Codes of conduct aren’t enough

I am procrastinating on writing a draft code of conduct for a certain library conference (with the board’s permission and with at least two other people’s help) while I work through some feelings I have about codes of conduct, in general, and about the limitations that have been put on this code, specifically. I’ll do this as two posts, in fairly quick succession.

A recent bad experience got me thinking – Codes of conduct probably aren’t enough.

Until very recently I was on the organizing committee for the twice-annual Alaska Hackathon. We’ve had as many as three women on the committee, in the past, plus a person of color, so you’d think getting a code of conduct in place would have been painless.

It wasn’t. But it did happen! And it wasn’t a bad code of conduct, as they go—we based it heavily on PyCon’s, which is in turn based heavily on the gold standard for codes of conduct.

But you know what? It wasn’t enough.

At our most recent event I let myself get trapped in an argument about the treatment of women, with a wilfully ignorant man. (New one for the BINGO card: “Men are harassed worse than women. I was in a fraternity, so I know.”) As we talked, an ever-increasing portion of the room got quiet, listening. It probably felt to him like an academic conversation; the man who was sitting beside him later told me he thought that’s what it was. But I was frustrated; he was denying the validity of my and others’ experiences; and I very quickly realized that this guy was looking to win, not to listen or learn.

And, you know, if we’d been in a small group or one-on-one, I probably could have won, too—I’m bad at pulling out citations in the heat of the moment, but I’m increasingly fluent with the geek feminist literature, so maybe. But so many people were listening—almost all of them men [very few of whom were known allies], none of them speaking up to help me. I felt flustered, exposed, judged, and angry, none of which makes for a clear head. (I IMed a male ally for help, but he didn’t see the message.) Eventually, I told the guy “Go read about the Petrie Multiplier, and then I’ll talk to you,” but, realizing I had an escape while he was distracted, I excused myself to go to the restroom, and when I came back I deliberately didn’t re-engage.

While I was gone, he said, to a friend/ally of mine who was sitting at our table, “We’ll just let her think she won,” and my friend set him straight—or at least let him know he was too ignorant to be worth my time to educate. He apparently did it loudly enough that hopefully the listeners-in would catch it, too.

None of this was technically harassment, though, was it?

Where it probably crossed the line into harassment was after I returned to the table, and the guy spent the rest of the weekend looking incredibly smug every time I met his eyes. It was right on the border of leering. He felt that he had won, had proven me wrong, or whatever; he felt that he was smarter than I was. (This isn’t necessarily a gendered thing; this guy thinks he’s smarter than everyone in the room. When I relayed the story to the organizing committee, later, nobody was surprised.) It is possible that this behavior was somehow covered by the Code of Conduct, where the “discussion” was not. But, honestly, I was too embarrassed to try invoking the CoC. One known ally had already talked to the guy, to no avail, and the other was my husband—I wasn’t about to get into a situation where it looked like I had to hide behind him.

(Just let this sink in, if you will: I helped put together this event. I was “on staff”—I had a hat that said I was in a position of authority, able to enforce the Code of Conduct. And I felt powerless.)

I realize, this probably sounds stupid to people who haven’t been in an analogous situation—wasting brain cycles on the awareness that you’re surrounded by people who don’t look like you, caught in a bad situation that you feel like you should have seen coming and stopped, feeling like everyone’s watching you, and nobody’s helping. I mean, I realize that the whole incident boils down to “We had a kind of antagonistic conversation, and then he looked at me.” It was, thankfully, really minor, though it’s had the unintended side effect of locking me out of other tech events until I can stand to be in the same room with this awful man again.

What code of conduct is going to prevent this kind of thing?

Probably, it’s not fixable with rules.

I asked that the organizing committee add the Hacker School rules (at least the one about no discussions of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. – though the HS rules are all beautiful things and should probably all be applied to every tech environment ever </fangirl>). I asked for that because I feel like, if I or one of the allies in the room had had a rule to point to, the whole thing could have been nipped in the bud early. “Hey, this discussion is against the rules. It needs to stop.”

But you can’t make an explicit rule for everything. “Don’t sneer,” “Don’t stare,” “Don’t raise your eyebrows in disbelief when someone talks”—I mean, how far can you go?

I’m not arguing against codes of conduct, here. I’m just saying, a code of conduct isn’t enough; it’s a good first step, but you can’t adopt one (even a good one) and then pat yourself on the back that your community is safe and welcoming and beautiful. If we want our communities and events to be safe and welcoming, we need to build a culture of mutual support, of standing up for one another and not letting anyone be mistreated or made to feel uncomfortable for being who they are. We need people who are male, cisgender, white, straight, able-bodied, or what-have-you to have some empathy for people who are playing on a higher difficulty setting. We need to, all of us, commit to stepping up and helping.

It has to be community-wide. The top of the organization can lead and set precedent, but if there isn’t a strong core of the community working on this, then it is not truly an inclusive community.

I agree with Andromeda Yelton that we need to be actively hospitable. We shouldn’t let people feel like outsiders. Some of that is being friendly to new people and finding connections between existing groups, but I also think—and I suspect Andromeda would agree—that, additionally, we must actively look for potential sources of discomfort and try to help fix them, both proactively and reactively.

About Coral Sheldon-Hess

Python dev, librarian, engineer, feminist, maker, bird nerd
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