O'Reilly Announces Anti-Harassment Code of Conduct

In an important milestone for women in the open technology and culture community, Tim O’Reilly announced that O’Reilly Media pledges to create an official code of conduct for OSCON and all O’Reilly events.

The pledge followed several days of emails, tweets, and phone calls by the open source community. The result was an avalanche of enthusiastic support for a clear, specific, actionable code of conduct banning known problem behaviors at open source conferences such as pornography in slides and physical assault.

“An anti-harassment policy isn’t everything,” says OSCON speaker Selena Deckelmann, “But it helps to define a community standard. O’Reilly Media has taken an important first step toward a code of conduct, and deserves our warmest applause for doing so.”

A hectic few days

The pebble that started the avalanche was Noirin Plunkett’s blog post, “Conferences and Dark Alleyways” on July 22. In it, Plunkett recalled the advice given to her after being assaulted at ApacheCon: if you don’t want to get hurt, don’t go into dark alleyways.

Plunkett wondered: Given that she had been harassed at OSCON last year, and without an official code of conduct from O’Reilly, was attending the conference “asking for trouble?” Should she cancel her talk and stay home for her own safety?

Among the other comments on Plunkett’s blog — most of them supportive — Michael G. Schwern, a noted Perl hacker and frequent speaker at OSCON over the last decade, said he had withdrawn his two talks from this year’s OSCON and would boycott the conference until it instituted an official code of conduct.

Plunkett’s blog and Schwern’s announcements were not the first to comment on the lack of a policy at O’Reilly. Beginning at least 6 months before the conference, several past speakers had asked O’Reilly if OSCON would have a code of conduct this year. When informed none was planned, they quietly withdrew their talks or did not register. Schwern, however, was the first to withdraw publicly and directly inform O’Reilly executives of his decision.

The same day, another OSCON speaker, Donna Benjamin, edited her OSCON speaker biography to show support for an official code of conduct, and encouraged other speakers to do the same (at least 9 followed her lead). Meanwhile, O’Reilly reached out to Plunkett directly, who referred them to the Ada Initiative as the expert on the subject.

“The Ada Initiative was founded precisely so that full-time experts can answer the phone and advise organizations in need of information, instead of making victims of harassment responsible for changing the culture,” says Plunkett.

The next day saw more activity, as the Ada Initiative helped organize public demonstrations of support for a code of conduct, including an online petition. Among the first people to sign the petition was Tim O’Reilly himself.

O’Reilly contacted the Ada Initiative later that day to find out what the community’s concerns were and understand more about the problem of harassment at conferences. With the help of extensive documentation, including the Geek Feminism “Timeline of Incidents” and the Linux Weekly News article on conference harassment “The Dark Side of Open Source conferences”, and the collective wisdom and experience of the Ada Initiative’s directors and advisory board, O’Reilly became convinced that the problem deserved official action by O’Reilly Media, and resolved to act immediately.

The next day, Tim O’Reilly posted on his blog voicing his unequivocal disapproval of harassment and pledging to institute an official code of conduct for future O’Reilly conferences, to much fanfare and applause. Soon, O’Reilly will join the dozens of conferences with some form of anti-harassment policy, including LinuxCon, USENIX conferences, and Open Source Bridge.

Actions for the Future

The change of direction at O’Reilly Media is a milestone in itself, and deserves some major kudos. However, the events leading up to it are also worth some review and consideration. The timeline shows that community input works best when it is coordinated, public in nature, and well-documented.

Events also showed that the Ada Initiative can make a significant difference by providing expert advice and mediation in a timely and non-adversarial manner. At the end of the effort, O’Reilly and advocates of a code of conduct were in agreement on all major points.

What next? Here’s some suggestions:

  • Take the time to show your public and and private appreciation to Tim O’Reilly, Gina Blaber, Shirley Bailes, and others at O’Reilly Media for being open to discussion and willing to act quickly. If you’re at OSCON, you can thank them in person (but don’t be annoying! :) ).
  • Urge other conference organizers to adopt an anti-harassment policy. The Geek Feminism wiki has a template that can be easily adjusted for specific circumstances.
  • Don’t attend or speak at conferences that lack a policy — and let the conference and everyone else know exactly why. If you are already booked for a conference without a policy, consider looking for ways to advocate change at the conference.
  • Start a discussion with organizers of OSCON and other conferences about including protection of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered) people in anti-harassment policies. Homophobia and transphobia in particular are widespread in many open technology and culture communities, and are no more acceptable than sexism or racism.
  • If you’re talking to other community leaders, offer O’Reilly Media as an example to follow.
  • Join the Ada Initiative (see our Contact Us page) and encourage your organization to support their work.

The real winner here is O’Reilly Media, who will continue to be able attract the best and brightest speakers and attendees in the open technology and culture community to their conferences. Three cheers for O’Reilly!