Do Adults Need Conference Codes of Conducts?

by @edent | # # # # | 1 comment | Read ~380 times.

(Because what the world needs is another CoC thinkpiece from a straight, white-passing, cis-gendered man.)

This is a rambling blog post inspired by Cate Hudson’s “Codes of Conduct and Worthless Manfeelings”. You should read that first, it’s pretty good. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

(In which I do my best not to insult all my friends and colleagues.)

I go to lots of conferences. Fewer than I used to (we’ll come on to that) – but I can honestly say that I’ve spoken on panels, attended workshops, given keynotes, and run sessions at conferences all over Europe, Africa, and the USA.

Very roughly, in my experience, conferences can be divided into “Grown Ups” and “Kids”.
Big, professional, moneyed conferences like MWC, Learning Tech, and GDC fall into the “Grown ups doing serious business” – whereas OverTheAir, Hackathons, and BarCamps fall much more squarely into the “Gang! We can put on the show in the old barn!” camp.

(This is, of course, grossly insulting to the huge amount of effort which goes in to making unconferences happen. I’ve only been involved on the periphery of organising them – and it’s a hell of a lot harder than it looks. It’s a huge time and resource hungry endeavour to make something feel so relaxed and intimate.)

Unconferences are a form of nerd edutainment. Yeah, we’re learning while having fun! They’re a great way to share knowledge, catch up with friends, and meet new people. It feels like they should be the last place that needs a Code of Conduct. “We’re all cool – just don’t be a dick.”

Sadly, that’s not the case.

Similarly, at some of the “Grown Up” conferences I’ve been to, it would feel downright weird to have a CoC. We’re trained to see our Important Work Colleagues as sexless creatures – besides, what kind of depraved animal gets turned on by being in a conference hall in Swindon? Certainly not Bob from accounting – unless the workshop is on Double-Entry Bookkeeping, right!?!?!?!!!

Asking an organiser if they have a Code of Conduct feels a bit like asking a new lover if they’ve recently been tested for STDs. What the hell are you implying?! That our conference has a problem? *Throws glass of wine at your face*

Last weekend I was at the excellent Over The Air 2015. It has become a permanent fixture in the UK Geek Scene – and I’m proud to count the organisers as friends. This was the first year (that I’m aware of) where there’s been a Code of Conduct in place. It’s not in place due to a specific incident – I think it’s more to do with trend for (good) conferences to feature them.

I spoke to a bunch of attendees about the CoC, and here is my distilled view.

Having a Code of Conduct is alienating.

  • It makes people think there has been an incident which warrants it.
  • People feel less inclined to honestly express themselves.
  • Jokes between good friends can now be misinterpreted and subject to actions.
  • “Near the knuckle” hacks are off limits – infantalising participants.
  • The (fairly UK specific) beery culture is suppressed – making the whole event a lot less fun.

And yet, all of those are less alienating than not having a CoC. Without one, you’re relying on the largess of the conference organisers to take complaints seriously. Without one, you are hoping that participants have naturally good behaviour. Without one, an organiser is failing to create a space which can get the best out of participants – it’s hard to make a meaningful contribution while you’re worried about being harassed, assaulted, or otherwise menaced.

I’m more than happy to go to a conference which alienates people who hurt my friends. Not just because I like my friends, but for selfish reasons too.

Conferences need people – a humongous diversity of people – if swathes of people are alienated, you end up with a stifling monoculture. I can’t get good ideas if everyone around me has the same background, the same experiences, the same expectations of life.

When I attended Mobile World Congress, it seemed full of suit-wearing professionals having meetings and eating tapas. And strippers. And burlesque shows. And prostitutes.

It’s hard to create an inclusive atmosphere when men are being trained to see women as little more than sexual decorations. I’ve seen first hand my highly-qualified female colleagues being treated as if they were little more glorified billboards. It’s depressing, exclusionary, and – sadly – quite common.

We need to ensure that this sort of sexist, boorish, culture is transformed into something which attracts the best talent – not just those with the thickest skin.

Here’s an excellent analogy from Maciej Cegłowski:
It took a long time to establish that environmental smoke exposure was harmful, and even longer to translate this into law and policy. We had to believe in our capacity to make these changes happen for a long time before we could enjoy the results.I use this analogy because the harmful aspects of surveillance have a long gestation period, just like the harmful effects of smoking, and reformers face the same kind of well-funded resistance. That doesn't mean we can't win. But it does mean we have to fight.

That’s where we are. It’s kinda hard to see what the problem is with smoky rooms when that’s all you’re used to. I got fed up with going out to the pub and coming back stinking of smoke – so I stopped going to smoky places. We’ve had a huge sea-change of public opinion in the UK, and I can be confident that when I go out I’m not giving myself lung-cancer.

It’s the same for conferences. I’m sick of attending conferences which want to hijack my sexuality. I got bored of seeing a sea of white dudes pontificating from the stage. Nowadays, if I’m asked to speak I check out the diversity of the line up and, if it’s pale/stale/male, I make sure to recommend some of my friends and colleagues who don’t fit the “traditional” conference speaker role.

By getting a more representative view from the stage, we can begin to improve our industry.

As geeks, we sadly have to accept that not everyone in our community is cool. It sucks. But every community has to deal with malicious idiots.

But we have to grow up – and, ironically, drag grown-up conferences with us. I’m very happy to say that I won’t be attending or speaking at events without a Code of Conduct, and I urge you to do the same.

One thought on “Do Adults Need Conference Codes of Conducts?

  1. You’re right in that no specific instance brought about our code of conduct. However, as I pointed out in my blog post on the subject, that doesn’t necessarily mean that harassment or the equivalent hasn’t occurred. Many of the speakers that I wanted to bring to the event this year mentioned on Twitter or elsewhere that they preferred events that had them, or that they would not speak an event that didn’t have one. And I felt this was a reasonable request. I think having one and mentioning it in a blog post early allowed us to bring more female speakers to the event, which in turn led to better diversity in attendees (which is always a primary goal for me). If the presence of a code of conduct is making people feel limited in the ways you suggested above then all I can say is that wasn’t the intention. Maybe it’s possible to craft the language in a better way, or in a way that takes into account the UK’s historically more risqué approach to humor (which is one of the things I love about the culture here, by the way).

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