Follow up: Conference Behavior

I just wanted to post a follow-up to what I wrote yesterday about harassment and women in the WordPress community. A couple people misunderstood what I was saying, and in no way would I want to be misunderstood on such an important topic.

I’m not saying that harassment will happen, so we should just accept it and move on. I’m definitely not saying that. Nor am I insinuating that people of both genders are harassed with the same frequency – I think women may be harassed more than men, though I don’t have statistics to cite.

Are people harassed in WordPress more often than harassment occurs on average? I don’t know. Maybe men don’t acknowledge when women have made them uncomfortable, or maybe the disproportionate ratios of males to females in tech influences this. Maybe sometimes we’re sensitive to this as women in a very pronounced minority when we wouldn’t act the same otherwise.

I have no idea if any of these ideas are relevant or correct, and I don’t think anyone can definitively address them, as the issue is multifaceted. I’m simply stating that this shouldn’t become a gender war, nor should the behavior be generalized to men at large. This is an issue with individuals that behave badly, and the response should be on an individual basis.

First, I think we need to acknowledge that good people sometimes do or say dumb things. If someone says something that makes me feel uncomfortable, I think I have a responsibility to tell the person I don’t appreciate the comment. They may not have meant it the way I took it, because miscommunications happen. Likewise, they may not have realized how bad something sounded until the words are already out there and can’t reel them back in.

If they act graciously or didn’t intend to make me feel badly and apologize, I think we need to move on and take it for what it was – a miscommunication. I’ve had foot-in-mouth moments, so I’m not going to pretend I expect others to never have them. However, I think I have a responsibility to tell that person how I feel before taking any other action.

If the problem persists, then I think you act depending on the context. If conferences are a professional event (yes, I’m making an assumption you may disagree with), then professional conduct should be enforced. Thus if the behavior occurs at the event itself, there should be repercussions for the behavior. If it happens outside of conference events, then I think you have to act as you would normally if this occurred outside of a conference (i.e., at a coffee shop, bar, or other social event) and not require organizers to intercede. This may mean telling the person you don’t appreciate their behavior, having friends support you, simply not patronizing that person’s business, telling others of the issue, or taking it to police if it’s escalated.

All I’m saying is that we need to be responsible for ourselves in dealing with individuals, and that it’s not indicative of genders or groups of people. Setting the expectation that this behavior isn’t tolerated at conferences, or by the community at large in social situations is a step forward towards eradicating this behavior.

Questions Others Have Raised

Does the fact that the industry is male-dominated make this behavior towards women more likely? I have no idea. If anyone has statistics on this, please share (especially harassment in WordPress versus the world at large). I think that’s a different question entirely, but that appropriate expectations are a step in the right direction towards fixing it. My point was simply geared at how I think people could handle situations like this at conferences better, and that I think we need to be careful not to generalize this behavior to all men in the tech industry.

I don’t think we need “safety officers” or anyone to police this behavior outside of conference events, as harassment could happen at the local Starbucks, conference or no conference, and it’s not the responsibility of organizers to remedy this – it’s a personal one. I do support a professional code of conduct to clarify expectations for conference events and repercussions for inappropriate behavior. I’m not trying to deny that women are harassed every day, or that people may have biased perceptions about women in the industry. They exist. But again, I think setting the expectation that unfounded biases and subsequent harassment or poor behavior is unacceptable helps to improve this issue.

We also need to stop criticizing individuals that are willing to say they didn’t appreciate being treated in a poor manner, which is wrong and is part of this issue. The same sentence with the same words can have several different meanings depending on tone and context, and unless we’re in the situation ourselves, I don’t think we can judge on whether a comment was inappropriate or not.

Let’s take a step in the right direction by telling people when behavior is unacceptable and give them the opportunity to be better. If they choose not to take it, we can ensure that they know biased, intimidating, sexist, racist, etc actions are unwelcome. Support people who stand up for themselves against disrespectful behavior, and expect the best of people.