Beyond Codes of Conduct: What Tech Events Need to Do Better

by Shanley Kane on October 30th, 2014

A few years ago, I wrote about some of my experiences at tech events in an essay called “Seethe and Grin.” In it, I catalogued just a small fraction of the issues that I have experienced while attending tech events, ultimately leading me to stop attending them at all:

I know deeply, and by now instinctively, that a technology event dominated by straight white men is not a place where I am safe. It is not a place where I will be allowed to speak, where I will have dignity. I will not be treated with respect. I will be a stereotype instead of a person. I will be a shadow of myself, slinking around and hiding, trying not to get fucked with.

Since I wrote that passage, we have seen some progress in how technology events are designed and organized: to be more diverse, welcoming and inclusive…. but there is still so much more to do.

Codes of Conduct Are Not Enough

To start, there’s been a lot of activism over the past few years around getting conferences to adopt codes of conduct. Yet as writers Maggie Zhou, Alex Clemmer and Lindsey Kuper note in our latest issue: “we’ve seen firsthand that a code of conduct alone is not remotely sufficient to prevent all incidents of harassment and misconduct from occurring.” Adopting a “copy/paste” approach to implementing codes of conduct– as we are seeing across the tech community — neglects to address critical issues… including how we address not just overt abuse, but more subtle and pervasive attacks on marginalized people in our communities.

Also foremost among topics the CoC conversation too often leaves out is incident preparedness and response. While many CoCs outline at a high level that action can or will be taken by organizers in the event of a breach, this doesn’t ensure that organizers have a sufficient level of resources, planning and training to address incidents in an effective and just way. As stands, tech organizers rarely have any experience, training or knowledge in how to actually respond. As Anjuan Simmons points out in his article, reports of CoC violations “… must be quickly responded to by conference officials who are trained in dealing with harassment, assault, and even rape. Event organizers may need to procure training for their personnel to properly prepare them to deal with potentially traumatized victims.”

Most event organizers today have not thought through questions like: how will we interact with authorities, who often cannot be trusted to act according to the interest and wishes of victims? How do we respond to scenarios in a way that is safe for victims, especially in situations that involve bosses abusing their employees, or domestic violence? What does victim-centered justice look like for our event? How will we work with victims in a way that respects their decisions, privacy and consent? What are the risks of bystander intervention at our event? How do we incorporate understanding of the myriad reasons victims do not report into our practice? And how will power dynamics, discrimination and unconscious bias affect how we respond to reports?

Especially in a community where known harassers too often receive no consequences and are even welcomed into spaces (including those that have codes of conduct!) – these are essential questions. As Zhou, Clemmer and Kuper conclude: while codes of conduct are an important tool, they are not a replacement for culture.


Another huge theme of our events issue: accessibility is something too many tech events simply do not care about, pay attention to or take steps to implement. And this needs to change.

Chad Taylor of Linguabee notes: “Not many hearing people realize Deaf people have to fight for access on a daily basis. Simply being interested in going to an event or workshop can lead to hours of begging the organizers for ASL interpreters, captioning services, or other tools for access.” Liz Henry describes her experiences as a wheelchair user at tech conferences: “Even when I’m an invited speaker, I find that conference organizers don’t listen to my advice about access. They can’t tell me if I’ll be able to get into the conference. As soon as I realize I have to explain that ‘accessible’ isn’t binary, I know there’s an uphill slog ahead metaphorically — and that literally, I’m going to have to hobble up some stairs or bump down them on my ass.”

Accessibility has to become a priority for event organizers as they plan and execute their events. There are a number of steps they can take today to ensure better access for all at their events; as Taylor states: “First, budget for accessibility. Make it a line item every time, whether someone asks for it or not. When organizing an event, we all have to pay for flyers, sound systems, venues, food, and so on…. include accessibility in this list. Make it second nature.” Henry’s article also outlines a number of steps organizers can take for more inclusive event design.

We also strongly encourage tech culture advocates, activists and allies to do more to make accessibility an integral part of their work.

Facing Entrenched Cultural Problems

Ultimately, the road to better tech events means addressing often endemic, deeply-held dysfunctions, behaviors, attitudes and mythologies. In this must-read Kara Sowles discusses tech’s pervasive alcohol culture and the myriad harmful and exclusionary impacts of events centered on drinking: “Confronting the assumed use of alcohol also forces an admission of other issues long swept under the tech industry’s collective rug.”

As the diversity in tech movement gains traction, we also face one of the most insidious problems in social change: an ongoing pattern of cis, straight white men remaining the focus of our field… even in the context of diversity! This highlights the importance of actively centering diverse people in our community events – as CK Oliver states: “Having cisgender white males and venture capitalists creating projects about diversity not only doesn’t make sense, it’s insulting on a number of levels. To ensure that an event is diverse and welcoming to those in marginalized communities, one must *hire* those voices. Whether it be for a long term position, to speak at a keynote event or a fundraising gala, or even to host a panel, marginalized voices belong, and should be welcomed and respected.”

Centering these voices also means making sure that we as a community include those we’re still leaving out. As Kat Li writes: “When we talk about diversity in the tech industry, Native Americans receive no attention. Neither Apple nor Google, nor any others who released diversity numbers said anything about Native representation. We are ‘Other’, a continent worth of people swept into miscellaneous.”

The Future of Tech Events

It’s time to complicate our understanding of tech events, and acknowledge that current policies and approaches – while an important start – are still not enough, and we have so much more work to do.

Still, I’m encouraged by the establishment and growth of so many independent new events and organizations with diversity at their core. As more events focused on diversity, and centering diverse technologists, begin, we can’t neglect the importance of supporting them financially. In one piece for this issue, Maurice Cherry discusses the difficulty of gaining funding for minority-led ventures: “…operating on a small budget (or no budget) is tough. It was really tough for me because I had high hopes and ambitions for growing the Black Weblog Awards, the audience wanted more, but I had no money and people were not donating anything (except their opinions). I started actively soliciting donations, but this opened up a new issue: getting people and companies to sponsor a ‘minority’ event.”

Please, consider supporting an independent diversity in tech group today. (Hey, you can always get started by supporting Model View Culture’s free online issues!) And if you’re thinking of starting your own tech event? Make sure to read Catt Small’s Ten Lessons Learned From Organizing Diversity-Focused Events.

See you in a few weeks for our issue on Hiring.