The conversation about harassment at conferences in the tech and skeptic communities has been brewing for a long time. This ongoing conversation has primarily been lead by and focused on female conference participants. If you are not involved in either of these communities you might have been unaware of the controversy until two people lost their employment this week and Kim-Mai Cutler at Mashable posted A Dongle Joke That Spiraled Way Out Of Control.
You should click over and read the post, but very briefly: A woman at a tech conference representing the company she worked for as a tech evangelist overheard men in the row behind her making what she perceived to be a sexual joke. She felt uncomfortable, stood, took their photo, and posted it to social media with comments to the attention of the conference organizers. She also wrote a blog post about it. One of the jokesters lost his job as a result. And then she too ended up losing her job.
Professional maturity and discretion must not have been included in the swag bag.
In the words of another blogger, who shall remain anonymous – there is so much wrong with this whole situation I could write a novel, but I just don’t have that kind of time. However, I do have things to say and share, though way short of a novel… Like how much I agree with and support the view of John V. Petersen in his post DongleGate: A Legal Perspective and some social commentary at CodeBetter.com. In his post, Petersen makes clear why ‘we are the media’ can have significant consequences.
Real media organizations know the risks of publishing content. Most people do not. This tech evangelist either did not and consequently performed a spectacularly sad impulsive unknowing moment of perilous tattletale tweeting, or did not care and deliberately devised a plan of action, out to prove conference misogyny exists – even at great personal cost (no, she will never be Martyr St. Adria). It’s probable attorneys are billing all kinds of crazy consulting hours as a result, with SendGrid and the parties involved footing the legalfest. By the way, this is a great example of why so many companies shy away from employees using social media in an official capacity.
Note: That little gadget at the end of our fingertips can be a real life changer.
For the past year or so, I have been following the ever escalating trend of conference behavior policing policies in the skeptic and tech communities. As a result of some women voicing their concerns and opinions as to why more women do not attend these types of conferences, some organizers, in a genuine attempt to be as inclusive and accommodating as possible, have bent over backwards to dictate what acceptable conference behaviors and words are, above and beyond what the laws provide for. So naturally, this paragraph in Petersen’s post really caught my attention:
I understand that PyCon has modified their code of conduct… Didn’t know that such a thing existed. I would always suggest to any conference organizer to NOT get into the business of policing their attendees. Rather, I’d rely on the venue staff for that. Obviously, if somebody is disruptive, boot their tails out. These guys didn’t appear to be disruptive at all for the record – not that it really matters in this case.
Take a look at the PyCon 2013 Code of Conduct. At first gauzy glance it may seem to be a good idea – a conscientious pro-active egalitarian effort to protect all conference participants. The long version contains none less than 7 references to behavior using the root word ‘sex’, i.e. sexual, sexist, and sexualized. The conference SkepTech takes it one further, by following a similar conduct policy with contact info for the Minneapolis police department, 911 and an anonymous tip line, the local sexual assault hotline at the Aurora Center at UMN, U of MN Fairview Medical Center and the local taxi service.
Conference facilities are prepared with safety plans and bat phones (if they are not, don’t hold the conference there). Why would conference organizers – who typically are not truly versed in the legal consequences of behavior, involve themselves in this at all? What marketing pro advises conferences to run trauma support on their website? I might be inclined to carry mace or simply not attend a conference that seems to be rooted in such danger, attracting perps. Because it looks like that’s exactly what they are prepared for and promoting.
Conferences do not need a dongle safety rating system and organizers need to focus on content and organization, not behavior policing.
Professional adults know what acceptable behavior is and they expect negative consequences if they violate norms and laws – if they are caught. We also know how to take reasonable measures to protect ourselves in public spaces – street smarts, if you will. We don’t leave our wallet or tablet on a table and walk out of the room, we do not sit near someone acting oddly or that gives us a bad vibe. In the event something untoward occurs we are hopefully able to defend ourselves, people hopefully are good allies and come to our assistance, and hopefully we have the courage to report harmful or illegal incidents to the proper authorities. We learned this in grade school – but it seems to escape some adults.
Let’s not confuse poor social etiquette with harassment or criminal activity. Let’s be grown ups. And before you call out someone else’s behavior, check your own. If I see one more post about someone saying nah nah na na nah about someone else followed by pics of money being shoved down their shirt, or quotes of their own sexualized jokes I’ll puke.
As a last note on this topic, I think anyone who suggests things are being ‘ruined’ for women at conferences are rather short sighted. If a man did something stupid at a conference would he ruin it for all men? Extremist views have no room in this discussion. Next you’ll have us sitting in gender assigned areas with a divider in between to avoid glances, overhearing conversations and bumping into personal space.
Those are my thoughts. What are your yours?