The Geek Feminism Blog has recently been pushing an anti-harassment policy "suitable for most open source, computing, or technology-related conferences".

Unfortunately, I've heard (third-hand) of enough instances of the behaviors described by this policy at some of the research conferences I've gone to, to make me think it might be a good idea that they also institute policies like this. But I've tried looking around at the web sites of some recent theory conferences and I don't see any such thing there.

As for the likely response of "we don't need a policy because the victims can just take action themselves, and if they don't then it wasn't a serious enough problem to require an official policy", see this other blog post for why that sort of blame-the-victim non-policy is inadequate.

Update: Andy D. adds his support and provides some good explanations for why it could be helpful and wouldn't likely have much of a downside.



I agree that explicit anti-harassment policies in conferences will be useful to avoid some problems. But those policies cure just the symptoms, so they can't solve the problem well enough.

I think one important cause of those bad behaviours is that some of the male attendees of those conferences don't do enough sex. This is the problem that the society needs to face. Adding more rules can't be enough.


Note that this post is about harassment in a much more general sense than just sexual harassment. I guess such a reaction indicates that there is indeed a problem of "not doing enough sex".

However, a civilized human being should control his/her impulses whatever the causes of the impulses are, and understand that the society would not take it kindly when he/she does not. I think the introduction of the policies is about the latter---about letting these individuals know that harassment is not an acceptable behaviour regardless of what it is a symptom of. Putting it into your context: your sex life or its absence is not the society's problem. All the society cares for is that you keep your symptoms to yourself.

ext_313039: why not

I don't see any reason someone would oppose such a policy. (Who would claim that they would like to see others/themselves harassed?)

The leonardo said, such policies only address the symptoms. The real problem is the mindset of those who perform/justify such harassment.

The only negative I can see from such policies is they might be used to "silence" speech that might otherwise be allowed. Take for example, the content of Jeffrey Shallit's blog: (His latest post is entitled "Dear Charles Lewis: You're a Dishonest Bigot".) Shallit often posts on religion/politics and some might even consider his posts "offensive".

Might it be possible for such policies to be used to exclude people (with such vocal opinions) from speaking at conferences? I doubt it, but it's something to consider.

None: It is fine ot have a policy

but exactly who are enforcers that the policy mentions in its more detailed versions? The assumption seems to be that there will be some sort of local organizer ability to plan how to "police" and enforce such a policy. If you have an idea about how to do this and think that this is easy then why not get involved and volunteer to be a local organizer?

None: Real instances of harassment?

I'm curious what sorts of harassment incidents you have heard about that happened at academic conferences (of the type we go to)?

This is partly out of curiosity, and partly because I don't agree that everything incident linked from the Geek Feminism Blog really constitutes harassment. (A notable example among several: I don't find the selling of sexy superhero Halloween costumes to constitute sexual harassment.)

11011110: Re: Real instances of harassment?

One that I heard about from a year or two ago involves a female graduate student being kissed against her will by a senior male professor. I don't want to be any more specific than that. But I get the impression that most or all female researchers have stories about being the subject of inappropriate attention at conferences.

None: downsides

The policy does have its downsides. What follows is a partial repost from Andy's blog:

Harassment is but one of many behaviors that are unacceptable just like brawling, stealing, or disruptive behavior are.

On the minus side, making this policy explicit is somewhat offensive. Imagine you were to get at registration time a warning reminding you that you are not supposed to destroy conference chairs or walk away with LCD projectors. Most people would find such a statement offensive.

How about making an extra effort to have more female invited speakers or having a society policy that all conferences should provide day care, instead? These things make a real difference and send a clear message that we care about the status of women in our profession.

The problem with grandstanding, feel-good policies is that they make people who care about the status of women (such as Andy and yourself) feel like they have achieved something to this end and can move on to other goals. This is a false sense of accomplishment.

11011110: Re: downsides

The most recent Graph Drawing conference had daycare provided, and from what I hear it was successful in bringing some participants to the conference who might not otherwise have been able to come. Probably the effect was larger than the effect of having an anti-harassment policy would be. But I don't follow your logic: why does having a harassment policy prevent one from having daycare, or vice versa? If several different measures would improve the conference experience for the participants, why not do them all rather than making them compete against each other?

None: Re: downsides

But I don't follow your logic: why does having a harassment policy prevent one from having daycare, or vice versa?

If we spend attention on cosmetic policies such as this we detract effort and political will from other more important women friendly initiatives. It is also a zero sum game because sympathizers time and attention are finite. If I'm going to call on your better efforts and support (and trust me, one I day I will :-) I'd rather save it for when it really counts.

11011110: Re: downsides

The only-so-much-energy problem should be exactly why it's helpful for there to already exist a ready-made policy, just needing a little customization.

As for detracting from other efforts: a rising tide lifts all boats. Paying attention to this issue seems likely to bring more attention to other aspects of the way we do things that lead to inequalities; saying "this is not important enough, let's pretend it doesn't happen and not think about it" seems likely to encourage us to also not think about other problems.

Incidentally, it's not just an issue for women, or even just for people in identifiable disadvantaged groups. For instance, I think the incident years ago when a STOC/FOCS talk got disrupted by another researcher in a gorilla suit (against the wishes of the speaker) would fall under the "sustained disruption of talks or other events" part of the policy and was quite inappropriate, despite there being no sexual nature to the disruption.

None: Re: downsides

Looking back at my own personal experience as a social activist, I see two markedly different eras: from the 60s (which really happened in the 70s) to the late 80s when significant on-the-ground gains were made in the fight for equality and the 90s til today in which we have focused on peripheral issues such as switching from actress to actor while simultaneously going from latino to latina (if that makes any sense).

We are training the next generation of young feminists to focus on the wrong things, if you ask me.

ext_274121: Re: downsides

I'm reposting this comment from my blog, in response to another part of this commenter's objection.

[Sexual harassment] is but one of many behaviors that are unacceptable...

Actually, harassment is distinctive in several relevant ways. First, it creates an environment hostile to women, making it harder to reduce the gender disparities in our field. Second, social norms against harassment are simply not strong enough to give adequate protection. Too many people, after experiencing harassment and seeking help, find themselves

  • blamed for the problem, or
  • urged to keep quiet (especially if a high-status individual is involved), or
  • expected to handle it on their own as a “personal dispute,” and to negotiate or “reach an understanding” with their harassers, or
  • questioned as to whether the behavior in question is really harassment, or
  • simply met with, “I wish I could help.”

These are among the recurring patterns that victims of harassment report, and there is no reason to believe that CS Theory communities are immune.

Third, and related to the last point, harassment is a complex phenomenon that admits of varying forms and degrees, and is not always easily recognized; people can and do disagree about what constitutes harassment. An anti-harassment policy attempts to set a clear, uniform standard that’s strong enough to promote the goals of the conference -- which must include professionalism and the full participation of women.

11011110: Re: downsides
Well said.
None: sure, but be constructive

There are jerks and there are those who are simply awkward and just don't know what to do.

While continue to kiss somebody against their declared will is obviously wrong and should always be condemned, other things could fall into some kind of gray area. Clearly there are quite a few academic couples were both partners come from the same community. Therefore I assume that sometimes there is such a thing as consensual flirting going on in the work environment (which may include conferences).

I think it's a fine idea to have an anti-harassment policy to remind people what behavior is unacceptable (and probably against the law anyway)! However, in an attempt to keep the collateral damage small, maybe one should be a bit more constructive and also explain how to behave - not just how not to. What should you do if you meet somebody you like? What kind of behavior do people find acceptable?

Of course you could say that any kind of non-professional contact has to be avoided under any circumstances, but that is rather unrealistic and may even harm the community.

I'm not sure how serious I am with this proposal. In an ideal world, you wouldn't need to give guidance for something like this, but in an ideal world you also wouldn't need an anti-harassment policy in the first place.