
I don't know about other guys, but the moment I see things like this that get blown out of proportion the moment I'd start thinking "must avoid contact at all costs". What will trigger a lady to feel threatened can be arbitrary especially given that many have suffered abuse in the past at these kind of shows. (once upon a time I had one rip into me for daring to say "ma'am")

There comes a point where risk outweighs the reward. The more people can't be themselves around each other the more they'll judge that the interaction just isn't worth it.

At least some of the bad behaviour would stop, although at the cost of social interactions being more segregated.
 
Safer not to talk to women. You never know when they'll take offense, and when they do, you have no defense, because, well, because "I was offended". As soon as you start trying to defend yourself, you start losing.
 
+Russell Nelson If you are not sure that you can talk to a woman without creeping her out, the conservative approach of not engaging in conversation is probably best.  
 
Okay, folks, I'm disabling comments on this thread now, since we're at a stalemate between the remaining participants. Note that saying, "Well, we simply shouldn't have women in tech" will get you blocked for misogyny.