Monday, March 26, 2012

Does your conference have a harrassment code of conduct? I wish mine did

I will not forget that one of my professional groups turned its back on me when I complained about sexual harrassment at our conferences. I've held all the roles that give one some standing: host of the meeting, speaker, moderator, program committee. The people in power of late have been women. None of that helped. The year after I complained in a way that must have seemed "enough," registrants were required to check a legal disclaimer that they would not sue the organization for any reason once they had registered to attend. Some impact I have.

If you recognize which meeting I'm talking about, let's find another way to connect this year, because I think I've found a good alternative. At first, I thought this tweet was just a nice reminder that women should compete as speakers at professional conferences, but there was more:

Code of conduct? Yes, indeed. Here are some excerpts and the full one is here:
SecondConf is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion. We do not tolerate harassment of conference participants in any form. All communication should be appropriate for a professional audience including people of many different backgrounds. Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks. Attendees violating these rules may be asked to leave the conference without a refund at the sole discretion of the conference organizers. Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion; sexual images in public spaces; deliberate intimidation, stalking, or following; harassing photography or recording; sustained disruption of talks or other events; inappropriate physical contact; and unwelcome sexual attention. Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately....If a participant engages in behavior that violates this code of conduct, the conference organizers may take any action they deem appropriate, including warning the offender or expulsion from the conference with no refund. If you are being harassed, notice that someone else is being harassed, or have any other concerns, please contact a member of conference staff. Conference staff will be identified at the start of each conference day.
I've seen plenty of harrassment at conferences, as a speaker, an organizer and even as a staffer. Married men prowl for liaisons while away from their wives--even if that just means their wives are down the hall at the same conference. Hands on your ass, back (and other) rubs, groping and overly cozy hugs from men are commonplace enough that women who know each other well compare notes on which men do what. And in some cases, a mix of power play with sexual overtones, goes on. "Let's go upstairs and have a threesome!" one prominent member bellowed at me while I was speaking to one of his male friends in a roomful of colleagues. When I complain to men of my acquaintance, many say reflexively, "Oh, you're not going to go and spoil things! This is how we enjoy ourselves" or "You're not talking about me, are you?" or "Well, I expect you know how to take care of yourself," or the one I hate the most, "Well, really, can you blame them?" Thanks for the help, gents, in establishing these meetings as a hostile work environment.

All of this has happened in the last 20 years, the last 10, the last 5, the last one. And so every year, I debate whether to attend conferences where this happens, and when I do attend, I spend way too much time fending off, guarding against and being watchful...instead of doing what I should be doing. The requirement to check a no-lawsuit box may have been the last straw. Why would I attend a conference that wanted to bail out of its responsibility before we even set foot in the meeting? Why is my only protective option to stay home and withhold my funds and presence?

None of the conferences I attend have such a code. Would it stop harrassment? Likely not, and in this particular group, boy, would there be grumbling and outright objection. Such a code might stop situations like a male speaker with the faceless bitch slide, or male audience members wondering in the projected Twitter feed whether they wanted to "do" the female speaker. It makes failure to support a harrassed person of any kind an offense that could be publicly questioned or addressed, and specific individuals on staff are named with phone numbers to enable easy reporting of issues.. I can imagine that women who are attendees as well as women speakers would feel more comfortable--and likely to participate--if such a code were more commonplace.

Why isn't this the standard and not the exception? Why aren't the meetings I attend doing this, and enforcing such a code? Those are my questions. What do you think about the code, and what you experience at conferences? If you organize meetings and conferences, would you consider such a code? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

My post on "How Rush Limbaugh is helping me celebrate Women's History Month" is nominated as one of BlogHer's "Voices of the Year 2012." Follow this link to vote--and thanks for supporting this post.