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Arguing for inclusivity

codeofconductA surprising* number** of people*** are upset by the idea of a Code of Conduct/Statement of Appropriate Conduct/Anti-Harassment Policy (which I’ll refer to as “a CoC” or “CoCs” for the rest of the post). And, although I am unequivocally in favor of CoCs and generally frustrated when they are received poorly, still, I sometimes get little flashes of insight into the minds of people who fight against them. And I want to see if I can translate for them, maybe address some of their concerns/arguments. (I am trying to address the tech community, the library community, and the library tech community, here. There’s too much overlap in the arguments to split the post up.)

We’ll start with the most important objection, that a CoC won’t change anything. That’s provably wrong. CoCs absolutely do work; if they are “strong, specific, [and] enforced,” they increase diversity measurably. But, sure, if they’re not enforced, they don’t do anything long-term.

The next most common objection, at least in ALA’s case, is “It’s imperfect.” Sure, agreed. I worry that it lacks teeth, myself, but is it better than nothing? Yes. Yes, it is. The lawyers are OK with it; the Executive Board is OK with it; roll tape, and let’s see how it works in action! We can improve it iteratively over time.

It seems like some people are insulted at the idea of being told how to behave, as if they don’t already know. But numbers and anecdotes show that, on average, people at tech events don’t know how to (or don’t choose to?) behave inclusively; if tech were inclusive, women wouldn’t leave STEM at such high rates, and there wouldn’t be this huge timeline of sexist incidents in the tech community. As for libraries, we have no formal timeline, though now I kind of want to make one, to help respond to suggestions that “we don’t have this problem.” We do. Several of the participants in this Storify allude to incidents. Several library bloggers have told their harassment stories. It’s definitely an issue in our community. We obviously need to be told how to behave.

Diversity-AwarenessMutual-Respect-300x214Some people think a list of protected classes, or an example list of appropriate/inappropriate behaviors is too restrictive/not restrictive enough. I’ve already addressed this, at some length, so I won’t repeat it all here. Short version: people are not mentally fair/inclusive, and our assumption that we are is damaging; you have to include lists and examples, so that people expand their mental conceptions of “everybody” and “behaving appropriately.” If “don’t be a jerk” were enough of a rule, we wouldn’t need rules, and, again, the data shows that we do.

Some people seem to be afraid that people will accuse other people unjustly of CoC violations. I suppose that’s possible, but it really bothers me that that worry takes precedence over worry for people who have (or will have) actually been harassed and who had (or will have) no recourse, if not for a CoC. I don’t know if I can convey the feeling of powerlessness that comes from being harassed, or even from unintentional neglect/mistreatment due to (for instance) gender or disability, or from comments people might make about a group they don’t know you’re a member of; I hope that even if you haven’t had these experiences, you will at least believe me that the perceived lack of power in those situations can be completely stifling. When I’ve experienced these kinds of mistreatment, even though there was usually no direct physical threat, I have nonetheless felt very unsafe, totally out on a limb, and completely alone. Looking back, some of my biggest regrets are my failures to respond to those situations, but it is so difficult. Something about having a CoC really helps, because it’s a public, visible statement that the whole organization has your back, and it’s OK to respond, either directly, or by asking for help from someone attached to the event/organization. I don’t know if I can impress upon you how important that is. Or how disgusted I get when someone tries to derail a CoC with the hypothetical scenario of someone abusing it, when so many of us have dealt with real abuse. (And I should say, I count myself lucky, given how mild my stories are, by comparison.)

rulesA similar thread is the complaint that the organization doesn’t want us to have fun. It’s mostly only similar because I often find myself too angry to be coherent. What part of making other people feel miserable and unsafe is fun for you, exactly? … But I realize that’s not what people are saying. I mean, look, I can empathize a bit with the knee-jerk reaction. I feel weird admitting this here, but I like dirty jokes—especially bad pick-up lines—and some part of me doesn’t like being told I can’t tell them, because they’re fun. But they aren’t fun in a context-free way: if I stop and think about it, I remember that they’re really only fun among friends, when I’m/they’re comfortable. There’s very little creepier/more uncomfortable than someone who isn’t close enough to get away with it telling a dirty joke, right? So, like most people, I instinctively modify my behavior based on my environment. A CoC telling me “Don’t be creepy” might trigger an itty-bitty little mini-libertarian “Don’t tell me what to do” for a split second, but then I remember that it’s just asking me to do a context switch I was already going to do. If you’re not in that boat—if the context switch from “people I know, who know me, and we’re all in our comfort zones” to “a bunch of colleagues and strangers, and we’re being professional” isn’t something you do—then you are part of the reason we need CoCs. (And, yeah, it’s worth stating that, like most people at conferences/events, I have lots of colleague-friends, and there might be little motes of “everyone in earshot is in their comfort zone,” and of course this all happens on a continuum. That’s why there’s some flexibility to CoCs, and if you mess up, there’s room for someone to say “I’m uncomfortable with that” and for you to say “I’m sorry, I misjudged,” and everyone can move on.)

That’s worth emphasis: CoCs are not designed to be so rigid and draconian that a CoC violation—especially an accidental one!—absolutely must result in immediate expulsion from the event. In the case of a slip-up, an accidental oversight, etc., there’s pretty much always room for “Hey, could you apologize?” “Sure. I’m sorry.” “Great, let’s all enjoy the rest of the event!”

On a related note, some people want to see the penalties really clearly spelled out, in a CoC, but in practice that’s inadvisable. Event staff need guidance from a CoC (or existing policy, in the case of ALA), but they also need flexibility to respond to an issue appropriately. If someone screwed up really badly, but they acknowledged it and apologized, and their victim(s)—I use the term with some hesitation—aren’t upset, that’s a different situation than the same screw up, with distraught victim(s) and an unapologetic perpetrator. Even our justice system allows leeway; why wouldn’t a CoC?

brogrammersI think there’s also a perception that “things are fine the way they are” and a resistance to change. I don’t want to accuse anyone of this directly, but it’s conceivable, hypothetically, that someone might look at the stories of harassment and say “So what? Toughen up, or get out of tech/libraries. We’re fine without you.” I’ve also heard people use the term “special treatment,” or “reverse discrimination,” when referring to efforts to increase participation of women, minorities, the differently abled, etc. And while I’m not certain there’s a way to get someone who feels that way to a place with common ground, I still feel compelled to try.

I haven’t finished this little research project, but here’s what I (and some friends) have pulled together so far, as evidence that increasing diversity is worthwhile (primarily for software/tech, but some of this follows logically into other realms):

Yes, for the record, I think social justice reasons should be enough. I think everyone should be able to do whatever they want to do, attend whatever events they want, and just generally live fearlessly. I also think some people are selfish and will defend the status quo, unless you give them data proving that what you’re proposing will benefit them. In the case of our local hackathons, “it’s the right thing to do” didn’t convince them (or, rather, didn’t stick when the women were out of the room), but I remain hopeful that the argument “we will make better software, which will impress people more and do more to drive the local tech sector” will do the trick.

Previous paragraph notwithstanding, I truly don’t think there’s malice in it, when most people react poorly to CoCs. I think there’s some fear—of change, of losing some aspects they like about events as they are, of the CoC being poorly executed in some way—and while those fears can and should be addressed, I think it’s usually going to work better to share information about mistreatment of women and minorities in tech, to work on people’s sense of right and wrong, and focus on the benefits of CoCs and of increased diversity.


*A few of my esteemed colleagues on ALA Council totally blew up about the Statement of Appropriate Conduct at ALA Conferences, accusing its creators (of which I was one) of everything from lack of transparency to violating the ALA Constitution, none of which was true, but they were angry, and it’s died down, so I won’t harp on it. And the Code4Lib mailing list had a couple of, uh, gentlemen who disapproved of the list of attributes that qualify one for the diversity scholarship. Although I missed it in realtime, I just read through that whole thread a couple of minutes ago, to kind of help get myself into the headspace to write this post.

**I didn’t make it through the whole thread, but ALA Think Tank seems largely unimpressed by the existence of the aforementioned Statement, too. I missed that one in realtime, as well; I feel more and more like an outsider to that community, so I find myself checking into it less and less often.

***Locally, there is a ridiculous amount of resistance, coming from a primarily straight cisgender able-bodied white male group of people, to adoption of a CoC for our hackathons. They have raised the specter of “liability,” as if there were no liability without a CoC, which is a specious argument. They said they’d partner with a nonprofit, if someone created one, and that nonprofit could be responsible for the CoC. Anyway … eh, lots of local politics. We’ll see how it all turns out.

Published in#ALACoC#libtechgenderalaskacodes of conductconferencesdiversitygenderlibrarianshipsocial justicetechnology


  1. Debi

    I first heard about the CoC on ALATT and found what was shared about it fairly positive. Most of what I noticed were comments from the people who actually worked on it, explaining the process.

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