A month ago, I attended a design/front end development conference. I was so excited to attend. My employer even sponsored the conference to show their support.
I saw that a fellow Django colleague was speaking at the conference. Having attended DjangoCon and PyCon, where I knew lots of the attendees, this would be a conference in which I knew no one. It was cool to see someone from my community attending and I decided to connect with him. We caught up at the conference and talked in between sessions.
Later on in the evening, a group of us headed to a post-conference social event at a local bar. My Django colleague was there as well.
We all had some drinks and good conversation. Then, things took a turn. My colleague started making inappropriate sexual advances towards me. He singled me out and would not leave me alone, even when asked. I tried to shake it off, change the conversation and even moved away. He would not stop. I asked him what his wife would think of his behavior. He said that she would only be upset because she didn’t get to watch us having sex. I then tried to change the subject completely and asked how his daughter was, thinking that would snap him out of it. And with a blank stare he said bluntly, “She’s a slut.” I told him he should be ashamed of himself and walked away.
It was incredibly disappointing, humiliating and degrading on so many levels. I had been turned from a professional colleague into “a hook-up” at a bar. I was disgusted by his behavior, his comments about his family and the fact he is even associated with the Django community.
So, what did I do? I did the only thing that you really can do in that kind of situation. Tell people. I went to the conference director the next day and explained what had happened. He looked at me and sighed, confessing that he never should have allowed this guy to come to the conference. He went on to ask me what I thought he should do. Wait. What? Really? He is organizing a conference and is asking me what to do? Wasn’t there a policy in place for this sort of thing?
After these events, it is clear to me that there is a definite lack of policies and procedures in place for sexual harassment at conferences and events. What are the rules and consequences for this type of behavior? How do conference and event organizers plan on handling these types of situations?
So, I’d like to point to a post the company I work for recently wrote. It states that they will “require that a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy is established and enforced by the organizers of any conference that we sponsor or attend.” I cannot tell you how supportive they have been, even just by writing that statement. I feel that if every employer were to adopt this kind of policy, women would feel more confident in the tech community. Just knowing that your employer has got your back makes a world of difference…to anyone really.
On that note, this issue is not just about women. It’s about men too. Men who want to promote having women in the tech field and are working on creating a safe and inclusive environment. It is guys like the one at the conference I spoke of, that tarnish any of the good work that has been done. I find this kind of disgusting and disrespectful behavior that I had to endure, also unfair to those hard-working people.
Let’s stop talking about apologies too. “After the fact” doesn’t really do any good. Sexual harassment should not happen in the first place. There should be a clearly-defined set of standards in place to prevent it. Here’s a few to start:
Number One: If someone is known for sexual harassment or assault, or has a criminal record of doing so, don’t invite them to your conference. I know that this seems like a “duh!” sort of thing, but I feel it needs to be stated.
Number Two: Create a sexual harassment policy for your conference or event. Make that policy publicly available via the conference or event website and/or program.
Number Three: Clearly state the consequences for these prohibited actions and post them publicly.
In closing, I ask other women and men in the community to share their stories. Don’t be afraid to speak out. There are good people out there who feel the same way you do and want to help. Change will not come from silence. It will only begin to change if we stand up for what we know is right and get a little louder.