Conference Code of Conduct Considered Crucial

I’ve decided to follow Jacob Kaplan-Moss’s lead and pledge that I won’t speak (or attend) any conference that does not publish an acceptable (to me) code of conduct/anti-harassment policy. I’ve already written about what should go into such a code, and I think Jacob’s post makes a number of good points on why a policy is important.

What would a code need for me to consider it acceptable?

First, it needs to define acceptable conduct. The Reasonable Person Principle section from the YAPC 2011 code is good, but something much simpler is fine too. In fact, I’m fine with something as simple as “we expect all conference attendees to treat each with respect”.

The policy should outline some explicitly unacceptable behaviors. This needs to be there for the benefit of people who are clueless. At a minimum, this should forbid sexual imagery in slides, unwanted sexual attention (or maybe just unwanted attention), and verbal abuse. If the conference has exhibitors, it should also forbid sexualized imagery and clothing for exhibitors (in other words, no booth babes). The example anti-harassment policy in the Geek Feminism Wiki lists more unacceptable behaviors, and that’s probably a good list to copy. But really, my concern isn’t that the policy have exactly the right list, just that there is some effort to outline the most egregious unacceptable behaviors.

It doesn’t hurt to say something about what the penalties for violating the policy might be, but I don’t think that’s critical. The existence of a policy implies that violators may be ejected from the conference at the discretion of the organizers.

Finally, it needs to include an explicit reporting procedure that includes a way for attendees to report incidents via phone and/or email. In other words, there needs to be a way for people to report incidents without finding a conference organizer in person (which may not always be easy enough to do).

Ideally, I’d also want to see an internal policy for conference staff and volunteers that gives some guidelines on how to handle these incidents.

I don’t expect my declaration to cause a problem for any future Perl events I’d want to attend. The last few conferences I’ve attended have had some sort of policy, and I expect these to become much more common in the future.

If you’re also a frequent speaker (or infrequent, or not a speaker at all) at Perl events (or non-Perl events), please consider joining me in this pledge.


Peter Rabbitson, on 2011-09-05 22:30, said:
So um… where does this babysitting stop Dave? I have a talk called “… or how SQL sausage is made” (fuck I still haven’t uploaded it… got to get cracking). Anyway I bet you consider its title slide (bunch of sausages) mildly offensive. While this is a borderline silly example, combining it with your post makes it an actual serious problem. What do you think?

Dave Rolsky, on 2011-09-05 22:34, said:
If you read my previous post on what should go into a code of conduct, you’d have your answer. I don’t think we should focus on whether something is “offensive” or not. That’s not the issue. The issue is making the conference as welcoming as possible.

Peter Rabbitson, on 2011-09-05 22:41, said:
In my (very personal, unaffiliated opinion) drumming the code of conduct every 3 weeks paints a conference as a hostile place in its own way. There is a code of conduct - great! People already know about it, so let’s all hope that we will not resort to using it for anything, and move on.

pudge, on 2011-09-06 11:38, said:
I think I won’t speak at any conference that DOES have a code of conduct … even if its terms are acceptable to me. If a conference has such poor leadership or general attendees that it needs a code to deal with problems, then I don’t want to go. Hell, I won’t even go as an attendee, not just as a speaker.

To me, “we expect all conference attendees to treat each with respect” is mostly sufficient, and is not a code of conduct. The only thing I would add to it is something like, “the conference organizers will take whatever action they deem necessary to resolve such problems,” which serves as a warning to would-be disrespectors, and a promise to other attendees.

Literally nothing else is needed beyond this, certainly not a list of “explicitly unacceptable behaviors.” If someone needs to be told how to respect others, then a list of “explicitly unacceptable behaviors” won’t help them.

Rocco Caputo, on 2011-09-06 12:23, said:
Hi, Dave. Unfortunately, you’re right that people cannot be assumed to behave well anymore. It’s important for conferences to explicitly request people to behave. From a legal standpoint, it’s important for conferences to reserve the right to manage their environments.

The focus on sexual harassment is a little singleminded, however. Codes of conduct should not be framed to serve particular interests, or they run the risk of condoning other equally important kinds and contexts of harassment by omission.

I think it does more social good to maintain and uphold a single, inclusive definition of harassment. To that end, perhaps harassment should be defined by reference rather than by value. For example, a code of conduct might refer to … which tries to be comprehensive, inclusive and extensible as new forms of harassment are invented.

Dave Rolsky, on 2011-09-06 13:55, said:
@Rocco: I think sexual harassment is the focus because that’s the issue that has come up a lot in the past year or so. There have been a number of specific incidents related to sexual content in presentations and harassment of female attendees.

That said, I have no objection to a policy that explicitly says something like “harassment on the basis of gender, sexuality, race, religion, [insert thing people get harassed about here] is unacceptable.”

I also have no objection to a policy which doesn’t really list any of this. The important principle is that it’s not okay to harass people _for any reason_.

I do think it’s worth listing some unacceptable _behaviors_ explicitly. If we only listed one thing, I’d say it should be sexual content in presentations. This particular issue keeps coming up, so explicitly calling it out and warning speakers about is a good idea.

I also want to emphasize that the single most important function of a policy is to communicate to the people who are concerned that they might be victims of harassment. The policy tells them that the conference organizers care about the issue, and it gives them explicit guidelines on how to report incidents., on 2011-09-06 15:07, said:
Important post, Dave, thanks. I especially agree with your reply to Rocco.

@ribaushi Nice troll! Where do you buy your worms?


Denise, on 2011-09-07 11:52, said:
Thank you for this. Every time someone takes a stand like this to help make the open source world less hostile towards women’s participation, we take another step closer towards actually achieving the actual meritocracy of open source, rather than the thing so many people trot out now as an excuse for being hostile towards women’s participation…

Dave Rolsky, on 2011-09-07 14:37, said:
@Denise: It’s not just women. I think that the recent spate of publicity about incidents at conferences have been related to women, but I have no reason to think those are the only problems.

A few years back, we had a really ugly incident of anti-homosexual ranting at a local user’s group meeting, for example.

Conferences are awfully homogeneous, so I think there’s a lot of people out there who might be nervous about attending one, for a variety of reasons.

JT Smith, on 2011-09-16 13:38, said:
Dave, I think that this sort of post is not helping. You’re adding fuel to a fire. Not only that, but you come off as a hostage taker. “If you don’t want me to blow up the school, then make sure the school doesn’t allow wearing T-shirts.” I know my example is ridiculous, but I also think that saying you’re not coming to a conference because it doesn’t state exactly your particular set of principles is just as ridiculous.

Dave Rolsky, on 2011-09-16 20:38, said:
@JT: I intentionally waited a couple weeks after the initial debate on the YAPC::NA blog to post this. I also waited until after you said that the community should take the lead on creating the code of conduct.

This is me, as a community member, taking the (a?) lead.

Your hostage analogy is way over the top. I know it’s hard to imagine, but there have been past YAPCs that I haven’t attended, and somehow people still got something valuable out of attending.

I think it’s best that I take this position now, when YAPC is still 9+ months away. That gives the organizers plenty of notice, long before I’ve submitted a talk.

Actually, if I had submitted a talk and waited until it was accepted, _then_ your hostage analogy would actually have some validity.

@Dave, on 2011-09-16 22:03, said:
You missed the point entirely, so I’ll highlight it for you: “doesn’t state exactly your particular set of principles”.

I don’t have a problem with you stating you wouldn’t come to the conference. I have a problem with you stating that your set of values has to be specifically listed in the code of conduct for you to come. The reason I have a problem with that is that if everyone takes the exact same position, then we’ll have nobody showing up, because nobody’s stated values will be exactly the same.

You made a great point early in the post: “we expect all conference attendees to treat each with respect”

So why can’t we leave it at that? While you find it offensive that people bring up sexual content at the conference, I also find it offensive that people wear their religion on their sleeve at the conference. I also spoke to someone recently that is offended by subjects of a political nature (conservative vs liberal stuff) being pushed at the conference. However, neither I nor the party I’m referring to here would say that we won’t attend unless religion and politics are outlawed, and that if religion or politics is brought up or used in slides that the person should be expelled from the conference.

I love your idea of “we expect all conference attendees to treat each with respect” being the mantra. But issuing ultimatums and enumerating a set of do’s and don’ts is neither good for the community, nor does it actually protect anyone from anything.

Dave Rolsky, on 2011-09-17 00:16, said:
@JT: The outline I gave for what I expect in a code of conduct is quite broad and open to a lot of interpretation.

As to who finds what offensive, offensiveness is not the issue, and I’ve said that repeatedly.

People will be offended at all sorts of things that are out of our control. You’re offended because someone else is openly religious. Someone else may be offended at you taking offense. I don’t care if you’re offended. I don’t particularly care if I’m offended (well, I care, but I don’t consider it an infraction of any reasonable code of conduct).

Where I draw the line is with things that make people feel unwelcome or singled out for unpleasant attention. The issue with sexual content in presentations is that it makes what should be an event without any sexual overtones suddenly sexually charged. That by itself wouldn’t be all that terrible in some situations. However, when you’re one of two women in a crowd of fifty men, it can be incredibly awkward and uncomfortable. It’s doubly uncomfortable when you realize that a couple dozen of those men are now looking at you to see how you react.

Sexualized imagery from exhibitors has the same issue.

The other things I suggested listed under unacceptable behaviors are similar in nature. Unwanted sexual attention is more than offensive. In some cases, it’s just discomforting, but in many, it’s outright threatening, especially if you’ve been sexually assaulted in the past.

Just in case anyone responds with “everybody flirts sometimes”. Yes, casual flirting is generally fine. The problem is flirting (or more) that continues when the other person has clearly shown no interest. But geeks are terrible at reading of social cues, you say! Yes, so err on the conservative side with people you don’t know well.

Finally, I mentioned verbal abuse. By this I mean verbal harassment clearly intended to humiliate someone or make them feel unwelcome. I can’t imagine we disagree on whether that’s acceptable.

The only other thing I insisted be in a code of conduct is a way to report issues. This seems like the very bare minimum any useful policy has to have to be taken seriously. Otherwise it’s just so many words.

You (and others) keep pointing out that policies won’t protect people from evildoers. That’s true, of course. But for many potential attendees, the issue is one of comfort. They know that the conference can’t protect them from all possible badness, but they’ll be a lot more comfortable knowing that the organizers are actually interested in addressing these issues if they happen. I base this conclusion on having read reports of incidents from victims. Many of these people say that they will feel more comfortable attending a conference with a published policy. That doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request.

Jt, on 2011-09-17 13:06, said:
I pretty sure we aren’t even speaking the same language anymore, so I guess I’ll sign off here rather than have a shouting match to see who can repeat their side the most times. Sorry to have bothered you.

Chip, on 2011-09-30 21:36, said:
To find this tempest, please look inside any teapot.

Anonymous, on 2011-09-30 23:06, said:

Honestly, I’m afraid your behavior here is borderline childish.

If you have a problem with a particular speaker, then either address your grievances with that speaker directly or have the conference administration do so. If you think people are being harassed, CALL THE POLICE.

99% of people don’t need to be told to act like adults and find it rather insulting and patronizing for some patently obvious “code of conduct” to even exist. You want attendees to sign notarized affidavits that they won’t walk off with equipment too?

Not to be harsh, but your “I’m not talking unless a code of conduct exists” reads like a two-year old have a screaming, foot-stomping temper tantrum. If you want to attach preconditions to your attendance then so be it; Someone else will step up.

Dave Rolsky, on 2011-09-30 23:22, said:
@Anonymous: Bravely said.

Nick Patch, on 2012-01-16 14:32, said:
Thanks for bringing up this important issue. I support such a code of conduct and I was surprised about all of the negative responses to your post since the need seems obvious to me and I’ve seen these statements at many conferences before. However, those have been activist conferences and I guess the topic is newer in the tech community. From my experience, it’s common to have a statement saying that racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., won’t be tolerated. I’ve also personally seen those rules enforced when needed.

By the way, I just saw that YAPC::NA 2012 now has a code of conduct:

It falls short but at least it’s something.

Dave Rolsky, on 2012-01-16 14:36, said:
Unfortunately, the YAPC code doesn’t really meet my standards, for reasons discussed in this post and others. I’m vaguely hopeful it will be changed in time for me to submit talks, but I may not end up at YAPC this year.

Oh well.