WISE women in computer science

Codes of Conduct and Worthless Manfeelings

four male heads expressing emotion, the heads may be made of rubber. they look creepy.
Credit: Wikipedia

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.

14 replies on “Codes of Conduct and Worthless Manfeelings”

Given the facts, it baffles me that anyone would be against a code of conduct in our industry.

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This post is like a biohazard sign or nuclear hazard symbol that shouts “don’t hire me”.

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I’ve never given conference codes of conduct much thought, since I’ve never run into any issues at conferences, but of course grown-ups don’t always behave well. Why not have a CoC?

I remember—because it made a positive impression on me—that at a recent Write the Docs conference, cofounder Eric Holscher mentioned in his welcome talk, “Our code of conduct is on our web site. Basically, be decent to one another.” Nuf said.

This CoC wasn’t just words on a web page. A conference organizer had said out loud, warmly, that the way we treat each other matters. He didn’t belabor the point. He simply declared that this was a space where respectful behavior was expected. Eric reminded us of who we were in his eyes: we were not just conferencegoers with a shared interest in creating good documentation but human beings with the capacity to treat each other well.

There’s power (for better or worse) in letting people know how you see them.

The Write the Docs CoC is simple, clear, and friendly. It has a one-paragraph short version as well as a “long” version (a whopping four paragraphs). Contact info features prominently. To anyone interested in a model to emulate, I can’t imagine a better one:

P.S. I’m not sure how to take the phrase “worthless manfeelings” in this post’s title and the image that goes with it. The implication could be interpreted as a put-down, which would run counter to the point of the article (and the point of CoCs): respect for all.

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Marcia – that’s great! Thank you for the resource.

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Hi. I just submitted a comment and thought it didn’t “take,” so I resubmitted an edited version. If you got them both, please use the second version. Thanks for the thought-provoking article.

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“Because when a man tells a woman that his feelings are more important than her logic, that’s sexism.”
This sentence should read – “Because when a man tells a woman that his logic is more important than her feelings, that’s sexism.”

The CoC issue is to protect your feelings, namely fear. It’s not a logic-based rule set.

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Good piece. Just one little thing my copy editor self couldn’t stop from seeing: “where multiple factors effect the outcome.”

* affect

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This has been an issue in my local FOSS community, as well. A year or two ago the local LUG adopted a code of conduct and there was considerable chatter about it on the discussion list. A large amount of that chatter was that somehow having the rule in formal existence would have a chilling impact on the technical content and/or that the rules should be enforced but not be formalized. Unsurprisingly they tried to argue that it was adding rules when there was no need because there were no problems, a position disputed by many who had been party to past issues, e.g. one in which a particular person decided to refer to women in tech as “hoes.”

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I think that statements like “When he tells her that he knows better than her what she needs, that’s sexism.” invite unconstructive escalation because they are false if understood in a strict sense. That would be sad, because it hinders the necessary dialogue and is probably not even what the author meant. A definition of sexism that makes the statement true is so watered down that it becomes unusable. If a male doctor tells his female patient that she needs to take medicine X because he is a doctor who, due to his education and experience, just know these things better than his patients, than that is not sexism in any meaningful sense. It would be sexism if the sex of the two parties would be the reason for the mans believe.
Even in the context of a conference-CoC it is not so simple: the man could possibly be a super smart psychologist and the woman could be super stupid person who really doesn’t understand what’s good for her (of course, the situation could as well be reversed, but that’s not the point here). And it could be a matter of factual truth, that he does know better. Would his advice be automatically sexist? Or only if he phrases it the wrong way? Would he be required to keep his thoughts to himself? Or could it be an acceptable form of sexism to give advice?
Summary: absolute statements are difficult to get right and often distract from the actual message.
Everything totally IMHO, of course.

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