Making Tech Spaces Safe for Diverse Faces

We must examine the harmful outcomes that technology events foster: discrimination, aggression, and harassment. The only way to change these outcomes is to change behavior.

by Anjuan Simmons on October 30th, 2014

Technology events can be extremely empowering experiences for planners, speakers, and attendees. However, this empowerment is only fully experienced if you’re a straight, cis white male. For everyone else, there are limits to what can be gained from technology events. And for women, technology events present more than just unequal access to benefits: they can be dangerous spaces where harassment, assault, and even death are real threats.

As an African American male, I have experienced firsthand what it means to be a technology event attendee who is not a member of the dominant culture. Just this past September, I attended a prominent IT automation conference in San Francisco. Like most technology conferences I attend, I was one of a handful of people of color among the hundreds of conference attendees.

While I have grown used to being part of a vastly underrepresented group at technology conferences, I had two experiences that reminded me that being a non-white male can result in being treated differently. First, while I was sitting in a session, another attendee (a white male) walked up to me, stopped a few feet away, looked at me for about three seconds, and then walked away without saying a word. It was as if he thought I was a Jabberwock and just wanted to make sure there wasn’t a Bandersnatch sitting next to me. Second, I was in line for a free book about writing classes for the IT automation tool for which the conference was named. One of the two white men handing out books asked me, “What classes do you plan to write?” Sensing my confusion when I hesitated (I thought it was an odd question to ask for a free book), he said, “We don’t have a lot of books left so we can only give them to people who will use them.” This made sense, but he didn’t ask the white male before me, nor the white male after me questions about how they would use the book. They received unquestioned access to their free copies.

The reasons why technology events have failed to equally share their benefits with women and minorities are many and varied. One culprit is hidden bias which is the “you’re not what I’m used to seeing” reason. Another reason is “brogrammer” culture, which preys on women by stripping them of their essential humanity and denying them any access to power. Unfortunately, this machismo attitude easily spreads from inside corporate walls to technology events.

A crowded tech event.

Photo CC-BY Tech Cocktail Chicago, filtered. 

We must examine the harmful outcomes that technology events foster: discrimination, aggression, and harassment. The only way to change these outcomes is to change behavior. I believe that there are three behaviors that need to be changed. They are how technology event planners use codes of conduct, discuss marginalized groups, and provide tools to help people who encounter aggression at technology events.

Codes of Conduct

Codes of conduct, in and of themselves, are useless. If the code of conduct is hidden somewhere on the conference web site and never referenced during the conference, then it presents no value. For a code of conduct to be effective, it has to have the right content, be used in the right conversations, and have the right level of enforcement capital.

Technology events should make sure that their codes of conduct describe both acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. They should also include contact information for reporting code of conduct violations and penalties for those who violate the code of conduct. It’s important that conference attendees know that the code of conduct is not just about their own individual behavior. Conference organizers should make sure that everyone feels empowered to report any violations that they observe whether against them or another attendee.

A check box.

Photo CC-BY Oliver Tacke, filtered.

Even a code of conduct with the right content is ineffective if it is never seen nor discussed. The first conversation that a technology event has with an attendee is the electronic exchange that happens during registration. Technology events must make acknowledgement of the code of conduct a required part of the registration process. Make registrants scroll to the end of the document and click a checkbox before they can complete their registration for the event. Furthermore, the code of conduct has to be prominently displayed in the conference guide. It also needs to be verbally reviewed on stage either right before or during the opening keynote. Given the immense amount of discrimination, microaggressions, and abuse at technology events, it’s impossible to spend too much time reinforcing the code of conduct and the intention to make the event safe and welcoming for everyone.

Technology event organizers also need to put some teeth into their codes of conduct by punishing those who violate it and, if necessary, the companies they represent. If the violation is egregious enough, then the individual should be banned from the event for multiple years. The worst offenses should result in the offender’s company being banned from the technology conference. If the person who violated the code of conduct is not a registered attendee, then that person should be placed on a problem-person list along with any publicly available personal information (i.e., name, online profile, picture, etc.). Conference personnel should be trained in how to identify, approach, and expel people on this list.

Overrepresented Groups Should Not Speak for Marginalized Groups

The release of diversity data by Google in May 2014 resulted in a stream of diversity data from other large and well-known tech companies. It also resulted in more conversations about why women and minorities are so underrepresented. These are healthy conversations to have, but there is a real danger that any progress made in improving diversity will be undercut by those who jump on the bandwagon of diversity in order to advance their own interests. One way that diversity carpetbaggers are doing this is by speaking at technology events. This behavior usually presents itself as one or more white male “allies” who believe that they have the position and experience to discuss solving technology’s diversity problem.

If a technology event wants to address the lack of diversity in technology, then the speakers and panelists should be members of the groups that are underrepresented in technology. Having a group of white men talk about getting more women into tech, tout their “ally” status, or discuss strategies for addressing discrimination exacerbates the problem. It reinforces the belief that women and minorities are not qualified to tell their own stories or understand their own problems. It also communicates the falsehood that it takes a white man to solve the problems that women and minorities face in the technology industry. The lack of objectivity that white men have about the problems of their privilege is damaging to the conversation.

Light bulbs lining a stage.

Photo CC-BY Susanne Nilsson, filtered.

Technology event organizers should not give overrepresented groups a pedestal to discuss their privilege because they will always make the discussion about them. They will always try to talk over women and minorities, deny their privilege, and blame victims for not working hard enough in the very system that gives white men privilege. Instead, event organizers should seek members of underrepresented groups to speak on panels about their challenges. Since this often involves recounting painful experiences, event organizers should offer speaking training to potential speakers. Event organizers should also make every effort to meet with members of underrepresented groups to form relationships with them and assuage any concerns they may have about going public with their experiences.

Implement a Panic System

Women especially are far too often on an uneven playing field at technology events: outnumbered and surrounded by men and often at a physical size and strength disadvantage relative to those who may assault them. The threats of bodily harm that technology events pose to women can be understood from even a cursory evaluation of what has happened just in 2014 as reported by sites like Geek Feminism Wiki. This year we saw reports of two women being groped at a Bitcoin meetup, a woman being sexually harassed at a Danish hacker space, and a woman being sexually harassed at OSCON. Keep in mind that these are just the incidents that get reported.

While women are disproportionately targeted, members of all marginalized groups can face serious situations of abuse, assault, harassment and bullying at tech events. Technology events can mitigate these risks by implementing a panic system that can summon help whenever an attendee feels threatened. Ideally, a panic system provides assistance that prevents an incident from happening or results in early intervention. However, they can also be useful in helping victims of an attack get support as well as report details about what happened to them.

Since microaggressions, abuse, and discrimination can be subtle and short in duration, having a panic system that is easy to use, private, and responsive can help cut through the confusion that often sets in after a confrontation. Since many survivors are in a state of shock after an incident, it’s vital that technology event organizers put a high degree of visibility on the existence and usage of their panic system. This can be done during the registration process where the event’s commitment to the safety of all attendees is stated and the panic system is described.

An effective technology event panic system will have three components: people, places, and push notifications. The “people” component consists of event personnel who are easily recognized as official staff members. This can be done by providing event personnel with a standard shirt style and identifying marks.

Sign that reads 'This is a safe area'.

Photo CC-BY Iain Farrel.

The “place” component consists of safe rooms where attendees can go and privately discuss any incidents. Safe rooms should be pointed out on maps of the event and marked with a sign outside of the door. These rooms should be available and staffed 24/hours a day for the duration of the event. However, please note that not all attendees will be comfortable approaching these spaces, and other ways of contacting organizers and setting up safe spaces to communicate must be facilitated.

The “push notification” component can be as simple as an email address (e.g., to which attendees can send messages after experiencing or witnessing an incident. During registration, attendees should have the ability to opt into the panic system and receive a confirmation email after doing so. Or, since many technology event attendees use Twitter, a Twitter account (e.g., @HelpMe_TechEvnt) can be provided. If attendees opt into a Twitter driven system, then they will receive a notification from Twitter once the conference panic system account starts following them. Once an attendee’s Twitter account is followed by the event’s panic system account, the attendee can direct message the event personnel monitoring the account in the event of a problem.

Having a email or Twitter driven push notification system allows calls for help to be done privately. This avoids the public shaming that many women endure when they accuse men of inappropriate behavior. Conference personnel who are assigned to monitor the panic system must make the preservation of the privacy of those who use it the highest priority. Regardless of the system used, all information provided to it 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.

Changing Technology Events

Changing technology events from experiences that are all too often filled with discrimination and danger to the empowering professional experiences that they should be will take time. However, strengthening and enforcing codes of conduct, intelligently and effectively discussing the plight of women and minorities in technology, and implementing a private and responsive panic system are low-cost behavioral changes that can go a long way toward improving technology events. These changes will help technology event attendees receive the open and safe environment they deserve and provide event organizers with the tools they need to maximize the experiences they create.