#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.

The ALA Statement of Appropriate Conduct: a FAQ

If you’re here from Library Journal, welcome!

For regular readers, I have an article in today’s Library Journal about ALA’s new statement of appropriate conduct for conferences. It covers the history and context behind this sort of statement as well as why it’s valuable. Go have a read.

Now that you’re back: I get a lot of questions about the statement. I’d like to answer some of them here, and invite you to ask other questions you might have in the comments. A disclaimer first, though — here are some things I am not:

  • ALA’s lawyer
  • a lawyer at all
  • an ALA staffer
  • an HR expert
  • possessed of the sole or definitive interpretation of the statement

Just so we’re clear on that. I was involved with drafting the statement and I am somewhat familiar with other conferences’ policies and some of the incidents that have motivated or been addressed by them, but I am not the final word on this, and I encourage you to do your own research and analysis. I think the statement is most valuable when it serves as a beginning – a point of departure for us to have conversations about who does and doesn’t feel included in ALA and why and what we can do about that, how our backgrounds and experiences differ and what we can learn from that. How to, in the statement’s words, exercise our “shared responsibility to create and hold [the conference] environment” we want to have. So let’s talk.

And now, some questions!

What happened to impel people to adopt this statement?

The statement was not prompted by any incident of harassment at an ALA conference.

There have been a lot of incidents of harassment in the worlds of technology, science fiction, open culture, gaming, etc., and in response to those, conferences in those worlds have increasingly been adopting statements of this type (usually called codes of conduct or anti-harassment policies). Quite a few librarians who are also involved in those worlds have asked me and others over the past year whether ALA has such a policy; the statement is in response to this interest, and in advance of future need (though of course I hope it will never be needed!).

This does not mean that there has never been harassment at ALA or other library conferences. I had heard of some incidents of sexual harassment in the past (although Sarah Houghton is the only person I know of who has blogged about them). (Edit: I’m wrong; Lisa Rabey has blogged about this, too. Which I knew and should have remembered; I apologize for the oversight.) In the course of drafting this policy, I have heard about more incidents, rooted in race and gender identity/expression as well as sex. (Please note that the language of the statement, following existing ALA language on anti-discrimination, is not just about sexual harassment but specifically names a variety of groups which might be targets of hate speech or discrimination.) Some of these incidents were addressed quietly by conference services; some of these were unaddressed and unreported.

This, to me, is one of the most important aspects of the statement. If people are being harassed, let’s make sure they know they have recourse. And let’s talk about it. Let’s not quietly assume that conferences are good places for everyone when they’re not.

Isn’t this an attack on free speech?

I have lots of feelings on this, but the short version is, “no; the opposite, actually”.

One: I do think there are valid intellectual freedom concerns, particularly since it’s impossible for a statement of this type to delineate permitted and forbidden conduct with absolute clarity. (I invite you to try sometime; it’s hard! We argued a lot about this in the drafting. Any bright-line rule you state will have situations where it is unambiguously wrong, and any attempt to be comprehensive will fail. A policy can do no more than state principles and provide guidance. That said, I do wish the statement had clearer language on the process of investigation and resolution, how far the discretion of conference services goes; I think due process safeguards are especially important when you can’t state absolute rules.)

Two: The statement is fundamentally about being a socially competent human being. There are lots of things that you and I think but don’t say, all the time, because we recognize that they would be inappropriate for the context we’re in. This isn’t an imposition on free speech; it’s a recognition that we live in contexts with other people, that our words affect them, and that it’s incumbent upon us to speak in ways that treat others with dignity and promote the kind of world we’d like to live in.

Three: I believe a statement of this type, on balance, promotes free speech.

Yes, it may discourage some people from saying some things of particular types.

But it also articulates, to everyone who might have felt marginalized or disenfranchised in this context, that their perspectives are welcome. It encourages whole classes of people to attend and to participate.

I had been active in code4lib for perhaps a year before they adopted their anti-harassment policy. And I did not realize until that point that I had spent the whole time looking over my shoulder waiting for the attack to come. Being a woman in tech is sufficiently dangerous that mere consistent decent behavior by the overwhelming majority of my colleagues was not enough to dispel the feelings of threat; I needed to actually see these values articulated and see prominent members of the community (including men) rise in defense of them. Now I feel like I’m not just someone who hangs out in code4lib – I’m a code4libber, and my voice matters as much as anyone’s.

I’ve never feel threatened at ALA, but I know that not all my colleagues feel comfortable there. And I am guessing there are many more people whose voices we never even hear. They matter to me, and I’d like to hear them.

Four: If you’ve never had a problem at a conference and you’ve never heard of people having a problem, I imagine this feels like it makes things worse: everything was fine, and now there are limits that there weren’t formerly.

But that is a big if. If you’ve previously experienced conferences as unsafe or unwelcoming — if your starting point is not “everything’s okay” — then an explicit statement that you are welcome and that you have recourse if threatened makes things better.

If you are feeling like the only implications of this are negative, I encourage you to seek out people who feel differently, and to listen generously to their experiences.

Does this mean ALA is now a nanny state?


ALA has neither the staffing nor the inclination to run around policing everything you say.

Does the statement allow for [action]?

Remember, I am not the definitive interpreter of ALA policy. I think if you’re wondering if [action] is legitimate, you should talk to the actual audience for that action. How do they react? Are they laughing at your funny joke, or laughing in that nervous way that people do when they don’t want to admit they’re uncomfortable? Do they say go for it, or call you out for proposing something dumb or tone-deaf? Do they seem okay with it except then you realize over time your audience has become more and more homogeneous because everyone unlike you is drifting away? Do they say, ohmygosh that rad, or, you know, I’m not okay with this because…

Me personally, I’ve rolled with it as a Battledecks speaker when an underwear slide came up (and I was damn funny, too). And I’ve been at a dinner with remarkably copious bourbon flights where one of my companions had to leave early to go to a burlesque show featuring bedazzled junk. And while I’m at it I can’t make social plans locally in late August because all my friends are at Burning Man. So me, personally? I am probably okay with anything you want to do, as long as the people with you are okay with it too.

So talk to them. Ask. And if you’re in public space and just anyone might wander by and so you can’t ask? Well. Think.

The statement has [problem].

It may well! I don’t think it’s perfect, and I doubt anyone involved in drafting or adopting it does, either.

I’m a startup technologist. I believe in getting the minimum viable product out there quickly. You can spend all the time you want adding and polishing bells and whistles, but fundamentally you don’t know what’s going to work until you put it out there in front of people and see how they react. So you make your MVP. And you see how it goes, and you iterate.

Here you go. That’s the google doc that was used to draft this thing; you can see the entire process. Anyone with the link (that means you!) can comment.

There are also traditional venues available to you, like ALA Council, or its executive board or conference services committee. (Remember, all ALA meetings are open.) So talk! (And don’t forget that ALA staff have to be able to actually implement the policy.)

#libtechgender: the dangers of a single story

Let me tell you some stories.

One of my favorite TED talks is this, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The danger of a single story”:

“The discovery of African literature saved me from having a single story of what books were,” she said — a single story that could be gripping and wonderfully written, that inspired her to be a writer, but also made it unthinkable that girls who looked like her and lived like her could exist in stories. (But watch the whole thing.)

One of the stories I’m following today is Andy Woodworth’s airing of grievances about where we should stop wasting our energies in libraryland, and Cecily Walker’s (excellent) follow-up post on intersectionality and the librarian image — quite rightly calling Andy to task for using language that implies librarians come from a single story, and therefore have a burden of proof on ourselves to prove competence when we depart from that story.

We are not, of course, one story. We are many stories, overlapping and crisscrossing through “librarianship”, but pulling a million threads in along the way, and pulling the threads of librarianship out into many places. Nor is stepping outside the expectations of a single story always a choice. I can’t choose to stay inside the dominant story of tech by being male; Cecily can’t choose to stay inside the dominant story of librarianship by being white. We never stepped outside. We just are.

Another of the stories I’ve been following (part of) for longer has been that of conference codes of conduct. In talking about them with ALA leadership these last six months I’ve found that the stories evoked by the term “code of conduct” vary quite a bit depending on the listener’s background. Those of us whose threads include the broader world of technology have a particular set of (deeply held, terribly important) stories we bring to the table, a context that people from other worlds lack and may find surprising; sometimes they have their own stories (often, in turn, surprising to me).

ALA is committed to telling the code of conduct story more widely, and hence has asked me to moderate a panel on #libtechgender issues. I’m still finalizing the panelists (not least pulling strings in hope that Cecily can be one of them) — but it’ll be Saturday at 4:30 in the convention center, room 201C.

One of my guiding principles in constructing this panel has been that talk above, the dangers of a single story. It would be so, so easy for me to assemble a libtechgender panel which gave the impression that there is only one story of gender in library technology, and it is the story of white, cis, straight, thirtysomething (-appearing) women (such as myself). So easy.

And I would turn down the request to moderate sooner than I would run such a panel. Because libtechgender is not a single story; it is many stories, overlapping and diverging and sometimes in conflict. I cannot conceivably fit all those stories in a panel of reasonable size or in an hour. I’m already struggling to hold all the moving parts together. I’m already frustrated that the whiter, straighter, cis-er, and thirtysomething-er my prospective panelists are, the more likely they are to say yes — to have availability, funding and release time or the ability at least to manufacture it (or, alternatively, less competition for their time from the million other people who would also like to hear their stories at a conference). But we can and will scratch the surface of more than one story. We’ll be messy and provocative and leave unresolved threads so you can repair to a bar (or blogosphere) and argue afterward. And we, and you, I hope, will resolutely take all those stories seriously — to recognize that even if they conflict with our own experiences or assumptions they ring true for someone — and to ask, what would the world look like if I took it to be this way? What would that imply about everything else?

Saturday, 4:30, convention center, 201C (scheduler link). I hope to see you there.

The new ALA Code of Conduct

I’ve mentioned on Twitter, but this should be formally announced on the blog as well: ALA now has a conference code of conduct.

how it happened

The policy grew out of face-to-face and Twitter conversations a few months ago, with a highly collaborative (and fruitfully argumentative) Google doc draft that wound its way through ALA process – Counsel, the executive board, et cetera – to become a final statement.

It seems I’ve been identified as The Person To Talk To About This — and I am more than willing to talk to anyone about it! — but I want to clarify for the record that I was only one of many people involved in turning this idea into reality. Other people brought more urgency to starting the process, more draft language to the Google doc, and more knowledge of ALA process to bear. I want to make sure they are recognized here.

The Ada Initiative and Geek Feminism provided invaluable starting points, in terms of both sample policies to work from, and explanations of what these policies are and why they matter.

The following people contributed to the Google doc:

Aaron Dobbs, Bess Sadler, Chris Bourg, Chris Martin, Cindi Trainor Blyberg, Coral Sheldon-Hess, Courtney Young, Jason Griffey, Jenny Levine, John Jackson, Karen Schneider, Lauren Pressley, Lea Susan Engle, Lisa Rabey, Mary Ghikas, Matthew Ciszek, Melia Erin Fritch White, Tyler Dzuba.

I’m sure there were others who contributed to the conversation, but whose names I did not keep a record of or (particularly in the case of ALA staffers) never knew, and I apologize for the omission.

Above and beyond, though, Mary Ghikas, ALA’s Senior Associate Executive Director, deserves credit, for working with ALA’s lawyer to make this a document that the organization can sign off on, for understanding the realities of its staffing and staff training enough to make this a document we can implement, and for herding all the cats necessary for final approval.

Thank you, everyone.

what I learned

Like I said, I’ve been The Person To Talk To About This.

It took me a while to get comfortable with this role, and I’m still not, 100%. Mary Ghikas did a huge amount of the heavy lifting. Others wrote most of the words, or were first to insist we had to do this thing. Me? I…stuck around to the end, mostly. And translated.

The translation comes pretty naturally; I’ve been at the intersecting edges of enough groups that I like the challenge of reframing one set of cultural constructs in a way that makes sense in another context. And there was a lot of that, and I expect will be more. Code of Conduct discussions come out of the technology world, where the discourse about gender is often very different than it is in libraries, and where there have been numerous recent high-profile incidents of conference harassment. I found along the way that this context is wholly unfamiliar to many librarians with nontechnical backgrounds, so there has been, and I expect will be, a process of explaining. Ongoing and challenging and fun.

But sticking around to the end, man. That doesn’t come naturally to me at all. I like the first 80% of anything, the shiny part full of ideas and possibility. The bit I can do in a couple days of enthusiasm-fueled focus. The bit that doesn’t require me to make to-do lists and keep track of stuff.

And my role in this process? A whole lot of it was exactly that: putting items on a list, with deadlines. Emailing people. Checking in to see if the doc had been edited and the comments resolved. Asking about status. Making sure that (as I’m doing right now) the result gets publicized.

And it…seems like so little. Nothing that takes special talent or insight. None of those amazing leaderly gifts people dream of having. Just an act of will.

And yet, someone’s got to be there at the end. Or you don’t get to have ends.

This is going to work its way through my skull for a while, being quietly, profoundly transformative.

but why? stories and values

But, why do we need this, several people have asked. Are things like this a problem at ALA conferences? We don’t have high-profile incidents, like they do in tech.

Well. Part of being The Person To Talk To About This is becoming a keeper of stories. People don’t just ask about policy; they tell you things in whispers. That time in a bar. That thing that happened and they didn’t know what to do at the time, or what to do after.

No, we haven’t had outlandishly-troglodyte incidents that convulse the internet for a week, and we have very few people willing to speak publicly about the things that have happened, but that doesn’t mean we’re without problems.

But even if we were, this would be worth doing. Because it’s better to have and not to need than to need and not to have. Because anyone — anyone — who feels threatened at ALA, at this place that is my community and my second home and my metamorphosis, should have a place to turn. No one should ever be harassed and feel alone. No one should ever wonder whether ALA will help.

A conference anti-harassment policy is a mechanism for investigating and resolving disputes, but it is also a statement of values. A signal to everyone of who we are.

ALA seeks to provide a conference environment in which diverse participants may learn, network and enjoy the company of colleagues in an environment of mutual human respect. We recognize a shared
responsibility to create and hold that environment for the benefit of all

I want my association to publicly state that it values being a safe space for everyone. I’m glad that it has.