Codes of Conduct: When Being Excellent is Not Enough

The idea that the software industry benefits from an unwritten law of unconditional and mutual respect is an extension of meritocratic thinking: it’s as unrealistic as the meritocracy itself.

by Coraline Ada Ehmke on December 10th, 2014

In February 2014, Ashe Dryden sent the following tweet:

Tweet from user @ashedryden reading 'I will not attend or speak at conferences or other events that do not have a code of conduct. #CoCPledge'

Tweet source.

Over the following weeks, dozens of speakers and attendees added their voices to this pledge. Even conference sponsors joined in. Conference organizers could not ignore the call to action, and they had to disclose whether they supported formal codes of conduct for their events.

Many people joined the online discussion–not just advocates and activists, but general members of the tech community. Some shared their personal stories of harassment, even assault, at technology events. Several people unfamiliar with the concept of a code of conduct posed thoughtful and sincere questions. Some asked about the legal limits of enforcement. Others were concerned about financial liability, or whether volunteer conference staff could be expected to identify and remediate situations of harassment. This sort of questioning led to healthy, productive discussions and contributed to improvements in the understanding of codes of conduct.

Sadly, opponents of intersectional social justice action often tried to derail the conversation. They seemed oblivious to the real consequences that rampant and systemic racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, and homophobia had on real people in the industry. And some of the criticism and suspicion around codes of conduct came from an unlikely source: conference organizers themselves.

Code of Conducts and the Ideal of Meritocracy

One organizer protested that codes of conduct were unnecessary for their event because the two women on the conference committee did not see the need for any “special treatment” of individuals from underrepresented groups.

Another conference organizer shared a story about a time when he was having trouble at work. He felt that he was experiencing racial discrimination from one of his coworkers. “I finally sat down with him and my manager to share my concerns. The whole thing turned out to be a misunderstanding,” he recounted. “The problem is that sometimes we see racism or sexism where there isn’t any.”

Some questioned whether explicitly forbidding certain kinds of misconduct would make people worry that there had been incidents of harassment at their conference in the past.

But the most common argument from organizers who opposed codes of conduct ran something like this: since we are all professionals sharing mutual respect for one another, there is no need to add layers of bureaucracy to enforce standards that already exist informally.

The software world is enamored with the utopian ideal of the meritocracy. In a meritocracy, each person receives respect based on the worth of their contributions to the overall community. But here’s the problem: the majority of today’s technologists enjoy elevated privilege in a meritocracy because they have the luxuries of time, money, education, and preferential treatment by the world at large. The assumption of a level playing field is an unfortunate and damaging side effect of a very real lack of awareness.

The idea that the software industry benefits from an unwritten law of unconditional and mutual respect is an extension of meritocratic thinking: it’s as unrealistic as the meritocracy itself. Arguments citing that unwritten law demonstrate complicity with institutional forms of oppression. They serve only to silence the voices of those who feel vulnerable and to amplify the voices of the privileged few who either don’t know or don’t care about other people’s lived experiences. Intentional or not, these silencing techniques are incredibly damaging to many people’s lives and careers.

Struggle in the Windy City

Photo of the Chicago River with buildings rising all around it.

Photo CC-BY Monika Thorpe, filtered.

Every year, Rubyists from Chicago and abroad converge to share, learn, and socialize at the Windy City Rails conference. I had spoken there the year before, so when their call for proposals went public, I began thinking about a talk topic to submit for consideration. But as I looked over the conference website for guidance, I was surprised at what I did not see: a code of conduct.

I have been active in the local Ruby community for years as a contributor, speaker, and mentor. I frequently attended the Chicago Ruby meet-ups and their informal gatherings of Rubyists at local pubs and restaurants. The thought of not participating in Windy City Rails was disappointing. So I tweeted at the organizers to ask them if they intended to remedy the situation.

The one-word response I got a short time later was even more disappointing: “No.”

My heart sank.

I was not the only one shocked by their reply. Many prominent local women in the Ruby community joined in condemning the decision.

The main organizer soon posted an explanation to his blog: “Why the terse response? Because I have a deep bias against bureaucracy. Initially, that’s what a code of conduct sounded like to me. Do we have a problem with diversity in the tech community? Hell yes. But bureaucracy does not solve problems. A code of conduct makes us feel good about nice words written on a sheet of paper, while no real work gets done.”

The post echoed both the standard “just words on paper” and “we’re all professionals here” responses that appear so often online.

Developers are keen to say that they like solving hard problems. Unfortunately, this often means solving a problem in a vacuum. Such was the case with the Windy City Rails code of conduct. The organizer was clear about his process: he had retreated into his thoughts to consider alternatives to the codes of conduct that were fast becoming standards nationwide.

His reinvented code of conduct read: “Treat everyone at the conference as you would want yourself, a family member, or an esteemed colleague to be treated. Our community is stronger when every member contributes to the safety and learning of the other members. We are colleagues, and we treat each other with respect.”

He had at least recognized the need to adopt a policy—perhaps in response to pressure from sponsors and members of the community. However, this document was clearly a naïve throwback to the earliest attempts to deal with misconduct at events. A good code of conduct needs to include, at a minimum, definitions and examples of unacceptable behavior, a detailed process for reporting violations, and a clear set of consequences for violations. None of these vital details were present, and none of us who offered to help them flesh out their policy even received a response.

His second blog post, critical of much of the advice he had been offered, showed that things were only getting worse. “Some of the advice seemed to point toward a more verbose and draconian code of conduct,” he wrote. (Incidentally, the word “draconian” comes from Draco, a Greek statesman responsible for establishing the death penalty as punishment for minor crimes in Athens in 631 BCE. To the best of my knowledge no one suggested the death penalty as a solution to conference misconduct.)

Ruby DCamp

While this was happening, I had been working with Evan Light, the founder of Ruby DCamp, an invitation-only gathering held annually in a national forest in Quantico, Virginia. The previous year Evan had come around to the idea of the need for a formal policy. He had had concerns about the conflict between a strict policy and the open and family-like atmosphere of the un-conference. As he pointed out, attendees were already either friends or friends-of-friends, essentially forming a network of trust. But of course the potential for harassment and abuse exists even within the tightest-knit of families. Evan adopted a policy that he felt was a good balance; I highlighted the areas that I thought were problematic, so that he would be well-informed when and if the policy was criticized. He was gracious and grateful and adopted a good, if imperfect, code of conduct.

Evan Light’s policy–intended for use at an un-conference for a tight-knit group of friends and colleagues–ended up forming the core of the revised code of conduct adopted by the Windy City Rails organization. Unfortunately, other conferences followed suit, including Ancient City Ruby. A dangerous precedent had been set.

It’s important to understand that if people pay to attend a conference, it cannot truly be considered a convocation of trusted friends. Evan Light recognized this disconnect and felt the need to respond to those who had adopted the DCamp code of conduct. He wrote, “I keep trying to explain to people that DCamp is not a conference but a community. While I am humbled that you appreciate my CoC enough to reuse it, you would be better served by reaching out to the feminist, gay, and transgender communities… perhaps referring to [the Geek Feminism wiki] or tailoring Pycon’s.”

Again, silence ensued. By May, after hearing nothing from the organizers, I once again turned to Twitter to voice my concerns. I finally shared how disappointed I was that I could not attend Windy City Rails because of their reticence to adopt an effective and comprehensive policy.

An End in Sight

A dark tunnel with stairs leading up at the end.

Photo CC-BY Nicki Mannix, filtered.

A breakthrough occurred on May 20. Ken Walters, the VP of Engineering for the local startup Brad’s Deals, sent an email inviting me to a one-on-one meeting with the Windy City staff.

I went with my friend and colleague Liz Abinante. We settled into a comfortable meeting lounge and began a long and difficult conversation.

I asked why the organizers had never responded to me or even acknowledged my repeated offers to help. “I didn’t want to engage with you on Twitter. I felt attacked, like you were driving past my house throwing rocks at me. Friends don’t do that.”

We spent quite a bit of time voicing our mutual frustrations. Finally, the topic of the adoption of the code of conduct came around.

2013 was the year that I began my transition, a difficult and incredibly stressful period of shifting from male presentation to an actualized female identity in my daily life. DCamp, I explained, had been my first experience outside the circle of family and friends as Coraline, instead of Corey. And while Evan and the women’s coordinator, Eliza Brock, had been incredibly welcoming to me, my first time attending the event was not without incidents highlighting the transphobia of at least one of the attendees.

I also admitted that I no longer felt safe at another popular local Chicago meetup due to repeated atrociously transphobic and sexist comments on the part of one of the organizers and many of the attendees.

Liz also shared some of her experiences with sexism at local and national events. Hearing firsthand accounts of incidents of harassment at events just like theirs seemed to finally get through to the organizers. They asked what would satisfy us, what sort of compromise we could reach.

“There can be no compromise,” I replied. “You don’t compromise between doing the right thing and doing nothing.”

After a long silence, the conference representatives agreed to allow us to rewrite the code of conduct. By May 28th, we had finally ended the struggle. Windy City Rails and Chicago Ruby have adopted the code of conduct that Liz and I wrote for them, based on the industry standard that the Geek Feminism Wiki template has become.

Lasting Repercussions

A droplet of water.

Photo CC-BY stephanie carter. 

Although the Chicago Ruby and Windy City Rails now have solid policies in place, I’m still hesitant to attend their events. Part of it is lingering anger over the struggle that we went through to get them to even admit that a code of conduct was warranted. It hurt to see firsthand, from people I respected, such a stark reminder that the voices of women and other marginalized people are so often ignored.

Codes of conduct are, in part, intended to communicate that organizers put a priority on the safety and comfort of marginalized members of the community. How could attendees from these groups be confident that this was in fact a priority, if the organizers were so reticent to recognize a problem and the need to act on it? If putting a comprehensive and enforceable policy in place was so difficult, how could we trust them to handle an actual crisis? Is the code of conduct indeed just “words on paper” in the minds of the organizers, or is it a legitimate and sincere commitment to those who are attending the event?

I’m sure that as a result of my reluctance to participate, and by taking a front-line position in this dispute, I have damaged my standing in the local Ruby community. This may even have career implications for me. But I feel like the only option left for me is contributing to events run by people who understand and respond to calls for social justice from the outset.

I don’t understand how anyone could reasonably oppose a formal policy against harassment and discrimination. If I can’t understand, I can’t forgive. And I certainly can’t forget.