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Friday, December 6th, 2013 23:13

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.

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.

Educate yourself.

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.

  • 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 to 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 the important thing is to say something.[trigger warning]
    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

Recruit broadly.

  • 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.

Further reading

General / Overview

Safety & Harassment

Codes of Conduct

Sexual Assault; Recognizing Predators; Spotting the Creepy Dude

(Trigger warning on all of these.)

Don't Be That Guy

Self-education & Personal Improvement




Feminism generally


If you're not familiar with the badness women face, here are some pointers to get you started. (Trigger warnings on all of these.)

On Being an Ally & Speaking up


Speakers, Staff & Attendees

Recruiting Diverse Speakers


Saturday, December 7th, 2013 14:30 (UTC)
Thank you for putting this together!
Saturday, December 7th, 2013 14:31 (UTC)
Thank you for this.
Saturday, December 7th, 2013 15:40 (UTC)
Thank you!
Saturday, December 7th, 2013 18:45 (UTC)
This is a great collection of stuff, some of which I've read before. It's great that you've got it all in one place. Thanks.
Tuesday, December 24th, 2013 00:09 (UTC)
This is a good post and you should feel good, though as a very minor note I Have Feelings On Gift of Fear.
Sunday, December 29th, 2013 18:15 (UTC)
yw, dude, I approve of you <3