Saturday, July 28, 2018

Code of Conducts and Stopping Bad Behavior

This post is inspired by two tweets that just run past me on my timeline.

First one was a suggestion that Code of Conduct exists to make underrepresented minorities more comfortable, sharing an example of rude mansplaining and dismissal of technical abilities.

Second one was an experience in unwanted male attention in a meetup making a woman not return. And pointing out there was no code of conduct, as well as sharing another experience of introducing contracts of not using mentorship relations in another meetup as a means of meeting people in romantic sense.

This stuff is all around. It is structural and perpetuated by all genders to an extent. Women are almost as bad at assuming that your programming skills vanish to think air now that you became a manager when the opposite could just as well be true. We hold a belief, strongly, that for our careers sake we should not be actively sharing stuff around minority discrimination. And we really don't understand that because all of this is structural, it is not intentional that I am a racist, but I need to really pay attention to the belief systems that sometimes make people who feel really safe with me to point out my misbehaviors.

The tech world tries to solve some of these issues by code of conducts, which could be a mechanism of informing and creating agreements on what is appropriate and what not. To protect  the underrepresented, sometime it feels like oppression to the majority view. But hateful, mean comments close folks out. Keeping that shit to yourself may close you out, but that is then your choice.

What I wanted to write about though was a conference I was involved in, one that tries hard to make it a safe place. They've been very successful in the step 1 of making it safe: equal representation of interpreted binary gender. Their speaker roster models what gender and often also race in this industry should look like. They are a tech conference where the feel of it is that binary genders are equally represented. And that comes with hard work they should feel proud of.

Equal representation as step 1 is important in the sense that there majority of people play nice together. The parties are fun, and I don't sense a need of being overly careful. Atmosphere is normal, everyone feels to be on generally good behavior. People mix, people talk. And sometimes people consensually hook up.

The conference has had a code of conduct for a while, and last year they also introduced extra mechanisms of enforcing it. That is where I got involved. And it turned out to be an awful experience for me.

It started off with someone pointing out that a talk title made them uncomfortable. I had volunteered to represent, so I looked into it. I talked to the speaker. I knew the contents were ok. But my judgement was that the title should not have been accepted to protect minorities I did not identify myself with. Nothing changed, except that I gave up on my extra responsibilities because they violated my sense of justice with "can't fix a mistake at this point".

Even without the extra duties, people would now consider me someone to escalate issues to. In the middle of the night, I find myself pinging the conference organizers to sort out their own stuff, with little success. The incident this time is some ass grabbing triggering bad old stuff, and having to deliver the message to the person that while they might think they did not do anything, I'm saying that none of this stuff can happen no more and that I will not be telling them who reported them. Not the most joyous of my nights.

The reason I write about this is to say that even in the best of conferences, stuff happens. Code of conducts are only as good as the people enforcing them. People enforcing them need to take deep looks inside their value systems, learn to look empathetically at underrepresented groups they are not part of, and bravely address issues as they come. Questioning people's negative experience has a term: victim blaming.

So for my own conference, I ask people to be kind and considerate. And while I do have a code of conduct, I know that my enforcement of it matters. I've needed to tell a dear friend that their jokes are inappropriate when they perpetuate the programmer - tester divide. I've needed to tell a speaker that many of their references are known assaulters, that they're all men and that the only woman in the whole slide deck was presented as a laughing stock, and that they used ableist language discussing autism. The stuff I do is educational, but they are also unintentional violations of the spirit. I remember the moment of having to tell this to a speaker. I remember their surprise. I remember them exclaiming how we were the first to ever tell him this even if thousands of people have seen the talk. Even if I had seen the talk before. And I remember the thank you.

We all need to learn more about this stuff. And when we see things happening, when we are in position of privilege, we can step in and help.