An open letter to tech conference organizers

Personal    2013-05-31

Make that "conference organizers who are interested in increasing diversity among your attendees, or in your community, or (hopefully), both".

Take what I'm about to suggest with a grain of salt. I'm a programmer and a woman who's been going to conferences for several years now. I have a ton of experience as an attendee, a little as a speaker and teacher, but I'm not privy to the specific challenges that an organizer faces. That said, I've observed a few things over the years, and I have some ideas that may help.

  1. Have a Code of Conduct.

    Have in place some declaration of how you expect attendees to behave towards one another. It doesn't matter what you call it - a Code of Conduct, an anti-harassment policy. The point is to define, in clear language, what you consider to be offensive behavior, and to let attendees know that it won't be tolerated.

    I'm not going to go into why you need a Code of Conduct - that argument has already been made by more eloquent writers than I, but if you still need convincing, I'd suggest taking a look at Jacob Kaplan-Moss' 2011 post, Why conferences need a code of conduct.

    Not everyone agrees on the finer points of what should be covered in a code of conduct, but I think that there are some general principles that are widely acknowledged as necessary. A good starting point is this sample conference anti-harassment policy developed by the Ada Initiative, released under a Creative Commons Zero license and hosted on the Geek Feminism Wiki.

  2. Tell me how to use it.

    Don't forget to address this prominently in your policy - make clear how you want attendees to report incidents if they occur. Give us a clear point of contact - either with a single staff member, or better yet, with anyone on the conference staff - and make sure everyone knows what form follow-up will take. If it's not clear to me how I should handle a harassment case, I'm likely to take matters into my own hands - tweet about it, blog about it, badmouth you or your conference. Or I may not report anything at all, which means that bad behavior goes unaddressed and someone else will likely have to deal with it down the line.

  3. Make sure I can find it.

    If I'm thinking about registering for your conference, I should be able to check it out first. That means getting at least a general idea of what the content will be - AND what your anti-harassment policy is. Don't hide it, don't make it impossible to find just because it doesn't fit neatly with your conference site's pretty design. Don't bury it in the registration process - if I can't see it beforehand, I might not be registering in the first place.

    • Good: Make sure the policy has its own page, and that there's a link to it from your FAQ or About page.
    • Better: Give it its own link, placed somewhere in a footer, or along with other general information sections such as an FAQ.
    • Best: Display the link prominently in your site's main navigation.

  4. Identify your staff members.

    If your response process involves having attendees contact a staff member, make sure we can tell who your staff members are. Nothing says "we're here to help" better than a conference staff that makes itself easy to find. If it's practical, maybe you can introduce staff during the keynote or opening remarks. Be sure that staff members have badges that look different from those issued to conference attendees - if it's not practical to order separate badges, use ribbons or stickers as an indicator. And if you can swing it, get special shirts of the same color - I'm at JSConf this week, and the conference runners have stood out in every crowd, unmistakable in their bright teal t-shirts. Now that's what I'm talking about.