#libtechgender: conference codes of conduct as seen from your world and mine

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 a specific 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.

44 thoughts on “#libtechgender: conference codes of conduct as seen from your world and mine

  1. “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.”

    THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! for articulating what so many people don’t seem to understand, because they have never been targeted for their gender, race, or identity as some other minority.


    1. Yes, thank you for this post and especially the words that Suzy quotes. Lack of recognition of these issues is the very definition of privilege, and every word spent to bring this to light helps that much more. Amazing post.


  2. Good words! Your backup plan should really be establishing an organization/conference/trade show bringing companies and products with social and ethical value together with reasonable fans. Who says the trade shows you aren’t comfortable attending are the only ones that should be big and relevant to your interests? There are thousands, even millions of beings out there that agree with your thoughts and share your interests. Why not bring those masses together instead, and make those with codes of misconduct irrelevant?

    Thanks for writing, I think it’s a very useful and interesting read!


  3. FUD is no acceptable argument for anything. Ever. And your attempts to shock people into agreeing with you are the epitome of fallacy.

    So, I’ll say this simply. No. Not ever. While I am all for equality in the world, I am also all for a world with sharp edges, risk, and terrible things in the dark. I believe in freedom, and all the horrors that follow with it. And the reason for that, is simple. A life without limitless horizons is a life worth so much less. And your small world is not one I wish to ever enter.

    Life is worth living with the difficulty set to hard. And if you try to stop me, you will fail.


    1. Matt, the issue here is that the sharp edges of the world aren’t evenly distributed. They are VASTLY disproportionate along many axes that are very likely invisible …that’s the reason for this sort of post. Not to spread fear, uncertainty, or doubt. Fear is a real, living thing for the people noted above, it isn’t some theoretical. There is no uncertainty about the likelihood of abuse online for women in tech…there is empirical evidence that it happens.

      This post, and the CoC that prompted it, are a way to give voice to those who have not had a voice. It isn’t a limiter, it’s an enabler.

      As to your comment about difficulty level, I refer you to John Scalzi: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/


      1. Thank you for saying that so I didn’t have to. I probably wouldn’t have been as polite. I almost barked laughter.


      2. “the issue here is that the sharp edges of the world aren’t evenly distributed. ”

        This is an extremely important point, but I’d also like to add that, from ALA’s perspective, I’m guessing it’s even more basic than that.

        Keeping everyone safe and welcome in a public space where everyone is invited (and I do mean EVERYONE – libraries are one of the few places where kids gather that convicted pedophiles are allowed to go also – for free speech reasons) requires having established and clearly communicated ground rules. It’s actually really important, and more polite, when you have people of varying experience and cultural norms coming together to be up front and clear about how you expect people to behave. Assuming that everyone already knows American library norms – or ALA conference norms and codes of ethics – is NOT a good way to promote equal access.

        And having a code of conduct also gives librarians something to back them up so that they can ask people to leave when they are infringing on OTHERS free speech through harassment or other types of bad conduct. The fact that we don’t think the police or congress have any business asking us about what you read doesn’t mean that we are down with adult men making inappropriate comments to teen girls about what they are wearing.

        I could be wrong, but I’m guessing from ALA’s perspective, the lack of code of conduct in previous years was due to not considering that we need one specifically for our conferences, rather than not realizing that enforcing equal access requires establishing boundaries at times. We are not perfect in how we draw those lines, no one is, but we’re pretty familiar with the concept. So I’m finding all the weakly argued “free speech” cries against the ALA’s code of conduct by non-librarians to be both amusing and frustrating.


    2. Matt:

      Y0ur life is not hard.

      Your world does not have hard edges.

      Your world is not dark.

      You are not at risk.

      If you think you are at risk, if you think your world has hard edges, if you think it is dark, and if you think your life is hard, then hear this:

      You are wrong.

      What do you fear? What denigration have you suffered? When have you encountered it?

      Recognize your privilege. Recognize that in an unequal world, you have pulled a lucky straw.


      1. Oh good lord, you know nothing at all about Matt or any of the other posters here, and yet are so quick to leap to the conclusion that he’s talking down from some podium on high. I’m certain that you’re assuming he’s a 30-something pasty white male with a comfy tech job. Welcome to racism and classism at it’s finest. No, not him, YOU Arlo. This goes for the rest of the posters making these back-handed ad hominem attacks as well. Nobody can see or understand your points, because they’re masked behind YOUR hatred.


    3. …Matt, as John Scalzi would say your life is on the lowest difficulty setting. May not all be easy, but it is still the lowest difficulty setting. It’s great to romanticize terrible things in the dark until you’re a 16-year-old page driving home from the library and a car keeps following you, mimicking the U-turns you start to take, you don’t have a cell phone because they’re not common yet, and you’re trying to figure out how to get back home without him finding out where you live. These aren’t attempts to shock, these are life-shaping events we have to move past to keep going.

      Until that’s the kind of thing you’re dealing with, 1) your life isn’t hard, 2) you’re not the one dealing with the horrors. F*ck off.


    4. If you believe in freedom so dearly, do you also believe in the freedom of a private organization to say what is and isn’t acceptable behavior at its events?

      Do you believe in the freedom of someone or a group of someones to say “That behavior is not allowed here, and these are the consequences of engaging in behavior I/we do not allow?”

      Just as you (think you) have the freedom to do what you wish and say what you wish, others have the freedom to say that what you did is not acceptable, and the freedom to enact sanctions for it.


    5. In your opinion, what are the limits an organization is allowed to set on the behavior of attendees at meetings it holds? Should an organization be allowed to eject an attendee who stands up in the audience during the keynote and starts reading the phone book through a megaphone? What about someone who sneaks in without paying admission? Or defaces poster displays? Or sits down in the front row, ignoring the signs saying “RESERVED FOR SPEAKERS”?

      We live within limits all the time, is what I’m saying, and I think if you really interrogate this you’ll discover that your principle isn’t that all behavior toward all people is acceptable, always. (If it truly is, I pity your family at Thanksgiving.) What is your line in the sand, really? How does the ALA policy fall afoul of it?


    6. Matt, you have clearly never lived in a world where the edges were as sharp for you.

      You have a right to look for sharp edges. You do not have a right to impose them on others, or insist that others choose them.

      No. Not ever. And if you try to make the edges of my world harder, you will fail.


    7. I have no idea what this comment is trying to say.

      Because it seems to be implying that the librarians that adopted the code of conduct linked to above know nothing about “freedom,” and that codes of conduct for public spaces are inimical to equality.

      Which is huge fucking news to myself and every other librarian I know.

      Codes of conduct are not new to libraries nor to the ALA – although applying them specifically to ALA conferences is new and overdue. Neither is advocating for free speech and equal access a new experience for librarians. So arguing that we – librarians – should dump codes of conduct as a profession in the name of equality and freedom requires a lot more thought and citation to back it up than the comment above contains.


    8. Would just like to add to Jason’s reply (love the Scalzi post! so perfect)… Freedom is fantastic, but within freedom, in a good functioning society there are laws (e.g. do not murder). This is a code of conduct! It’s not a law. The sharp edges will always be there. The world described isn’t small, it is grand! Reminding people not to harass or yell at conferences will let great radical come out – some will stink, but others will be mindblowingly great. It will expand your world, not shrink it!

      And besides, most people in this world live with more limits to their horizons than those of us reading and posting to this blog can imagine. Are their lives really worth less because they are poor, and they struggle to survive and feed their families while we’re sitting at our computers? Put on your big boy pants, and truly expand your horizons.


    9. Mr. Joyce, you have me wondering what difficulties you have overcome in life that compare to the realities Ms. Yelton elucidates. Without such perspective, judging only by what you have written, I read you as a very young man who is hung up on ideology and has little understanding or empathy for the lives most people actually live.


  4. Thanks so much for writing this. Hopefully it will open some eyes.

    I don’t think Andromeda is trying to “shock” anyone here.

    She is simply laying out the stark differences in how men and women are perceived and treated in the tech field.

    If her world is “small”, it’s because other people (in this case, men) have made it so with intimidation, harassment, and so forth. I see a code like this (a code, not a law, by the way) as a way of giving more freedom to those who may be treated badly due to characteristics they cannot help (gender, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, et al).


  5. Andromeda, brava, and thank you.

    Matt, diminishing having one’s home address published along with death threats and pictures of ones children to “FUD” is ridiculous.


  6. Very well put. I cannot think of the Kathy Sierra saga without being profoundly sad that people could treat someone doing something so useful so horribly. The ALA CoC sets a high standard for library conferences, but alas the behaviour you’re decrying arises in male-dominated spheres, of which ALA is not one. As someone who has one foot over in IT-land, good god how I want to figure out how to break up the boys club.


  7. I have to remark on an important sub-text in Andromeda’s post, which is that some people feel the need to limit their professional and social activities based on safety concerns. We rarely talk about the effect that prejudice has on our lives, but it is one of the things that I find most frustrating in my own life — that there are activities I would like to engage in, but cannot, or feel too cautious to pursue, because it does not feel safe. This is what I see as one of the invisible impacts of prejudice because we rarely say WHY we make the decision to not be present.

    Andromeda talks about not attending CES. I have looked around the room at tech conferences and seen one single non-white face, and wondered how that person steeled him or herself to attend. I have also often been the only woman in a room, sometimes without feeling uncomfortable, but not always. However, if this isn’t part of your reality, how could you know?

    I recall chatting many years ago with a gay friend who was looking for an apartment in San Francisco. I suggested an affordable area of town which was near the latino neighborhood. He said “Oh, no. I couldn’t live there. I couldn’t safely walk down the street at 11 o’clock at night” due to anti-gay prejudice. I replied: “John, I can’t safely walk down ANY street in the city at 11 o’clock at night.” He gave me a blank look. Because we don’t talk about the difference in safety between men and women in our world, even though, at least in cities, it is a constant consideration if you are female.

    We no longer live in Victorian times where women could not go anywhere unless chaperoned; where the first women university students in the US were not allowed to enter the library; where women could not hold jobs as librarians once they married. But because these overt prohibitions have been lifted, it’s harder to see the covert limitations on women’s lives. We have statistics that tell us the salary differential between men and women; we know how many women work in tech compared to men; but it’s much harder to get information about the lost opportunities because some groups feel unwelcome or unsafe in a particular environment. We need to make these social issues visible so that we can 1) discuss them and 2) try to find new ways to eliminate these inequalities.

    Just talking about these issues is a great step forward.


    1. Karen, thank you for bringing up race and sexual orientation as other reasons people might feel unsafe in, or excluded from, certain places. The high-profile incidents and discussion are overwhelmingly about sexism, but the language of the statement is not limited to sexism. I am acutely aware that when I look around a libtech room it is often all white, and always (in my experience) mostly so. I know that there are other things I can’t see, or can’t always see, that may be presenting barriers as well. And I don’t like that.


  8. This is a much better articulation than what was published the other day. The ALA blog post focused so much more (in my reading of it) as throwing around the word feminist without much thought as to the war being waged on the internets between feminist, atheists and men’s rights groups…seriously type that into YouTube and watch the soapbox tirades.

    I see a need to set boundaries on what is and is not acceptable behavior while a lot of guys may not. In the tech realm(according to my friends in cs) lots of the men may have no experience working with women, or hold grudges from being shunned in school or whatever( the term does not play well with others tends to be thrown around a lot)…there is a need for people to get beyond being mean to each other and teaching each other about how to treat people because apparently in my 37 years on this earth people have changed the meaning of kindness, integrity and doing what’s right into a person being weak.

    My suggestion would be to have an ongoing dialog with men and women in tech and libraries to build a curriculum to be used in higher learning institutions and the workplace with a goal of shifting the institution/workplace/etc.


    1. If by “ALA blog post” you mean the Library Journal column from yesterday, I write differently for my own blog readers and for the entire readership of LJ, and I write differently when I have as many blog posts as I want of arbitrary length to play with versus one column limited to 900 words 😉 If there’s one I missed, I’d love the link!

      I am always in favor of ongoing dialogue.


  9. Y’know, a benefit of this kind of policy that I haven’t seen mentioned (maybe I missed it) is that it may make bystanders feel safer, too, by offering them some structure for responding to inappropriate behavior they witness. I suck at being an ally — it is really hard to confront people, especially when you aren’t 100% sure a line has been crossed — and having a rough rubric for what is and isn’t okay may stiffen some spines.


  10. Andromeda,

    This post, along with Andy Woodworth’s recent post that made an analogy to library patron codes of conduct (terribly uncontroversial, they are), have increased my understanding and support the ALA statement of conduct. Thanks for all of your work on this.


  11. My husband and I were discussing recently a movie in which an attractive female character smiles at a male character. In light of later events in the movie, it’s possible that the smile either is misinterpreted or that it’s intended to indicate interest on her part. We started discussing the possible interpretations, and Chris said, “If course, it’s so easy to misinterpret a smile.”

    “Yes,” I responded. “Sometimes it’s not safe to smile because of that.”

    He got very still.

    “It’s a subconscious question all the time. Am I safe enough to smile righty now?”

    Absolute stillness.

    He loves me. He looks out for my welfare, cares deeply about my safety, wants all that is best for me. But it is so easy not to see, not to realize. I myself hadn’t really thought about it until that conversation, how much more open and friendly I can be in some contexts than in others, and why. Some of us take for granted things that others of us cannot imagine; we are deep-sea fish living with desert-dwelling mountain goats, and we don’t even know it most of the time. Thanks for pointing out the differences eloquently and gracefully.


    1. Speaking of smiles…

      My default response to awkward situations or when I feel vaguely uncomfortable is to smile and give a nervous “tee hee hee.” I hate that I do it, but I feel so overwhelmed with discomfort (especially with strangers) that I laugh.

      Fortunately no one in a long time has taken that as a come-on (I was too nervous to do anything other than pull away and try to put distance between myself and them when it did happen), but … I forgot where I’m going with this.


    2. Omg yes.
      It’s the same reason I don’t make more than a few seconds of eye contact on a train when I’m riding on my own and have never given a full smile to a stranger on the bus.

      It’s not even that I worry someone will try to see if I’m interested. It’s that so few men/people gracefully accept it and move on when I’m not, and you never know when one of them is going to be dangerous.

      So it does make me more likely to go to some events when I know that if someone does become a problem, I have reliable and spelled-out ways to deal with it.


  12. Your post is spot on. I’ve commented about this on other discussions on this CoC, but its worth repeating here. I see this as a move forward in accountability. Too often this inappropriate behavior is framed with a non-apology of “I’m sorry YOU didn’t think this was funny.” or “I’m sorry that YOU were offended, but…” This puts the onus on the object or victim.

    I see it a lot in academia as well as the corporate world. And these Codes of Conduct, while merely boilerplate, do put the accountability back where it belongs. This is not prevent people from “shocking” the audience. Its about taking ownership and responsibility in what you do.


  13. Andromeda,

    Thank you so much for all your work and tireless effort on the topic. Misogyny stopped me from pursuing a career in library tech and simply taking the leap last year felt like a brave thing. Finding your blog was hitting a goldmine.

    I don’t have anything to add to the discussion besides my own thanks for leading the charge. It gives me someone to look up to on the days I feel most discouraged.


  14. A good post. Most of the decent people do not realize the actual grimness of reality (or the darkness in some idiots’ minds).

    As a misanthrope, I suspect than misogyny is just one aspect of the sad fact that there are too many morons in this world. While it might be difficult to define a good policy for leaving morons entirely without freedom of speech (because it morons are hard to define and even the worst one might say something useful, time to time), they certainly should be discouraged. Keep in mind that they’re unbelievably resourceful anyway, there is no way to count all idiotic and offensive things someone might come up with. We can just ban the most widespread ones. Do what little you can, eh?


  15. Thanks for posting this.

    Like Newt’s husband, a lot of this stuff was invisible to me; I really appreciate every opportunity to be reminded of why fighting this matters.

    For guys who feel similarly, or for guys who tend to dismiss individual posts like this as anecdote, I strongly recommend reading Everyday Sexism and Project Unbreakable.


  16. The objections I had to the Code of Conduct were, first, that it wasn’t run by Council, and second, there’s no enforcement mechanism.

    It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I’m a rabid Dodger fan and have a season ticket. In between the first inning halves, the team announces the “Fan Code of Conduct.” If fans have a problem with people who don’t follow the code, they can call security or their usher – and security is VERY visible. Both the Dodgers’ security staff and LAPD officers are available.

    Of course, the team is dealing with a single venue. ALA meets in many different places. Perhaps those presiding over meetings – and attendees in general – should know who and how to call in case of problems.


    1. I agree that stronger and clearer enforcement would make for a better statement, and I’ve lobbied for that. However, we’re limited by ALA’s staffing realities — the statement cannot commit to more than ALA can budget and train for.

      The statement does involve a section of contact information for various local entities people can contact in case of problems, which is supposed to be updated before every conference – that doesn’t appear to have been done for Philly yet; I’ll check into that.


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