Making Allyship Part of the Program

Unfortunately, as in-person events have resumed, so has toxic behavior. An expert shares blind spots at meetings and opportunities for solutions.

Author: Jennifer N. Dienst       

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The pandemic-induced two- to three-year break in face-to-face events may have exacerbated bad behavior, says one harassment prevention expert.

It’s the only way to describe the 28,000-person 2023 Game Developers Conference (GDC), organizer Informa Tech announced on its website: “GDC is back.” So, too, unfortunately, were reports of verbal harassment on the show floor as well as women getting assaulted at an off-site networking event. Similarly, several female attendees at a 2022 bitcoin conference in Miami reported everything from offensive comments about their appearance posted on social media to someone slipping an AirTag into a woman’s purse, presumably to track her whereabouts.

Tech conferences aren’t the only gatherings experiencing this problem — events lacking in participant diversity are particularly ripe for harassment. Plus, the COVID-induced two- to three-year break in face-to-face events may have exacerbated bad behavior, Paula Brantner, an employment lawyer turned consultant on harassment prevention in workplaces, told Convene. “There’s some people that just forgot how to people.”

Paula Brantner headshot

Paula Brantner

In her consultancy, PB Work Solutions, Brantner works with a range of clients to ensure that their workplaces and conferences (primarily in STEM and academia) are free of harassment. Brantner’s approach covers policies, trainings, reporting, investigations, and accountability. Often organizations already have the first two in place, but she has frequently found that the reporting stage is where things begin to fall apart. The reason? Fear of retribution. “So there’s a real disincentive to uncover what’s happening,” Brantner said.

One way to remove that barrier that has become increasingly popular among Brantner’s clients is to establish an allyship program. That can look different depending on the organization, but typically includes members completing bystander training, and/or encouraging members to signal their support in an obvious way, like wearing a LGBTQIA+ ribbon. The goal is to outwardly communicate an atmosphere of allyship so that someone experiencing harassment is less likely to feel isolated — if someone makes an off-color remark, a bystander-trained member can diffuse it.

Jill Drupa of Burk and Associates — whose clients include scientific and biological associations — has worked with Brantner to set up allyship programs for the meetings she helps organize. During registration, she typically uses Google forms to attendees to solicit allies, inquiring if they’ve already undergone any related training, what career stage they’re in, and what their concerns and motivations are. The goal, she said, isn’t necessarily to get a high number of allies — just enough so that others can sense their presence on site, which can vary between 1 percent to 5 percent of total attendees.

Besides having allies wear dedicated pins that signal their participation during the meeting, Drupa tries to generate awareness of the allyship program through the event website as well as any messaging sent out in advance. Drupa also works closely with Brantner to train allies — which can cover everything from the code of conduct to bystander training — ahead of the event. “I think [having an allyship program] has really helped change the dynamic of how meetings feel,” Drupa said, adding that it helps to communicate “that we’re just taking care of everybody.”

Creating Safe Spaces

Having allies on site makes it so when an attendee feels harassed, they can more easily identify a first point of contact for reporting it. For the latter, Brantner often makes herself available on site at events to handle situations in person. Groups without the means to hire a consultant can designate their own “safe behavior committee,” something other clients have done, Brantner said. Separate from leadership, this group is responsible for receiving and responding to reports of harassment. That way, “it’s not just in the hands of the executive director or the president,” she said. “It’s not something that one person is charged with dealing with, that may put them in a very difficult position — particularly if it involves someone powerful or who spends a lot of money, like a sponsor or vendor.”

In addition to working with an independent expert like Brantner, Drupa is also a fan of using an online platform like NAVEX, which allows attendees to report an incident to the organization, anonymously if they prefer, or after the fact. “We’ve noticed over the last several years that almost everybody reports two or three weeks after the meeting, unless there’s something egregious that happens on site,” Drupa said. Often, it’s just so they can feel heard. “They come home, and it’s still bothering them two weeks later,” she said. “We’ll talk with them, and, in most cases, they don’t even want anything more to happen. They just feel like it felt good to say out loud what happened.”

RELATED:Why Your Meeting Needs a Harassment Policy

Making women-only sessions or lunches part of the program can also help women “share experiences and provide support to each other,” Spanish optics researcher Pas Garcia Martinez wrote in a recent Nature article about the challenges of being in the minority at a conference. “Younger women have told me that they don’t know how to respond when a man says something inappropriate,” she wrote, “and women-only spaces are a good place to discuss such issues.”

In that same Nature article, French research associate Lucie Leboulleux encouraged meeting participants to be “vigilant for situations in which those in under-represented groups are treated badly, and act as witnesses or allies if they can. I would advise women who find themselves in these situations at conferences to try to identify allies whom they can turn to if they need support.”

A dedicated allyship program, of course, removes the burden of participants having to find their own allies. “The idea of having dozens of eyes and ears out there watching what might be happening is great,” Brantner said. “It really telegraphs an inclusive message.”

On the Web

Jennifer N. Dienst is senior editor at Convene.

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