Earlier this year I pulled out of a conference because the organiser and I disagreed on code of conducts. Specifically I thought there should be one, and he did not. He did eventually add one, but refused to define unacceptable behaviour. Myself and another woman pulled out.
This whole experience was really upsetting to me, not least of which was my own screw up. I had looked at other people speaking and assumed they would only be speaking if there was a CoC. I was wrong. I want people to be able to safely make this assumption if I am speaking, though.
I’m thinking about this right now for two reasons. The first is that I’m in DC right now at an event I’m speaking at because of this whole thing – I reached out to someone to try and help the other woman who pulled out find an alternative venue for her talk, and the person I reached out to ended up having us both speak at the conference he was organising.
The second reason is because this debate has come up again in recent weeks. Men who have clearly put a lot of thought into what it takes to run a good conference don’t see the value in a code of conduct and would like everyone to know why.
I do not believe that a code of conduct raises the top bar of an inclusive event. I do believe it is a new minimum. I don’t believe that it promises that women and marginalised groups will be safe at an event, just that it is a statement that says that we should have a right to expect to be. I believe that setting that kind of expectation has power.
Is it enough to guarantee safety? Of course not, but to say that because it is not a guarantee it is worthless is intellectually bankrupt. A timetable is not a guarantee that you will get to your destination on time. A seatbelt is not a guarantee that you will survive an accident.
We have a list of of rules for humans, we call them laws. They exist worldwide, and between countries they are broadly similar. And yet we have vastly different rates of breaking those laws worldwide. That doesn’t mean laws are worthless. It means laws are part of a complex system where multiple factors affect the outcome.
In any complex system, there is no one clear answer to anything. There are various levers that we manipulate, to varying and complex effect (see: Thinking in Systems).
In the conference ecosystem, the code of conduct is one lever.
It’s existence is insufficient but I have come to find the arguments against it meaningful. Because when a man tells a woman that his feelings are more important than her logic, that’s sexism. When he tells her that he knows better than her what she needs, that’s sexism. When he tells her how she should feel, that’s sexism.
What if she feels safe when she shouldn’t? Judging from the levels of domestic violence and the fact that most violent crime against women is committed by people they know, we can conclude there is an epidemic of women thinking they should be safe when in fact they are not. That is not acceptable. We should say that is not acceptable. A code of conduct is not to tell women they should feel safe when they in fact cannot be safe, it’s to say that people should have the expectation of safety, and that deviations from that are unacceptable.
I don’t feel safe because there is a code of conduct. But I tell you one thing that makes me feel unsafe – men who will endlessly, vociferously argue against them. Maybe a code of conduct isn’t meaningful. But at this point, refusing to listen, refusing to have one. Well, that is.