Over the past couple years, a larger discussion has been taking place about technical conferences and related events adopting code of conduct/anti-harassment policies. Below are some of the more common questions about and arguments against these policies.
Is there something missing from this list? Email me.
- What is a Code of Conduct?
- What are some good examples of Codes of Conduct?
- Why should an event have one? Why should I choose to only attend events with one?
- As a conference organizer, how do I educate people about our Code of Conduct?
- What can I do as an event sponsor, speaker, or attendee?
- How will words on paper stop people from being jerks?
- Instead of a code of conduct, we're making sure sure we have more women speakers and support organizations like RailsBridge, PyLadies, and other programs promoting diverse participation.
- My conference has never had any incidents, I don't think we need a code of conduct.
- If people don't report incidents, isn't it partially their fault if it happens in the future? How can we make things better if they don't report?
- Isn't this censorship? What about free speech?
- Does this mean I can't swear or make jokes?
- If I suddenly put up a Code of Conduct won't people think we've had incidents and feel unsafe?
- Why is the language in the Code of Conduct so negative/punitive? This'll take the fun/casual atmosphere out of my event. The people attending my event are my friends, I'll vouch for them. Isn't it obvious/common sense what's acceptable? We're all adults here, why can't we say "be excellent to each other"?
- I'm worried because I may have inadvertently done something in the past that would be considered a violation under this policy.
- Can we exempt important community members or sponsors from the Code of Conduct?
- What about false accusations?
- Isn't listing specific groups and actions opening us up to loopholes?
- Why should a Code of Conduct cover non-officially affiliated events?
- Why wouldn't you just call the cops? Isn't this why we have laws?
A Code of Conduct is a policy statement issued by an organization. To be considered an adequate code of conduct, it must have four complete parts:
- statement of unacceptable behavior
- how the policy will be enforced
- how and whom to make an incident report to
- training and reference materials for organizers, staff, and volunteers on how to respond to incident reports
A great example can be found at confcodeofconduct.com. It's important to note that you will also need to include who and how to report incidents as well as training for organizers, staff, and volunteers.
Having a code of conduct means you'll be joining the ranks of many high-profile technical conferences.
By using an already established policy, you don't have to worry about how it will stand up if and when it's battle-tested. Additionally, you don't have to worry as much about problematic wording such as phrasing that puts the burden of responsibility on the reporter instead of the perpetrator.
We're programmers and believe in DRY, right?
A Code of Conduct is a public statement that sets the ground rules for participating in an event. Our conferences boast attendees from all over the world, coming from many different backgrounds and experiences; our expectations of what is appropriate are not always in line with one another. A policy like this ensures that everyone is on the same page without any gray areas and even better, that there will be less rules-lawyering.
The people most affected by harassing or assaulting behavior tend to be in the minority and are less likely to be visible. As high-profile members of our communities, setting the tone for the event up front is important. Having visible people of authority advocate for a safe space for them goes a long way.
Sadly, the occurence of these incidents is high. To get a taste of the types of things that have happened in the past, see the Timeline of Incidents. This is not a complete list, but gives you an idea of the types of incidents that happen regularly.
Choosing to only attend events with a Code of Conduct means you are supporting and sending a clear message to conferences that have thought about the safety and comfort of all of their attendees - the Code of Conduct signals a concious committment to that.
It should be visible from every page on your website and a link should go out to it in all emails for the event. Additionally, speak about it in your opening address(es) at the conference. You can create a list of commonly asked questions to refer attendees to, as for many communities this is a new policy.
As a sponsor, you can pledge to only fund events with an actionable code of conduct. Heroku, as well as both the Python Software Foundation, and Django Software Foundation have made similar pledges for events they sponsor. You'll be in good company.
As a speaker or attendee, you can pledge to not attend events without a code of conduct. Email or tweet at conferences asking about their code of conduct and tell them why having a code of conduct is important to you. Ask your friends who attend or speak regularly to take the same pledge.
As a company who sends their employees to conferences, you might consider adding a policy that encourages your employees to attend those with codes of conduct, like Bendyworks has done.
The most difficult thing to explain to people is that codes of conduct do not necessarily stop all poor behavior, in much the same way that establishing laws don't necessarily stop people from breaking them. A code of conduct lays the ground rules and notifies both bad actors as well as the people at the receiving end of that behavior that there are consequences for those actions. Think of a code of conduct like the harassment policy most American businesses have (I'm not sure how prevalent that is internationally) - it defines what harassment is (for both the harasser and the harassed) and sets the ground rules for acting on reports. A code of conduct helps by signaling that attendees should trust conference organizers, staff, and volunteers will respond appropriately should a report be made.
Instead of a code of conduct, we're making sure we have more women speakers and support organizations like RailsBridge, PyLadies, and other programs promoting diverse participation.
It's great that you are supporting organizations that are working to increase the participation of marginalized people in tech, but this aids in solving a problem that is different than why codes of conduct are needed.
A code of conduct is put in place to protect people who are already in the industry and are facing a negative atmosphere out in the community.
A code of conduct with programs to increase the number of marginalized speakers, bringing new people into the community through educational groups, increasing the accessibility of your venue, providing scholarships and child care to increase diversity and inclusion at events each play an important role in correcting the imbalance we see in the industry.
In short: these aren't mutually exclusive, do both!
Sadly, just because you have not had reported incidents doesn't mean you haven't had or won't have incidents in the future.
If people don't report incidents, isn't it partially their fault if it happens in the future? How can we make things better if they don't report?
It is absolutely never the victim's fault. The only person to blame is the person who committed the act.
Victims/survivors in these sorts of incidents don't always report for a number of very valid reasons, including social stigma and professional, financial, physical, and personal safety. As event organizers and fellow attendees we should provide any support that we're able to with the consent of the victim.
The first job of a conference organizer is to ensure the safety of everyone involved. Act on reports you do receive and work to avoid a repeat of the same.
Free speech laws do not apply to harassment and assault and furthermore don't apply to individuals that are not representing the government. The point at which a person is actively harming another individual is not only not free speech, but it is against the law.
You can read more about the first amendment on Wikipedia.
Whether or not you can swear is entirely up to the individual event. Some events allow the attendance of children, others take place in either more conservative areas or in venues that require a certain level of professionalism. Consult a conference organizer if you are worried about swearing, especially if you intend to do so in a talk.
You are more than welcome to make jokes as long as they don't create a harassing or dangerous atmosphere for other attendees. If a joke you are considering making may violate the code of conduct, perhaps that isn't the type of joke you should be making in public around strangers or potentially at all.
While you may have some attendees that worry about that, a public statement from your organization explaining why a code of conduct is being implemented now can help quiet some fears. Explain why it's important to your organization to keep all of your attendees safe and what this means for the event going forward. Feel free to point out the large list of other events that have adopted this policy.
Even if you think you haven't had an issue at your event, being aware of other issues in the community and preparing for the eventuality at your event shows you care about the safety of your attendees.
Remember that it's more important that your attendees are actually protected versus the false sense of security of believing nothing can happen to them at these community gatherings. You are thinking two steps ahead if and when something were to happen and are telling them that you will take reports seriously.
Why is the language so negative/punitive? This'll take the fun/casual atmosphere out of my event. The people attending are my friends, I'll vouch for them. Isn't it obvious/common sense what's acceptable? We're all adults here, why can't we say "be excellent to each other"?
Not everyone understands what is unacceptable behavior, especially when we are talking about a group of people that is mostly homogenous and has very little interaction with people different than they are.
We focus specifically on what isn't allowed and what violating those rules would mean so there is no gray area, no guessing, no pushing boundaries to see what will happen. "Be nice" or "Be an adult" doesn't inform well enough about what is expected if one attendee's idea of niceness or professionalism are vastly different than another's. On top of that, "be excellent to each other" has a poor track record.
You may have been running an event for a long time and many of the attendees feel they are "like family", but it actually makes the idea of an incident happening at the event even scarier. If someone is new and not part of "the family" will they be believed? Will they be treated like an invading outsider?
Remember that everyone who has harassed or assaulted someone is a parent, sibling, child, or friend to someone else. We don't always know people as well as we think we do.
I'm worried because I may have inadvertently done something in the past that would be considered a violation under this policy.
Yeah, and that sucks to realize :( No one is perfect and we all screw up sometimes, but the important part is to apologize, learn, and be better next time. Someone who you hurt shouldn't pay the price for your mistake.
No. For a code of conduct to be effective, every person - from the organizers to the sponsors to the speakers to the staff - must follow the code of conduct and be treated exactly the same under it.
False accusations are not only incredibly rare, but are less common than people choosing not to report at all. The risk a person takes for reporting an incident (not being believed, being ostracized, facing further harassment/abuse from the original person or their friends/supporters, losing financial/professional opportunities, etc) is so great that it would not be worth it for a person to falsely accuse.
One of the most damaging things we can do to someone who has faced harassment or abuse is to not believe them when they trust us enough to report.
We always run the risk of leaving out a group, unfortunately. The best defense against this is to keep your code of conduct up to date and listen to feedback from the community about how it can be improved.
Your code of conduct should apply to any event where your attendees may congregate. Since so much of the conference experience these days is at the after-parties, in hallways, and other non-official events, we have to expect that incidents can happen in those spaces that will affect people at the event.
Unfortunately the police don't have a great history of responding positively to incidents where a marginalized person is concerned. The arrest rates for sexual assault, for instance, are extremely low. Many people have had situations made worse by the addition of the police, whether the police don't believe them, the bias that many have against marginalized people, or due to the person's personal history with police officers. The decision of whether to call the authorities should always involve the complainant and should also weigh the further harm to other attendees.
Also worth nothing: there are plenty of actions that can make people feel unsafe or uncomfortable that aren't necessarily against the law or warrant calling the police over. They include sexually suggestive language, slurs, or derogatory statements. In some places, for instance, sexual harassment is very contextual, so a specific action may not be against the law.
A complainant may choose to involve the police, but a report should still be taken by the event organizers as well.
Additionally, remember that with international conferences and international attendees, the laws or response of law enforcement may not mirror what they do in each person's home. We are doing what we can to create the most protection possible for all attendees at our events.
- Increasing Diversity At Your Conference
- A Year+ In: Codes of Conduct at Tech Confs
- Geek Feminism Wiki: Conference Anti-Harassment/Policy Resources
- Rick Scott: A "culture of respect" is neither well-defined nor enforceable
- Jesse Noller + The Python Software Foundation: The Code of Conduct
- Jacob Kaplan-Moss: Why conferences need a Code of Conduct
- Carina C. Zona: Code of Conduct diffinator
- Convene Digital: Zero Tolerance (inaccessible to screen readers)
- Ada Initiative: How to Design a Community Code of Conduct
- Ada Initiative: Anti-Harassment Work
- Stephanie Zvan: So You've Got Yourself A Policy, Now What?
- Stephanie Zvan: Returning to the Scene, or Coming Back After Harassment
- Brad Colbow: Why We Had a Code of Conduct
- Maggie Zhou, Alex Clemmer, & Lindsey Kuper: A Code of Conduct is Not Enough
Nearly a year and a half ago, an incident in the Ruby community inspired me to more vocally support and advocate for inclusive, safe, welcoming events in tech. Myself and others started by speaking to community and conference organizers about what they were doing to make their events an accurate reflection of not only what the community currently looked like, but where we wanted to see it go. I hosted a couple months worth of google hangouts so we could discuss what actions organizers were already taking, what issues they were having a hard time resolving, and how we could better work together to make the goal of more diverse representation on stage and in seats happen.
Since then, I've personally worked with nearly 50 conferences to put a code of conduct in place, to improve their call for proposals, and to ensure they were thinking more broadly about the people who wanted to participate in their events. The Ada Initiative does much of the same, reaching many conferences every year. Individuals like Carina C. Zona - who runs @callbackwomen, a twitter account that collects open CFPs - and Julie Pagano - who organizes a google hangout for people who want to speak at conferences but need help practicing or writing an abstract or just to help ease their impostor syndrome - have helped countless people submit and attend conferences. Groups like DevChix, PyLadies, Women Who Code, and so many more are filling other needs - allowing people to learn, practice giving talks in front of people, get constructive feedback, or be pointed toward safe, welcoming conferences which others have had good experiences attending.
A lot of progress has been made in the past year and a half. I'm really happy to see more people publicly having conversations about things like codes of conduct and I've seen the number of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people speaking at these same conferences increase greatly.
That said, there's still a long way to go.
I worry about the conferences that are adopting codes of conduct without understanding that their responsibility doesn't end after copy/pasting it onto their site. Organizers and volunteers need to be trained about how to respond, need to educate themselves about the issues facing marginalized people attending their events, and need to more thoughtfully consider their actions when responding to reports. My major push this year with conference organizers is to ensure that they not only understand all of that, but are either getting personally trained from rape/sexual assault crisis centers, or are hiring them to work for their events. I'm currently working on a guide for conference and other event organizers that I hope to get out before the major conference season this summer.
Additionally, I want to see more organizers understand why increasing diversity is important. I've personally been asked at the last minute to speak at conferences after they realize they have no women or LGBTQ people speaking, I know of many people of color who've had the same issue. No one wants to be an afterthought or a band-aid on your problem. It's not terrible that conferences feel pressured to increase diversity, but you can tell the ones that are doing it because they feel they will "get in trouble" versus because they actually care about their communities. Marginalized people contribute to the bottom line and community of your event, treat them with respect.
Going along with the last one, we've done a great job increasing the number of women speaking at events, but I am still seeing largely white, American, abled, cisgender, and straight people speaking at events. We need to be better engaging with more different kinds of people in our communities and educating ourselves about what we're doing to make them feel unwelcome. I just attended an event here in San Francisco that worked with a handful of ASL (American Sign Language) interpretors, which I almost never see. We can be doing so much better here; we shouldn't only be helping white, American, cisgender, straight, abled women - diversity is so much more than that!
How you can help
So this is what I need from you. Before you accept an invitation to speak at a conference or you buy a ticket, ask the organizers some important questions. I would love to see people refusing to attend events that don't, at a minimum, have an acceptable code of conduct.
- Do you have a code of conduct? Is it easily-findable from every page on the website? Is it a real code of conduct versus the "Be Excellent To Each Other, We're All Friends Here" variety? Point them to my current favorite code of conduct or to the citizen code of conduct. Note that the code of conduct is this entire document, the "short" version isn't an adequate one on its own. Make sure that there are phone numbers, email addresses, and information about how to find people physically in person to ask questions or get help. If you need more information on codes of conduct, I wrote a 101 and FAQ.
- Do you offer scholarships (full or partial) to people who wouldn't otherwise be able to attend or speak? How can people or businesses contribute to the scholarship fund?
- Are the venue and other official events accessible to people using assistive mobility devices? Do you offer ASL interpretors, headphones for amplified sound, captioning, or any other kind of assistive services?
- Do you offer childcare?
- Is the CFP accessible for people who haven't spoken before, aren't industry "celebrities", don't have a github/twitter/facebook account for any reason?
- Is the proposal process anonymized to remove as much bias as possible?
Obviously this is a short list and in no way comprehensive. If you don't feel comfortable asking all of these questions, pick one that is the most important to you and hold yourself to only attending events that meet that criteria. If they ask questions and you are unsure of the answers, feel free to point them to the resources below, or to connect them with me via email.
By letting event organizers know that making spaces welcoming to everyone is important to you, it becomes important to them as well. I'm really excited to see the kind of progress we can make together this year. <3
- Codes of Conduct: a 101 and FAQ
- Increasing Diversity At Your Conferences
- Help People Afford To Attend Your Conference
- How conference anti-harassment policies + codes of conduct work together with law enforcement to keep people safe (video)
- Let's Get Louder: people in the Python community pledge not to attend events without a code of conduct
- #CoCPledge: select tweets
- Twitter account: CoC (Code of Conduct) Pledge
This piece was originally written for Model View Culture's STATE issue in January 2014.
I’ve been a programmer for 13 years. For the most part, I love my work. It’s interesting and different enough every day to keep me from getting bored. I have the freedom to be inventive, push the boundaries of what I know, and make mistakes. Few other fields would have allowed me to not only get by without a degree, but to be successful enough to start my own business at 23.
The parts that I don’t like, though? It’s much more emotionally draining to make that list.
Over the past year I have worked to increase the visibility of the issues marginalized people face in tech. I talk about the negative experiences people have with businesses, conferences, and the community. I educate people about what they may be doing - intentionally or otherwise - to contribute to these problems. Because of that, my email inbox has becomes a safe space for people to reach out for help; it’s an unordered list of harassment, discrimination, and bias. I get between 75 and 150 emails a day from people all over the world. A woman new in her career who was sexually harassed, but her company has no HR department and the harasser is a close friend of the founder, so she still has to work beside him every day. An Indian man who dealt with months of racial slurs and stereotyping before he left his office over lunch one day and didn’t come back. A trans woman who suffered through a day-long interview where the interviewers intentionally misgendered and humiliated her. A woman who reported a sexual assault at a conference and was told to prove it or they wouldn’t remove the assaulter from the venue. A woman who found out she was being paid thousands less than her less qualified male colleagues and feels too afraid to confront her boss about it, because she can’t afford to lose her job. A man whose company quietly stopped providing same-sex partner benefits once the founder figured out it was in their policy. And then there’s the emails from people who were fired in the 3 months following their report of sexual harassment at work.
I asked people who had reported harassment or assault to their employer to tell me what happened after. 23 of 25 were fired within 3mos.
— space face (@ashedryden) October 12, 2013
The Current Landscape
I’ve done this for so long that I don’t know what I’ll do with myself when I decide to leave. That’s the killer part: with so many of us leaving in droves - 56% of women within 10 years, twice the rate of men - it’s not an “if”, but a “when”. After suffering through particularly nasty incidents of harassment, abuse, and indifference to the treatment many of us receive, I’ve thought to myself “is this the thing that will finally make me leave?” I’ve talked to so many marginalized people from different parts of the industry that tell me they lie awake at night thinking about the same thing.
Those decidedly deemed “outsiders” - women, people of color, LGBTQs, the people who don’t speak English as a first language, people who can’t look back on their childhood computer use with nostalgia - end up in a constant battle to continue occupying a space that’s so aggressive toward them that it becomes a job in and of itself. The lack of diversity is so stark, the homogeneity so common -women and African Americans make up less than half of what we'd expect them to in tech, Hispanics less than ⅓. Discussion of any of these problems invariably brings out crowds of people who are either shocked this kind of thing happens regardless of how vocal we are or who deny our experiences so strongly that the battle to be believed amplifies the hostility.
After every public report of sexual assault in the tech community, the responses alone are enough to scare a lot of people away from reporting themselves. The situation has gotten so dire that the sheer act of speaking up is enough to create a tidal wave of hate mail, death and rape threats, petitions to get targets fired or otherwise ruin their public image - and these are the people who’ve already been once victimized by others in our communities.
I’m often asked why tech is where I focus so much of my energy. Why this above other industries or areas of society?
Tech is where I am - my job, my friends, my view of the world are all affected by being in tech.
Focusing here means I’m forced to confront not only how I benefit from the mistreatment (intentional or otherwise) of others, but also how I contribute to it. Not recognizing the roles that each of us plays in this problem means allowing it to perpetuate. We naively believe that because sexism, racism, and homophobia are bad, the people who do them are bad people. This gives us an easy out mentally: we don’t see ourselves as bad people, so how can we do sexist, racist, or homophobic things? We don’t have to intend harm for our actions to be harmful. We don’t have to have to use slurs or physically hurt people to be complicit. I’ve found this to be the hardest thing for people to understand. Having good intentions doesn’t make every act you perform righteous.
On top of that, in the most clichéd of ways, tech is the future. We’re changing the way the world does business, provides education, understands space, and improves medicine every day. We play an important role in what will be the re-shaping of future economic class structures and we have to take that far more seriously than we are now. Tech has helped us reimagine the way society should function. Few other industries can say they have that much power. Software is eating the world, which means we are going to see a huge influx of people from many other industries over the next 20 years. Fixing this problem before too many people are negatively affected is extremely important to making tech the egalitarian industry we all hope it can be.
People in tech are knowledgeable and well-connected to disparate industries in ways that others aren’t necessarily. Because many of the people who run companies, conferences, and organizations tend to be younger and more forward-thinking, I have a high hope that they’re more easily able to make positive, progressive changes that can affect far more people. As we’re always looking for a better way to do things, too, talking about why we’ve made changes and what it’s done for us means others are likely to follow suit.
We need someone to be honest with us
I haven’t always seen these issues or understood the gravity of them. I still make really horrendous, hurtful mistakes more often than I’d like to admit, but I’m getting better with accepting criticism and being called out. I may have never realized the things that were happening to me were so widespread until I saw other people’s stories and read tech culture critique.
Many see the critiques of tech culture and get defensive, not realizing this is a compassionate act. We’re given the opportunity to assess the roles we play in oppressive structures in an effort to learn and encourage change. After all, one of the most difficult things about being treated so poorly in this industry isn’t the acts themselves, but the denial that they happen or that we contribute to them.
Those that deconstruct our actions, analyze our relationships with power structures, and attempt to provide more context around why we do the things we do are working to create a dialogue that encourages critical thinking about how we could be and do better.
Culture isn’t dissimilar from software. We improve our code by reverse engineering how someone else’s works. We read books and articles about best practices. We read through issues that teach us more than we could have contributed to solving, but that’s okay. We know that this is how software is made - through making mistakes, learning, correcting, and providing that environment for people who aren’t yet to the same level we are. Culture is the same way - it’s an accumulation of effort, education, adjusting, and showing others how to be better by being better ourselves. The role of critique is essential in this process, providing needed feedback and pushing us harder than we’d push ourselves.