Why Your Meeting Needs a Harassment Policy

Author: Molly Brennan       

In 2013, 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 want to be making up the rules at that moment, when you’re trying to deal with the situation in the middle of conference? Do you really want to be making judgment calls at that point? Wouldn’t you rather do it months beforehand, when you’re calm and you can have some time to think about it?”

At PyCon 2013, held in Santa Clara, Calif., this past March, Kaplan-Moss and event organizers were presented with just that type of on-the-spot scenario. A female attendee complained that fellow attendees were making sexist and inappropriate jokes during a speaker’s session. PyCon’s code of conduct spells out exactly what conference staff should do in the event of a complaint. It begins, “Prepare an initial response to the incident. This initial response is very important and will set the tone for PyCon” — and then delineates specific actions. Because of that, PyCon staff knew how to respond, and did, according to Kaplan-Moss. When staff became aware of the complaint, Kaplan-Moss said, they sought out the alleged victim and had a private, several-minute conversation with her to gather facts. Staff then asked the two men making the reportedly offensive comments to step outside the ballroom. “We said, ‘Those sort of jokes are not appropriate in public.’ They said, ‘We agree,’” Kaplan-Moss said.

The victim later blogged about the situation, writing: “I was a guest in the Python community and as such, I wanted to give PyCon the opportunity to address this.” She expressed approval of PyCon’s handling of the incident. Likewise, someone who identified himself as one of the two men making the jokes also later praised PyCon’s response. “They pulled us from the main convention and got our side of the story,” he wrote on a tech message board. “I gave a statement, apologized, and thanked them for upholding the con’s integrity. They felt I was sincere and let us leave of our own accord.” Kaplan-Moss told Convene: “From our point of view, the system more or less worked. She reported to us this happened, we talked to the guys involved, we gave them a formal admonition, and they recognized what they did was inappropriate.”

While some organizers worry that putting a policy in writing will create a negative impression, Scalzi says just the opposite is true. “Look at the program guides for a science-fiction convention,” he said in an interview with Convene. “A lot of them have a weapons policy, but nobody ever says, ‘Oh, my God. If they have a weapons policy, they must be having duels all over the place.’” Plus, how can it hurt? “If you are absolutely, 100-percent certain that this stuff will never happen, then there is no harm whatsoever in having a harassment policy,” Scalzi said. “It’s better to have a policy that never ever gets used, but signals that you understand there are concerns in a larger cultural sense, than to not have a policy the one time that it needs to be used.”

What to Include, What Not to Include

When it comes to crafting a harassment policy, there are do’s, don’ts, and pitfalls concerning the language. “You could be really vague and say, ‘Harassment is not okay.’ But if you don’t spell anything out, then you end up with people who will take advantage of that and argue that what they did isn’t defined as harassment,” Kaplan-Moss said. “On the other hand, if you spell everything out to the nth degree, you could have people who say, ‘Well, it wasn’t on the list, it’s not harassment.’”

“The problem with a vague policy is, when somebody reports something, there’s this question of, is it actually harassment?” Aurora said. “There are people who think, ‘I was just hitting on her…. I wasn’t harassing her, I was flirting.’”

The most effective policies don’t spell out every possible scenario, but do sketch out — generally — what is prohibited, according to Laura Worsinger, an employment-law attorney with Dykema, a national law firm. “The policy should state that the organizer is committed to providing an environment that is free of harassment and everyone who attends is expected to comply with this policy,” said Worsinger, who has yet to help a convention draft such a policy, but routinely counsels employers on harassment issues. “Then it needs to define what unlawful harassment is. You need to set parameters, but don’t want to be too specific.”

Debra Katz, a noted sexual-harassment attorney and founding partner of Katz, Marshall & Banks in Washington, D.C., added: “You need to define inappropriate behavior, but also make clear it’s an illustrative list, not an exhaustive list. Any good policy needs to [spell] out that it’s the unwelcomeness of the behavior that is the problem — unwanted touching, unwanted remarks of a sexual nature, unwelcome comments about people’s body or appearance.”

The policy of Westercon, the annual West Coast Science Fantasy Conference, is blunt: “A neat tattoo or a sexy, excellent costume does not come with permission to touch, nor is it an invitation to do so. Always ask first (and wait to receive permission) if you wish to touch clothing, property, or the person. Costuming is not consent. ‘No’ means no. ‘Stop’ means stop. ‘Go away’ means go away.”

When crafting DLF’s harassment policy, Frick decided to take a slightly bigger-picture approach, and intentionally called it a code of conduct. “It sets the bar of a return to civility,” she said. “I tried to make it about broader behaviors and about encouraging respectful dialogue. It clarifies for people that we all come from different places and different organizations and different expectations, but when we’re here and participating in this event, this is how people are expected to engage.”

Give Your Policy Teeth

A harassment policy that stops at prohibited behavior doesn’t go far enough, Katz said. An effective policy also must explain what a victim should do in the event of harassment, as well as how the organizer will respond. “A policy only works when there is appropriate enforcement and people feel like it’s not just words on paper,” Katz said, “but there are serious ramifications if people run afoul of it.” For example, the policy for Loscon, the annual convention of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, states: “If people tell you ‘no’ or to leave them alone, your business with them is done. If you continue to attempt to have contact with those people, you maybe removed from the premises.”

Just as the language referring to offensive behavior should not be overly specific, the section of the policy referring to organizer response should be similarly high level. PyCon organizers recently revamped their policy’s language to include a range of responses that conference staff might use, from warning a harasser to cease his or her behavior, to ending a speaker’s talk early if the speaker uses inappropriate language or images, to requiring a harasser to leave the convention immediately, to banning a harasser from future events “either indefinitely or for a certain time period.” “It’s not like we’re instantly going to reach for the lifetime ban in every case,” Kaplan-Moss said. “We made it clear that zero tolerance doesn’t mean zero judgment.”

Incorporating specific action steps for victims — including phone numbers and contact names they can reach out to on site — is equally important, Kaplan-Moss said. The PyCon policy includes detailed guidance on what a victim should do in the event of harassment: “If you are being harassed, notice that someone else is being harassed, or have any other concerns, please contact a member of conference staff. Conference staff will be wearing ‘PyCon Staff’ t-shirts. You may also contact hotel staff and ask to be put in touch with the conference chair.”

Writing a comprehensive policy is only the first step; getting the word out is the next important task. “You need to have a link on your website, include it in pre-event emails, and put it in your conference program,” Aurora said. “Some conferences require attendees to agree to the policy when they register.” At Dragon Con 2013, one of the largest fan conventions in the United States, held every year in Atlanta, a video explaining a new harassment policy was broadcast on large screens before the opening session and any large panels.

“If nobody knows about it, you haven’t done your job,” said Jim Louis, CMP, president of Best Meetings, who recently helped a technology convention adopt a harassment policy. The industry is male-dominated, but the percentage of women attending the conference has increased steadily in recent years. Although the group hasn’t had any major issues, it decided to be proactive and introduced an anti-harassment policy this year. Organizers included a copy of the policy on the registration website and in the on-site program, and inserted a double-sided sheet about the policy into each attendee bag.

“One side was the policy and the other side was what to do if you experience or witness harassment,” Louis said. “We had a first-timers orientation session where we discussed it, and we also had a brief announcement at the opening keynote session.” Rather than giving the impression the conference had a harassment problem, it created a positive, congenial environment, Louis said, where people felt encouraged to look out for one another.

The Business Case for Decency 

The argument for adopting a formal harassment policy is always centered around basic decency, experts said, but there are also important business reasons for having one in place. For example, in today’s interconnected, 140-character world, there’s little chance of keeping a negative incident quiet; if something does occur, people are going to hear about it.

At the 2012 SXSW session where a speaker used offensive language, upset attendees were tweeting their disgust as they walked out mid-session. One tweet read: “Biz dev VP of @path just cracked lame jokes re: ‘nudie calendars,’ frat guys + ‘hottest girls,’ ‘gangbang’ at #sxws talk. Cue early exit.” When the PyCon incident occurred earlier this year, the woman who made the complaint about sexist and inappropriate jokes first tweeted the incident, along with a picture of the men making the comments: “Not cool. Jokes about ‘forking’ repo’s in a sexual way and ‘big’ dongles. Right behind me #pycon pic.twitter.com/Hv1bkeOsYP;.”

The tweet quickly went viral, and PyCon became the centerpiece of a conversation on sexism at tech conferences. The woman was vilified for publicly sharing the men’s photo and became the recipient of threats and ugly comments. One of the two men making the jokes lost his job, as did the woman who made the complaint. “We were kind of annoyed by the coverage of the event,” Kaplan-Moss said. “It was the first time we got mentioned in The New Yorker, but it wasn’t the way we would have wanted. The irony is the majority of feedback we got was we handled it right.”

“Whoever you are, whatever convention you’re running, if someone goes to it and feels like they’ve been harassed, there’s a very good chance that it’s going on the Internet,” Scalzi said. “It’ s going to blow up, and you’re going to have to deal with it. The question is, how do you want to deal with it? Do you want to deal with it ahead of time, so everyone who comes in is clear on what the rules of the road are? Or do you want to have to deal with it afterward, when you’re basically playing defense or trying to deny it happened?”

For Naomi R. Angel, an attorney who specializes in association law at Howe & Hutton in Chicago, it’s about perception. “Reputation-wise, reports of harassment or inappropriate behavior can be very bad,” Angel said. “It’s some of the worst damage that can be done to a group’s reputation. Having a policy helps to strengthen your reputation of concern and awareness.”

Louis added: “Once it gets out there, it can very much hurt an event, so think of this as just another part of your risk-management plan. It’s just another aspect of your what-if planning: what if the power goes out, what if a speaker trips and falls on the way to stage. You need to have your backup plans in place, and this is no different.”

Another incentive for adopting a policy is that it can provide some protection should a victim of alleged harassment bring legal action against the host organization. “Your liability depends on whether or not you have encouraged or prevented the harassment that took place at your event,” Worsinger said. “The point is, you want to protect yourself, and to protect yourself you have to let people know you have a zero-tolerance policy.”

Not that you’re policing every form of human interaction. “An attendee hitting on another is not the responsibility of the group. As a planner, we can’t prevent that,” Angel said. “What we can do is make it clear that the group does not support offending behavior and will take appropriate action and act promptly to eliminate offending conduct and impose corrective action, whatever that maybe.” This is particularly important for organizations that host events in industries where there have been past complaints or accusations of inappropriate behavior. If an organizer doesn’t have a policy and harassment takes place at the event, the host’s liability is going to be greater, Katz said. “The event organizer is already on notice that this kind of improper behavior is already taking place,” she said. “If this was a convention where this kind of behavior never took place, the organizer could say, ‘How would we know?’ But if you’re dealing with a group where [incidents] are well known and on record, the organizer’s liability is much greater.”

Finally, sending a message of tolerance and inclusion is a smart move for any conference or meeting in any industry or field, Scalzi said. “The smartest thing for people who are running conventions is to recognize that in both the short and long run, it’s going to be better for your convention if everybody knows they’re going to be treated with respect,” he said. “If you don’t do that, the younger people, the people who are vital to your field, are no longer going to feel like your convention or conference is a welcome place, and they will create spaces that are more welcome to them. You don’t want to be the ones who are left behind.”

In other words, this is one of those cases where the right thing to do is the smart thing to do is the best thing to do. “A code of conduct is a good tool to promote the fact that your conference is very focused on exchange of ideas and actual work,” Frick said. “It tells attendees that you will not tolerate anything that impedes or stilts or limits creative conversation, and people can feel comfortable at your event. In the long run, [a harassment policy] will likely attract — rather than scare away — more people to your conference.”

Making Things Clear

What to include in a harassment policy, according to sample policy published by the Ada Initiative:

  • Statement that the convention is dedicated to a harassment-free experience for everyone.
  • Statement that the convention organizers do not tolerate harassment of conference participants in any form.
  • Definition of harassment, which includes inappropriate and unwelcome comments, touching, attention, photography, stalking, and intimidating behavior.
  • Clear guidance on what victims can do in the event of harassment and how victims can file a complaint.
  • Statement that conference participants violating these rules may be sanctioned or expelled from the conference.

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