Close to 10 years ago, a number of colleagues and I started a web conference. I’ve written about it before because we’ve made decisions over time that have resulted in a track record of relatively equal representation of both men and women at the conference.
I dig doing it. I like the people (all of whom are doing this for free) not just because they’re interesting and smart and get excited about the new and old of the web, but because they’re on board with creating a community where more people feel comfortable.
When we heard of “codes of conduct,” we were like — cool, let’s do it. We’d been working hard to make people feel included and welcome for years, so it was honestly kind of a no brainer. This wasn’t a copy and paste job, because we saw it as a way to verbalize the culture we had already been trying to develop.
Let’s call it a statement of values with teeth.
I like to assume that our attendees can act like the respectful people that they generally are. I also think that because we aren’t a “destination conference,” people aren’t looking to get blotto drunk and behave badly. However, I’ve had my fair share of bad conference experiences and know that it doesn’t hurt to remind people that we have certain expectations of speakers and attendees.
An abbreviated list of completely unprofessional things that have happened to me/in my presence at ostensibly professional conferences in the last four years:
- Being expected to laugh at the stories of senior men in the field when these stories are demeaning to women. For example: hahaha we told our cab driver to find us prostitutes when we were drunk and he did! or hahaha we took the younger guys (who we’re obviously mentoring instead of younger women) out to a strip club last night!
Extend these to an irritatingly large number of similar conversations.
- Being asked if my wife was going to get pregnant “the natural way” (hahaha you’re so funny with talking about some dude having sex with my lesbian wife)
- Being in a group of men complaining about their wives in all manner of sexist nonsense in a way that is pure macho performance (not enough sex, she spends all my money, blah blah blah) and being expected to not yell at them or even comment on how misogynistic they are
- Sitting in a keynote where the speaker talks about an amazing program that somehow only had boys in it. When asked why that was, the keynote responded to the effect of “Oh I don’t know. Maybe we need to let girls know they don’t have to be supercoders. They could be writers. Or into art.”
(I actually don’t even want to add other speakers who have done similar things because it makes me too sad)
Note that these don’t include things I know of that happened to or in the vicinity of other women.
So here’s the thing. I really hate the focus on the argument that code of conduct stuff is about safety — there is certainly an element of that, because people need to know that harassment and/or violence will be taken seriously. However, note that none of my stories are about my physical safety.
My stories, my oh so common stories, are about whether or not I want to be around these people and this environment. In environments that don’t specifically work on inclusion, there is an expectation that I and other women will suffer this nonsense in silence, deferring to the need for men to blow off steam. You can extend this to other populations as well, as demonstrated by the “natural way” comment that was inherently homophobic and misogynistic.
All of this is why a code of conduct (and all the actions you take to make that meaningful) are important: let’s name the playing field. Who is this conference for? Who is this space for? If we say it’s for everyone, then don’t create an exhausting environment. It’s really that simple.
It shouldn’t be hard to put your values down in words.