The Code of Conduct debate around Open Source conferences has been much on my mind again lately. Just today somebody called my attention to this blog post about yet another attempt to fix what some see as a real problem. I have to admit that my take is a little different, and some will find it disloyal to my gender (as I was accused back when I gave a keynote at OSCON a few years ago). I actually like the cards the blog is talking about. Its a clever hack and one that promises to at least create more timely communication when people feel uncomfortable, which IMHO is preferable to some of the passive-aggressive behaviors we have witnessed recently.
I've not written until now about my take on all this appropriateness chatter over the past couple of years. When it all started I happened to be the only female CTO in the top 10 most popular websites in the world and I felt my opinion on it would be artificially amplified by my position. I was troubled by what I saw as strong-arm tactics employed to force conference organizers to police attendees, and I did have a number of conversations privately with women who agreed with me and were also troubled, and also with women who completely and vehemently disagreed with me.
A little background: I have worked in the Tech industry for more than 20 years and in some pretty visible positions. It is not unusual for me to be the only woman a room full of men in meetings or at conferences, and I've seen my share of inappropriate behavior.I've also worked for several of the larger Tech companies, which means I've seen a variety of approaches to training people about these issues (most Tech companies present between 15 to 45 minutes of training on this issue during new employee orientation, and many require additional training for managers).
The watershed moment for me was when I experienced Intel's orientation. People tend to work at Intel forever, and dating amongst co-workers is really common there. They also have a melting pot of cultural expectations because they hire from all over the world. Their policy says (my paraphrase) that its every person's responsibility to set clear boundaries. Their orientation on the subject (which was the longest I've attended) included skits showing how to ask a co-worker out on a date, how to decline an unwanted advance and how to act after you've been told "No, thank you". The orientation went on to explain that if you set a clear boundary and the other person continues to harass you, then Intel's management would support you in a grievance against that person.
My eureka was to hear them explicitly say "It is up to you to clearly say "No" initially". I know at least one woman prominent in the Code of Conduct movement who felt that this was too much of a burden, that it created a hostile work environment, but I thought it was clear and brilliant.
So here's my general take: some of the women who want to see strict Codes of Conduct are really seeking to be absolved of their fundamental obligation as human beings to set clear individual boundaries. They want the organization (or the conference) to do this for them so they'll never be made to feel uncomfortable. The problem with this is that living in the world involves dealing with all kinds of people and just as fairness isn't an inalienable right, neither is interpersonal comfort. Its a messy business figuring out what other people's intentions are in the best of cases, and we owe it to our fellow humans to be as clear as we can on our end in just our normal interactions.
That said, there are certainly creeps out there, of all genders and both intentional and unintentional ones. I think its positive for people to be given tools that help them give effective feedback (such as the clever cards used at DefCon). I just hope they come with instructions for the card-bearer to hand them out AFTER exhausting more normal feedback with an offender. Otherwise I fear handing out these cards will become a proxy for normal human boundary setting and will further contribute to the death of authentic interactions between people wherever they are used.