Disclaimer: This is all personal opinion and as such, should be taken as my view of the world, and not fact.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have noticed me banging on a lot about conferences and codes of conduct lately. You’ll probably be a bit bored about my constant posturing by now, and I know I’ve lost followers because of it, so I’d like to brain dump what I think of codes of conduct, and why, in my opinion, they are so important.
Firstly, what exactly is a Code of Conduct? For me, it’s a two part document that sets the expectations of what people should say and do when they are gathered at a conference or similar event.
Part one usually covers what’s acceptable behaviour, and what’s not. Most people immediately think that this is crazy. “People at my conference know how to behave!” is something I’ve heard a ton of times over the last few weeks of discussing this topic. Sadly, in my own experience, this is just not the case.
Over the past few months and years I’ve been lucky enough to become good friends with a number of women developers in the larger developer community, so much so that I’ve been let “behind the curtain” on a number of occasions. I’ve been told some horrible stories about things that as a white man, I didn’t even know happened, and certainly not at events that I’ve been in attendance. These ranged from fairly harmless comments about what women are wearing (or men I guess, but I’ve never heard a man’s clothes choices questioned at a conference), through to comments that are inappropriate, condescending and/or downright rude (“so, are you here with your boyfriend?”). And then we get to the actual physical sexual abuse. Yes, that’s right, I’m telling you I personally know of instances of physical sexual abuse at PHP conferences.
I’d love to document each and every case I’ve been told about, but each time the abuse has gone unreported, and the victim wants to keep quiet on the matter (this is a huge problem, and one I’ll address later). I’m going to broadly cover a single incident in the hope that I can at least convince a few readers that these things can and do happen, and are largely unreported.
An incredibly close friend of mine was at a developer conference this year when a man approached her and introduced himself. He then came in close to hug her (even though he didn’t know her), and when she felt obliged to hug him, he ran his hand down her back, grabbing her arse (“and worse” – her words) before stepping away. I’m not going to go into too much more detail suffice to say that my friend was mortified, embarrassed and, weirdly, ashamed of what had just happened to her. She didn’t report the man or the incident because “I won’t be able to show my face in conferences in future”. I’m pretty sure if that happened to me I wouldn’t want to attend developer conferences in future, but there are obviously stronger people in this world than I.
I know some people will not see that as physical sexual abuse, and will think that I’m exaggerating for effect. All I can say is the thought of someone touching someone I care about (or even don’t) in that manner turns my stomach. To me, that is sexual abuse rather than the more unoffensive term of “inappropriate touching”.
Remember, that is one example that I, one person, know about. How many more go unreported?
Coming back to the point, it’s plainly obvious to me that some people actually do need reminding that grabbing the arse (“and worse”) of someone who doesn’t want you to do that is unacceptable at conferences (or anywhere).
TLDR; Believe it or not, some people need to be reminded how to behave.
Part two of a CoC generally deals with what to do if you are a victim of, or witness, inappropriate behaviour while attending an event. For me, this is the most important part of a good CoC.
How to report problems is an easy thing to address, but I think that “tell the staff” isn’t going far enough. Personally, I would love to see an individual who is not part of the conference organisation team appointed as some kind of liaison to ensure that people will feel as comfortable as possible reporting what inevitably will be a difficult experience for them.
When things do happen and get reported, I feel that organisers need to address the incident from a position of belief rather than disbelief. A number of people who have been harassed have told me that they didn’t report it because they felt that they wouldn’t be believed. This is wrong. I’m not saying that organisers should immediately believe any reports and remove anyone accused of doing anything, that would be crazy. But being welcoming to reports of incidents means that you are more likely to get those incidents reported.
Personally, I’d like a CoC to reinforce to attendees that the organisers want to hear about incidents, and I want witnesses to be encouraged to intervene and report bad behaviour rather than leaving the onus on victims to come forward.
If someone is guilty of doing something inappropriate, then they should be dealt with appropriately. I can’t say here what that action should be, but I would prefer it if the happiness and wellbeing of the victim were given the utmost priority. If they are going to stay, then we need to do whatever it takes to make sure they are comfortable and secure for the remainder of the event.
I want conference organisers to understand that when we bring a large number of people together, things happen, but together we can help make the number and severity of those things as small as possible.
TLDR; Encourage any witnesses or victims to incidents to report them, and make it as easy and comfortable as possible for that to happen.
Why bother with this in the first place? What good does it really do?
I’m extremely lucky. When I want to attend conferences, either as a speaker or as an attendee, I simply pack a bag and catch a flight. I throw in whatever jeans and t-shirts are around and off I go. I’ve recently come to the startling realisation that for everyone this isn’t the case. For some people, choosing what to wear at a tech event isn’t a case of throwing whatever is to hand into a bag. It’s a case of carefully picking and choosing things that are unlikely to bring any unwanted comments or attention.
When choosing conferences to attend, typically I’ve chosen a scattergun approach; submit talks to as many as I can and see which ones stick. I don’t have to decide on which conferences to attend based on the recent demographic of the attendees. It’s an ever increasing spiral it seems. Minorities in tech won’t attend some events because they feel even more of a minority due to that lack of diversity. Changing that will be hard, but over the last couple of years where I’ve been at many conferences, I’ve certainly seen that some do better than others with diversity.
I want to be attending conferences that respect and represent the diversity that exists in the larger community.
Without any disrespect to white men, I want to look around a room that has more than that, because only then do we end up getting into engaging conversations that teach us something new. I’m not saying for one minute that a white man cannot teach me something new, but I am saying that without making real friends with some of the amazing women in our community I would have never begun to expanded my horizons in the way that I have. I’d like to do that for other social groupings, be that race, religion, sexuality, disability, whatever. People who aren’t like me have different things to talk about with me, and that’s usually pretty interesting and educational.
In order to encourage more diverse attendees, we need to make sure that those people who need to make a considered choice on if they should attend feel as comfortable as possible. Codes of conduct really help to stack the deck in the favour of an event.
Yes, codes of conduct really help, and that’s not only my opinion either, it’s the opinion of people in many technical communities, not just PHP. But this is where it gets sticky.
Who am I to tell anyone what makes other people comfortable? In this excellent post by @mikeal, the author states “I’m a white guy, I don’t get to decide what makes non-white non-male people feel safe and accepted”. This is an excellent point. I’d love to learn more about this. Anecdotally I feel that CoC help, they set your stall out to say “Please come and join us, we are inclusive and we don’t accept any shit”, but I don’t know this.
If you’d like to have further discussion on this, then I’d love to hear from you myself, I don’t have all the answers here – of course, most of this post has been from the perspective of women in tech, and that’s simply because that’s a group of people who I can and have discussed this problem with in recent times. I’d love to come back a year from now having opened up my own opinions to more social groups if that’s possible.
TLDR; CoC help people feel safe and secure, and help attract a more diverse group of people to your event.
So, this has been a mega-brain dump one Monday morning after I’ve become upset and annoyed trying to get my points across to some of my followers on Twitter. To them I say, “sorry”. Nobody likes being spoken to by someone on their high horse, and I feel that I’ve crossed that boundary with some people over the last few weeks.
So, again, “I’m sorry”.
But I hope you can understand, at least, why this has got me so energised. In some ways I almost wish that I didn’t realise this was going on as an undercurrent of our community, and I could continue to enjoy my conferences in ignorance. Almost but not quite. It turns out that I really care about this stuff. Who would have guessed it? Not me a few years ago that’s for sure. I think having two daughters does that to you. At the moment I swing from hoping they’ll follow me into tech, to hoping they’ll stay as far away from it as possible.
I’d love to help make a tech community that means my own (and other people’s) daughters can have rewarding, fulfilling, exciting, happy careers making awesome shit that changes lives.