Making It Safer in the Meantime

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.

Making It Safer in the Meantime

57 thoughts on “Making It Safer in the Meantime

  1. 3

    Harrassment policies tell everyone involved that we are aware that harrassment can be an issue, that it is safe to report instances of harrassment, it reminds people to police their own behavior, and and it warns potential harrassers that we will not turn a blind eye to bad behavior. This is an excellent suggestion, Stephanie, and one that I would like to see enacted at future conferences that I attend. I would go one step further and suggest that if we are attending a conference and such a policy is not easily found on the website or registration documents, to contact the organizers and ask if such a policy is in place, and if not, would they consider putting one in place.

  2. pf

    Adopting a robust policy for dealing with disruptive behavior is a must for any large event.

    I really hope this push will work out, so that women (and also any generally mistrustful/mistreated minority group) feel their concerns are taken very seriously, and solved instead of managed to minimize PR damage.

    While I’m sad that there’s actual popular speakers who are part of the problem, I really hope that adopting such policies means they get called out in public, with solid proof to back up any allegations of misbehavior.

    After the first few, the rest will smarten up and get with it, or at least con organizers will become good at getting rid of bad people because they practice a lot.

    I’m really delighted to see that this call isn’t narrowed in scope to just one disadvantaged group, so that this same tired old fight can be fought once only, to make it safe for everyone.

  3. 8

    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 such a great point. Having the records to enumerate policy violations gives concrete data without threatening anyone’s anonymity. It would also avoid issues with “Oh, that one person who came forward just misunderstood/led him on/is lying/etc” since it’s harder to just explain away “15 reported policy violations.”

    And I’ll second physioprof that it would be awesome to see this kind of policy spread to other areas.

  4. 10

    […] who abuse their power by acting inappropriately. Stephanie Zvan has offered thoughtful analysis and advice, as has JT Eberhard (and I’m certain others too). But I want to address a question that […]

  5. 11

    Totally agree with all of this. As an undergrad, I was on the planning committee for a convention a campus group organized. Someone had complained (in that awkward not-really-officially-complaining) way about a creep, and the organizing group realized suddenly that we didn’t HAVE a policy.
    So we wrote one.
    This was two-pronged. Firstly, a statement saying that harassment (against sex, race, disability, etc., etc., etc.) was not acceptable and grounds for ejection from the convention (with no refund of reg fees) and notification of local law enforcement (if necessary) was prominently placed in the convention program. Secondly, all attenders, guests, vendors, etc, had to sign a document when they got their badges indicating that (1) they had read the policy (helpfully printed on the document) and (2) they understood it. Just to cover our asses from the inevitable “But I didn’t know!” whine. Yes, it produced a stack of paper that piled up at the reg desk and added to the operating costs of the con (printing). But on the whole? 100% worth it.

  6. 12

    I’d also like to suggest that of the trusted people on hand, some, if not all, be trained. They need to at least be peer couselors, they need to understand confidentiality and they should be trained in mediation (the latter is for the person who has offended, not for the victim, of course).

    Having more capable people can help end some of the dramatic aftermaths that occur and can help the victim overcome whatever has happened to them. It also discourages misbehavior if those misbehaving are aware that the consequence of their behavior is very real.

  7. 14

    I think the policy with speakers in particular has to explicitly state that the speaker will be publicly reprimanded, honoraria (if any) revoked, etc.

    Thing is, you’ve already put people on notice. And you might even think that a mere policy would be enough to stop bad behavior.

    But it’s my firm belief that creeps have creep-blinders on — in the same way that alcoholics don’t really think their drinking is a problem.

    You have to make them very, very aware that actions have consequences. And the consequences can’t be just “oh, we’ll stop inviting you to our con without letting anyone else know the reason why.”

    A named name will be a pariah at all events, everywhere. I think if someone understands that their behavior has long-term consequences, it might sink in.

    Shorter me: It’s gotta have teeth. And you have to be prepared to deal with the consequences of actually biting someone.

  8. 15

    I’m so glad you wrote this. At the American Atheist Nat’l Conv. in DC this year, myself and five other women realized we’d all been stalked, and harassed by the same convention attendee, after one of the persons was physically assaulted by him. We brought this to the attention of one of head AA’s persons, who took our concerns very seriously. I’m looking forward to the anti-harassment policies, actions, and awareness.

  9. Gib

    All this no mentioning of names….

    Surely there’s a forum somewhere that the names are being discussed. Anyone have a link? Or, how about I list a few names, and people can comment on who are NOT a danger?

    I’ll start:
    1. Richard Dawkins
    2. PZ Myers
    3. Sam Harris
    4. James Randi (presumably not against women)
    5. Penn Jillette
    6. Tim Minchin
    7. Richard Wiseman
    8. Dan Dennett
    9. Christopher Hitchens (not a danger any more)
    10. Matt Dilahunty
    11. Hemant Mehta
    12. Teller
    13. Mr Deity
    14. AC Grayling
    15. Dan Barker

  10. 21

    […] Stephanie Zvan has given an excellent suggestion: Our conferences need to start adopting harassment policies with guidelines of how to handle harassment that are clearly known to everyone, including speakers. It’s not a cure-all, but as Stephanie says: “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.”” […]

  11. 22

    Gib, if I was Stephanie, I would seriously consider deleting your post and banning you forever for the simple fact that you just did something that could be interpreted as slander (though I don’t think it is …. who needs trouble at that level without any obvious benefit whatsoever).

  12. 26

    I mentioned this in the other thread but suggestions ought to go here.

    In the harassment policies and procedures, whoever is responsible for receiving a report of harassment MUST KEEP IT CONFIDENTIAL. Breach of confidentiality should be a recorded offense under the policies. Often the complainant asks for confidentiality, but the supervisor or officer responsible for handling complaints doesn’t understand that this is important and lets slip the complainant’s name or identifying details of the encounter, exposing her to further harassment and retaliation. (Or, ‘helpfully’ reports the accusation to the harasser.) Some victims refuse to report UNLESS they have the option to report anonymously, to protect themselves from well-meaning allies who don’t see the problem here.

    As far as this community goes, I’d suggest the first step after implementing a reporting system needs to be the public disclosure of STATS from that reporting system. Total number of complaints received, number of individuals (not names) reported as problematic, and the span of complaints received. I expect there’ll be a few individuals with a high number of complaints and a long tail of others with sparse or single offenses. Those of us on the outside don’t need to see the names to gauge overall severity or the difference between a problematic individual and a nuisance. Even anonymously, the stats will also put all but the most oblivious offenders on notice.

    One more note: To facilitate accurate reporting, convention badges should have names, or other identifiers such as visible badge numbers. Otherwise the complaint’s dependent on the victim’s ability to correctly identify the individual without asking anyone for help.

  13. 27

    Oof… another thought. With a reporting system in place for sexual *harassment*, y’all conference personnel are going to also pick up instances of actual sexual *assault*. Somewhere in the policy needs to be a system for deciding when and how to report assault or rape complaints to law enforcement, and/or to the host venue (such as a hotel). Again, reporting to law enforcement isn’t likely to go well for the victim, either.

  14. Gib

    Greg, I don’t know why you think my listing names of high profile speakers might be slander. It’s just a list of the most high profile male speakers I could think of. I’m asking for anyone who knows to comment on which of them are NOT a harassers. I’m not actually inferring that any of them are. I’m just trying to understand who we’re talking about WITHOUT any slander going on.

  15. 31

    Anti-harassment policies are a great idea. Here are two “success stories” (also from the Geek Feminism blog) where such policies were a contributing factor to there being more women speakers and attendees:

    1. PyCon Australia 2011 –
    They had a code of conduct, announced it each morning, and reiterated it when they informed delegates that they had had to enforce it.

    2. A game developer conference with 50% women speakers
    Had an anti-harassment policy and train volunteers on enforcing it.

  16. 34

    Better watch out everyone. Here is an outtake:

    “Harassment includes offensive verbal comments [related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, [your specific concern here]], sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention. Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately.”

    Looks to me like we can’t offed someone because of their religion. Better take that part out ladies.

  17. 35

    One thing I may have missed here but which I think is important is that it is not enough to tell organizers they need this – you have to also tell them you will not be attending if they don’t implement it and that you will let as many people know as possible that organization x does not care if their attendees are harassed.

  18. 36

    Gib, I take it your pseudonym must be short for gibbering idiot, because you haven’t displayed any evidence of thought as to why your suggestion would be a very bad idea. Come back when you’ve read and understood Stephanie’s previous thread (in the form of a FAQ) and have something constructive to offer.

    John D, thank you for drawing attention to the presence of the word religion under the offensive verbal comments rubric. It could easily be removed or clarified to refer only to specific comments made directly to the person, rather than a general criticism that a religious adherent decides to take as a personal affront.

  19. Gib

    Good one Xanthe. “Gibbering idiot”. Very amusing.

    Obviously no one is taking me up on my request, so I’ll continue to suspect all male high profile speakers as being harassers. The Friendly Atheist is suggesting “It’s Almost Time to Start Naming Names” in a recent post, so perhaps I just need to wait a little while longer before I can get some idea of who the hell is or isn’t being talked about.

  20. 38

    So, I’ve been mulling this all over, and while I’m generally in favor of anti-harassment policies in place, I’m not sure what good they would do in this situation. Right now everyone is refusing to name names because of fear of backlash and the abusive speakers keep getting invited because they are big names. So, when we have these anti-harassment policies in place and the abusers break the policies, what’s going to cause this sudden reversal in attitude? What’s going to cause people to feel free to speak out and/or ban speakers?

    Seriously. Let’s say Professor Y is a widely known speaker, a big name, a person who draws crowds. But he periodically gropes women who don’t want to be groped. But no one will say that Professor Y gropes women, because doing so would result in massive negative repercussions for the person who spoke up. And no one will ban Professor Y because he’s such a big name.

    Now let’s say we present Professor Y with a policy indicating he is not to grope women who don’t want to be groped. Maybe we even have some negative repercussions attached. But then he goes and gropes some other woman anyway. Now what? Why would we be any more able to name names or ban him than before? Because unless we expect the policy itself to prevent the bad action (which would only be the case if we thought Professor Y was unaware that what he was doing was wrong), then having the policy is only as good as our willingness to enforce it.

    And it seems to me that everyone is saying that, as of right now, the atheist community is NOT willing to enforce it. Right here, right now, I’m being told that the atheist community is not willing to impose negative sanctions on big names who do bad things to women. If that’s the case, then anti-harassment policies will just provide a false sense of security.

    I had a friend in high school who was raped. You know what made it even worse? The fact that I told her that if she just informed adults (the school counselor, the police), that they would help her, and it was a lie. They didn’t believe her, accused her of lying, labeled her as damaged, and all in all made things worse. I unintentionally sent her into that situation with an incredibly skewed idea of what she was going to face, and that wasn’t fair. If she was going to have to fight with the police to get them to go after her rapist, then she had the right to know that before she’s actually fighting with the police.

    I don’t want these proposed anti-harassment policies to end up doing the same thing. I don’t want us to be lying to women and telling them we’ll help them when we won’t. If we aren’t willing to help women who have been abused, we need to just out and out say it: I will not help you, the price is too high, go deal with it on your own.

    I don’t know. Maybe these kinds of policies are more effective than I know. But I find myself feeling incredibly cynical. I, too, remember what happened to Rebecca Watson, and all that happened after she reported what happened in a mind manner to a group she generally trusted to handle it in something approaching a reasonable manner.

  21. 40

    @John D

    No, they usually come in the disguise of ignorant trolls.

    And no…there are no names. There is no black list. /shrug

  22. 41

    I apologise for sounding somewhat “out of the loop” here. I’ve not had the chance (sadly!) to get to any of the atheist conferences reported on FTB, and as a man I will obviously not have been on the receiving end of this sort of sexist/inappropriate behaviour. And probably somewhere in the huge stack of comments that this issue has generated, someone has probably already brought this up, but I haven’t found it… so apologies if this is a repeat, but:

    I’m trying to figure out if (a) these behaviour issues are worse in atheist conferences than in, say, science symposia or trade exhibitions (which I sincerely hope is not true, because that would be a pretty poor reflection on us atheists as a group), or (b) if the values of the average atheist or freethinker (which I always thought tended toward sexual equality) are contributing to getting this problem out in the open and the unacceptable behaviour addressed more quickly and effectively than it might have been at, say, an conference of evangelicals. Or something else?

  23. 42

    redgreeninblue, I think it’s hard to figure out better or worse, but these things definitely do happen in other groups (I wrote about it myself). I actually share your thought that it’s good that the secular community is discussing these things and finding solutions. Even if this problem happens elsewhere, it’s great to see skeptics lead the way in combating it.

  24. 43

    [ETA: Whee! This one gets a trigger warning too, this time for blaming rape victims who don’t report for other people being raped. –SZ]

    […] to this plaintive rebuke? To get on her soapbox and lecture about what should be done, while saying This is a genie that isn’t going back into the bottle. It’s a problem that’s gone public in a … Yeah, you know why it’s gone public? Because Jen McCreight made it public. Not you, Zvan. Jen […]

  25. Gib

    skeptifem – I’m not telling anyone anything. I don’t understand your comment. I don’t think you understood mine.

  26. 48

    Gib, you’re free to suspect anyone you like. If you were female, you might even be used to it by now. The question is: What are you going to do about it?

  27. Gib

    What am I going to do? Keep trying to figure out who you’re talking about and what they did. Then go from there. In general I support the talk about new policies and all that, but don’t have enough information for much more.

  28. 50

    In general, you support them. You’re not talking to any other conferences to make sure they’re implemented. You’re not offering to work with anyone on them. You’re not going to do anything about the systematic problems that support these people. You’re just going to treat it as gossip and whine about the people who won’t give you more.

    Got it.

    If you want to comment on this topic again on my blog, by the way, use the name you use when you’re not trying to get away with being an ass.

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