Code of Conduct – why I Insist

I have had a lot of questions and discussions lately about the necessity for a code of conduct at conferences. I boycott any conference that does not have one or is inaccessible to many for other reasons. Here’s an off-topic, out-of-band post about my thoughts on this.

The tech community, and maybe especially the C++ community, is a white-male-dominated culture. It is no secret that there have been various incidents at different conferences of sexual, sexist, racist and homophobe harassment. Sometimes it is not that bad, but that does not mean there is no “locker room talk” or the simple feeling that minorities are simply not welcome.

Besides the fact that this situation turns away a lot of talent from our industry, it turns away a lot of people from what they like or would like to do. That’s why I think steps towards making our communities more inclusive are dearly needed. Having a code of conduct at conferences is among the easiest.

What a code of conduct is and does

A code of conduct is often seen as a tool to enable conference organizers to deal with attendees who harass other attendees. If we look closer, it’s not that, but much more. It’s a signal to every person attending or interested in attending.

First of all, it’s a signal to everyone attending the conference, that they are participating in an event where douchebag behavior is not tolerated. There always will be someone who does think such behavior to be generally acceptable. The code of conduct tells them “Not here!”. It probably won’t change their mind, but it is likely to make the conference a much more pleasant experience for everybody else.

Secondly, it’s a signal to minorities interested in attending a conference. A code of conduct signals that they are welcome and that the conference organizers intend to protect them from harassment. It can make a huge difference in how safe and welcome people feel at the conference.

In the end, if something actually happens, a code of conduct also is a signal that the conference organizers care. It tells the victims of harassment that when they tell someone, they will be heard and something will be done.

“But…”

I’ve heard lots of “but”s against a code of conduct. Here are some answers to the most frequent ones.

“… only nice people come to my conference.”

So you think. In every group of people, there are some that don’t play by the general rules of society. The larger the conference, the more likely it is to have some bad apples among the attendees. And it takes only one idiot to ruin the experience for one or more of the attendees. Better not take any chances.

“… nothing has ever happened in my community.”

As far as you know. Being harassed sexually or otherwise can be very humiliating. Most victims are not likely to tell a lot of people about what happened. Especially not if there are no clues – like, say, a code of conduct – that they will be listened to.

“… I’ll deal with assholes anyway, I don’t need a code of conduct.”

Of course, you will, because you probably are a decent person. You know that, and anyone who has met you knows that, too. Potential attendees who are afraid of being harassed probably do not know that since they have not met you yet. That means you have to tell them. Guess how.

“… it does not solve the underlying problems.”

That’s right, it doesn’t. It does not solve world hunger either. Neither does the conference, by the way. That a code of conduct does not solve some problems, does not mean it’s a bad thing. It also does not pretend to solve the problems of diversity, inclusion and some people being douchebags. Except that when we openly have a “harassment is not OK” policy openly everywhere in our society, it might help a little. At least it’s better than doing nothing.

“So, should I just copy something from Wikipedia to my conference website and that’s it?”

While you can find good texts for a code of conduct on the internet that you can simply copy or link to, there’s just a tiny bit more to it. You should mean it, i.e. you should be prepared to actually do something if something happens at the conference. Most conferences I have been to have a short introduction speech where the organizers point out that there is a code of conduct.

Remember, it’s mostly about signaling, and not everyone reads everything on the conference website. Shortly tell the attendees what the CoC is about (and that you probably won’t need it), and who they can contact in case something happens to them or someone else.

If you really care about diversity, you could, of course, go further and have special slots for sessions about inclusion.

Conclusion

It’s not much to ask to have a code of conduct at conferences. It does not take much time to put it on the website, and even less time to tell your attendees about it at the start of your conference. For my part, I won’t attend or even speak at a conference that does not have a code of conduct. For what it’s worth, I also won’t go to conferences in countries where people are harassed by lawmakers, police or border officials because of their land of birth, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity or whatever other petty reason.

Further reading:
Chandler Carruth: Conferences, Inclusion, and My Axe!

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4 Comments


  1. Thank you! Even us pasty white middle class straight white guys benefit from more inclusion and diversity. Plus treating others with consideration is simply just the right thing to do.

    Reply

  2. While I have no problem with codes of conduct, there are some aspects we should be careful with.
    This blog posts sums it up pretty well: http://dancerscode.com/blog/why-the-open-code-of-conduct-isnt-for-me/
    tl;dr: Some codes focus around whether the listener is offended and not whether the speaker intended offence.
    To quote the blog entry I linked: “The listener’s perception does not equal the speaker’s intent. Conflating the two mindsets like this can lead to one person’s opinions being punished due to other people’s indignation.”
    In my opinion, focusing on offence can be harmful to objective discourse.
    When writing laws one should never think only about what positive things they could do, but also how they could be misused. And focusing on the feelings of the listener is extremely easy to misuse, since it’s not objective.

    Reply

    1. This is a point about how people deal with code of conducts, those who have to enforce proper behavior and those who might use them against others in bad faith.
      But besides that it’s also about empathy: we have to think if others might find offending before we say something.
      There’s always potential for conflict, especially if people don’t want to get along. That’s true with or without a CoC. Therefore it’s also no argument against a CoC

      Reply

  3. It took me some time to understand, that explicitly stating, what for most of us is / should be common sense, makes sense. Especially the argument, that a CoC shows to others, that they are welcome can make a difference. That’s why the Hannover C++ UG now has a CoC.

    Cheers,
    Torsten

    Reply

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