Numbers are not enough: Why I will only attend conferences with explicitly enforceable Codes of Conduct and a commitment to accessibility

I recently had a bad experience at a programming workshop where I was the only woman in attendance and eventually had to leave early out of concern for my safety.

Having to repeatedly explain the situation to a group of men who promised me that “they were working on fixing this community” was not only degrading, but also unnecessary. I was shuttled to three separate people, eventually receiving some of my money back approximately a month later (which was all I asked for) along with promises and placating statements about “improvement.”

What happened could have been prevented: each participant signed a “Code of Conduct” that was buried in the payment for the workshop, but there was no method of enforcement and nowhere to turn when issues arose.

At one point while I was attempting to resolve the issue, this community’s Project Manager told me, “Three other women signed up, but they dropped out at the last minute because they had to work. It was very strange and unexpected that you were the only woman.” I felt immediately silenced. The issue is not numbers, but instead inviting people to safe spaces and building supportive structures where people feel welcomed and not marginalized. Increasing the variety of people involved in an event is certainly a step, but it is only part of the picture. I realize now that the board members of this organization were largely embarrassed, but they could have handled my feelings in a way where I didn’t feel like their “future improvements” were silencing my very real current concerns.

Similarly, I’ve been thinking a lot about a conversation I had with some members of the German Python community a few months ago. Someone told me that Codes of Conduct are an American hegemonic device and that introducing the idea of abuse opens the community up for it, particularly in places that do not define “diversity” in the same way as Americans. This was my first exposure to this argument, and it definitely gave me a lot of food for thought, though I adamantly disagree.

In my opinion, the open-source tech community is a multicultural community and organizers and contributors have the responsibility to set their rules for participation. Mainstream Western society, which unfortunately dictates many of the social rules on the Internet, does a bad job teaching people how to interact with one another in a positive and genuine way, and going beyond “be excellent to one another, we’re all friends here!” argument helps us participate in a way in which people feel safe both on and off the Web.

At a session at the Open Knowledge Festival this week, we were discussing accessibility and realized that the Code of Conduct (called a “User Guide”) was not easily located and many participants were probably not aware of its existence. The User Guide is quite good: it points to other codes of conduct, provides clear enforcement, and emphasizes collaboration and diversity.

At the festival, accessibility was not addressed in any kind of cohesive manner: the one gender-neutral bathroom in the huge space was difficult to find, sessions were loud and noisy and often up stairs, making it impossible for anyone with any kind of hearing or mobility issue to participate, and finally, the conference organizers did not inform participants that food would not be free, causing the conference’s ticket price to increase dramatically in an expensive neighborhood in Berlin.

In many ways, I’m conflating two separate issues here (accessibility and behavior of participants at an event.) I would counter that creating a safe space is not only about behavior on the part of the participants, but also on the part of the conference organizers. Thinking about how participants interact at your event not only has to do with how people interact with one another, but also how people interact with the space. A commitment to accessibility and “diversity” hinges upon more than words and takes concerted and long term action. It may mean choosing a smaller venue or limiting the size of the conference, but it’s not impossible, and incredibly important. It also doesn’t have to be expensive!  A small hack that I appreciated at Ada Camp and Open Source Bridge was a quiet chill out room. Being able to escape from the hectic buzz was super appreciated.

Ashe Dryden writes compellingly about the need for better Codes of Conduct and the impetus to not only have events be a reflection of what a community looks like, but also where they want to see them go. As she writes,

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.

Dryden’s  Code of Conduct 101 and FAQ should be required reading for all event organizers and Community Managers. Codes of Conduct remove the grey areas surrounding appropriate and inappropriate behavior and allow groups to set the boundaries for what they want to see happening in their communities. In my opinion, there should not only be a Code of Conduct, but also an accessibility statement that collaboratively outlines what the organizers are doing to make the space accessible and inclusive and addresses and invites concerns and edits.  In her talk at the OKFestival, Penny pointed out that accessibility and inclusion actually makes things better for everyone involved in an event. As she said, “No one wants to sit in a noisy room! For you, it may be annoying, but for me it’s impossible.”

Diversity is not only about getting more women in the room, it is about thinking intersectionally and educating oneself so that all people feel welcome regardless of class, race, physicality, or level of education. I’ve had the remarkable opportunity to go to conferences all over the world this year, and the spaces that have made an obvious effort to think beyond “We have 50% women speakers!” are almost immediately obvious. I felt safe and welcomed at Open Source Bridge and Ada Camp. From food I could actually eat to lanyards that indicated comfort with photography to accessibility lanes, the conference organizers were thoughtful, available, and also kind enough that I could approach them if I needed anything or wanted to talk.

From now on, unless I’m presented a Code of Conduct that is explicit in its enforcement, defines harassment in a comprehensive manner, makes accessibility a priority, and provides trained facilitators to respond to issues, you can count me out of your event.

We can do better in protecting our friends and communities, but change can only begin internally. I am a Community Manager because we get together to educate ourselves and each other as a collaborative community of people from around the world. We should feel safe in the communities of practice that we choose, whether that community is the international Python community, or a local soccer league, or a university. We have the power to change our surroundings and our by extension our future, but it will take a solid commitment from each of us.

Events will never be perfect, but I believe that at least in this respect, we can come damn close.

Standard

4 thoughts on “Numbers are not enough: Why I will only attend conferences with explicitly enforceable Codes of Conduct and a commitment to accessibility

  1. Anders says:

    What do you mean by accessibility in this context? It seems to me to be something different than what is usually meant in posts on planet Mozilla (i.e. ease of access for disabled).

    Ada Camp is actively and openly excluding men, so probably not the best example of having all people feel welcome.

  2. jennierosehalperin says:

    Thanks for posting, Anders.

    In this context, I’m taking a slightly wider lens on accessibility, which may be confusing, I agree, but the examples I used had to do with increased mobility and access within the event space as well as availability of resources. Accessibility, widely construed, is more than just “ease of access for the disabled.” Accessibility is an issue that effects everyone, as I made clear in my post.

    In terms of Ada Camp “actively and openly excluding men,” the conference exists to “increas[e] women’s participation in open technology and culture.”

    The conference has an ally skills track that is open to all, which men are invited to attend, but the mission statement is specifically about increasing women’s participation in technology. If you’re interested in the ally track, visit the website. http://adainitiative.org/what-we-do/workshops-and-training//

    If you want to talk more about why it’s important to have women-only spaces in places where women are traditionally marginalized, please shoot me an email as I don’t feel like blog posts are an appropriate forum to have these kinds of conversations.

  3. Oliver Propst says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your experience but thanks for a great post!
    In the GNOME [1] community where I’m active we have had an extensive discussion [2] about the need of a codes of conduct policy (people who enforce it) during our main conferences GUADEC [3], the discussion touches many of the aspects you mention.

    I think posts like this really shows there is a need for codes of conduct policies during conferences, I think its especially great that you mentioned the importance of enforcing a policy in place and not just “copy paste”, again thanks for the great post.

    1 http://www.gnome.org/
    2 https://mail.gnome.org/archives/guadec-list/2014-July/thread.html
    3 https://www.guadec.org/

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