Category Archives: Editorial

Editorials and opinion pieces

Handling harassment incidents swiftly and safely

As anti-harassment policies become more widespread at open technology and culture events, different ways of handling harassment incidents are emerging. We advocate a swift process in which final decisions are made by a small group of empowered decision makers, whose focus is on the safety of the people attending the event.

Open technology and culture communities, which often make decisions in a very public way, can be tempted to also have a very public and very legalistic harassment handling process, a judicial model, but we advocate against this. It prioritises other values, such as transparency and due process, over that of safety. Alternatively, because many members of such communities find ostracism very hurtful and frightening, sometimes they develop a caretaker model, where they give harassers lots of second chances and lots of social coaching, and focus on the potential for a harasser to redeem themselves and re-join the community.

But neither of these models prioritise safety from harassment.

Consider an alternative model: harassment in the workplace. In a well-organised workplace that ensured your freedom from harassment — a situation which we know is also all too rare, but which we can aspire to, especially since our events are workplaces for many of us — an empowered decision maker such as your manager or an HR representative would make a decision based on your report that harassment had occurred and other relevant information as judged by them, and act as required order to keep your workplace safe for you.

A well-organised workplace would not appoint itself your harasser’s anti-harassment coach, have harassment reports heard by a jury of your peers, publish the details of your report widely, have an appeals process several levels deep, or offer fired staff members the opportunity to have their firing reviewed by management after some time has passed.

Like in a well-organised workplace, we advocate a management model of handling harassment complaints to make events safer: reasonably quick and final decisions made by a small group of empowered decision makers, together with communication not aimed at transparency for its own sake, but at giving people the information they need to keep themselves safe.

The management model of harassment handling is that:

  1. you have a public harassment policy that clearly states that harassment is unacceptable, and gives examples of unacceptable behaviour
  2. you have a clear reporting avenue publicised with the policy
  3. you have an empowered decision maker, or a small group of decision makers, who will act on reports
  4. reports of harassment are conveyed to those decision makers when reported
  5. they consider those reports, gather any additional information they need to make a decision — which could include conduct in other venues and other information that a very legalistic model might not allow — and they decide what action would make the event safer
  6. they communicate with people who need to know the outcome (eg, with the harasser if they need to change their behaviour, avoid any people or places, or leave the event; volunteers or security if they need to enforce any boundaries)
  7. they provide enough information to the victim of the harassment, and when needed to other attendees, to let them make well-informed decisions about their own safety

Further reading

Guest post: Deciding if or when a harasser may return to an event

This is a series of excerpts from a post by writer and speaker Stephanie Zvan, advising conference organizers on how to respond when a person who harassed people at their event wants to return to the event. The post was prompted by Jim Frenkel's attendance at the 2014 Wiscon feminist science fiction convention, after reports of harassment by Frenkel at the 2013 Wiscon and other events. These posts are excerpts from a post that originally appeared on "Almost Diamonds" at Free Thought Blogs. You can read part 1 of this post here.

Now, once you’ve decided to treat a harassment claim like any other health and safety issue, your main decision still remains. Do you or don’t you allow the harasser to remain at or return to your event? There are two main factors in deciding.

  1. Do you reasonably think the harasser will continue to violate your code of conduct?
  2. Will your guests reasonably feel safe if the harassers remains or returns?

The trick, of course, is defining “reasonably”. We’d all like to think we’re more reasonable than we are. Still, it’s possible to work through these issues.

Judging whether a harasser will stop violating your code of conduct

What kinds of things make it reasonable to think a harasser will stop? Here are a few:

  • They were unaware that their behavior was a violation of your code of conduct. This could be true if your code of conduct is not well publicized or the language is vague or ambiguous. Of course, if this is the case, the behavior in question would also have to be reasonably acceptable outside of your event. For example, groping someone, trapping them, and screaming in their face are all broadly condemned even outside of areas with codes of conduct. No one should be reasonably unaware that these behaviors are unacceptable. If the behavior in question is the sort of thing that would be hidden from bosses, organizers, or the respected voices of the community, a harasser doesn’t have a reasonable case that they “just didn’t know”.
  • They express understanding of their behavior and remorse about it. In the case of honest miscommunication that results in harm to one of the parties, the person who caused the harm should also be upset. They should accept that what they did caused harm, and they should want to prevent causing more harm by repeating the behavior in the future. If they aren’t remorseful, then they consider their original behavior to be justified and are more likely to repeat it.
  • They understand and accept the consequences that apply to their behavior. This is sometimes easier to see in the negative than the positive. Someone who argues that they shouldn’t receive consequences or, worse, that you “cannot” apply consequences to them feels entitled to your spaces and your events. They don’t see that their access is legitimately tied to and dependent on their good behavior. This can be a particular problem when a harasser is friends with decision-makers. Communicating to that friend that what is happening needs to be taken seriously is far more difficult in that situation than it is when it’s not mixed with cozy interpersonal relationships.
  • They don’t have a pattern of unacceptable behavior. One event may be a fluke. More than one event, even if every one of them is a “miscommunication”, points to an underlying problem. In order to reasonably believe that a harasser’s behavior will change in these circumstances, you’ll need to see some kind of evidence that the underlying problem has been addressed.

Notice that I suggested you should apply a different standard to guests at your events than you apply to yourself as an organizer (feeling vs. thinking). There are two reasons for that. The first is that, as an organizer, you’re privy to more information about a harassment complaint than your guests are. The second is that your guests have signed up for a different kind of experience than you have.

When you agree to organize an event, you take on extra responsibilities that your guests don’t have. They’re at your event to have a good time, socialize, and (depending on the nature of your event) learn something. You’re there to facilitate that. This means you take on a responsibility to consider their experience as it is, not as you think it should be. In other words, you may feel that your guests or potential guests are being irrational about a situation, but that won’t stop them from deciding they don’t want to show up. People get to stay home if they want to. It’s up to you to make them want to attend instead.

Judging whether other attendees will feel safe with the harasser attending your event

What kinds of things make it reasonable for guests to feel safe with a harasser attending your event?

  • They trust you to handle violations of the code of conduct promptly and fairly. People are more comfortable taking risks when they have backup. Attending an event with a harasser is a risk. If you ask them to take that risk for you, you have to show them that you’ve earned that trust.
  • They can avoid the harasser at little cost to them. This gives people control of their interactions with the harasser. If you put the harasser in a position of authority or require people to interact with them in order to access a service at your event, they won’t feel they can maintain their safety without unreasonable costs. Volunteer-run events sometimes argue that they need the volunteer, but I’ve yet to see one account for the volunteers they’ll lose by handing power (yes, volunteer positions involve some degree of power) to a harasser.
  • Their prior interactions with the harasser are not painful to recall. To be blunt, you may well have to choose between having a harasser attend your event and having the person or people they harassed attend. Dealing with memories spurred by seeing one’s harasser, or someone whose harassing behavior you witnessed, does not make for a pleasant event experience. If people don’t want to cope with that, you can’t require them to. Attempting to shame them for it won’t work and will only lead to the impression that you care more about the prestige or financial success of your event than the people who make it what it is.
  • They know what to expect. Surprising your guests with the attendance of someone they believe to be a harasser is not a good idea. Yes, your hands are tied with regard to how much information you can safely share about a harassment investigation and follow-up without incurring legal liability. Nonetheless, issues that get broad attention, as so many do right now as we figure out as communities how they should be handled, will require basic communication now or more communication in more detail later. If you have the staff to handle a storm of bad PR, you should have the staff to get out ahead of the problem.

That isn’t a long list of requirements for successfully reincorporating a harasser into a space they’ve abused. As much as some people like to suggest that nothing a harasser can do to be allowed back, these are not impossible hurdles. That doesn’t mean they’re not tricky to navigate in practice, but the principles that make people likely to be safe in reality and make them subjectively feel safe are not rocket science. They don’t require divination. They don’t require reading people’s minds or bowing to unreasonable demands.

And if you’re an organization facing these problems and feeling like you’re swimming in treacherous waters, there are people who want to help. We’ve been working on this issue, in our organizations or with multiple organizations on a consulting basis. We are invested in people starting to get things right. We want the good examples for everyone to follow. We want good decisions that, while they aren’t going to be comfortable, are going to make things better for all the people who aren’t part of the problem.

Let us help you get things right, because ultimately, it’s going to be you who bears the blame and criticism if and when you get it wrong.

You can continue reading the original post here.

Guest post: Harassment isn't an interpersonal issue, it's a health and safety issue

This is a series of excerpts from a post by writer and speaker Stephanie Zvan, advising conference organizers on how to respond when a person who harassed people at their event wants to return to the event. The post was prompted by Jim Frenkel's attendance at the 2014 Wiscon feminist science fiction convention, after reports of harassment by Frenkel at the 2013 Wiscon and other events. These posts are excerpts from a post that originally appeared on "Almost Diamonds" at Free Thought Blogs.

So how should event organizers deal with people who have been reasonably found to have harassed one of their attendees (hereafter referred to as “the harasser” out of convenience rather than any essentialism)?

Harassment isn't an interpersonal issue

We are accustomed and encouraged to use frames of reference in thinking about harassment that aren’t helpful, so let’s clear a couple of those up right off the bat. Harassment is not an “interpersonal issue”. Having your boundaries violated is not something a person does. It is something that is done to them. When someone says how they want to be treated (either verbally or through body language) and this is ignored, this is a unilateral action on the part of the person who chose to ignore their boundaries. When things outside the bounds of the broadest social norms or outside of a local code of conduct are done to people without them being consulted, this is a unilateral action on the part of the person who took action without consulting the target of that action.

Treating harassment as a back-and-forth between two people simply because it requires that two people be present elides the one-sided nature of these interactions. It elides the responsibility of one person who acts on another to be aware of how that action will impact the person it targets.

Worse, it places some of that responsibility on the person acted upon, the person whose boundaries—stated or reasonably assumed—were violated. It says that either the target of the harassing behavior had an obligation to stop the behavior themselves or that it is reasonable for another person to assume they consented to whatever happened. When we’re talking about code of conduct violations, this means that treating harassment as an interpersonal issue is telling people that it would be reasonable to assume they consented to being the target of racist or sexist remarks, consented to being followed or photographed, consented to being touched—simply by attending your event.

If you’re going to treat these things as reasonable assumptions when it comes time to evaluate a complaint, they shouldn’t be listed as code of conduct violations in the first place. If your intent is to create a space where anything should be expected to happen, a code of conduct is false advertising. Don’t treat someone who relies on your code of conduct as though they’ve done something wrong.

A harassment investigation is not a criminal case

Additionally, a harassment investigation is not a criminal case. You, as event organizers, are not the government of a country, a state, or even a city. When you investigate an allegation of harassment, you are not interfering with anyone’s liberties or rights under the constitution. You are determining who will and who will not attend your event.

This is true however your investigation and decision comes out. If you bend over backward to give the accused the benefit of the doubt and end up allowing a harasser to continue to attend your event, you will lose attendees who feel that harasser has now been given official permission to continue. These people are innocent of violating your rules, but that doesn’t keep them from being excluded by your decision. This is true every bit as much as if you exclude someone who is innocent of harassment on the basis of an unfounded accusation.

So, all that said, how do you go about determining when a harasser can rejoin your community?

Harassment is a health and safety issue, treat it like one

First off, stop asking that particular question. We don’t spend time agonizing over when “that person who set off the fire alarms and caused an evacuation” or “that person who held someone’s head under water in the pool” gets to come back. This is not about the harasser and their needs. Harassment is a health and safety issue, and you’ll get a whole lot further if you treat it like one. [...]

I’m sure there are readers at this point who still don’t understand why harassment short of assault would be considered a health and safety issue if no one was physically injured, so I’ll break it down briefly. The mild forms of harassment are still stressors. They still make their targets outsiders, less than human beings with full agency in the spaces in which the harassment occurs. They require that not just targets, but the entire classes of people who tend to be targeted, make decisions bout how to navigate these spaces in ways that allow them to remain safer.

Even before we get to behaviors that (nearly) everyone agrees constitute sexual violence, even before we talk about the fact that the presence of harassment reasonably makes people question whether they’ll be subject to to violence, sexual harassment not only adds to people’s stress–a health issue in and of itself–but it requires people to spend their limited time and energy to protect themselves. We would not tolerate events held in places that required participants to track down safe water for themselves, whether or not the water at a venue was ultimately safe to drink. We don’t allow fake weapons for cosplay to be carried in a way that may threaten people. We don’t have any better reason than cultural inertia to make a special allowance for sexual or gender-based behavior that is stressful and threatening. That just isn’t what safety means.

Continue reading the original post here, or read part 2 in tomorrow's blog post.

Pinboard explains why you should care about fandom

This week we were super excited to announce Pinboard as an AdaCamp sponsor! Pinboard is a personal bookmarking and archiving service. It is near and dear to our mission for several reasons: Pinboard is committed to a stable, user-centered business model, has a famously snarky Twitter account, and takes fandom seriously.

5 teenagers dressed in Slytherin costumes and holding quiddich equipment

Harry Potter fans CC BY-SA John Stephen Dwyer

What is fandom? Fandom is a form of open culture, a group of people united by a common interest: a particular TV series, an historical era, a band – the possibilities are endless. Fans participate in fandom in many ways, including writing fan fiction, creating costumes, and organizing conventions. Fandom is a woman-friendly community at the center of open technology and culture, and an example for other open tech/culture communities looking to be more women-friendly. Despite its popularity, fandom is an area of open culture that is often looked down on and discounted.

Maciej Ceglowski, the founder and owner of Pinboard, wrote a blog post about fandom [Trigger warning: references to sex between fictional characters] shortly after many fans moved to Pinboard in response to Delicious removing several features they used. Here is an excerpt (emphasis ours):

Fan culture is extremely collaborative, and its participants had rapidly taught one another how best to combine LiveJournal, Delicious and other sites into an network for sharing and discovery that, due to the social stigma of the hobby, remained under the radar even though it would have meant instant success for any entrepreneur sincerely willing to work with them. Fans shared their setups and workflows with each other in much the way that startup subculture obsesses over tool chains and "stacks". The whole thing reminds me a lot of what HyperCard was like in the nineties, right before its demise, when a large number of otherwise non-technical users had basically taught themselves to do elaborate programming with the tool, and were doing amazing things with it. [...]

For any bookmarking site, the fan subculture is valuable because it makes such heavy and creative use of tagging, and because they are great collaborators. I can't think of a better way to stress-test a site then to get people filling it with Inception fanfic. You will get thoughtful, carefully-formatted bug reports; and if you actually fix something someone might knit you a sweater. And please witness the 50 page spec, complete with code samples, table of contents, summary, tutorial, and flawless formatting, the community produced in about two days after I asked them in a single tweet what features they would want to see in Pinboard. These people do not waste time.

Read more at the Pinboard blog. Thank you Pinboard for sponsoring AdaCamp!

pinboard-logo

The Ada Initiative founders on funding activism for women in open source

This week, Ada Initiative founders Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora wrote about Funding Activism for Women in Open Source in the Funding issue of Model View Culture, drawing on lessons from their first years raising money for the Ada Initiative:

We founded the Ada Initiative with the principle of paying fair market wages to anyone doing work for us more than a few hours a week. In 2010, this was a moonshot. In 2014, it's increasingly how things are done. More and more diversity in technology initiatives are becoming paid activities, and a growing proportion of the technology industry recognizes this labour as something worth paying for[…]

[F]ull-time diversity activists who want to do effective, controversial, culture-changing work must often work out how to pay themselves, rather than taking existing jobs at tech companies or diversity in tech non-profits.

What follows is a survey of some of the most popular funding sources: corporate sponsorship, individual donations, and consulting and training.

Read the full article, The Ada Initiative Founders on Funding Activism for Women in Open Source, at Model View Culture to learn more about the rationale for each of these funding sources… and their pitfalls!

Dinner plans for all: How conference organizers can make newcomers feel welcome

Woman wearing a hat and glassesThis is a guest post from Becky Yoose about the Newcomer dinner at the code4lib conference, going on at the time of this posting. Becky is the Discovery and Integrated Systems Librarian at Grinnell College, where she plans, implements, and maintains several critical technology initiatives at the Grinnell College Libraries. She prefers nano and vim over emac, knows enough python to be a danger to herself and others, and likes pie.

Figuring out what to do after the sessions end for the day is a challenge for most first time conference attendees, and underrepresented attendees feel an added level of stress in determining what, if any, safe and inclusive activities they can participate in during this free time. Sure, there might be brewery tours, game nights, dances, and movie screenings, but what if you’re not interested in them? What is one thing that all conference attendees, no matter who they are, have in common?

They all have to eat.

Take a small group of conference attendees (mix of new and veteran attendees), add a restaurant of their choosing, throw in some planning, and you get a conference social activity that provides a safer, informal environment that anyone can participate in. For the conference, planning these kinds of informal dinners is an opportunity for building inclusiveness in the community.

Recipe ingredients matter

Many conferences provide food at various social events, but the effect these events have on creating a more inclusive environment varies. Some conferences try to welcome first time attendees by holding a separate event, which traditionally includes some food; however, these events have their pitfalls and blind spots. You’re surrounded by fellow new attendees, but that’s about it. You’re still part of a big crowd, and if you don’t see yourself represented in said crowd that only aggravates the existing stress you’re already under. In short, the food meant to welcome first time attendees in this format itself causes anxiety due to the lack of a safer space for integration into the community.

When I attended my first code4lib conference in 2009, I managed to stumble my way through the conference, but there were many who were struggling to get a sense of the loosely-organized community. Since I’m not a drinker, my social options were limited; however, I ended up grabbing someone I didn’t know well from the conference and we went off to eat at a local foods restaurant holding a movie showing. The movie and food were both good, but the company of the attendee that went with me made the outing special. I started thinking about how to take this experience and repurpose it into something that can build community while being inclusive to everyone at the same time.

Building the recipe

I shot out the idea of an All Conference dinner, with the emphasis on getting conference veterans to mix with newcomers for the 2010 conference. Even though code4lib is a smaller conference, an all-conference dinner would still have fallen in the same pitfalls as the traditional events I described above. And then there are logistics! How do you fit 70+ people in a restaurant without paying for private room fees?

After some discussion with the code4lib community, the Newcomer Dinner was born. The base has stayed the same, but with a few tweaks each year:

  • The Social or Local Activities Committee compiles a list of restaurants around the conference hotel. Many conference goers have specific dietary needs – veg*n, kosher, allergies – so make the extra effort to seek out restaurants that can cater to specific needs, or at least note which restaurants have specific dietary offerings.
  • Schedule the dinner for the night before or the night of the first day of the conference. The connections made at this meal gives attendees a set of familiar faces in the conference crowd, making the big anonymous crowd a little less anonymous.
  • Around a month before the conference, create a place for sign-up for small dining groups, no larger than six to a group. Discussion becomes difficult when the group is larger than six, from experience.
  • Promote the dinner early and often! Encourage a mixture of new attendees and conference veterans in each group, and get the vets to lead the groups. This is where cultivating buy-in from various established community members helps! Sometimes you’ll need to persuade folks into leading groups, especially during the first couple of years of doing the dinners or if you have some shy folks in the same group.
  • In the sign-up page, give explicit instructions as to what the group leader is responsible for: reservations, leading the group to and from the restaurant, main contact for the dinner group in case people are running late, etc.

Recipe reviews

How does the Newcomer Dinner help create an inclusive community environment at a conference?

It provides the opportunity for marginalized folks to find each other and to connect – for those looking for others like themselves, the Newcomer Dinner becomes the opportunity to connect with each other in a small group environment. The dinners are planned ahead of time; people have the chance to do their research and stake out a group or restaurant. This focus on small groups and advanced planning provides a lower-pressure, informal safer space for underrepresented attendees who otherwise might not venture far from their hotel rooms outside of conference hours.

It provides the opportunity for others to listen and to learn from each other – in some groups, there are a mix of diverse people, and the conversation can and sometimes lead to an exchange of ideas and experiences by all sides. Again, conferences big and small don’t have a lot of opportunities for small group, face to face conversations outside the conference, which makes the dinner a place where people have dedicated time to share thoughts, experiences, and engage in conversations otherwise not present in the conference center hallways.

There are a few considerations for organizing a Newcomer Dinner. code4lib’s dinner is completely voluntary, which means that the people who really want to be there will be there if their schedule permits. There is also the consideration of the dinner group; not all group dynamics are ideal, but the focus on food gives some buffer for some groups that have one or two folks who like to talk. Lastly, even though the focus is on creating a welcoming environment with great food, having the Newcomer Dinner covered under the conference’s Code of Conduct helps ensure that if anything happens in the group, then there is a system in place to address any issues.

Make the recipe your own

The dinner has since become one of the rare traditions of the code4lib conference since 2010, and is one of the highlights of the conference for many people, including those newer to the community, leading to lasting friendships and professional connections alike. Past participants have even organized their own dinners in their own communities! The focus on conference veterans mixing with the newer attendees adds the dimension of networking opportunities for newcomers within the community. More importantly, it provides an opportunity for inclusive community building. Overall, the Newcomer Dinner is a good (and filling) tool to help build an inclusive environment for conferences and communities alike.

Ed. note: At AdaCamp, one of the more popular events is the Saturday night dinner in the form described in this post. AdaCamp Portland applications are now open!

Breaking the Unicorn Law: Stop asking women in open tech/culture about women in open tech/culture

Have you heard of the Unicorn Law? Formulated by Emma Jane Westby, it states:

"If you are a woman in Open Source, you will eventually give a talk about being a woman in Open Source."

Tapestry of unicorn bucking in the midst of dogs and hunters

This unicorn has had enough

We recently read a post by a woman in open source software[1] that reminded us of the Unicorn Law. The author was nostalgic for the days before everyone was talking about sexism in open source, when she felt like she could fit in more easily in the open source community.

We sympathize – and so did many other folks. Over the last few years, people and organizations like Geek Feminism and the Ada Initiative have raised awareness of sexism in open technology and culture to the point that it can't be ignored. Now, women who used to be able to "fly under the radar" and concentrate on writing code or editing Wikipedia are getting pulled into the fight against sexism, whether they want to participate or not. (Of course, some women were never able to fly under the radar in the first place, especially if they were women of color, trans women, and/or women who dress in more feminine styles, to name a few.)

Medieval woodcut of a unicorn pawing at a woman's lap

Augh! I am so sick of unicorns!

Part of making open tech/culture more welcoming to women is not putting the responsibility for fighting sexism on every woman in these fields, whether or not she has the energy or interest to do so. Giving women an extra job in addition to their work in open tech/culture won't make it a better environment for them. (See the chapter on "How to Speak for All Black People" in Baratunde Thurston's "How to be Black" for a satirical take on a similar problem facing black people in the U.S.)

We think the solution to the Unicorn Law isn't asking people to stop working to end sexism in open tech/culture. Instead we should stop asking all women to be feminist activists. Here are some ways to do that.

Breaking the Unicorn Law

If you're curious about women in open tech/culture, that's great! But the time to learn about that is not when you meet a(nother) woman in open tech/culture. Don't say things to her like:

  • What is it like being a woman in $FIELD?
  • Why do you think there are so few women in $FIELD?
  • What do you think about $SEXIST_THING?
  • I know another woman in $FIELD, I will introduce you!
  • What do you think about $WOMEN'S_GROUP_IN_FIELD?

She'd probably rather be talking about Wikipedia or open hardware or whatever her field is. Even if her job is feminist activism, she's probably had these conversations many times before (which is one reason the Geek Feminism Wiki was started). Here's what you can do instead:

  • Search for blog posts, videos, and podcasts talking about what it's like to be a woman in $FIELD.
  • Search for "women $FIELD", "feminism $FIELD," or explore the Geek Feminism Wiki.
  • Find feminist thinkers and organizations that regularly write about $SEXIST_THINGS in your field and read what they write.
  • Introduce women in your field to people who can help their projects or careers, regardless of gender.
  • Search for "why $WOMEN'S_GROUP_IN_FIELD".

Of course, if she brings up the subject, go ahead and talk about it, while paying attention to her level of interest, what areas she wants to talk about, and when she's ready to change the subject.

Beyond the Unicorn Law: Slay some dragons

Woman in armor with dragon

Let's stretch this metaphor way too far!

Once you've learned more about sexism in your field, you may find yourself interested in actively working to stop sexism yourself. That is very cool! In fact, the only way we can end discrimination against women is if people of all genders voluntarily step up and take on some of the work. Here are some ideas for what to do next:

Fighting social injustice isn't easy, but we're making progress and together we can make a difference.


[1] We don't agree with all of this post!

Guest post: Nicole Stark’s Survey of Harassment Policies at Fan Conventions

This is a guest post from author Jim C. Hines that originally appeared on his blog as "Nicole Stark’s Survey of Harassment Policies at Fan Conventions." It is a summary of Nicole Stark's paper surveying and analyzing fan convention anti-harassment policies, the first study of its kind that we know of.

After I posted my Convention Harassment Policy Starter Kit, I learned about a study Nicole Stark had done about harassment policies at fan conventions. Stark’s article is available on Google Docs, here. I’ve seen a fair amount of discussion on harassment policies and why we do or don’t need to worry about them, but this is the first example I’ve seen of a more rigorous academic survey and discussion of harassment policies. Stark gave me permission to link to her paper, and to discuss some of the highlights.

ETA: Stark is a M.A. student studying sexual harassment. She asked me to share that her email address is NicoleStark@knights.ucf.edu, in case anyone wanted to follow up with her about her work.

From the abstract:

This study uses content analysis to evaluate a sample of 288 fan convention websites. These conventions took place within the United States from March to November 2013. The analysis was used to determine how common sexual harassment policies are and their characteristics. This study examined both frequencies and descriptions of codes of conduct, including promoted and prohibited rules, sanctions, reporting guidelines, and the existence of a sexual harassment or general harassment policy. Less than half of the sample contained any behavioral policy at all. Those behavioral policies that were present were found to be generally informal, unstructured, and devoid of a sexual harassment policy. However, many policies contained rules that could be used in the prevention of sexual harassment. These rules, when made clear and recognizable, may work as effective policy in informal spaces. (Page 2)

Stark opens by discussing an instance of sexual harassment from New York Comic Con, and goes on to note that:

A study on sexual harassment policy in manufacturing firms revealed that an available written policy resulted in a 76 percent reduction in one year’s reports (Moore and Bradley 1997).

In other words, to anyone arguing there’s no need for a sexual harassment policy, there is actual research showing that such a policy can significantly reduce sexual harassment.

I expect some people to protest that a convention isn’t the workplace, and that’s true. There are likely to be some differences in the dynamics and effects of a harassment policy in a convention space vs. a workplace. But the underlying premise and conclusion here is pretty straightforward: “We created a written policy on sexual harassment, and sexual harassment decreased significantly.”

I assume most people would like to see sexual harassment at conventions decrease significantly as well. Ergo, creating a written policy seems like a really basic and obvious first step.

Stark’s sample comes from the costume.org website’s list of upcoming conventions. The cons were all from 2013, all located in the U.S., and included media, anime, literary, gaming, comics, relaxicons, and more. So what did she find in her study?

Of the 288 convention websites, 59.38%  had no listed policy on their website in regards to behavior or code of conduct. Less than half of all websites (40.62%) had at bare minimum, a behavioral policy explaining acceptable or unacceptable actions while at the convention. These rules ranged from a basic ‘be polite’ to lengthier explanations and examples of what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Of the total sample, only 3.47% used the phrase ‘sexual harassment’. However, 13.88% used the word ‘harassment’, not detailing readily available distinctions between harassments, whether sexual, bullying, or annoying otherwise.

Fewer than half of conventions have a posted policy about acceptable behavior, let alone harassment. And the policy is only the starting point; what about instructions on reporting harassment and other unacceptable behavior?

Only 15.27% (44) of the 288 convention websites contained guidelines on reporting. Of the three conventions participating in Project: Women Back Each Other Up, only one employed the use of purple ribbons to indicate female staff members who were prepared to intervene and handle potential sexual harassment. Several policies listed that if there were emergencies, to dial 911 or building security.  This left 84.72% (244) of the convention websites devoid of response or guidance to potential victims.

Stark goes on to recommend:

…in evidence of the language and audience in these informal spaces, the following are suggestions for a comprehensive policy at fan conventions. The policies need to be recognizable and readily available (Moore & Bradley 1997), properly enforcedinclude and define sanctionstrain employees for prevention and response, (Harmus & Niblock 2000), detail complaint procedure (Fowler 1996), and define sexual harassment in terms that the audience understands. (Emphasis added)

I have very little to add beyond Yes. That.

I recommend anyone interested in the ongoing conversation about sexual harassment in fandom read the full study. And my thanks to Nicole Stark for letting me link to and chat about her research here.

A smiling man in front of shelves of booksJim C. Hines is the author of the Magic ex Libris series, which has been described as a love letter to books and storytelling, and includes a magic-wielding librarian with a laser blaster. He’s also written the Princess series of fairy tale retellings and the humorous Goblin Quest trilogy, along with more than 40 published short stories. He’s an active blogger, and won the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer. You can find him online at http://www.jimchines.com.

Guest post: What's wrong with "meritocracy" in open source software?

The recent welcome announcement that GitHub was replacing a rug celebrating the concept of a meritocracy in open source software development has had a lot of people wondering, "What's so wrong with meritocracy?" To answer this, we are publishing an excerpt from a post by Ashe Dryden, "The Ethics of Unpaid Labor and the OSS Community."

Ashe Dryden is a programmer, diversity advocate, writer, and speaker. She blogs regularly at http://ashedryden.com and her work is almost 100% funded through community donations at http://gittip.com/ashedryden.

Meritocracy is the belief that those with merit float to the top – that they should be given more opportunities and be paid higher.

We prize the idea of meritocracy and weigh merit on contribution to OSS. Those who contribute the most, goes the general belief, have the most merit and are deemed the most deserving. Those who contribute less or who don't at all contribute to OSS are judged to be without merit, regardless of the fact that they have less access to opportunity, time, and money to allow them to freely contribute.

As the people who exist within this supposed meritocracy don't exist within a vacuum, we also have to realize how our actions affect others. Meritocracy creates a hierarchy amongst the people within it. Some of those at the top or striving to at least be above other people have been guilty of using their power for bullying, harassment, and sexist/racist/*ist language that they use against others directly and indirectly. This creates an atmosphere where people who would otherwise be deemed meritorious within this system choose not to participate because of a hostile, unrewarding environment.

A lot of people hold the idea of meritocracy close. I believe they mean well, too, but they aren't necessarily seeing the whole picture. We all want a system where we feel we can be rewarded for what we contribute: that society's injustice toward certain groups of people – most specifically geeks, many of us who grew up feeling abused, persecuted, and ignored (blog post coming on this soon) – would be rendered irrelevant. In striving for that, our community has become a microcosm of society at large.

The idea of a meritocracy presumes that everyone starts off and continues through with the same level of access to opportunity, time, and money, which is unfortunately not the case. It's a romanticized ideal – a belief in which at best ignores and at worst outright dismisses the experiences of everyone outside the group with the most access to these things. A certain demographic of people have three or four steps above other people, so the playing field is not even.

Read the rest of Ashe Dryden's post

For more reading on the meritocracy in open tech/culture, see:

The Paradox of Meritocracy: Belief that a workplace is a meritocracy may increase gender bias, not lessen it

Questioning the Merits of Meritocracy: Discussion of specific open source software projects that embrace meritocracy (as of 2009)

How White Male Tech Writers Feed the Silicon Valley Myth of Meritocracy: On the intersection of race, class, tech, and blogging

GitHub donates private repositories to women learning open source software: A collaboration between GitHub and Ada Initiative to compensate for extra barriers for women learning open source software development

Guest post: Conference codes of conduct as seen from your world and mine

This is a guest post by Andromeda Yelton about how conference codes of conduct actually improve the protection of free speech for women and other disadvantaged groups in tech, originally posted on her blog here. Andromeda Yelton is a librarian and freelance software engineer. She teaches librarians to code; speaks and writes about libraries, technology, and gender; and is on the Board of the Library & Information Technology Association.

In discussing ALA’s Statement of Appropriate Conduct with ever-wider audiences, I get the growing feeling that we stand at different starting lines, and it affects our understandings of the words in the statement.

So if you looked at the Statement and your first reaction was “but…free speech?” or “nanny state” or “political correctness”, this is for you. Let me attempt to explain some starting points. (Trigger warning: graphic violence, rape, rampant misogyny.)

Proponents of these codes are not concerned that people might disagree with them (even disagree passionately). We aren’t concerned that people might not be nice. We aren’t wanting to run to some hammer of authority every time someone says a group we’re in might be other than pure unicorns and roses.

Here is the world I live in:

I live in a world where famed game developer and technical writer Kathy Sierra disappeared entirely from the internet for years after she received a series of death threats, including publishing of her home address, social security number, and false allegations that she had abused her children.

I live in a world where Anita Sarkeesian ran a Kickstarter to support a project on sexism in video games, and as a result someone created and distributed a video game consisting solely of clicking on her face until you had beaten it to a bloody pulp.

I live in a world where merely having a female-gendered nickname on IRC (a chat network important in the technology world) makes you 25 times more likely to receive unsolicited malicious private messages, even if you never say a word.

I live in a world where I have zero interest in going to CES because I don’t want to have to deal with the naked booth babes (and am therefore cutting myself off from the biggest trade show relevant to my interests). Where a friend of mine takes for granted there will probably be naked women on conference slides in her field. Where people complaining that a joke about being “raped by dickwolves” in a comic about gaming isn’t funny leads to its creators selling dickwolves t-shirts and large numbers of people to this day defending this as a reasonable position to hold. Where a hackathon sponsored by a major tech news web site gives time on stage to an app intended solely for sharing photos of women’s cleavage, with a nine-year-old-girl in the audience. Where a major tech news discussion site is so prone to misogyny many women never bother to spend time there, at the same time as it is suspected of repeatedly quashing discussion critical of misogyny.

I live in a world where I treat it as great and inexplicable good luck that no one has yet threatened to rape or kill me just because I blog and speak publicly about technology and sexism under an obviously female name, and I have the backup plan in my head of how to moderate comments and log IPs if it’s ever needed, and the list of which friends have my back enough that I’d ask them to wade through that kind of cesspit for me. I live in a world where using my own name on github and IRC was aspecific conscious choice that required actual bravery from me, because I know that I am statistically exposing myself to retribution for doing so.

Let’s say that again: I live in a world where being myself in public, talking about things I care about under my own name in public, is a specific choice which requires both courage and a backup plan.

In this world some people choose not to be themselves in public. They choose not to speak, or to speak only under disguises – ones they can’t wear at conferences, face-to-face.

That is my concern about free speech. That right there.

That is the aim of conference codes of conduct. To clarify the threats — not to eliminate them, because you can’t ever do that, but to state that this is a place where silencing people through graphic threats of sexual violence or open and regular degradation is treated as unacceptable, that if it happens to you there’s a place to go, and to (crucially) say that the bystanders care too. That you’re not in a place where a lot of people are decent but indifferent and someone somewhere might attack you and it’s all on you to cope, but you’re in a place where a lot of people are decent and affirmatively have your back.

And by clarifying the threats, by publicly affirming the decency of the bystanders, we create a world where you don’t have to be quite so brave to speak up. A world where the uncertain, the new, the outsiders have a voice too. A world where maybe the barrier for being a woman in tech — or an outsider coming in — is not the ability to say “fuck you”, but merely the interest in saying something, anything.

If you have been reading the statement of acceptable conduct from the frame of mind that you haven’t encountered problems and things seem fine and the only speech you can imagine it chilling is the edgier end of the perfectly fine, please go back and reread it from my world. It reads differently.