Meet Brody “Bro” Harrison, who is at a conference, about to give a tech talk…
The conference organizers have known Brody for a long time. He wasn’t on the conference schedule, but the speakers invited him to give a talk after someone had to back out. Brody, a prolific speaker, is known as a dude’s dude and prefers to be called “Bro.”
Brody, wearing a red baseball hat and cowboy boots, walks onto the stage for his talk holding a beer and stroking his beard. He makes sure everyone is watching, then takes a gulp of his beer before handing it off and stepping to the microphone.
“Alright, guys, are y’all ready to fire the Bro gun!!!!”
It used to be that it was a major step forward for a conference to adopt a code of conduct. With efforts such as The Ada Initiative (Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner) and The Contributor Covenant, (Coraline Ada Emke), many conferences now have a Code a Conduct. Indeed, the conference where Brody is speaking has a CoC, but the organizers told Brody to tone it down a bit and trusted that he would listen.
But first, let’s take a look at how Brody’s talk is going from the perspective of Kaya, an attendee.
Kaya is attending her first technical conference at her first tech job. She watches Brody walk onstage and feels immediately confused. She worked her way through her coding program while being a server at a restaurant part time and Brody reminds her of the rowdiest, most annoying customers…at the bar.
Kaya worked hard to learn how to code and didn’t give up, surviving through the rigorous coding interview grinder until she landed her first tech job. She’s frustrated because she planned out how to pay for attending this conference months in advance and worked with her boss on getting the approvals necessary for the company to pay for her ticket. Her boss asked her to make a few notes about what she learned so that she could present findings to her team.
Watching Brody launch into a talk filled with references to guns, tanks and dudes high-fiving, Kaya tries to make some notes, but she feels out of place and can’t find anything in the talk worth writing down. She tries to remind herself of what she’s often heard, that it’s all about the code. But it’s hard to focus on code when she feels like an outlier at the conference. She looks around and notices that the crowd mainly consists of men who seem to be enjoying the talk. After the talk, the man seated next to her asks if she’s a developer.
So far, the conference CoC has not been violated at all, yet Kaya is having a bad conference experience. She watched a talk that made her feel out of place and awkward in tech. The micro-aggression of being asked if she’s a developer at a developer conference makes it worse.
Kaya leaves right after the last talk of the day and goes back to her hotel room, alone, and watches TV. She knows other attendees are at a happy hour, but she can’t imagine trying to socialize with them. Back at work, she gives a quick summary of talks to her boss. The conference didn’t feel worth it to her. She doesn’t request travel to any other conferences for the next year.
Having a Code of Conduct is not enough
Protecting marginalized people’s safety over privileged people’s comfort is a guideline that can be used to think about who is being centered in a given situation and how the path is being cleared for inclusivity. A conference that creates a comfortable environment for people from under-represented backgrounds extends this guideline to protecting not just the safety, but also the experience marginalized people have at the conference.
Make no mistake, people who are under-represented end up feeling threatened because they have been threatened, possibly with their lives. It would be awesome if the reason for having a code of conduct and protecting marginalized people was simply so that people could get along, but people who are under-represented face threats to their livelihood, well-being and even their lives on a daily basis. It’s not about manners, it’s about safety and survival.
A conference experience includes the speakers, their slides, recruiters, swag, caterers, etc. No matter what the intent of the organizers, the voice of a conference comes loudly and clearly through the microphone. This is the voice your attendees will be sharing out to their friends and co-workers. Slides from talks and swag from recruiting tables shows up on social media and become the early advertising for next year’s conference. What your speakers say is what you say.
Turning it around
Clearing the path for under-represented people takes work, but, more importantly, if you come from a white and/or privileged background, it takes a shift in head space. Once you start making changes, you’ll notice that some of the speakers and attendees who were “cranky” or “curmudgeonly” before are now safety risks. It is, indeed, “time to fire the Bro gun” but this time, firing means not putting them on your stage.
It’s up to you to prioritize marginalized people’s safety over privilege people’s comfort and to make sure everyone at the conference does this as well.
Although some tech conferences will always be problematic for marginalized people, there are conferences who take this seriously.
Showing the persistence and courage that got her into tech in the first place, Kaya finds another conference to attend, one that seems more welcoming. A Woman of Color gives an amazing technical keynote. Kaya didn’t have to worry about getting so many approvals for this conference because she was able to get a free ticket through the conference diversity initiative.
Kaya is sitting with a conference guide and feels more comfortable that she knows someone at the conference. The keynote resonates for Kaya and she smiles at the end as she claps for the speaker. She’s excited to be here and can’t wait for the next talk. In fact, she starts to think, for the first time, that she’d like to apply to give a conference talk herself.
Editing help from Molly Wilson