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Creating Safe Places

This article has been a long time coming.

I decided I would write it many months ago after a year of travelling around to international conferences. I chose to wait however until I took a break from them. I don’t want the message here miss-read or seen to be targeting one event or another. It’s not.

The sad thing this is about many events.

Conferences Are Not Always Safe Places

Many of us don’t feel safe at some technical conferences and I think we should talk about this.

Taking stock of my advantages

Before I begin, I should probably state some of the factors that make this all a little easier for me. Some people would call these my privileges.

  • I am caucasian and British by descent

  • I speak English as a first language

  • I travel with enough spare money on a credit card to escape home at any time

  • I am my own boss and so have no risk of being fired or discriminated against for speaking out

  • I have family at home who look out for me

  • I have good friends around the world who I know have my back

  • I am educated and grateful to be so

There are probably a hundred more things… These factors in my life and my upbringing mean that I don’t see the worst of it. While I am having occasional issues, I only see the surface. I know that but that doesn’t mean I should ignore it or leave this conversation to others.

Safety Matters

Everyone who attends an event has the right to feel safe. We go to learn and to network. We listen to people who have fallen down more times than we have. They tell us how to avoid pitfalls and how to get better, faster and stronger.

We have the right to be safe during the talks, between the sessions and at the social events.

Safety shouldn’t be restricted to the daytime education but through all aspects of the conference, from the point you register to the point you leave. Your exhausted journey home should be filled with memories of lessons learned and great new friends from far off places.

Safety Is Critical For Diversity

Bringing new groups of people into a community is hard. There is a lot of work to be done in reaching out, encouraging and supporting these new folk to get involved.

Once they come out to play however they need to feel welcome and safe. They won’t stay if they feel threatened. They won’t reach back into their own communities and encourage others.

Instead of building these new groups as advocates and evangelists, we are leaving them confused and scared.

Feeling Safe is Not the Norm

From the subtle to the sexual, conferences are still struggling to make diverse participants such as women feel safe.

Here are some of my personal experiences from the past 18 months:

  • As the only female speaker at an event, being described as ‘getting around’ and ‘had pretty slides’ rather than using my technical credentials like the rest of the male speakers.

  • Female co-speakers facing stalker like obsessive behaviour from attendees and volunteers and finding that the process for reporting this behaviour is both insulting and accusative.

  • Sponsors and attendees using social events to get handsy with female speakers despite being told explicitly to stop. Most of these requiring a male ally to intervene when polite (and not so polite) words fell on deaf ears.

  • Conference organisers being unprepared to handle reports of inappropriate behaviour and hoping it was just ‘boys being boys’.

  • Conferences reaching out to female speakers at the last second because someone has complained there are no women in the line up and ‘would I come and help even the numbers’

All of these have been raised with the conferences in question over the past year or so. There is no witch hunt here nor any will to call out events. These things happened in the past. If you ran an event and I attended it or spoke, you would already know if this was your conference I am referring to, we already had this talk. Please don’t panic.

I mention this not to call out these organisers or these events but to ask our industry to work together to fix this.

Technology Not Just Information Security

I work in information security and you should already know a lot of our conferences have a bad reputation for this.

This year however less that 15% of the conferences I attended were security specific. My schedule covered all aspects of technology and I found the problems persisting across the range.

What has this meant for me?

The changes I have made as a result of this are not dramatic. They are simple but disappointing.

  • I don’t attend many of the social events at conferences, especially if they are held in a venue that is restrictive, dark or far from my hotel.

  • I don’t drink alcohol at many of the social events I do choose to attend and when I do, it’s only if I am with friends I know will act as Allies.

  • I won’t recommend new speakers into some conferences and I worry about new or young speakers I encounter.

  • I will not return to some events.

  • I question the relationships I forge at conferences and feel reluctant to keep communications going after the event is done.

Imagine The Affect On Less Privileged Attendees

As I stated at the start of this, I am lucky. I have a lot in my life that means what I see is minor compared to most. If I am changing my behaviours and the way I interact, then imagine what it feels like for people without my status or privilege.

Do we want these people to have to fight hard for safety at our events? To miss out on the chance to learn and to connect with people who might turn out to be their future employers, mentors or friends?

I Want To See Change

There are basic things that all conferences can do to make their events a little safer for all their attendees. You don’t have to agree with me, but here is my list:

Have a code of conduct

This isn’t a marketing tool or propaganda. It is the statement that lets your attendees know they have the right to be safe at your event and tells them to to get help if it all goes wrong. Don’t over think it, keep it simple, keep it well advertised and most of all you have to mean it.

Practice responding to code of conduct issues with your whole team

If you haven’t thought this through in advance, it is likely that you will get this wrong, act slowly or your organising team will each approach things differently.

Make sure your response focus is on taking notes and getting details, making the reporter feel safe and heard and then handling the offending individual/group.

Once this has done, make a statement at your event so that attendees know something has happened (you don’t need to name and shame but you should say something and reiterate the code of conduct/processes for reporting).

When we hide things and handle things too quietly, people don’t know that they can report things and that they are safe.

Reduce the availability/reliance on alcohol at conference social events

I know we are all grown ups.

I know that many people are not idiots when they have been drinking.

I know that drink alone does not make someone behave in an unsafe way.

But I also know that as an industry, technical professions have a toxic relationship with alcohol. We have many cultural norms that damage our environments and make them unsafe.

I’m not saying ban the booze, but I am saying simple steps like fixed number of drinks per attendee (issuing drinks tickets) have a noticeable affect on the drinking habits of attendees.

We don’t need to get drunk to connect with people and we could all be a little safer if we held back a little more.

Help Make A Change

I’m not looking for a big debate or to create drama. I rarely speak publicly on these sorts of issues as I don’t like the arguments and nasty behaviour that permeates our social media space.

I am making an exception today. I am asking for your help to make events a safer, more welcoming and more diverse place.

So go help out your local conferences, challenge behaviours that seem dangerous or wrong and most of all talk about your experiences. It’s only when we share and suggest pragmatic changes that we will ever see change on this subject.

Thank you,