Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

December 2013

Here's What to Include in Your Meeting's Harassment Policy

By Molly Brennan, Contributing Editor

If recent high-profile incidents of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior at conferences and conventions haven't convinced you, listen to our expert sources: Your meeting needs a harassment policy. This is what to include.

This past July, John Scalzi, a New York Times best-selling author and well-known figure in the science-fiction community, posted an entry on his popular blog called “My New Convention Harassment Policy.” It stated that going forward, Scalzi, a frequent speaker and guest of honor at science-fiction and fantasy conventions, would no longer attend a convention unless it had a written harassment policy that clearly defines what is unacceptable behavior and what people can do if they feel harassed or see others engaging in harassing behavior. “Why?” Scalzi wrote. “Because I want my friends and fans to be able to come to a convention and feel assured that the convention is making the effort to be a safe place for them. I want my friends and fans to know that if someone creeps on them, there's a process to deal with it, quickly and fairly.” The post received so much attention that two days later Scalzi posted a co-sign thread, inviting people to adopt the convention harassment policy as their own. Within a few weeks, the thread had more than 1,300 co-signatures.

Scalzi's post clearly struck a nerve among science-fiction convention goers, but it also received widespread attention beyond the fantasy world, tapping into a rising tide of frustration with inappropriate behavior at conventions across all industries. One of Scalzi's co-signers commented: “This ought to apply not just to fandom Cons, but conferences in general, said as [a] female engineering faculty [member] who thinks that, frankly, some engineering technical conferences could step up and make a statement by having a policy.”

Scalzi readily admits he isn't the first person to shed light on the issue of harassment at conventions, or to focus on the role and responsibility of conference organizers in preventing harassment. In fact, a number of technology conferences and so-called “geek” conventions — gatherings for computer programmers, hackers, gamers, cosplayers, comic-book fans, and so on — have adopted harassment policies in recent years. A sample anti-harassment policy developed by the Ada Initiative, an advocacy group dedicated to increasing the number of women in the open-source technology field, has been adopted by more than 100 organizations, according to Ada Initiative co-founder Valerie Aurora.

Meeting organizers who don't think harassment is a potential issue at their own events are being naive, said Jacob Kaplan-Moss, one of the volunteer organizers of PyCon, the largest annual gathering for the community that uses and develops Python, an open-source programming language. “We all want to believe that no one in our community would do this,” he said, “but that's a foolish belief.”

From the 1991 Tailhook scandal, in which 83 women and seven men reported being sexually assaulted at a naval aviation convention; to the 2006 World Science Fiction Convention, where a well-known science-fiction author groped the breast of an award-winning female author while on stage; to the widespread use of skimpy-costumed “booth babes” to promote products on exhibit floors; to soft-porn imagery and sexual language in speakers’ presentations at a 2009 programmers convention in San Francisco; to sexist and offensive language in speakers’ presentations at the 2012 South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive convention; to the 2013 New York Comic Con, where a female attendee dressed in costume was asked offensive and sexually suggestive questions during an interview with an established satellite-radio station — the evidence suggests that Kaplan-Moss is correct.

While many of the most widely reported incidents have occurred in male-dominated professions, every industry needs to be attuned to the possibility of inappropriate behavior. No matter how buttoned-up your attendees seem, harassment is a reality, and it's better to prepare for the possibility than be caught by surprise, according to the many meeting organizers, volunteers, attendees, and attorneys interviewed by Convene. Read on to learn how a harassment policy can strengthen your organization's culture and contribute to the success of an event, and for tips on what to include — and what not to include — when you're creating one.

What Happens at the Convention ...

Google “harassment and conventions,” and the search will return page after page of alleged incidents from recent meetings, conventions, and conferences. The website Geek Feminism Wiki keeps a running log of sexist and harassment incidents in geek communities, including those at conventions and meetings. The alleged incidents range in severity, from unwelcome comments to groping and assault, but are consistent in their frequency and prevalence. “There is no way to absolutely guarantee you won't be sexually harassed at a conference,” Aurora said. “It's a matter of ‘more or less likely’ to be harassed.”

It was the widespread prevalence of harassment at open-source events that led Aurora to found the Ada Initiative. After she was the recipient of repeated unwanted sexual advances at a large technology conference, and a friend of hers was groped at three different conventions in one year, Aurora said, enough was enough. “How could I encourage women to go into this field when I knew for certain that men would be putting their hands in their underwear?” she said. “I couldn't morally do that.”

As executive officer of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), Kevin Marvel, Ph.D., travels in a world populated more by academics than hackers; yet the issue of harassment was concerning enough to him that he helped AAS adopt a harassment policy back in 2007. “I have been shocked during my time with the society,” he said, “by the wide range and professional distribution of individuals who have harassed a meeting attendee.”

Rachel Frick is director of the Digital Library Federation (DLF) in Washington, D.C., and author of the organization's code of conduct. She cautions meeting planners from traditional industries against dismissing harassment as something that occurs at fringe events. “I'm 45 years old, I don't have a goatee, I don't dress up in costume, and this is still very relevant to my industry,” Frick said. “You would think librarians know how to behave. They don't. When you bring a diverse community together, people's rules of engagement are different, and you have to plan for that.”

In fact, assuming that attendees all share the same basic rules of behavior is a common mistake. “What we found was that, frequently, many of these people thought what they were doing was acceptable,” Aurora said. “Many people across a wide variety of industries believe that at conferences, rules can be bent.”

Marvel agrees. “You cannot assume everyone is on the same page,” he said. “They aren't.” And it's the responsibility of the conference or meeting organization to spell out expectations. “Clearly stating what you will and will not tolerate, and then standing behind those decisions publicly,” Marvel said, “defines that tone and culture, and communicates your values to your meeting attendees.”

Put It in Writing

Simply telling attendees to act appropriately is not enough, however. You need to have a written policy, because that formalizes expectations and gives attendees and organizers alike a roadmap to follow should an incident occur. “If something happens and someone comes to you with an accusation of harassment,” Kaplan-Moss said, “do you really

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