Monday, October 16, 2017

Innocent until proven guilty

I read a post Four Episodes of Sexism at Tech Community Events, and How I Came Out of the (Eventually) Positive and while all the accounts are all too familiar, there is one aspect that I feel strongly about. Story #3 recounts:
It takes me two years to muster the confidence to go to another tech event.
The lesson here is that it is ok to remove yourself from situations where you don't feel comfortable. There is a very real option for many people that we don't show up because someone can make us feel uncomfortable in ways that matter.

I hate the ways people report being made feel uncomfortable. And I particularly hate when someone reports a case where they were made uncomfortable being dismissed or belittled by the organizers of conferences because there is a belief that the "offenses" are universally comparable. That alleged perpetrators are always innocent until proven guilty. This idea is what makes people, word against word in positions of unequal power, allow for the bad behaviors to continue.

There will not be clear cut rules of what you can and cannot do in conferences to keep the space safe. Generally speaking, it is usually better to err on the side of safe. So if you meet someone you like beyond professional interests in a professional conference, not expressing the interest is on the safe side.

Some years ago, I was in a conference where someone left half-way though the conference for someone else's bad behavior. I have no clue what the bad behavior was, and yet I side with the victim. For me, it is better to err on the side of safe again, and in professional context reports like this don't get made lightly. Making false claims is not the common way of getting rid of people, even if that gets recounted with innocent until proven guilty.

We will need to figure out good ways of mediating issues. Should a sexist remark cost you a place in the conference you've paid for - I think yes. Should a private conversation making others overhearing it cost you a place in the conference you've paid for - I think yes. On some occasions, an apology could be enough of a remediation, but sometimes protecting the person who was made feel unsafe takes priority and people misbehaving don't have the automatic access to knowing who to get back to for potential retaliation. It's a hard balance.

The shit people say leave their marks. I try not to actively think of my experiences, even forget them. I don't want to remember how often saying no to a personal advance has meant losing access to a professional resource. I don't want to remember how I've been advised on clothing to wear while speaking in public. I don't want to remember how my mistakes have been attributed to whole of my gender. There's just so much I don't want to remember.

Consequences of bad behaviors can be severe. Maybe you get kicked out of 2000 euro conference. Maybe you get fired from the job. Maybe you get publicly shamed. Maybe you lose a bunch of customers.

Maybe you learn and change. And if you do, hopefully people acknowledge the growth and change.

If you don't learn and change, perhaps excluding one to not exclude others is the right thing to do.

In professional settings we don't usually address litigation, just consequences of actions and actions to create safer spaces. Maybe that means taking the person stepping forward feeling offended seriously, even when there is no proof of guilt.

I don't want people reporting years of mustering the confidence to join the communities again. And even worse, many people reporting they never joined the communities again, leaving the whole industry. I find myself regularly in the verge of that. Choosing self-protection. Choosing the right to feel comfortable instead of being continuously attacked. And I'm a fighter. 

1 comment:

  1. In a past life, I spent twenty years as a trade union representative for an entire section of the UK Government. (Albeit only a small one.) The union worked very hard to make its annual delegate conference and other group events a safe space for all participants, although this was just a part of its wider diversity agenda.

    I admit to being white, male and (possibly, but I'd like to think not) stale. But I signed up to this, because a) it was the right thing to do, and b) as I said to a colleague, "There's no shortage of people at Conference who look like you and me. But look around you; we aren't the majority in the office. So why should we be the majority at Conference?"

    It shouldn't be up to attendees to have to worry about a conference being a safe space; the conference organisers should do everything in their power to make that happen and sanction those who step beyond the bounds of acceptability.

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