A woman holds a sign with Rebecca West's 'differentiate me from a doormat' quote

Example conference anti-harassment policy turns one year old

This is a cross-post from the Ada Initiative’s blog. The Ada Initiative has put a lot of effort into helping conferences understand and adopt some form of anti-harassment policy. Your donations will help us continue to promote the policy and do similar work. Thanks!

November 29 was the one year anniversary of the publication of the example conference anti-harassment policy! Inspired by multiple reports of groping, sexual assault, and pornography at open tech/culture conferences, the Ada Initiative co-founders helped write and publish an example conference anti-harassment policy for modification and reuse by conference organizers. This example was the collaborative effort of many different conference organizers and community members, who all deserve thanks and credit.

One year later, over 30 conferences have adopted an anti-harassment policy of one kind or another. “More than 30″ is a rough lower bound; several organizations have adopted a policy for all their events and run a dozen or more events per year. Some of the organizations that have announced that all their conferences will have a policy include Linux Foundation, ACM SIGPLAN, and O’Reilly (pledged). Here’s why some conferences have adopted a policy, in the organizers’ own words:

Tim O’Reilly: “[...] It’s become clear that this is a real, long-standing issue in the technical community. And we do know this: we don’t condone harassment or offensive behavior, at our conferences or anywhere. It’s counter to our company values. More importantly, it’s counter to our values as human beings.”

Jacob Kaplan-Moss, co-organizer of PyCon US, speaking for himself in this post: “A published code of conduct tells me that the conference staff cares about these issues, takes them seriously, and is waiting and willing to listen if an incident happens. It’s by no means a solution to the depressing homogeneity of technical communities, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

ACM SIGPLAN: “This policy has been in the works at the ACM SIGPLAN for several months; SPLASH 2011 is proud to be both the driver for that effort and the first ACM conference with such policy in place. This policy is not a symbolic gesture, delivered to satisfy a perceived need for political correctness, but instead goes to the core of both our personal beliefs and the beliefs of the community as a whole.”

Like any good open source project, the policy has been forked, adapted, and rewritten from scratch several times. Conference organizers looking to adopt a policy now can choose from several different policies. Many policies are linked to from this list of conferences with a policy; if you know a conference that is missing, please add it!

Some history

Why write an example anti-harassment policy? What we discovered after a little research (aided by the timeline of sexist incidents in geek communities) was the following:

  • Often, the person doing the groping, harassing, or showing of pornography honestly believed that their behavior was acceptable for the venue. Just as often, many other people went on record agreeing with them.
  • People who saw these incidents didn’t know how to respond to these incidents or weren’t sure who to report them to.
  • Conference organizers sometimes didn’t learn about an incident until long after it happened. When they did find out in time to take action, they often didn’t know how to respond to the incident.

We looked at these facts and figured it might help if conference organizers had an easy way to:

  • Educate attendees in advance that specific behaviors commonly believed to be okay (like groping, pornography in slides, etc.) are not acceptable at this conference.
  • Tell attendees how to report these behaviors if they see them, and assure them they will be treated respectfully if they do so.
  • Have established, documented procedures for how the conference staff will respond to these reports.

But we knew that conference organizers are very busy people, and very few of them had the time to write something like this. We figured that if we wrote an example policy that could be easily adapted to their needs, we could save them a lot of time and energy, and reduce harassment at conferences at the same time.

One year later, it looks like we had the right idea! Now it’s almost easier to attend a open tech/culture conference with a policy than one without. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, from attendees of all genders to speakers to organizers, and especially conference sponsors. Sponsors like any way to reduce the chance that their name will be associated with bad press.

You can help encourage adoption

Our goal is to make policies like this obsolete because everyone knows how to go to a conference without ruining it for the people around them. But we’re clearly not there yet, as this incident from October 2011 shows. One way you can help change the culture of open technology and culture is by encouraging the adoption of a similar policy by the conferences you attend.

Here are some of the common arguments against adopting a policy that addresses the three points we describe above.

This has/will never happen at my conference!

Congratulations! Some conferences are small enough or exclusive enough that it’s easy to end up with a group of people who all agree about appropriate conference behavior. Generally speaking though, as a conference gets larger or easier to attend, the mathematical probability of someone with significantly different ideas attending the conference increases until it is a near-certainty.

Next, if you believe there’s never been harassment at your conference, you might want to do a little asking around. If you don’t have a well-publicized method to contact the organizers about harassment at the conference, you’re unlikely to hear about it. When this policy was first posted, many organizers went back and asked attendees if they’d ever heard of harassment at previous conferences they had run and found the answer to be yes surprisingly often.

Finally, a great way to keep up a perfect record of no harassment is to adopt a policy that tells attendees you expect them not to harass each other.

Listing specific behaviors is unnecessary/insulting/ineffective/negative/etc.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming evidence from previous incidents shows that many of the people involved had absolutely no idea that what they were doing was unacceptable – and in fact were quite angry to discover that there were some unspoken rules that no one told them about. You may not enjoy telling people the rules specifically, but people hate breaking rules unknowingly even more.

To be blunt, a non-trivial percentage of speakers at open tech/culture conferences view pornography in their slides as simply good speaking technique. Telling them, e.g., to only include material suitable for a diverse audience won’t change their behavior because they believe everyone enjoys a little pornography in their technical talk. The only way they are going to stop including pornography in their slides is if you tell them not to, in so many words. Another non-trivial percentage believe it’s perfectly acceptable for a man to touch a woman on any part of her body without her consent if either the man or the woman is drinking alcohol. They believe this is appropriate behavior, so asking them to, e.g., “Be respectful of other people” is not specific enough to change their behavior.

This policy will hamper free speech and ruin my talk!

Conferences and their topics vary, but we have yet to attend a conference in open technology and culture in which a talk required the harassment of attendees in order to get information across. We’re not sure, but we suspect you can, e.g., teach people about file system semantics and keep the audience’s attention without employing sexist jokes. (I’ve done it more than once!)

Conferences in which talks about sexuality, racism, etc. are on-topic are encouraged to add exceptions for these talks and give guidelines on talking about the subject while respecting the attendees. We encourage them to send us their modifications so we can add them to the options in the example policy. Here is one example of the policy as applied to a talk about sexuality by Cindy Gallop at the Open Video Conference 2011.

In the end, you can always vote with your feet – you can preferentially attend, speak at, and help organize conferences with policies against harassment.

A note: We want to explicitly acknowledge the fact that harassment at conferences is not just a problem for women; in fact, we’ve heard many reports of men being the target of harassment, or being disgusted or creeped out by other attendees’ behavior. In this as in many cases, the changes that make open technology and culture more welcoming (and safer) for women are the same ones that make it more welcoming for everyone.

5 thoughts on “Example conference anti-harassment policy turns one year old

  1. Debbie Notkin

    Please add FOGcon to your list of science fiction conventions that have adopted an anti-harassment policy (based in part on yours and in part on WisCon’s).

  2. Moose

    The Ohio LinuxFest adopted a full length anti-harassment policy before the 2011 event. A short version of it was placed in the physical program. The full version is at http://www.ohiolinux.org/conduct .

    I am rather disturbed that on the “Conference anti-harassment/policy” page that including things like a computer’s operating system is considered humor. The Ohio LinuxFest takes such a thing very seriously. Bullying people over the computer they use, and what runs on it, is a serious problem in the Open Source community as a whole, and we neither condone or permit such actions. We do not feel this behavior is humorous in the slightest. I am disappointed that the geek feminism community would make light of such bullying tactics.

    1. Valerie Aurora Post author

      Thanks for pointing this out! I’ve personally never heard of any incidents of bullying over editor of choice, etc. and so was unaware that it took place. This sounds like a behavior that could use some awareness-raising. If you were to document it on “Timeline of Incidents” or in a blog post and add a link from the example policy page, that would be very helpful.

      1. Moose

        Hmm, blog post isn’t a bad idea, though I may already have one. Will look into it, thanks!

        I’m in the process of putting together a talk for a FOSS conference called (currently), “Don’t Make Me Turn This Conference Around! Why squabbling over OSes, distros and editors hurts the FOSS movement”.

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