Geek Feminism Wiki

About this document[]

This is a list of resources for conference organizers considering adopting an anti-harassment policy for their conference. The example policy itself is located here:

Conference anti-harassment/Policy

Why have an anti-harassment policy?[]

You want to put on a professional, friendly, reputable conference. You go to great lengths to make sure everyone has a good experience at your conference and wants to come back next year. Then some jerk gives a talk with pornographic slides, or gropes several women, or makes bigoted comments. You were too shocked to do anything about it at the time, and now your conference is all over the blogosphere as "the conference where that guy showed porn."

Unfortunately, this isn't a hypothetical situation. Plenty of other conferences have run into this kind of problem before. Some examples:

For a longer list:

Timeline of sexist incidents in geek communities

Whether we like it or not, open source and geek conferences do not currently have a good record for professional, friendly behavior, especially towards women.

In order to get most of the benefits of your anti-harassment policy, it needs be public and specific (read more here).

For a well-written explanation of how anti-harassment policies benefit both event organizers and sponsors, read:

Jesse Noller on why the PSF requires a code of conduct

But I shouldn't have to do this![]

Giving explicit directions to your speakers and participants about unacceptable behavior at a conference may seem unnecessary or insulting - and depending on the size of your conference and your speaker selection and admission process, it may be unnecessary. However, past experience shows that some people do need acceptable and unacceptable behavior spelled out precisely. Some people, including some of those who find basic social interaction stressful, may welcome a concrete list of unacceptable behaviors so they can be more confident that they will not accidentally violate an unwritten rule. Another factor is that some people see conferences as an opportunity to "cut loose" and behave badly because they are away from home and their normal social circle. If you think it's obvious that you shouldn't harass people at a conference, then you are not the person the policy is written for.

Keep in mind that conference participants come from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, and that computing tends to have more people with less in-person social experience. So, use your judgment on the level of detail needed for your conference, but err on the side of giving your conference participants the information they need to succeed. Nobody wants to be harassed at a conference, and nobody wants to get kicked out of a conference either - help all of your participants have a good time.

For more on the philosophy and theory behind anti-harassment policies, see Stephanie Zvan's My "Theory" of Codes of Conduct.

Adopting an anti-harassment policy[]

If you are a conference organizer, congratulations and thanks for your hard work! We hope this policy can be easily customized for your conference. If not, here are some links to other resources for developing an anti-harassment policy:

Most conferences organizers will need to make some changes to the policy to suit their specific situation and we encourage customization and modification of this policy. If your conference has an anti-harassment policy, please edit the wiki to add a link to your conference.

If you attend a conference with no obvious anti-harassment policy, you can send email to the organizers asking about their anti-harassment policy and suggesting this or another policy as a model.

Who has already adopted an anti-harassment policy?[]

See Conference anti-harassment/Adoption for conferences that have adopted this or a similar policy.

Advocating for a policy[]

If you would like conferences you attend or are considering attending to adopt a policy, see the guide to actions you can take to support a policy.

Informing organizers and participants of the policy[]

Once you have adopted an anti-harassment policy, you should let people know about it. Here are some things you can do:

  1. Post the text on your event's web site.
  2. Link to the posted text from your CFP.
  3. Email the full text of the policy to all speakers who submit, and again when they're accepted.
  4. Publish it in your program materials - after the table of contents in your session handbook, for instance.
  5. Include it in the opening announcements for the conference.
  6. Print the text on a poster and hang it by the registration desk.

Some conferences have specific instructions for speakers. Please add links to your conference's speaker policy if it has one.

This example policy includes different versions of the policy suitable for each of these uses.

Preparing to enforce the policy[]

Hopefully, you won't have to enforce the anti-harassment policy. But if you do, a little preparation will make things go more smoothly.

Before the conference[]

Educate conference staff[]

The first step in enforcing the policy is to educate the conference staff. If possible, have an in-person meeting to talk about how to handle incidents quickly and correctly. You might consider some quick role-playing. It is surprisingly difficult to react quickly to unexpected situations in real time, so practice helps!

Establish your escalation procedure:

  • Pick a few expert responders (see the duty officer guide for one way to structure this) to refer reports to, people who are already somewhat familiar with the issues of how harassment affects victims and makes reporting difficult.
  • Every staff member should know who holds the responsibility and power to deal with reports. Train other conference staff to respond by:
    • Immediately an expert responder involved as soon as possible (take them to meet in person, or forward the email or tweet and then call or find them in person)
    • Assuring the reporter the conference takes their report very seriously.
    • If it's in person and you can't get an expert immediately, listen to the reporter without or criticizing or questioning their truthfulness.

It's probably not worth spending a lot of time debating the exact details of how the anti-harassment policy will be enforced in worst-case scenarios. Review responding to reports for an overview of a suggested response pattern.

Allow attendees to be allies[]

In addition to the in-person meetings for conference staff, make sure attendees who want to be allies to your effort have resources they can use as well. On your conference site or blog - perhaps linked-to from your policy - put step-by-step notes on how people can deal with a situation they feel uncomfortable with. These aren't meant to be instructions that they need to follow, but oftentimes people will reach for the safety of a "known-to-work" script when they're in uncomfortable situations that are new to them, and this will give them the option of knowing they'll have something appropriate and concrete to say should the situation arise.

Also blog/post the escalation policy you have for offenders, so people know what will happen should an incident occur. By minimizing the uncertainty of the situational possibility, you may also make people feel safer in speaking up.

If you have samples of such posts or escalation policies, please post them here.

During the conference[]

Make your reporting mechanism clear[]

You have to learn that harassment has happened before you can do anything about it, so make reporting harassment easy and straightforward. Start with publishing contact information for the conference organizers on the conference web site and conference program. Try to have a staff member present as an obvious face-to-face point of contact at conference events (keynotes, busy hallways, talks, social events, expo floor, major parties, etc.). If you don't have enough conference staff, consider recruiting knowledgable volunteers to help. Make sure the conference staff is easy to recognize - special t-shirts, badges, headsets, etc.

Record reports[]

One of the problems experienced by past conferences is that a single participant will harass multiple people, but no one person connects all the incidents until it's too late to do anything about it. If possible, have a single point of contact to take reports of all incidents, working out rotating duty schedules, hand-offs, etc. as necessary. The role of duty officer (explained here) may be useful. At minimum, have some way of notifying all concerned conference staff about incidents as they happen - e.g., the organizers' mailing list, a list of cell phone numbers to text or pre-created group text message service, or a private wiki.

After the conference[]

Enforce incidents reported after the event[]

If there is behavior reported that violates the conference's stated anti-harassment policy that is not able to be enforced during the conference itself, these reports should still be addressed according to the policy. Enforcement should be consistent: unacceptable behavior from a well-liked keynote speaker should be treated consistently with the same unacceptable behavior from an otherwise unknown attendee. The submission of a report should never result in retaliation against the person who filed that report. In the event of a conflict of interest among the people charged with enforcing the anti-harassment policy, those people should disclose that this conflict exists, and take guidance on whether they should recuse themselves from the proceedings.

Institutional memory[]

If a person's behavior warranted consequences that extend to the next conference or beyond (not allowed to present next year, not allowed to return next year, et cetera), this information should be recorded and retained for the next conference, or passed along to the organizers of the next conference, if there is a change in conference leadership. Consider developing a data retention policy that governs what information should be kept, how long it should be kept, and who has access to it.

Deciding when to allow harassers to stay or return[]

A harasser will often want to stay at the conference or return next year. Stephanie Zvan lays out the issues involved, including two simple criteria, in this blog post. The two main factors she considers are:

  • Do you reasonably think the harasser will continue to violate your code of conduct?
  • Will your guests reasonably feel safe if the harassers remains or returns?

Responding to harassment reports[]

See Conference anti-harassment/Responding to reports

Common concerns about adoption[]

When discussing the adoption of a conference anti-harassment policy, some concerns come up frequently. Here are some resources relating to common concerns.

See also:

Legal issues[]

Obviously, a document you found on the Internet is no substitute for professional legal advice. However, one tactic used to block adoption of an anti-harassment policy is pseudo-legalistic FUD, suggesting that adoption of and enforcement of such a policy is against the law or will result in legal punishments for the organizers. In most cases, these concerns are unfounded, come from people who are not legal experts, and are motivated primarily by a desire to silence people speaking out against harassment. Read what actual lawyers (U.S. in this case) have to say in this article.

Reporting to Authorities[]

Some have suggested that sexual harassment and assault is illegal and we already have laws to deal with it. When it happens, it should be reported to the appropriate authorities. This is not always tenable. This excellent blog outlines some of the reasons why: "Why didn't you call the police"

Free speech & presumption of innocence[]

A conference is a private event, and in most jurisdictions, the organizers have the absolute right to admit or deny entrance to anyone for any reason they want. In most jurisdictions, including the U.S., individuals do not have a legally protected right to speech in private venues.

Wikipedia page on free speech in the U.S. "When considering private authority figures (such as parents or an employer), the First Amendment provides no protection. A private authority figure may reserve the right to censor their subordinate's speech, or discriminate on the basis of speech, without any legal consequences."

Wikipedia page on free speech by country

It's helpful to set up an internal decision-making process in advance so you don't have to figure it out on the fly, but that process is entirely up to the discretion of the organizers. It's your party, don't be shy about stopping one person from ruining it for everyone else.

Libel and defamation[]

Libel and defamation usually only comes into play if the conference organizers make a public statement naming a specific person. Simply warning or expelling a person from a conference is not an act of defamation by itself. For more information, see the Wikipedia entry on defamation and look for the section specific to your country.

False reports[]

False reports of sexual assault are far less common than non-reporting of sexual assaults (for example, see RAINN's statistics on rape reporting). In other words, your conference is more likely to have harassment that goes unreported than it is to have false reports of harassment. Extreme concern about false reports is often a form of silencing or shaming of victims and can have a chilling effect on reporting of actual harassment incidents. One simple way to address concerns about false reports is to treat false reports as harassment themselves. A policy to "believe" every report of harassment does not cover the possibility of false reports, while a policy to "take seriously, investigate, and take appropriate action" does.

Taking Sides[]

If a conference organiser gets a report that someone at the conference is harassing delegates, then the organisers have a decision to make: they have to balance the risk that more conference attendees will be harassed and that they will be seen to be allowing it; versus the risk that someone could be inconvenienced by being asked to leave the conference. That decision is not about taking sides: it's about the organisers' responsibility to the people at their conference.

Definition of conference-related events[]

Where and when should the conference anti-harassment policy apply? One suggestion: If in telling the story of what happened, you start with "I was at $CONFERENCE and..." then this policy should apply. The hallway track is often the most important part of a conference, and includes gatherings at bars and hotel rooms. As conference organizers running a private event, you can expel attendees for behavior that occurs at any time or place.

"Regardless of" list[]

The suggested wording for the conference policy includes:

$CONFERENCE is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone [, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, race, or religion [insert any other specific concerns here]].

We suggest that organizers use the list following "regardless of" to call out specific or common problems with their audience rather than use it as a general statement of principles. For example, some conferences may have serious religious tensions amongst their participants while for others it has never come up. The first conference should list "religion" and the second probably should not. Harassment of women is fairly common at present and "gender" should probably always be listed.

Harassing photography and video[]

Women are often subject to harassment through "paparazzi" style photography and degrading commentary on their photographs and videos. Conference organizers should be aware of these problems when setting policy for video recording all talks. For more discussion, see:

Conference recordings and harassment

Sexualized environment[]

For more on why sexualized images, language, and behavior can be harassing to women, see:

Asperger's/Autism spectrum[]

Sometimes offensive behavior is claimed to be beyond the control of the offender because they have Asperger's or other autism spectrum disorder. However, many people with autism spectrum disorders report being able to learn and follow rules to guide social conduct, such as "Don't touch other people unless they specifically invite me to." Many (possibly most) reported instances of harassment at conferences involves people who do not have any biologically based social deficits. Blaming harassment on people with autism spectrum disorders does not make sense. It also worsens social stigma and spreads misinformation against people with biologically based deficits.

Marissa Lingen: Don't blame autism, dammit.

Russell Coker: Aspie social skills and the free software community

Geek Feminism summary of LWN autism spectrum discussion


The conference anti-harassment policy has been translated.