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engineersTakeaway: If we can shed some of the industry’s juvenile past, while maintaining this merit-based culture, IT will attract all comers, regardless of gender.

You’ve likely heard about the kerfuffle over SendGrid’s former Developer Evangelist Adria Richards. The short story is that Ms. Richards overheard comments made in poor taste at a Python developers conference, most noteworthy of which were some puns on the word “dongle,” an unfortunately-named hardware “key” of sorts used to unlock software features by being plugged into a computer.

Richards tweeted the remarks, as well as names and pictures of the offenders, which resulted in their firing by their employer. As tempers flared, Richards was also fired. As this occurred over a month ago, some of the most inflamed passions have died down, and the flashpoints surrounding this incident seem to fall into one of three camps. The first camp contends that Richards made a mountain out of a molehill, not only taking offense at fairly benign remarks, but resorting to what amounted to public shaming via social media rather than a simple face-to-face conversation that could have resolved the issue on the spot and saved all parties from losing their jobs.

The second camp laments the privacy implications of the whole mess. I’ve certainly exchanged my share of jokes that may have been in questionable taste, and likely giggled like a grade schooler at a dongle reference or two at some point in my life; however, I’ve never had to fear instant, global public shaming for this.

Finally, for many the entire incident is symptomatic of a broader problem within IT. Women are forced to contend with a juvenile “boys club,” where everything from hardware to source control is replete with unfortunate, vaguely sexual names. If nothing else, sheer numbers indicate the obvious fact that IT is still a male-dominated field. The industry has spent decades trying to increase female participation, and while most tech organizations are no longer seas of white, male faces, women remain a minority, and a quick visit to an advanced computer science class indicates that’s unlikely to change in the near term. On the surface, it does indeed look like IT has a “women problem.”

My take on the Richards incident is that IT suffers more from a lack of professionalism than some sort of broad, anti-female conspiracy. I’ve often wondered if the stereotypical image of startup keg parties and poorly groomed “dudes” turn broad swaths of people, men and women alike, away from an IT career more than any other factor, creating what amounts to a vicious cycle. Companies and roles that don’t have this borderline-fraternity legacy seem to have more women, and a correspondingly more professional demeanor, although it’s unclear which is cause and which is effect.

In Richards’ case, this lack of professionalism on both sides may have compelled her to publically slander peers rather than take a more tactful and respectful route, a response that likely doesn’t bode well for someone whose primary job responsibility is uniting developers behind your employer’s software platform.

So, what can IT do to clean up its act? Must we all don topcoat and tails and immediately terminate anyone who utters “hard drive” with so much as an inkling of a smirk? Obviously not, but we can also hold ourselves to standards that demand respect of ones self and ones peers. I’ve always admired the Ritz Carlton motto: “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” If this were the case in IT, the whole “dongle incident” would likely not have occurred, and if it did, some even-handed words would likely have resulted in an apology and handshake. Rather than “Ladies and Gentlemen,” it seems that in this incident an appropriate motto might have been “We are self-absorbed asses serving ourselves.”

At its best, IT is one of the few fields in which brains and hard work are rewarded based on merit, rather than tenure or title. Technical chops are recognized regardless of age, race, country of residence, political leanings, or gender, and youthful intellectual curiosity is celebrated more than curmudgeonly political manipulations. If we can shed some of the industry’s juvenile past, while maintaining this merit-based culture, IT will attract all comers, regardless of gender.