Dear event organizers, in response to Sunday’s post about the broad, behind-the-scenes knowledge that some of the male speakers at our conferences use their conference appearances as an opportunity to abuse women, someone has finally pointed out the obvious:
You will, of course, do whatever you want, but I find it very upsetting to be told that, “You should come to our conferences! Of course, some of the people who really have a chunk of power at the conferences (the speakers) are known to treat women badly, and thus might treat you badly. But I won’t tell you who they are, so you’ll just have to hope you don’t encounter them or, if you do encounter them, that they won’t treat you badly. But do come!”
I’ve been to one secular/atheist/freethinker conference, and I was treated badly by a man (not a speaker). As awful as it was, the one of the things that made it bearable was the thought that no one knew this was going to happen and that if they had, they would have acted to support me. To think that I might go through a similar experience with a speaker while knowing that other people knew what was going to happen but felt no need to warn me makes me very angry, and it makes me feel like I’m not safe to go to conferences.
It’s all well and good to advise “networking behind the scenes,” but I don’t have a fucking network, and that’s part of the reason I feel like going to conferences might be good for me. But if I have to network behind the scenes to be safe at conferences, then I have to already have what I’m looking for to be safe.
Maybe I’m being selfish about this. Maybe I’m too angry. But I’ve been abused enough in my life. I am not about to set myself up to be abused again, and it makes my eyes tear up and my throat constrict to think that going to these conferences means going to interact with people who everyone else may know is abusive but won’t warn me because I don’t have connections.
Are you prepared to answer Erista? Are you prepared to tell her what you’re doing to help her have a safe and fun experience at your event?
I know you’re already in a bind. I know many of you are already frustrated with the situation. I know some of you are on the receiving end of this behavior yourself as a job hazard. But there are some basic things you need to do. The good news is that these will make it easier (though not easy) to shut this behavior down in the long term.
The very first, most basic thing you need to do is make sure your event has a harassment policy. I’ll talk about sexual harassment for the most part here, but it should also cover harassment on the basis of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, etc.
Having such a policy in place doesn’t mean you expect harassment to occur or that you think harassers are particularly attracted to your event. It means you’re hosting an event at which you don’t want any harassment to occur, and you’re willing to take steps to make sure it doesn’t. This alone will help.
That policy should be more than “We do not approve of harassment.” Your responsibilities are larger than that. In addition to a strong statement that everyone who attends your event is equally entitled to enjoy it free of harassment, you also need to get into the details of what will happen in the case of harassment. We don’t have any sort of consensus in our society on how to react to harassment. If you don’t create your own guidelines, it won’t be handled the way you want it to be.
Nor do you have to do this on your own. The Geek Feminism Wiki has put together an excellent sample policy you can adapt to your event and your needs. Notice that it covers standards of behavior, reporting procedures, what the event organizers and staff will do in response to a report, and how much control someone who reports has in deciding how far the reporting will go. Notice also that there is an internal version as well as an external version, with even more guidelines for handling problems.
Once you’ve sorted that all out, you need to make sure your policy is easy to find and well-distributed. Do not leave out your speakers when you distribute this policy, and do not make the person assigned to help the speaker navigate the event be the bearer of the policy. The power dynamic there is all wrong, and the minion is sometimes the person most in need of the policy.
Having a publicized policy like this one is a bare minimum requirement for making your event a safer place, but you can go beyond it. You can designate safe spaces where staff or volunteers are present to listen, counsel, or just keep problem people out so those who don’t feel safe can have some quiet time. You can create or adopt an icon for trusted volunteers (as well as staff) that can go on badges or pins. That both increases the number of people to whom someone can turn if they’re in trouble and puts reminders everywhere in the crowd that there are standards of behavior throughout your event.
If you’re doing a large event, you can also consider signage like some of these posters designed for CONvergence here in the Twin Cities, where SkepchickCon is held as part of one of the programming tracks.
The problem with speakers didn’t develop overnight, and given the difficulties in dealing with them, they’re not going to disappear overnight. However, not only does having formal policies in place help protect your guests while this is being sorted out, but they provide a means of collecting and tracking this misbehavior. It’s much simpler to push back against pressure to include a speaker with formal tracking. It’s much simpler to share information with, “We had X number of violations of policy reported to us, and we have the records to back that up,” rather than, “So-and-so did such-and-such according to some person I can’t name.”
This is a genie that isn’t going back into the bottle. It’s a problem that’s gone public in a big way, and it’s going to stay there. Yes, that makes your life as event organizers harder in the short term, but if you get ahead of it, it will be fixed much sooner. Take these steps now.