Photograph of John Scalzi, by I am the Jeff

How To Be An Ally, Speaker Edition

John Scalzi is a New York Times best-selling Science Fiction writer. He’s won or been nominated for most of the genre’s top awards, and he’s the most recent former president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. It’s fair to say he’s a sought-after guest on the SF convention circuit; he’s been a Guest of Honor several times and a Toastmaster more than once, including at the 2012 WorldCon in Chicago.

Photograph of John Scalzi, by I am the Jeff

John Scalzi, from a photo by I am the Jeff

Yesterday, he announced that going forward, he will only accept invitations to conventions that have a published harassment policy that is “clear on what is unacceptable behavior, as well as to whom those who feel harassed, or see others engaging in harassing behavior, can go to for help and action.”

We often hear from allies who are looking for things they can do to help make geek culture a safer space. If you’re somebody who speaks at conferences, this is a great way that you can leverage your power to help.

How to do it:

Scalzi has an extremely well-trafficked blog, but there’s no need to make a big public statement if you’re not comfortable doing so. All you have to do is:

  1. Only accept invitations/submit talk proposals to conferences with a clear, published, enforced anti-harassment policy, and
  2. When you decline an invitation (or decline to submit a talk), tell them why.

Step Two is key. If you just decline the invitation, the conference will have no way of knowing that there is a simple step they can take to change your mind and make their event safer and more welcoming.

So when you’re invited to speak, check the event’s website for a harassment policy. If you can’t find one, shoot them an email:

Thank you for the invitation to [event]. I’d love to attend, but I only speak at conferences with [clear, publicized] anti-harassment policies. Do you have one that I’ve missed, or would you consider implementing one? [Can you tell me how you will publicize it to attenders?]

For calls for papers or talk submission systems, do the same thing:

I’d love to submit a talk for [event], but I only speak at conferences with [clear, publicized] anti-harassment policies. Do you have one that I’ve missed, or would you consider implementing one? [Can you tell me how you will publicize it to attenders?]

If they tell you that they don’t have a policy, or if the policy they have is not adequate (“don’t be a jerk” is not an anti-harassment policy), encourage them to adopt a real policy. Point them at this template policy, which The Ada Initiative developed in collaboration with other volunteers. It can be adapted to suit most technical, literary, gaming, or media conferences. The introduction includes a concise argument for why conferences should adopt clear policies:

Why have an official anti-harassment policy for your conference? First, it is necessary (unfortunately). Harassment at conferences is incredibly common – for example, see this timeline of sexist incidents in geek communities. Second, it sets expectations for behavior at the conference. Simply having an anti-harassment policy can prevent harassment all by itself. Third, it encourages people to attend who have had bad experiences at other conferences. Finally, it gives conference staff instructions on how to handle harassment quickly, with the minimum amount of disruption or bad press for your conference.

If they choose not to adopt and publicize a clear policy with a reporting process, decline their invitation to speak or submit a talk.

Other Ways To Encourage Conferences To Adopt Policies:

The Geek Feminism Wiki has a list of other actions you can take to encourage conferences to adopt anti-harassment policies. Among them:

  1. Privately request a policy by directly contacting the conference organizers, and their parent organization if there is one (some conferences are run by a non-profit parent body, for example).
  2. Publicly request a policy by blogging, tweeting, or similar.
  3. Do not attend conferences without a policy, and let them know of your decision.
  4. Privately or publicly thank conferences that do adopt a policy (and their parent body, if any).
  5. Help publicize conferences that do have a policy.
  6. Preferentially attend conferences with a policy and let them know that you did so.
  7. Refuse to volunteer for or run events that benefit a conference unless it has a policy.

Other Things You Can Do:

  1. Make A Public Personal Pledge to not engage in harassment and to speak up when you see harassment, as sci-fi author Jim C. Hines did, and/or to personally back up targets of harassment, as Mary Robinette Kowal has done.
  2. Refuse To Share A Stage With Jerks. If you’re invited to speak at a conference where another speaker is a known harasser, misogynist, racist, heterosexist, cis-sexist, or other brand of jerk, refuse the invitation, and tell them why:

    I’d love to speak at [event], but I see that you’ve invited [jerk] to be your [Guest of Honor/Keynote/etc]. [Jerk] has done/said [awful things they've done/said][, and to my knowledge, they have not accepted responsibility, nor have they made a public commitment to behave better in the future]. I’m not comfortable [speaking at conferences with them/sitting on a panel with them/toasting them/etc], because I don’t want people thinking I endorse their behavior.

  3. Support Those Who Choose To Speak Out. Last week, Elise Matthesen chose to speak out about being harassed at a conference, and her experience with reporting the harasser. Her post on the subject appeared on the blogs of several well-known SF writers, including Mary Robinette Kowal, Jim C. Hines, Seanan McGuire, Brandon Sanderson, Chuck Wendig, and John Scalzi (hat tip to Mary Robinette Kowal for listing the cross-posters on her blog. More information is available on the Geek Feminism Wiki). These writers not only lent Matthesen their platform and speaking trumpet; they also took on the work of moderating the comments her post generated. Offering to host a post on your own blog and moderate the comments is an extremely valuable service you can offer to people who want to tell personal stories about harassment or related issues.
  4. Name Harassers. Many victims of harassment and assault do not feel safe publicly naming and shaming their harassers/attackers. Those that do name names risk personal, professional, and legal reprisals for doing so. If you have enough personal power within a community that you feel you can safely name a harasser, and if you can do so without outing a victim or betraying a victim’s confidence, consider speaking up. People who are vulnerable to harassment are often forced to rely on a grape-vine of backchannel warnings about serial offenders. This system is opaque, ad-hoc, poorly-documented, and it doesn’t help people who aren’t already tapped into a network that can pass the warnings on. Author K. Tempest Bradford reports that Matthesen’s harasser’s employer has been aware of his behavior for years. There have been previous complaints about it stretching back to at least 2002. After Matthesen came forward last week, Segrid Ellis and Mary Robinette Kowal both came forward to name him. This will make it much easier to hold him (and spaces that tolerate his behavior) accountable going forward.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course. There are a hundred big and small ways that you can fight bad behavior in geek spaces–many of which don’t depend on being powerful or famous.

On Twitter, Scalzi said about his new policy: “I didn’t make that harassment statement for the cookies, incidentally. I did it because I don’t want my friends [bleep]ing harassed.” Taking any of these suggested steps may not earn you any cookies, but if you’re in a position to do them, they can help make a real, lasting difference that makes geek communities more safe and welcoming for everyone.