It has been zero days since the last sexist incident in tech

[Content warning: sexual objectification.]

Obie Fernandez is the author of The Rails Way, the editor of Addison-Wesley’s Professional Ruby Series, and a co-founder and CTO of Javelin, a startup that builds “tools and services to help you change your world”.

Fernandez also, apparently, can’t talk about technology without reminding everybody that he has, on some occasion or another, had sex. Despite being a CTO, he also apparently doesn’t know that the Internet doesn’t have an erase button — which goes to show you that extremely poor judgment doesn’t stop you from getting copious VC funding for your company, if you’re male.


A screenshot of a tweet from Obie Fernandez, which he later deleted

Fernandez’s Twitter bio declares, “Author, Programmer, Dad”. Usually (certainly not always, I’m aware!) being a dad implies that you have had sex at least once. But it’s so important for Fernandez to remind us that he has had sex — with people of multiple ages — that he also has to inject tortured sexual analogies into what could have been a perfectly benign programming language flame war.

At 8:36 PM tonight (in my time zone, anyway, Fernandez tweeted, “still not sure exactly what I’m supposed to apologize for other than being a bit crass about 20-year old people.”

By 9:11 PM, Fernandez had evidently thought about it deeply and carefully enough to issue a retraction. I guess the “lean startup” approach is so powerful that its adherents can go from sneering at their critics (including a risible attempt to backjustify his sexism with an appeal to pansexuality — folks, we’ve been over that already) to heartfelt apology in less than 40 minutes. (I fear that his apology may not be entirely heartfelt, though, as he quickly moved on to declaring that he’s “not a sexist” and attempting to pay for his blunder by citing all the women he hires.)

Readers of this blog are aware that one asshat in tech would have little effect on his own, if he were indeed an isolated case. They are equally aware that Fernandez is no anomaly of asshaberdashery. I think the hapless Fernandez is providing us with a valuable lesson: the message to “not feed the trolls” is a dangerous one. While any given individual absolutely can and should disengage with trolls when necessary to protect their physical and mental health, engaging with them can have value. Judging from his Twitter avatar, Mr. Fernandez is at least 30 years old. That makes 30 years or more in which not a single person in his life has told him that the world generally does not need to know that he has done a sex. Perhaps his demeanor makes them afraid to challenge him. Perhaps they don’t think it’s worth the time. Who knows? But at one point in his life, one presumes that he was impressionable — one knows that he’s impressionable, since nobody acts like he does unless they get rewarded for it. Rewarded with laughs, with buddy-buddy slaps on the back from fellow bros, with congratulations on how delightfully politically incorrect he is, with 1.5 million dollars of venture capital money from the likes of Mark Suster, Eric Ries, and 500 Startups.

Back when I was first dabbling in Usenet in the mid-1990s, it was conventional wisdom that trolls were usually children sitting at a computer in their mothers’ basements. That, in other words, they had no real power other than the ability to rustle a few jimmies for a moment. It’s 2014 now, and some of those children have grown up and become technology executives — people with hiring and firing power, with a lot of control over a big part of the economy. If the adults in the room had spent a bit more time trying to socialize those children (because clearly, they weren’t getting it from their parents) and less time stating their troll-starving prowess, perhaps we would be able to attend a conference without hearing about some guy’s crotch.

Postscript: On Twitter, Matt Adereth pointed out this 2005 blog post from Fernandez:

I didn’t particularly like Ruby the first time I met her. I thought she was interesting, but a few months later (to my surprise) something changed. I started seeing her appealing qualities. My friends really spoke highly of Ruby, so we started spending time together. The love affair began in February 2005 and about a month later, things started getting pretty bad with my wife, Java. Even when I was doing Java, I couldn’t stop thinking of Ruby and how much better she is for me.

So it looks like Mr. Fernandez has been unnecessarily sexualizing technical discussions for fun and profit for quite some time. As Adereth observed, it also looks like Fernandez’s use of the “who said I was talking about women?” derailing tactic is entirely disingenuous.

18 thoughts on “It has been zero days since the last sexist incident in tech

  1. Christa

    Hi Tim,
    Thanks for raising this issue via this incident. I’m new to this blog and love that it takes on such a tough issue in a thoughtful and direct way. I went to @obie’s Twitter feed and saw that many others, most of them men!, really went after him for that horrible comment. Sadly, he didn’t see the big deal, though it think it’s awesome that so many others did and that it forced him to remove it. It gives me hope for the tech industry.

  2. Toffanin

    I’m quite disgusted by Obie Fernandez’s non-apology and fakery. I have removed him from all my social contacts. His naïvete is not worth my time.There are a lot of better tech-experties out there; experties that surely pay more attention about diversity than Javelin’s CTO.

  3. Last name Wang

    Is it so difficult to just use the word penis? As someone who’s last name is Wang it would be nice for people who say they empathize with others to not use it as slang for penis. Especially when it’s meant in the least nicest way about someone’s penis.

    Thanks
    - Guy who has dealt with it for 20+ years.

      1. Janet Walters

        Furthermore, as someone who has to wear a hat (of sorts, it’s a medical device sort of like a colostomy bag) on her right back above the ass I’m not too fond of “asshat” or its derivations, either. Believe it or not I’ve been called that with a knowing sneer a few times.

        1. Tim Chevalier Post author

          Well, a case in point that we all have room for improvement, even me :-) I often reach for variations on “asshole” since everybody has one, but at the same time, using it as an insult has connotations about disapproval of or disgust with anal sex, which I don’t agree with. Then there’s the chronic-illness/disability angle, which I hadn’t thought about before, but will now.

  4. Allison

    I have had one run in with Obie and he turned to my male business partner and said “so you know that girl you work with?” My partner says “you mean her,” and points his focus inches away to me and my clearly visible nametag. I have not been a fan since.

  5. goldenapplesdesign

    Nice post, very clear. I’m curious why the word ”dad” makes you feel like he’s bragging about having had sex, though? I definitely think there’s something off about the endless ”father, husband, Christian” trope in bios, but I always read it more as grasping for respectability – look, this one woman, at least, puts up with me – than any kind of sexual bravado.

    1. Tim Chevalier Post author

      I don’t think “dad” in a Twitter bio is bragging, no. I do think that making jokes like the one he made — outside a context of mutually trusting friends — reflects sexual insecurity. So my tongue-in-cheek question was why he would feel sexually insecure given that producing at least one child is usually taken as a sign of having had sex — though I fear that the joke is now thoroughly dead from explanation :-)

      1. goldenapplesdesign

        Ah, cool. Thanks for clarifying. :) I figured it was just an offhand comment, but just wanted to check.

        There’s so much to pick apart in attitudes towards parenting in the tech scene (or any scene centered around single early-20′s straight men for that matter). Lotsa breeder-hate for parents of both genders, but at the same time, a weird authoritarian respectability that fatherhood conveys… not so much for mothers.

  6. name not actually necessary

    I’m curious – for someone who isn’t the most socially competent ever but considers themselves a wannabe feminist, how would you recommend reacting to jokes like that when a random friend makes them (assuming said random friend is young enough to be impressionable via peer pressure)? Don’t laugh at all, I imagine? (My typical reaction is to laugh awkwardly and kinda feel uncomfortable.)

    1. Tim Chevalier Post author

      Not laughing is a good start. I think that glaring, raising an eyebrow, or otherwise showing disapproval non-verbally can be powerful. After all, people make these jokes primarily to get approval from their peers, and withholding that approval takes away the incentive.

      In situations where you do feel comfortable saying something, I also like the approach of feigning innocence: asking, “I don’t understand, can you explain what you mean by that? Why is that funny?” Or in a situation like this one, “What does using a programming language have to do with having sex with somebody?” Another thing about jokes like Fernandez’s is that they rely on shared assumptions (sexist ones, in this case) for their putative humor. Indicating that you don’t share the speaker’s prejudice can be powerful, and it forces them into an awkward situation, rather than you.

      I’ll also put in a plug for the good sexism comebacks page on the wiki, and for the Ada Initiative’s Ally Skills Workshop — the latter has an entire section on how to react in these situations, and Ada Initiative staff are available to teach such a workshop at your workplace or nonprofit (for a modest fee).

  7. Just Curious

    Obviously, Obie is a man, and (in all likelihood, from his profile), straight. Would you have reacted differently if he were a woman and/or LGBTQ?

    1. Tim Chevalier Post author

      If we lived in a world where women, and queer people regardless of their gender, could make sexually objectifying comments (particularly about men) without fear of retaliation, words like Fernandez’s wouldn’t have the power that they do.

    2. goldenapplesdesign

      I think there’s a way for anyone to talk familiarly about sex without being sexist. It was the attitude that came across through the joke, rather than the sexual content, that is so off-putting here. The stereotyping, looking down condescendingly at young women, while at the same time devaluing the sexuality of older women, is what I see as the problem here. Also the creating of a public audience to bond over shared hetero maleness, which just marginalizes other people further. Its hard to imagine a parallel statement from a woman or queer that would have all of these effects.

      1. Tim Chevalier Post author

        Its hard to imagine a parallel statement from a woman or queer that would have all of these effects.

        Exactly — because such a statement from a woman or queer person doesn’t have the full force of patriarchy behind it. Women and queer people are perfectly capable of making crass remarks (as a queer man, I certainly do it all the time), but either know not to make them among untrusted people (because there are consequences for women and queer people who say such things that don’t exist for hetero men), or make them anyway but have little influence.

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