A little while back, I was asked on twitter: if tech conferences are, for women, an experience that's dangerous at worst and uncomfortable at best, how do we go about fixing it?
This is rather a big question—basically akin to "how do we eliminate sexism in society?" Conferences are a microcosm of the larger world; they transmit most of its problems and amplify some to boot. That being said, I'm certainly happy to outline what I think some reasonable starting points for allies might be.
Before I get started, though, I need to point something out: nothing that I am saying here is new. If you've been following the diversity-in-tech discussions of the past while, none of these points are going to come as a surprise. In fact, let's start things off by linking to some of the non-d00dly people who've already answered essentially this same question.
- ashe dryden: So you want to put on a diverse, inclusive conference and her follow-on post Increasing diversity at your conference
- Annalee @ Geek Feminism Blog: How To Be An Ally, Speaker Edition (which, despite the title, is an excellent post for speakers, organizers, and attendees alike.)
- Shanley: What Can Men Do?
Seriously, go read those posts if you haven't already. Take it from folks who've experienced most pointedly the problems that conferences can manifest.
Ok, so. IMHO improving the conference environment involves, at a minimum, the following three themes:
- Safety & Harassment
- Self-education & Personal Improvement
- Speakers, Staff, & Attendees
Safety & Harassment
Code of Conduct. Have one.
- Have a process for enforcing it. Take it seriously.
- Make sure your volunteers know what the process is.
Make sure attendees and speakers
- know of the Code of Conduct, and
- know how to report incidents.
Back people up when bad things happen to them.
- Take them seriously.
- Believe them.
- Follow their lead as to what they need to do. If they want to go to the police, support them. If they want do something else, support that too.
Recognize badness and intervene.
- Learn to recognize predators. Hint: "Creepy Guy" is often synonymous with "proto-rapist".
- If someone is being preyed on, give them an out. Ask them if they're ok. Ask them if they want to go outside for some air. Start a conversation with Creepy Guy about Bitcoin. Do whatever—just give them a straightforward way to get away from Creepy.
- Speak up. If someone is behaving in a predatorial way, spread the word, so that others can protect themselves.
- Stop harassing presentations or activities.
- Object to sexist behaviour.
- Do not engage in problematic behaviour yourself.
How do you recognize what's problematic? Good question! Hence the next point:
Self-education & Personal Improvement
Preventing the problem starts with not being the problem.
- Learn about privilege.
- Learn about microaggressions.
- Learn about rape culture.
- Learn about intersectionality and the many different axes of oppression: gender & gender identity, race, class, (dis)ability, sexual orientation…
Take that education to heart.
- Don't engage in behaviours that make people feel unsafe.
- Don't engage in behaviours that make people feel excluded. Watch for subtle messages of "you don't belong here" that you may be inadvertently sending, like talking as if all developers are men, or not having t-shirts in womens' sizes.
Listen to marginalized people.
- ACTUALLY LISTEN.
- As in don't fucking talk until the other person is done talking.
- Don't derail.
- When a person points out that something is a concern for them, believe them. If you're white, racism isn't likely be very visible to you in your day-to-day life, because you are not the person on the receiving end of it. Same goes for all the other axes of oppression. Respect other peoples' lived experiences, because the world probably treats them differently than it treats you.
Know how to apologize.
- Sooner or later, you'll screw up. We all do.
- Think before you respond. Our first impulse is always to defend ourselves, before we consider whether we're right or wrong.
- Apologizing in 4 easy steps:
- Take responsibility for your actions.
- Apologize for the harm you caused.
- Fix the damage that was done.
- Take steps not to do it again.
- "I'm sorry you were offended" is not an apology. You might as well say "I'm sorry that you're such a wimp" or "I'm sorry that you're making a big deal out of nothing".
Be an ally.
- Use your platform. As someone with privilege, you're much more likely to be listened to than someone less privileged, and you definitely won't receive the level of harassment & abuse that they risk by speaking out.
Call out problematic behaviour.
If you see something, say something!
The appropriate response varies—from a headshake,
to "dude, not cool", to "the fuck is wrong with you‽"—but
important thing is to say
Any objection serves two purposes:
- the person who's being a jerk is told that their behaviour is unwelcome—silence is presumed to be agreement; and
- other people who find the jerk's behaviour objectionable know they're not alone in thinking that.
- Pay your share of the Douchebag Tax. Keeping our collective spaces free of prejudice helps us all. Yes, nobody wants to be the person saying "hey, that thing you said was racist". But nobody wants to sit there and feel their stomach sinking as some douchebag casually spouts racist bullshit either. If that makes you uncomfortable, think about how someone who's the target of said bullshit must feel. They have to respond when nobody else does, and there are usually fewer of them than there are of you. Pay your fair share of the Douchebag Tax so that folks in marginalized groups don't have to pay 10x theirs.
- Don't be a White Knight, part 1: In feminist circles, White Knighting means acting as though women can't stand up for themselves, or pushing women aside in your haste to defend them. Helping out is a great thing. Presuming you're the best feminist in the room isn't.
- Don't be a White Knight, part 2: The second sense of "White Knight" is a flat-out smear that anti-feminists level at allies, insinuating that you are only acting like an ally because you're playing the hero or trying to score. Ask yourself if you're doing that, or behaving like a White Knight as detailed above. If not? Tell them to fuck off!
- Find your own voice. As you get further into this stuff, you'll find your own reasons to pursue it, because equity isn't just about less-privileged people—it's about all of us. You'll also find your own ways to express yourself. Advocacy is about promoting good values, not reading from a script.
Speakers, Staff, & Attendees
- Follow the conferences that are doing it right.
- Reach out. Send invitations out to organizations that support marginalized groups in tech asking their members to submit proposals.
- Eliminate your own bias as much as possible. Anonymizing proposals helps the selection committee evaluate them strictly on their merits.
- Diversity is for staff too. Having a diverse group of people running the conference helps a lot with picking up on problems you otherwise wouldn't see.
Make your conference accessible.
- Access for people with disabilities must be baked in from the outset. Pick a venue with good accessibility and clueful staff. Work with them.
- Accessibility is for speakers & staff too. Imagine being assured that a venue is accessible, only to find that when you go to speak, there's no way for you to get your wheelchair up on stage. Think about the message you send if only the attendee functions of the conference are accessible.
- Don't neglect logistics. People's needs vary. Some folks can't go for a long time without eating. Some have food allergies. Some have a hell of a time coping with loud, overcrowded spaces. Some will have life made much easier by gender-neutral or family restrooms. Brainstorm all of the questions you can think of have the form of "Is there enough x"?, "Is there ready access to x"?, and "Is there the right kind of x for everybody?", then try to answer them.
- Schedule well in advance. Many folks need considerable notice to arrange childcare or time off from work; people in marginalized groups disproportionately so.
- Keep costs down. Try to minimize the amount of cash that attendees absolutely must lay out to attend. Try to provide lower-cost options for lodging, discounted tickets for people who are self-funding, and so forth.
Putting together a conference is a difficult undertaking, and moreover, a hell of a lot of hard work—no two ways about it. To a prospective conference organizer, all of the above may look like a lot more work to add to the pile. However, everything above has the goal of either heading off bigger problems, or improving your conference on the whole. Even better, there are people willing to help & give advice if you reach out to them. Talk to the people in your local tech scene. Talk to the people in your online communities. Talk to the folks who are championing diversity. I'm betting you'll be able to find someone who has the knowledge and free cycles to help with what you need. To get that support, though, you've got to start by asking for it.
General / Overview
Safety & Harassment
Codes of Conduct
- Geek Feminism Wiki: Conference anti-harassment resources
- jesse noller: The Code Of Conduct
- The Ada Initiative has an excellent post illustrating that anti-harassment campaigns really are effective, as well as a huge list of readings and resources around conference policies.
- shadowspar (me!): A "Culture of Respect" is neither well-defined nor enforceable
Sexual Assault; Recognizing Predators; Spotting the Creepy Dude
(Trigger warning on all of these.)
- Julie Pagano's put together an excellent and extensive list of recommended reading re sexual assault.
- Three crucial posts from Yes Means Yes:
- Gavin de Becker: The Gift of Fear. An important work on recognizing the behaviours typical of predatorial people, like gradually escalating boundary violations. However, this book also has issues of its own, as kaberett kindly points out.
- Captain Awkward: My friend group has a case of the Creepy Dude. How do we clear that up? and the followup The C-Word
- Spot The Question
Don't Be That Guy
- Schrödinger's Rapist: or a guys guide to approaching strange women without being maced
- Scalzi: An Incomplete Guide to Not Creeping
- synecdochic: Don't Be That Guy.
Self-education & Personal Improvement
- Faruk Ateş wrote a broad-ranging primer on sexism in the tech industry. (After this article was at the center of some controversy, he posted a response, as well as a reply from Kathy Sierra.)
- The Real Katie: Lighten Up
- Julie Pagano: My experiences in tech: Death by 1000 paper cuts
- Fordham Center for Teaching Excellence: Microaggressions
If you're not familiar with the badness women face, here are some pointers to get you started. (Trigger warnings on all of these.)
- The twitter conversation that prompted this post arose out of the discussion following Shanley's post about her experiences at tech confs: Seethe and Grin: My Life Going to Tech Events.
- One account of badness going on at a tech conf: Julia Elman: let's get a little louder.
- These things aren't one-offs. Have a look through the timeline of incidents.
On Being an Ally & Speaking up
- Jay Smooth: How To Tell Someone They Sound Racist
- Kate Harding: On Being a No-Name Blogger Using Her Real Name[trigger warning]: describing some of the ways women may experience online harassment, and why it's important for guys to speak up when they see it.
- Shakesville: Crank It Up to 11: why, when the harassment is happening in public, we need to speak out against it in public as well.
- The Pervocracy: The missing stair: on speaking up about out That One Person That Makes You Uncomfortable, because everybody else may well be thinking what you're thinking.
- A Guide to Derailing Conversations: aka "Derailing for Dummies". How not to communicate.
- Chescaleigh: Getting Called Out: How to Apologize
- Kronda: *-ism 101: You Are Not The Victim Here
- Apologies - Geek Feminism Wiki
Speakers, Staff & Attendees
Recruiting Diverse Speakers
- Geek Feminism Wiki: Women speakers
- Geek Feminism Blog: How I got 50 women speakers at my tech conference
- JSConf.eu 2012: Beating the odds: How we got 25% women speakers
- How we got 40 female speakers at flowcon
- Wilkie: Conferences Must Be Active to Promote Diversity: mathematical analysis of the probability of a slate of all-male speakers "just happening" by chance.
- cdh: The Invisible Blind Man: what it's like to be a person with a disability at a conf that hasn't bothered with accessibility.
- Accessibility - Geek Feminism Wiki
- sasha_feather: "Accessibility" Policies -- A Rant: say it like you mean it!
- Black, Broken & Bent: Creating Accessible Events: A Checklist for Programmers, Organizers, Advertizers, Speakers and Event Attendees
- ashe dryden: Help People Afford to Attend Your Conference