Sunday, September 20, 2015

Code of conducts at conferences

Looking at the GOTO Copenhagen website, I notice that there is a code of conduct linked at the bottom. The only reason why I found it, was probably because I went looking for it.

As far as I know, this is the first year that has one for a GOTO conference in Denmark, though there might have been one last year as well.

I am quite happy to see one, since I wasn't sure that there would be one, as Danes seems to have an aversion against codes of conducts for some reason or other. Earlier this month, I was at the Coldfront conference, which does have a code of conduct, but where one of the organizers felt it was necessary to half-apologize for it.

I am glad to see that code of conducts become more widespread, since I think they are necessary in order for conferences to become more inclusive.

A code of conduct is important to conferences, especially with an international crowd, for several reasons:
  1. It sets up clear boundaries of acceptable behavior.
  2. It helps enable people to speak out if they feel harassed or uncomfortable.
  3. It explains people what they should do, in case of harassment.
  4. It helps unveil the scope of the problem.
In regards to the first point, many people say that it shouldn't be necessary, and to some degree I agree, but unfortunately, experience shows us that it is necessary - especially at conferences where there is a large disparity between the genders.

It is also worth remembering that at an international conference, there will be people will different social and cultural backgrounds, and there are different boundaries in different cultures and social circles.

Regarding the point about enabling people to speak out, the existence of a code of conduct demonstrates that the conference cares about the well-being of all the participants. This in turn, encourages people to speak out when they feel that the boundaries are being pushed.

Since it often comes as a surprise for people that they are making others feel uncomfortable with their jokes or behavior, it allows those people to change their behavior in ways that makes it a pleasant occasion for everyone.

And even if there are some people that don't care if they are making other people uncomfortable, then there is the option of reporting them, which the code of conduct should provide clear instructions for.

For the organizers, it also means that they will hear about serious incidents straight away, and not through some backdoor channel long after the fact.

I think most of us would prefer that there was no need for a code of conduct, but history has shown us that this isn't the case, and it would be naive to think that if we ignore the problem, it will just go away. Instead, provide a code of conduct which provides clear boundaries and guidelines.

It seems like GOTO Copenhagen is more or less adopting the code of conduct provided by the Ada Initiative. Note that it has a public version, and an internal version for the conference staff, which includes clear instructions on how to enforce the code of conduct.

The later part is an important part of the code of conduct, which all too often was lacking in the past, creating situations where conference staff either overreacted or ignored any reports they received, and where documentation of incidents were non-existent - allowing some conferences to claim that there had been no reports of harassment at their conferences, even though several people have reported such.

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