Speakers, staff, and even people looking to increase their credibility in a particular field by networking and socializing all have very good reason to consider a convention to be a “workplace environment”. Even if they’re volunteering, even if they’re there only semi-professionally or as a hobbyist, the existence of a solid harassment policy that includes reporting mechanisms and collection of data for future improvement can be nothing but a good thing for their ability to carry out their work.
Conventions are not unique among workplaces — very many workplaces involve the dissemination of ideas, social components where “customers” can interact with one another and with the “employees” alike, and might even have an “overtime” component where people who are otherwise co-workers can fraternize outside of the purview of the actual “workplace environment”, often with those aforementioned “customers”. Most workplaces already have very solid harassment policies, and HR departments to enforce those policies. So why all the pushback against these policies when presented in context of trying to improve the situation for women who have apparently increasingly abandoning certain skeptical events despite leaders’ efforts to improve the situation?
My best guess is, because the people pushing back against these policies are the first ones who will be impacted by them.
Let’s never mind for a moment that some folks in this conversation have unwittingly bought into the framings that this would turn our community puritanical or “Talibanesque” (though those are ridiculously different accusations). Let’s consider only the following facts that we know about the community as a whole. In blockquotes to offset these, though the points are mine.
1. Our community presently underrepresents a few demographics in the background society. This much is obvious, or leaders wouldn’t be asking “why are so few women registering for our conference” in the first place. Some of these demographics include women, just about any non-white race, and the LGBTQ community(ies).
2. There is a drive to improve this representation in our communities, by intentionally increasing diversity, to “get the ball rolling” toward true equality.
3. In the background population, certain bigotries happen as a matter of course for some of these demographics, and we happen to be talking about women primarily right now, though this is absolutely not limited to improving the situation for them alone.
4. When some of these demographics encounter bigotry against them in general day-to-day life, it is so commonplace that they might not report the issue even if there was a harassment policy in place at a convention. So there exists a problem of underreporting.
5. There exists a meme in greater society that when someone reports harassment, often in the absence of physical evidence (because what physical evidence can you present that someone cornered you and propositioned you repeatedly for sex if they didn’t further rape you?), that report will not be taken seriously. Once reported, often the instances of the report disappear down the memory hole if there is no aggregation of reports from all employees and a requirement that the employees take every report seriously.
6. The goal of making an event a “safe place” for a demographic involves making it better than the background levels of bigotry. It does not involve ensuring that harassment won’t happen, because we are putting a bunch of people of different sexes and genders together and often allowing them to drink a good deal. That is a pipe dream, so let’s not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. The goal here is to make sure everyone knows and is on board with the fact that harassment will have consequences, ensure that it DOES have consequences and let the harassment fade away organically.
I will switch to letters for the next part for easier discussion in the comments. Please note that I am not saying that any specific convention does or does not do these things already. Some may implement some or all of these, which is laudable.
Given all these points, the path forward as far as I can tell is to:
A. Build a strong anti-harassment policy like the template that’s been suggested many times over at GeekFeminism
B. Implement this policy in such a way that conventions make it plain to all participants that this policy is in place. For instance, requiring that people read it while registering for the convention online (a la “Terms of Service” you often see on web forms), providing printed copies to at-the-door registration when you get your ticket or lanyard or what-have-you. Ideally, the printed copies can be included in other high-value handouts like site maps or schedules to save paper and make sure they’re well-disseminated.
C. Have speakers and employees of the convention sign this policy. Employees will also have to sign a “how to deal with complaints” corollary policy. Ideally, this would happen at a staff session where staffers are given an overview of the policy that’s previously been distributed to them, and have a chance to ask questions about the policy (perhaps role-playing some scenarios they might face would help here). They also must sign that policy before they’re allowed to act as a staff member.
D. Improve data collection. Ensure that every incident or report handled by every employee is recorded in some form of database. Ensure that there is a strong confidentiality scheme in place for the data, such that while nobody could theoretically violate anyone’s confidentiality, the data is aggregated in such a way that staff can spot repeat troublemakers and take steps to bar them from future participation. Include pointed questions about harassment in the exit surveys, and understand that only a subset of people will take those exit surveys. That subset may not include people who were harassed, and the problem of underreporting is still going to be a big one here.
E. Explicitly call attention to the harassment policy during the opening remarks, which are often used to orient convention-goers to the grounds and policies anyway. Make it clear that harassment won’t be tolerated, explain what official employees look like in the event you need to report something, and that employees are obligated to take reports seriously and that these reports will be included in the data that’s collected.
As long as people understand that the drive is to make a “safe space”, e.g. a better-than-average place where bigotry and harassment are rare, both reported and taken seriously, and efforts are made to curtail it when it DOES happen, the space will become safe practically on its own when these actions are implemented. Sure, it won’t be magic, and sure, it will take time and real effort by all participants to ensure that this happens, but I can only see good things resulting from implementing this path forward.
I will further state my intentions to not speak at any conference where policies like these are not in place. Stephanie and others have in the past suggested creating a speakers’ union, where speakers pledge not to speak at conventions that do not have harassment policies in place. I would sign that pledge in a heartbeat, and will do whatever I can to make that union a reality.