We've had some recent questions about the purpose of Ada Initiative consulting services, from people whose opinions we consider very important. They were prompted by an email I (Valerie Aurora) sent which I will describe in more detail and quoted in full later in the post. Mary Gardiner has no responsibility whatsoever, other than agreeing to co-found the Ada Initiative with me.
Consulting services clarification
The mission of the Ada Initiative is to increase the participation and status of women in open technology and culture. As part of that mission, we work with organizations to be more welcoming and supportive of women in these areas. One type of consulting we do is helping organizations to respond to sexist incidents that have (rightly) drawn the ire of the community. Our goal in this consulting is to help organizations understand what went wrong, apologize in a meaningful way, and change their organization long-term so that they are less likely to do sexist things. The hoped-for end result is an organization that has changed significantly, is less likely to do sexist things, and will work actively to support women both inside and outside the organization.
We are a non-profit, so we do not charge for our consulting services and don't have any financial incentive to put another organization's interests above those of our mission. If you still have questions about our consulting services, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will address them.
Incident and apology
Yesterday I created an incident which requires me to eat a great deal of crow, post a private email on our public blog, and make a lot of apologies. I began an inappropriate email discussion which was offensive enough that a participant announced they were posting the thread publicly. Here is the story and the emails.
Timeline and emails
Yesterday I agreed to give free consulting to a client that I won't name here because I don't want them to take the blame for my mistake (not because I think they will stay anonymous since the content of the email will show who they are to many people). I scheduled a phone call with them that evening. We talked about a variety of possible steps they could take, but I felt the first step was to write an apology that followed the guidelines for a meaningful apology. I promised them an email with guidelines and went to dinner.
Unfortunately, after dinner, I had a bad idea. What triggered it was three other ideas: One, that it's hard to get the word out about apologies – they're just not as interesting. Two, things that are funny and "retweetable" do get the word out. Three, at this point showing some humility would be really helpful. This all came together and I had a vision of a video in which the founders apologize while wearing boxer shorts and t-shirts. Humble, showing commitment, and funny – or crude, insensitive, and inflammatory?
I could see that this was very likely a bad idea (and my bad idea, not theirs, I can't emphasize this enough), for the following reasons:
- You can't invert sexism – a man in his underwear is not the same as a woman in her underwear because one lives in a society full of oppression of her gender and the other does not.
- Just taking off your pants in public doesn't give you much insight into what it's like to be a woman.
- It's more likely to be seen as a "lighten up", dismissive response instead of a humble, contrite response.
- It's still sexualizing and objectifying people, even in boxers.
- It doesn't address all the non-video related aspects of the problem.
But, I thought, what if it is actually an awesome idea and I just can't see it? So I decided to send it to several people I trusted who would tell me if it was a terrible idea. This is when I wrote a terrible email that I should not have sent. This was a huge error in judgement on my part. In sharing my bad idea with people who were not a part of the agreement between the client and the Ada Initiative, I exposed the client to the potential for further bad publicity as well as risking undermining the Ada Initiative's good standing by expressing ideas which are, for the reasons outlined above, far removed from our ideals as an organisation.
I am posting the exact email because one of the people involved in this discussion believes it is offensive enough to warrant public release, and I respect their opinion. This is the email I sent:
Subject: Wacky idea – need sanity check
I'm working with [redacted] to find a believable and funny and retweetable way to apologize. Besides a new long specific blog post explaining exactly why they were wrong and what they are doing to prevent future screw-ups, I had an idea:
What if they posted a video of themselves wearing t-shirts and boxers and said something along the lines of, "Now we have a little bit of an idea of how this feels. We're really sorry." ?
Gross or awesome? Not sure, and I haven't even mentioned it to them, they might freak out and hate it. :) Also, can you reply and cc [redacted]?
P.S. I can't believe I'm working in PR and marketing! WTF!
Again, I must emphasize: the idea was mine, not theirs. (Also, I noticed afterwards that this email uses ableist language: "sanity check." I am working to get these words out of my language but I am not succeeding as quickly as I want. Mental health and disability terms are not appropriate to use as pejoratives.)
The response was unanimous: "That's a horrible idea," for exactly the reasons I was worried about. I replied on one thread:
Okay, glad I ran it past you all. :)
And on another:
Already shot down. But I hope it made someone laugh as much as I did. :)
I won't quote anyone else's emails or give names because I do not have their permission to do so. Discussion began on the purpose of Ada Initiative's consulting services, whether it was appropriate to work with this client, and whether we were being paid to work with them. I replied:
No, I explicitly refused to talk to them about money. We are a non-profit, we offer free consulting to organizations who are trying to not be so damn sexist. We prefer that they come to us before they screw up (we give workshops on being good allies, write policies they can use, etc.) but we also help them fix their problems after they've made giant public mistakes, mainly because that's when they are most likely to adopt permanent policies like the anti-harassment policy (ask [redacted] about this). Our previous clients include [redacted], and [redacted]. We turn down clients if they [sic – we] believe they aren't working in good faith.
The way they treated [redacted] is the worst thing they've done and I don't think they can make up for it (although they can at least make a real apology). But there's a chance they can turn into an organization that's making open tech/culture better for women, and that's our mission.
My comment about marketing and PR is in reference to my past career as a Linux kernel programmer. I find it bizarre that I'm doing things like this since I don't have any talent for it.
In reply to a further question on the same topic, asking if we'd given consulting to this client:
Yes, about one hour's worth. We do draw the line on who we work with, do you think we should refuse to work with them further? I went into this with only partial information and on the recommendation of someone I trust, and I can accept that I was wrong to do so.
Again, I apologize for the bad idea. It was bad because:
* Men can't get what it's like to be in this position
* You can't reverse the tables because the context isn't the same
* It doesn't take the situation seriously
* It doesn't address the majority of what they did wrong (which is in large part how they treated [redacted])
At this point, the person pursuing this line of questioning requested permission to post on the moderated Ada Initiative supporters mailing list, stating that if we did not allow her to post my emails on that list, she would post them publicly elsewhere. That list has a very specific purpose and we have promised the subscribers that it will be used only for that purpose. Our only other public venue is this blog, so I decided that the most appropriate response was to post the emails here along with a well-deserved apology.
I apologize to the specific people I hurt with these emails for adding insult to injury (let me know if I may list your name here in addition to apologizing to you directly in private). I apologize to to our client for discussing a bad idea over email with inappropriate recipients and adding to their problems instead of helping them, as I was ethically bound to do. I apologize to the Ada Initiative sponsors and Ada Initiative advisors for causing the very kind of incident we are trying to prevent, and I apologize especially to my co-founder, who is busy enough without me sending foolish emails. In the future, I will be careful to discuss my ideas about clients only with appropriate people, not send emails that I would not want to post publicly on our blog, and sit on my wild ideas overnight before asking other people's opinions of them.
Future steps and thank you
We are recusing ourselves from consulting with this company because (a), I am doing a bad job for this client, (b) we now have a conflict of interest due to my actions. We are also initiating a review of how we decide which clients to take on.
We hope that our supporters and community will allow us to fail and learn as quickly as we can while we're learning how to run a non-profit. Today was definitely a learning day. Thanks for your time and I'm sorry you had to spend it this way!
In contravention of our usual policy, this post is open for comments. Consider the conference anti-harassment policy in effect; any comments that are harassing will be deleted, although with some delay since Mary and I don't have the resources to moderate 24/7.
Comments are enabled but not displaying. We are working on the bug.