You literally cannot pay me to speak without a Code of Conduct

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Recently I was approached by the User Experience field’s illustrious Jared Spool about giving a workshop and speaking at his spring conference UX Immersion in San Diego. At first I was delighted. I’ve already done an online UIE seminar with his company, and the opportunity to earn extra income while strengthening my position as an animations expert in the UX community was attractive to say the least.

But there was a problem: Jared refused to have a Code of Conduct at his event.

A Code of Conduct, if you’ve somehow missed the conversation, is…

… a set of rules outlining the social norms and rules and responsibilities of, or proper practices for, an individual, party or organization.

Wikipedia

Codes of Conduct are nothing new, but for the past couple of years they’ve been implemented increasingly at traditionally male-driven events like technology conferences and comic conventions as more women become active in those communities. Men and women ask for and implement these policies to help create safe, diverse spaces for all kinds of people including—but not limited to—women.

It’s no secret that I have pledged to never attend or speak at a conference without a Code of Conduct. I’ve stated it on podcasts, in writing, in person. Normally organizers have done their research and already have one lined up before they contact me or quickly set about setting one up.

Jared, on the other hand, has made no secret that he doesn’t believe his events need a Code of Conduct, that he believes conferences can be “designed to be safe.” He makes a persuasive argument that Codes of Conduct are a misleading “sticker of approval.”

Jared’s stance was firmly, “If you want a Code of Conduct, I will find another speaker.”

I don’t care what you call it, but it must do these things.

Wanting to do this business deal (I’m passionate about animation in design, and I’d like to make a living at it), I reflected upon what it was about Codes of Conduct that I needed, and asked Jared if he could provide them:

  1. Declare the event’s dedication to creating a safe space.

    I like to see on the event site something like, “We care about ALL our attendees, not just the most prestigious or powerful. Misconduct is not cool, and we won’t stand for any of it, no matter who is involved.”
  2. Clearly state what behavior is expected and which are not tolerated.

    We’d like to think that “good people know how to behave.” But all kinds of people can be harassers, not just scary guys in bushes. We’re not taught in schools how to respect boundaries or what consent means. People from other backgrounds and different industries may have different expectations as well. For instance, a room full of strangers may agree that rape is bad, but when asked to define what rape is, they will give wildly varying answers.

    What’s more, as an international traveler, I’m never sure what others abroad think of as “over the line.” Having it spelled out in any location makes me feel more secure that my miniskirt isn’t going to be seen as an “invitation” by someone with a different upbringing. I need the conference to normalize all these different behaviors by explicitly setting expectations.

    We think good conduct obvious, but when we start talking to each other, it’s not. There is no “universal good behavior” shared by all of humanity. Not if we don’t discuss it in the open.

  3. Provide a path for folks to report problems and seek help if these expectations are not met.

    This means a 24/7 phone number, dedicated email address (not all travelers have network access), and preferably contact person (who has had training on handling situations like this). If someone is out of control at 2am, there needs to be a sober person on call capable of assessing the situation and responding appropriately.
  4. All of the above must be public and easily accessed.

    It’s not enough for organizers to state their dedication on Medium where their friends read but not on the event’s site where attendees look. It’s not enough that these behaviors are implicit in some fine print. And “everyone knows our organizers and they can contact one of us” is no good at all at 2am when an attendee doesn’t know those organizer’s names or numbers because their boss handed them these tickets at the last minute and they’re scared.

This happened to me.

When I went to my first Small Press Expo (SPX), a comic convention for independent publishers, I was going to table with a colleague who was supposed to come with a person I thought was my friend. My colleague couldn’t make the trip at the last minute, so our mutual friend was traveling alone.

We wouldn’t remain friends for long.

While I was working at my table selling comics, this man came and asked me to dinner. I declined: I was working. The next day, he came to my table and threw a tantrum in front of all the other attendees: he thought I’d somehow promised him an intimate experience. No, I assured him, I came here to work. Was there going to be a problem?

That night I let Molly Crabapple use the extra bed in my hotel room. We stayed up talking and laughing about indie comics and life until 1am when there was a soft knock at the door.

I quietly peered out the peephole.

He was standing there, staring blankly at the door.

“Do we need to call the cops?” Molly mouthed.

“Maybe he’ll go away?” I whispered.

Eventually he did.

We didn’t think to speak of it to the organizers. That was not even a thing back in 2005.

Principles drive good decision-making.

I have a principle that drives my every decision in life: do unto others as I wish people had done for me when I was young and needed help. Life was hard for me growing up. As an adult, I want to make sure I always have other young women’s backs because no one had mine. (Except for Molly on that night.)

When I promised not to go to conferences without Codes of Conduct, I wasn’t paying lip service to a trend, doing the popular thing to gain brownie points with my feminist besties. I meant every word. It is my greatest fear in life that something bad would happen to someone attending a conference I attracted them to.

Rachel dangling as an anglerfish's lure to an audience of sardines.
How could I ever forgive myself?

Code of Conduct Myths: Debunked!

After emailing Jared that I’d be happy to attend if he could provide these four things, he asked if I’d join a Skype call to discuss with him. Jared made the same arguments he did in his post:

The conference cultivates a professional atmosphere, so people will “be professional.”

So do the countless boardrooms in DC that misconduct happens in. So did SPX. Tuxedos and spats will not stop misconduct from happening. Never has. Never will.

Limiting alcohol consumption will limit misconduct.

A lot of men I talk to seem to think this makes sense by default, so I feel beholden to spell this out: we have no evidence that limiting alcohol consumption decreases misconduct.

If a person thinks something is ok behavior while drunk, they probably didn’t have many qualms about it before they started drinking. And many things other than alcohol can affect a person’s behavior. Remember, none of us that night at SPX had been drinking.

Plus, giving attendees only a few drink tickets doesn’t quash the numerous room parties, bar crawls, and tangential social events that will have alcohol.

So, no, limiting alcohol consumption will not magically put a stop to misconduct.

Attendees will reach out to the organizers personally if there’s a problem.

Even as a conference speaker, I rarely know the names, roles, and contact information of all the people involved in putting on the events I go to, let alone which of them I should contact at 1am. Attendees are even less likely to feel like they can reach out to organizers, especially if the perpetrator is a speaker in the high esteem of the organizers. Remember, at SPX, neither Molly nor I thought to call an organizer.

Then how is it that Major League Baseball has one on the back of every ticket they sell? I imagine they had lawyers examine this policy very closely before engaging in it. Perhaps organizers should ask their lawyers to do the same. Or get MLB’s lawyers.

A bunch of signs in a window saying no moshing or harmful behavior, kids.
Even the music venues in my home city of Portland put safety and conduct front and center—in their window space!

We’ve only ever had five incidents.

That’s actually quite worrying. That’s like when a client tells us they don’t need a feedback form because only five people have ever emailed them with complaints. Imagine how pissed a user has to be to hunt down an email address to complain. Now what happens to all the slightly less pissed users? Where are they heard?

This gets even harder when attendees feel like the person they’re having problems with is a friend of the organizer or holds a high standing in the community. This is why I need conferences to do numero uno above: Declare the event’s dedication to creating a safe space. This sends a clear signal to attendees of all walks that they matter, regardless of who’s causing problems.

A Code of Conduct makes it look like there’s a problem when there isn’t one.

But there is a problem. Maybe not at this conference specifically, but eventually a few rotten apples are bound to attend or speak. Organizers need to prepare for that eventuality. Think of this as the emergency fire exit plan on the back of the hotel door (yes, I read those): The sign is not an admission that the hotel has or will catch on fire. It exists to protect the people staying inside if that happens.

But you can trust us.

The first line uttered by every con artist. But no, really, this isn’t about how trustworthy the conference organizers are: it’s about having a system in place in case all hell breaks loose.

A Code of Conduct is only as good as the people behind it.

One thing Jared did get me thinking about is how some less scrupulous conferences might be copy-pasting Codes of Conduct to appease speakers like me. Then when shit goes down, their follow-through is poor, and their process stops being transparent. This steeled my resolve to look more closely at Codes of Conduct in the future.

However, I wasn’t sure why this was a reason for his events not to have one. He touted his events as having a great track record and methods for handling situations. Why not proudly declare that and put the rest of the industry to shame? Why not lead the way? Be ultra-transparent?

I like the idea of designing conferences to be more inclusive, to feel safer. To be sure, there’s a lot conferences can do to this end. But we can’t “design” misconduct out of conference anymore than Boeing can design a plane that will never crash. Codes of Conduct are like life vests and inflatable slides: they let customers know that we are putting their safety before our own pride and profit margins.

Trust is earned through actions, not just words.

Jared and I went over and over these points for two hours. Exhausted, I left the session feeling like I must be the only woman ever to have asked for a Code of Conduct at one of his events. Inside I was a roiling emotional mess as my business head clashed with the principles in my heart.

He had said he was interested in creating a non-code of conduct that would meet my needs, and that, in fact, he was working with another prominent woman on such a thing. When asked if I’d participate, I suggested a consultant or two who specializes in such policies, as I am hardly a legal or safety advisor and would rather spend my time finessing animation workshops.

Privately I followed up with the woman he mentioned only to find that she’d agreed to participate in an event under similar circumstances, under the condition of a conduct policy that met her own requirements, and no such thing was to be had by the time of the event.

This indicated to me that Jared wasn’t able to prioritize a conduct policy once before. If the same situation repeated itself, I would be committed to speaking at an event without any policy, making me a hypocrite, living my worst nightmare on stage.

I told Jared I wouldn’t come to the conference until such a policy was on the event site.

He said he’d find another speaker.

Disappointing yourself/others.

After explaining these emails, conversations, and internal conflicts to my husband, he asked me, “If this were a woman organizer, would she be arguing with you like this?”

No. She would not. Because most women have experienced harassment in broad daylight by sober men. Most women have had something untoward happen to them and not known who to turn to. Many women never say anything because they feel like “the deck is stacked against them” in their circles, at work, at school. If you don’t know this, you don’t listen to enough women on Twitter.

Then I asked myself, “If this organizer were anyone but Jared, would you give them two hours of your time to try to work things out? Or would you expect them to prioritize a conduct policy immediately, same as airfare and a hotel room?” And lastly, “If this were a comic convention organizer, would you feel safe tabling after a conversation like this?”

I felt shame as I realized I was treating Jared differently from other people just because we had an established business relationship.

Keep your head up. Set boundaries.

I’d never been challenged on principle like this before. And I’m glad I was. Because I learned something new about myself. I really wanted to do this deal, but as I wrote to Jared:

…(W)hat does it say about my own personal integrity to make an exemption for you? If am asked on a podcast for young women in the space, “Rachel, why did you speak at this conference that very publicly has no code of conduct?” What do I say? “Although I had my reservations about his stance on the matter, I think Jared’s heart is in the right place, and I really, really wanted to do business with him?”

While I would do another online seminar with Jared, I can’t hold him to a different standard than other organizers. Of course I worry that writing this might mean getting invited to fewer UX conferences. But it was more important to explain, in minute detail, all the issues with this line of thought, both for the benefit of other organizers and to assure other women that no, you are not irrational for expecting these things from the events you attend.

I spoke with many women (and men) about this, even ones who have spoken at Jared’s events in the past, and their advice was the same: if you feel strongly about something, put your foot down. Demand the change you want to see. It’s the only way to raise industry standards. I am with you.

We can all be together in this.


There are many good articles about why events need codes of conduct and how to draft one. If you are an event organizer and are intimidated by this task, the authors of both the preceding articles are available to consult.

I’d like to thank the people who helped proofread this post to make sure it was coherent and useful.

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