How stopping conference harassment changes open/tech communities at all levels

We at the Ada Initiative know that the abysmal numbers of women in open technology and culture (2% of open source software, 9% in Wikipedia) are not caused by harassment of women at conferences alone. Women are staying out of open technology and culture for hundreds of reasons, some more obvious than others.

So why have we spent so much time working with the community to make conferences friendlier to women? It’s simple: Working for the end of assault and harassment of women at conferences is both the right thing to do in itself, and also a good way to kick off serious discussion (and change) about how women are treated in open tech/culture communities. Here’s how it works:

People learn for the first time about the problems women run into: Lots of people are shocked and surprised to hear what women go through at conferences. Once they know women are treated so badly at conferences, they are more likely to take less obvious problems seriously, such as constantly using women as examples of incompetence (“so easy your mother could use it”), all-male speaker line-ups, and holding meetups in places women don’t feel safe traveling to alone.

People mostly agree about conference harassment: Many open tech/culture communities members will disagree on whether sexist jokes are inappropriate, but a solid majority thinks groping and insults are wrong. People in favor of allowing groping are still vocal and present, but mostly they teach the rest of the community how much worse the problem is than they realized.

Conferences can actually do something about it: Many open source communities have no formal governance structure, or have only weak governance. People can behave as badly as they like with nothing to stop them. But conferences have clear leaders and happen in a private space, where conference organizers make the rules. It’s much easier for conference organizers to say, “Hey, you can’t treat women that way,” and then kick the offender out than for an online community to do the same thing.

Conferences know losing women hurts them directly: Conference organizers want their event to be a success, which means getting the right number and kind of attendees. Attendees make or break a conference, and most organizers immediately see the benefit of attracting more women: more people overall, a larger pool of talent to draw from, and a wider variety of viewpoints and ideas. Over and over again, conference organizers tell me that when they try hard to attract more women attendees and speakers, attendees tell them they thought the entire conference was better, and often more people attend overall.

A year and a half after the community-wide, grassroots campaign to make conferences safer for women started, dozens of open technology and culture conferences have strong, enforceable anti-harassment policies that really work – we’re aware of several serious incidents which were handled according to the policy and helped several conferences do just that. But just as important, that’s dozens of communities that learned about one reason women stay out of their communities, discussed the problem, agreed on what to do about it, and then actually did it. You made that possible, and at the same time, you’re making change for the better in all sorts of ways.

We hope this blog post answers a common question from many of our supporters who know a lot about the myriad of ways women are being held back and pushed away from open tech/culture. We agree – and we want to work with you on the next steps.

One new project is to look for other areas that have a reasonably clear governance structure and motivation for change, and extend policies for treating all people respectfully into those areas. Take IRC servers (a popular chat network that is a key part of participating in open tech/culture projects). Users with feminine nicknames are 25 times more likely to get malicious private messages than users with masculine nicknames. Even if a woman uses a non-feminine nickname, when other users learn she is a woman, often she immediately gets bombarded with requests for dates and naked pictures, as well as public insults. Already some open tech/culture communities have made progress in this area through creating and enforcing standards of behavior on IRC servers. We’d like to help it spread.

You can change open technology and culture for the better: Donate to support women in open tech/culture now.