Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Why conferences need a code of conduct

I wrote this post in 2011, more than 11 years ago. It may be very out of date, partially or totally incorrect. I may even no longer agree with this, or might approach things differently if I wrote this post today. I rarely edit posts after writing them, but if I have there'll be a note at the bottom about what I changed and why. If something in this post is actively harmful or dangerous please get in touch and I'll fix it.

As usual, what I write here is my opinion and I don’t speak for anyone else. In particular, this isn’t any sort of official PyCon anything.

Recently, tech conferences have started publishing a new kind of document: a code of conduct or anti-harassment policy [1]. Attendees are being explicitly told that they’re expected to follow these policies.

To some, this sounds patronizing; or like tools for group-think and censorship; or like a bad episode of The Morality Police. To my mind these are all valid criticisms. Most people aren’t jerks, so telling them to “be nice” certainly sounds patronizing. And it’s true that there are plenty of past situations where codes of conduct have been used to silence controversial opinions. And, yes, morality is sometimes relative; imposing one set of morals upon a diverse group isn’t fair.

These are serious concerns, and ones worth tackling. However, these concerns are sometimes used to argue that conferences don’t need or shouldn’t have these codes, and I couldn’t disagree more.

I’ve come to believe that a code of conduct is a requirement for a technical conference. Indeed, I’ve decided this is so important to me that (excepting conferences I’ve already committed to) I’ll no longer attend or speak at conferences that don’t adopt and publish a code of conduct. I’ll also be using whatever clout I’ve got to encourage conference organizers to adopt and publish anti-harassment policies. And I’m proud that PyCon, the conference I help organize, has adopted and published our own code of conduct.

So why, given the issues I outlined above, do I take this so seriously?

First, this isn’t a theoretical debate. There’s a pattern of sexist “humor” being used in technical presentations. People – minorities, and especially women – have been mocked, harassed, and assaulted at technical conferences [2]. A very small minority of conference attendees are behaving in ways that are far over the line. Pretending that your conference or your community is somehow immune is naive at best.

The criticism that’s usually raised at this point is that anti-harassment policies are unlikely to actually stop this sort of behavior. Someone who thinks that assault is acceptable behavior isn’t likely to be stopped by a code of conduct. Most people are fundamentally good and don’t need to be told not to harass their peers.

The code of conduct, then, exists for everyone else – those fundamentally good people. Mere words may not be able to stop harassment and violence, but they clearly show that such behavior isn’t welcome, and that the conference staff will take reports very seriously. Harassment, especially of women, often goes unreported because that’s a long and unfortunate history of such reports not being taken seriously. A code of conduct establishes that reports of inappropriate behavior will be taken seriously, and that victims will be treated with respect.

A published code of conduct tells me that the conference staff cares about these issues, takes them seriously, and is waiting and willing to listen if an incident happens. It’s by no means a solution to the depressing homogeneity of technical communities, but it’s a step in the right direction.

[1]A few examples: OSBridge, OSCON, PyCon, CodeConf (scroll to bottom).
[2]The excellent Geek Feminism wiki’s timeline of incidents (trigger warning: discussion of assault and harrassment) collects reports of these incidents.