Valerie and Mary of the Ada Initiative, at AdaCamp DC

That Time I Wasn’t Harassed At A Conference

Last month, best-selling science fiction author John Scalzi made a big splash when he pledged to only attend conferences that have a clear, published anti-harassment policy. Since then, more than 1,000 people have co-signed his pledge.

He noted in a follow-up post and on Twitter that while his announcement helped publicize the effort to get conferences to adopt policies, he joined a fight that others–particularly women–have been on the front lines of for some time.

Valerie and Mary of the Ada Initiative, at AdaCamp DC

Valerie and Mary of the Ada Initiative. Photo by Adam Novak, cc-by-sa.

For instance, the Ada Initiative has been hard at work on this issue since 2010, when they created a clear, specific anti-harassment policy and released it under the totally free Creative Commons ‘Zero license.’ Since then, dozens of conferences have adopted the Ada Initiative policy, or adapted it for their use.

Let me tell you about the time I wasn’t harassed at a conference – and why I donated to the Ada Initiative’s 2013 fundraising drive to support this work.

Djangocon uses the Ada Initiative policy. They’ll be in Chicago this year, but last year, Djangocon was held in Crystal City, Virginia, just outside Washington DC–practically my backyard. Thanks to generous scholarships from PyLadies and the Django Software Foundation, I was able to get a ticket.

I was nervous about going to a new conference alone. Like most geek women, I’m used to harassment in geek spaces.  It used to be, when trying to explain how hostile an environment the geek world can be, I’d tell people, “I’ve been attending cons of various types since I was thirteen, and I have never, not once, been to a con where I wasn’t harassed.”

But I was fairly new to Django development and wanted to start building connections to the wider Django community. The conference was using the Ada Initiative’s policy, and since it was in my home town, it wasn’t going to be hard to bail if I needed to.

Selena Deckelmann keynoting Djangocon 2012.

Selena Deckelmann keynoting Djangocon 2012 (and sporting an Ada Lovelace laptop sticker). Photo by Alec Perkins, used with permission.

The Django community was very welcoming. People asked me what I was working on. What I thought of this talk or that. Whether I’d been to Djangocon before. I attended several talks that were directly relevant to stuff I was working on at the time, met a bunch of awesome people, and even –gasp– grabbed coffee with strangers without it being weird.

But what really stood out for me about that conference was that I felt safe the entire time. Nobody made inappropriate sexual comments, touched me without my permission, or took creepy pictures of me.

It would be unscientific to attribute my experience at Djangocon entirely to the anti-harassment policy. I’ve never been to a Djangocon without such a policy, after all, so it could be that the Django community just knows how to behave. But when I’m trying to decide whether to go to a conference, a clear, specific, well-publicized anti-harassment policy is big points in its favor. This is especially true when a conference is using the Ada Initiative’s policy, because I know that it comes with a comprehensive back-end policy to ensure that event staff know how to handle problems as they arise.

These things make me feel safer, especially when I’m new to a community. They tell me what the community’s standards are. They also tell everyone else what the community’s standards are, which is perhaps their biggest effect: telling people what behaviors are unacceptable can help prevent problems from occurring at all.

Scalzi’s pledge is a great example of how to help make conferences safer spaces, especially if you’re someone with a lot of influence in a community, like a sought-after speaker. But even if you’re not a big name, there’s still plenty that you can do. Ask conferences that don’t have specific, publicized policies to consider adopting them. If a conference you’re attending has such a policy, thank them for it–and consider doing so publicly, in a blog post or on social media.

Annalee and Mackenzie at Adacamp DC.

My friend Mackenzie and I at AdaCamp DC. Photo by Adam Novak, cc-by-sa.

Finally, consider donating to the Ada Initiative, whose staff advocates for women in open technology and culture (including fan and remix culture). They didn’t just put the anti-harassment policy out there and hope it’d stick: they work hard year round to encourage conferences to adopt anti-harassment policies and other best practices. They also offer workshops for allies, and host AdaCamp, an unconference where feminists in open stuff can get together to network, talk about our shared interests, and strategize around issues a lot of us face, such as impostor syndrome.

They rely on donations to keep up their excellent work. And because supporting women in open technology and culture is their job, they’re able to work harder and smarter for us than many of us can on our own.

If you believe in welcoming, fun, harassment-free conferences for everyone, join me in supporting the Ada Initiative’s work.