On codes of conduct

I know it has been forever since I wrote something! It is summer and I am working at MSR and I have picked up few new side projects, and more excuses 🙂 But this topic has been on my to write list for a long time, so let’s go and talk about the idea of a Code of Conduct (CoC) for a bit.

Disclaimer: This post is my personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of Joy of Coding
Disclaimer 2: With this post, in no way I mean to diminish sexual harrasment! I am merely pointing out other ways in which conferences can be ruined for me.

CoC at Joy of Coding

At the Joy of Coding conference I organize, we have had a CoC for a few years. I don’t think we gave it lots of thought, it was just a thing you did. We  just grabbed the text from here and that was that. This year while opening the conference, I put a bit more emphasis on it. This lead to some responses in the post conference survey. Some people felt that there should be no emphasis on it, it should just be there and nothing more. One of the things I added in the speech was “make no assumptions” (more on that addition later) which, interestingly enough made someone write that by saying that, I was making assumptions! Mathias Verraes recently tweeted something along these lines too, I’d link to the tweet if I could find it 🙂

CoC’s should change people’s minds

The way most CoC’s, including ours, are phrased is something like: do not harass, do not use offensive languages, do not drink too much, and we will help. That is all great, but almost everyone will read that and go: yeah sure. There might be some free speech people saying that you should be allowed to say anything but in general, it seems to be fine. And for me that means the CoC is not working. This leads to my first controversial statement of this post:

“If your CoC is not inducing some pushback, it is not working properly”

I know this might upset people, like my remark did, but I feel strongly about this. If what you are writing is general enough so that everyone is like: yeah sure, than what has changed? I would like my CoC to challenge people, induce discussion and change minds. Otherwise it is not doing anything. It is not like people are like: “ow, I would like to touch that man’s ass, but sadly there is a CoC”.

Harassment is not my biggest buzzkill

Harassment is horrible. At conferences, I have been inappropriate looked at, spoken to and even touched. A hand on the back, just a little bit too low, a kiss on the cheek a little bit too central. And given stories from other regular conference goers, I have been “lucky” in that respect that is has not gone more creepy than that.

But…. there are things that are very abrasive as well that are not in the CoC explicitly. Just recently, a man at a conference called me not-normal for talking about programming languages as a programming conference. In the middle of a conversation he showed me a picture of a handbag!

“This is what normal women care about”

Like, WUT!?!

Constant reminders I am out of place, assumptions about me, litteral disbelief of what my profession is… That is so exhausting.

I am not at a conference to talk gender!

In the hundred+ of conferences I have attended over the past 5 years, I can hardly remember a conference where I have not spoken about my gender. Because people bring it up all the time…

Like I said before, the lower the percentage of women, the higher the percentage of time I end up talking about it. I don’t always want that! By talking about gender, I am not speaking about my work. You are robbing me of the opportunity to talk about my real topic. Over the years, I have written a dozen blog posts (together over 10.000 words) on the topic. That is a whole research paper I could have also written. Contrary to popular belief, I do not enjoy that. I would really prefer to talk write about code smells and programming education and turing machines. But I feel I have to do something.

My proposal for a better CoC

In addition to needed statements on no harassment and how it will be handled, I’d like conferences to also add something along these lines:

No assumptions
Do not assume what people’s profession is, just ask them. Just because someone has a beard, does not make them a UNIX programmer, because someone is wearing five fingers does not make the a node.js developer, just wearing a dress does not imply they build compilers.

No tokenizing
Do not make people a spokesperson for anything, unless their job title is being a literal spokesperson. If I give my opinion, it is mine alone. By definition. I do not represent all women/all minorities/all academics etc. In particular don’t ask me for the opinion of others, like “why do you think there are no other women at this conference”?

No singling out
“Notice how you are the only lady here?” Don’t ask. We did notice. We scan every room to see if there are others. Especially don’t offer theories as to why that is. If we feel like talking about gender or race, we will start that conversation. If not, we are not in the mood.

Be careful with “real programmers…”
It is all funny to say that Pascal developers/emacs users/VBA hackers are not “real programmers”. Sure, we all do it, I have done it. But be careful. Understand that it can be exhausting and discouraging to hear that you are not a real programmer all the time. Why are we dissing each other anyway? Every programmer is a programmer. If they are not Siri or Cortana or DeepMind, they are real. Instead, maybe focus on the interesting differences. Ask people what they love or hate about their language. Connect rather than reject.

Be careful with jokes
Jokes are funny and great for creating that group feel. But think about who you are joking about. Jokes are never without context, and often they reinforce stereotypes. Think a second before you joke and check if you are punching up or down. Take a piss out of your own group, or a group certainly in power? Awesome! Making a joke about an underrepresented group. Danger zone. I am not saying it is forbidden, I just want you to use your brain.

You might find this too much, but like I said, a good CoC in my opinion changes minds. Feedback welcome.


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1 Comment

  1. Gien Verschatse

    “Making a joke about an underrepresented group. Danger zone. I am not saying it is forbidden, I just want you to use your brain”

    On occasion there are people who say that I “need to be able to take a joke”.
    I can take a joke. It’s not even that one joke they are referring to that bothers me, it’s the fact that I have been dealing with ‘just one joke’ a lot that day…
    So I respond to the joke in a not that pleasant way and the other person thinks ‘what is her problem? It was just one joke…’
    It’s very difficult for me to explain to them why I’m not insulted by it, I’m just not finding it funny anymore and I want it to stop.
    So this is what I tell them (and myself): “one joke from you, isn’t one joke for them.”

    Imagine a conference of 100 people of which 5 are an underrepresented group.
    If all other 95 participants make just one joke, it means each person in that underrepresented group, if the jokes get evenly divided, has to listen to 19 jokes. So one joke from you, doesn’t mean one joke for that person. It’s just one more person who makes a joke…

    (There was a blogpost explaining this really nice, but I can’t find it anymore 🙂

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