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Sexual Assault at FLOSS Conferences?

2010-11-10 05:49:35.713678+00 by ebradway 18 comments

For the past couple years, I've been working to get FOSS4G 2011 in Denver. I recently stepped down as chair of the local organizing committee to focus on my dissertation. I am still involved in many of the high level talks. Today someone asked if FOSS4G should consider adding a "Code of Conduct" statement to the program. This was partly the result of a recent sexual assault at ApacheCon. But more, it was the result of the victim in that sexual assault being brave enough to talk about what happened.

Perhaps because of my sex (male), race (white), age (middle), income (middle), religion (____), I am immune/unaware/ignorant of what is going on. What happened to this woman in Atlanta was real. I don't want something similar to happen at FOSS4G in Denver. Could including a statement in a program help?

My argument is that it could help. Maybe it'll prevent something horrible from happening. Maybe it'll help victims feel legitimized in their suffering (rather than being accused of "asking for it"). Maybe it will help everyone in the tech community start to realize that this kind of thing is happening.

But where do conference organizers draw the line? Do we need a statement condemning genocide or heroin abuse? I feel like I am not the person to decide where that line should be drawn.

[ related topics: Sexual Culture Software Engineering History Community ]

comments in descending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-11 13:33:04.91597+00 by: meuon [edit history]

I'm heading to an industry trade show in two weeks outside the country.. Latin America has very different social norms for trade shows.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-11 12:44:46.266297+00 by: Medley

Wil Wheaton's edict is not a bad place to start, of course.

More seriously, I tend to run in different circles these days, where the sexism and misogyny is subtler (tho still quite present), and I have extremely limited patience for the frat-boy-geek mentality so I just plain avoid it as much as possible. I am totally onboard with the pledge in the Back Up project and will try to keep that in mind generally going forward. And I wholeheartedly salute those who are actively dealing with this stuff in the trenches.

In terms of a code of conduct - I think the value in such is not so much in the code itself (although it undoubtedly makes a statement about the values of the community) - but in the community discussion and self-examination required to reach rough consensus on one.

And I dispute the notion that grown-ups shouldn't need one. We know from lots of behavioral and organizational theory and practice that people tend to live up (or down) to expectations. Clarifying expectations can be quite useful and can help move an organization/community in a new direction. Put another way: you get what you measure. We behave the way we talk. Leadership matters. And so on.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-11 07:21:52.071658+00 by: ebradway [edit history]

Adding to the list of related resources:

Clearly, something is in the zeitgeist. The more I look, the more I feel like I am not the right person to be making this call.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-11 00:00:13.170233+00 by: Dan Lyke

So going backwards from sophiap's link, RFC 3184 talks about professional relationships, but doesn't say "hey, it's not cool to continue to grope the woman who just slapped you".

I'm also pondering a little bit the Advanced Telephony conference I went to a few years ago. One presenter was showing off some stuff that had been demoed at Burning Man, the pictures of which of course had partial nudity. At least one younger attendee made some "uh... whoah! are those?" sort of comment, but most of the people I'd been talking to had been to Burning Man or were in our 30s or beyond and happily in relationships, so it was "oooh, a telephone in the middle of nowhere with no visible connections that actually works to call Europe".

I didn't ask any women there (and there were a few, I suppose it's too much to ask that Kaliya pop into this thread) how they felt about those slides or the audience reaction to them. But despite my generally libertine and pro-porn attitudes I think there's a fine line being walked there.

I also wonder if there's a difference in why we go to various conferences. I know a couple of friends who work within the SIGGRAPH organization are having troubles because many employers are now seeing that conference as an excuse to party. Is there a mood set by a conference that sets a fairly solid "we're here for professional sharing" vs "this is a boondoggle excuse to get out of the office"?

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-10 22:36:00.735405+00 by: Mark A. Hershberger

brennen: I'd like to hope that this is changing over time. A lot of us were still angry teenagers back when this whole thing first came to our attention.

Which raises the question: what about the up-and-coming outcasts who are currently angry teenagers? Are they not drawn to the conflict built into "Free vs Controlled-and-owned"?

I don't know the answer to that question.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-10 22:26:02.326434+00 by: brennen

Assholes are going to be assholes, but if an explicit statement to the effect that asshole behavior won't be tolerated (and I think it's fine to make it clear that you specifically mean that threatening/obnoxious behavior towards women will get you kicked out like right now) helps to discourage them from attending a given event, I for one am all for it.

(Male, techie, haven't been to many conferences, but starting to think about which ones would be worth attending.)

Mark: FLOSS people tend to be dogmatic and dogmatic people don't really "get" respect for those who aren't their philosophical mirror images. So there is less assumption of mutual respect.

I know what you're talking about (though I'd add that nerd culture in general has a way-too-high quotient of I-am-right-you-are-wrong-die-in-a-fire posturing), but I'd like to hope that this is changing over time. A lot of us were still angry teenagers back when this whole thing first came to our attention.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-10 22:13:31.878033+00 by: sophiap

OGC's principles of conduct


#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-10 21:51:20.288047+00 by: Dan Lyke

Yeah, but grope a Windows user? Eeeeew.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-10 21:43:35.34004+00 by: Mark A. Hershberger

jessamyn: if women can't hack it they're just plain old out-competed

Oh, The Darwinian irony!

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-10 21:40:30.692984+00 by: Mark A. Hershberger

Reading the related blog post, I'm not so sure that the site I gave is relevant, but there when the basis of interaction is respect, I think you can avoid the frat party feel a lot more.

Which doesn't mean that conferences aren't fun -- unless you can only have "fun" at a frat party -- but if there is an undercurrent of mutual respect, then have a better starting point.

Perhaps this is especially important with FLOSS and Free Culture conferences (this past Wikimania felt like a mix between the two). FLOSS people tend to be dogmatic and dogmatic people don't really "get" respect for those who aren't their philosophical mirror images. So there is less assumption of mutual respect.

After all, how can I see someone who uses Windows as a thoughtful human deserving of my respect?

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-10 21:32:11.097739+00 by: petronius

I googled convention codes of conduct, and got a lot from anime conventions and furry conferences, and even one from the Future Farmers of America, which is mostly minors. I did not see anything from used car salesmen, radiologists, or bulldozer expos. I used to work at some conventions that had a fair amount of liquor flowing, but never encountered a code, although this was at least 15 years ago. Are tech guys just so socially autistic that they don't know how to act in public? And when the apache lady got groped by the guy, would a swizzle stick in his eye have helped, or asking those burlier guys she was hiding behind to bounce him a little?

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-10 21:30:48.847678+00 by: jessamyn

The other cultural thing that happens is that when you tell nerds they're not allowed to do the things that they might want to do in their own culture [and I'm speaking of attempts we've tried to make on MetaFilter to be more woman-friendly, more inclusive, more accepting of more different sorts of people] you wind up with angry aggressive responses from

- the libertarian-style nerds who say that it's every person for themselves and community is a myth and if women can't hack it they're just plain old out-competed [and/or can't take a joke] and that's how the jungle works evobio nonsense - the "hey I don't have privilege" nerds who were teased and harassed and bullied as younger people and so have a disconnect when anyone tells them that their privileged position gives them certain responsibilities to people who lack that privilege.

Really the only thing that has worked much on MeFi is being able to say "this is what we care about. Ironic rape jokes and/or using the word 'cunt' are not okay and if you think they are this is not the place for you" but there are still people who bristle, who fight, who send me email offering to "spank" me and all the rest. I find it truly boggling, these people really don't see how there could be someone lower on the totem pole than them and they actually see women as more privileged than they are by virtue of being female and thus having less of a hard time finding dates/companionship/whatever.

I find it confusing but I've been seeing it often enough to know that it is, in fact, true of some subset of geek/nerd types.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-10 21:22:55.781184+00 by: Mark A. Hershberger

This seems relevant: http://openrespect.org/

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-10 21:14:08.127697+00 by: Dan Lyke

Yeah, my experience with librarians is that the chauvinist asshole quotient is generally lower. But I also think this is something that feeds on itself; when vendors treat men as morons susceptible to "booth babes" we attendees start treating women as objects which means that the women who show up at conferences are the ones hired by vendors to be there which means...

And I'm not saying that the vendors at ApacheCon or FOSS4G are doing this, I'm saying it's something deep in the core culture of tech. But I don't know, maybe it's just the asshole quotient in general being high, I'd put ApacheCon up against the Tailhook Convention or, I'd guess, pretty much any stockbroker's gathering. But in the tech world we're supposed to value intellect and smarts, and succumbing to stupid testosterone games isn't that.

And on the other side, there are some fine balances between making statements because it's the right thing to do, versus pandering and soliciting and being creepy: "Come to our conference and feel safe. No, really!"

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-10 20:54:39.808614+00 by: jessamyn

I sort of feel that there should be some sort of general "don't be assholes" guideline that is slightly more explicitly stated that the conference is intended to be welcoming to all techies, traditional and non-. I don't even know how to word it particularly, but this is sort of an ongoing tired slog for women in tech. And it's hard to tell where to draw the line. Are racy slides not okay? What about the "show us your tits" sort of stuff from the Sci Fi Cons? Harlan Ellison groping that lady?

Every time I start thinking about a code of conduct, all I keep coming back to is the "don't be assholes" aspect and then having to have some sort of fair adjudicators that everyone [or almost everyone] trusts to be the people who decide what beign an asshole is and whose decisions are final, or final-ish.

I mostly go to library conferences which are basically mostly women anyhow [well a lot of female and some male librarains, a lot of male and some female vendors] and I don't think I'd *mind* a strong statement about equality or whatever, but it wouldn't be a tipping point for me.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-10 20:47:47.812+00 by: meuon [edit history]

A simple statement like: "This is a professional conference, not a frat party" should not even be required, even when, sadly, it is.

There was a moment in a (hotel) room party at Phreaknic recently where young man announced loudly something like: "This beautiful woman is willingly accompanying me to my room for debaucherous and sensual acts". Someone shouted "Witnessed". She faked a blush, bowed and they left. Everyone in the room understood the reason, as well as the humor.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-10 19:49:07.604639+00 by: Dan Lyke [edit history]

So I once knew a woman who'd both worked at the Mustang Ranch in Nevada, and had been in the tech industry since the days of lugging Kaypro around was a "portable computing". At the time of her death she had been working on a book comparing her life in the tech industry to her time in a brothel. I had a chance to do a little bit of digital archeology on her works as we tried to figure out what was and wasn't of value, and who got to see what, so I got to skim some of her work on that book.

In the comparison between working as a prostitute and in the tech industry, the latter did not come out looking good.

So I'd say that adults shouldn't need a code of conduct, but if we're gonna break this cycle I do think conference organizers need to start calling out the egregious stuff and say "this shit isn't acceptable" and "women are welcome and respected in our conferences" (and workplaces and ...).

And maybe we can, by trying to go out of our way to make spaces for discussion and sharing where everyone feels respected, bring something special to those spaces. And Flutterby can be something of a boy's club, but maybe some of the women who read here can pipe in: would you be more likely to attend a conference at which the organizers had made a strong statement on this?

#Comment Re: made: 2010-11-10 19:11:06.60415+00 by: meuon

As I read that story a few days ago, it seemed like there was an excess of "drunk and stupid" involved, but that isn't an excuse, just an observation.

Some things are never acceptable, lack of consent is high on that list, drunk and stupid or not. Some communities at events are better at self-policing the outliers.

My basic rule for many things: "If we have to act like we have rules, because of your behavior... we kick you out" - Probably should have been applied to Mr. drunk and stupid long before this got out of hand.