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Dick Jokes and DevOps

Update: This post has flaws that are addressed in a follow-up article.

So, someone made a dick joke on a devops mailing list.1

It was pretty benign, as such things go – an allusion to penis enlargement in the context of a discussion about managing spam. I’d have made the same joke in a group of friends, though perhaps not in front of my mother. Certainly not in front of a nun, or on a global mailing list largely populated by people who I do not know, and who do not know me.

Mark Imbriaco politely called this out with a reply that could be gold standard for such things:

I just wanted to point out that your dick joke, which
I’m quite certain isn’t intended to be malicious in any way, doesn’t
do anything whatsoever to help the gender diversity problem that we
have in technology, and most especially in technical operations.

I’ve been guilty of making jokes like that in the past myself, so I
understand that they don’t come from a desire to exclude anyone from
the group. That said, the only way we make things better is by being
aware that they do result in making some people feel
excluded. And the only way we improve the situation is by eliminating
that kind of thing from our discourse. And by having our friends
remind us when we miss the mark, as I’m quite certain I will in the

Mark Imbriaco

Note that Mark explained why the comment was bad without accusing the author of being bad. Conscious malice isn’t required to say something exclusionary – thoughtlessness is often enough.

Matt Trout’s advice shares the same spirit, while being somewhat more direct:

“Tell them they sound like an asshole. Don’t accuse them of
being one, because your enemy never believes he’s an evil man. Just
tell them they sound like one.”

In a perfect world, the joke’s author would have responded the way Anil Dash did when he was recently called out on Twitter. In our actual world, he instead replied thus:

“Yeah, I’m not really into subjecting myself to your morality.”


Discussion Ensues

When a predominantly male mailing list dives into this kind of discussion, its membership can appear to separate into three groups.

1) “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!”

This group doesn’t see anything wrong with whatever was said, and therefore nobody else should either. “The world is a cruel and unforgiving place, and delicate flowers need to toughen up a little. Anyway, this is censorship, and censorship is evil.”

2) “How can you think this is appropriate?”

This group might not have been personally offended by the comment, but they don’t believe it has any place on the list. Maybe the wider world is cruel and unforgiving, but that doesn’t mean we have to be. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

3) “Not another one of these threads. Can’t we just get back on topic?”

Some in this group think the comment shouldn’t have been made, others think it was no big deal, and the rest don’t particularly care either way. They might feel that the discussion is uncomfortable, or just plain tedious, but wholly off-topic either way. “You’ve all shared your opinions, now shut up and let’s move on.”

While the third group aren’t actively causing the problem, they’re certainly not part of the solution. They also offer a small illustration of privilege: if you can feel just as comfortable ignoring the problem as fixing it, you’re probably part of the privileged group.

Despite actively contributing to the problem, folks in the first group often don’t see any misogyny in their position. “I don’t hate women. I’d say the same things to my female friends, and they wouldn’t have a problem with it.” Perhaps that’s fair. I don’t know whether dick jokes are inherently misogynistic, but I do know that this line of reasoning entirely misses the point.

The Point

The DevOps movement is inclusive. It recognises that we suffer in our own lives when we scorn the people whose professional choices differ from our own, and that we benefit from putting a little effort into getting along.

If you can build bridges with someone working in a different job, how can you insist that people with a different gender (or sexual preference, or skin colour, or religion) are the ones who need to change if we are going work together? Those personal attributes are far less relevant than the job they do. If they are impediments to someone’s involvement in a professional group, the group has made it so.

“tl;dr - Don’t do it, not because you are being censored, but because
it makes part of your audience uncomfortable, and if your job is
getting people on the same page, that’s pretty much the worst thing
you can do.”

Eric Shamow

Be mindful of your audience, try not to exclude anyone, and listen when someone suggests you’ve slipped up. If you see someone slip up, let them know that their comment falls short of the aspirations of the DevOps movement.

It isn’t asking much, and we all benefit from the inclusive community that results.

  1. I haven’t linked to it, because I don’t think giving it more publicity is going to help anything. Am I wrong? Let me know.