A year+ in: codes of conduct at tech confs

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


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