Space and Silence: Why Codes of Conduct Matter

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Article contributed by Stella

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Originally a language and citizenship teacher, Stella transitioned into a Training Specialist, specifically as an advocate for inclusion and autism awareness. She also works with targeted groups to improve online privacy and advise on social media strategies. Discovering security and infosec on Twitter was like “finally finding my people.” She is a Brexit victim, seeking shelter in the USA.

On Twitter: @MlleLicious

When I advise people on building inclusive environments, we often end up discussing Codes of Conduct, which have become associated with online arguments and a culture of “correctness”. My first comment is always that if you genuinely feel that you cannot behave normally unless a CoC exists, then you need to reflect upon your behavior and why it may cause offense. However, the vast majority of us judge ourselves as kind and supportive and inclusive.

So why DO we need a CoC anyway? Surely it is simply common sense? Sadly not. This is not because we are bad people, but because we are bad at people skills.  

I will elaborate here on why I feel CoCs are valuable, where they go wrong, and the small steps we can all take to make things easier for each other.

An effective CoC takes into account the needs of all attendees. That means considering carefully different situations or risks that various groups may encounter. To be honest, this entails thinking about needs that you may not understand or even imagine, but which deserve to be recognized. I find that once people begin to consider this, they are more supportive of a CoC.

Rules are not there to prevent you from being yourself; they are there so that everyone can be themselves with confidence.  

My favorite conference CoC was the one at AlterConf. It clearly states what it considers to be unacceptable behavior, how to report it, and what will happen if you break it. My appreciation for this CoC is due also to the “etiquette” section, which encourages attendees to consider personal space, sensory issues, visual or hearing impairments, and even how strong perfume can cause issues for some attendees. These are all small, valuable and important considerations, but with individual actions we can make huge differences to groups of people that need our support.

In training and awareness sessions, some people tell me that they feel intimidated at first by such requirements, but that they want to take positive steps. As a society, we are used to expecting people to conform. We unconsciously and also actively reinforce harmful normative behavior. We are not conditioned to accept difference or to use empathy. For example, the laudable efforts by Starbucks to facilitate employment and communication for hearing impaired people – this should be the standard, the norm, the baseline for what we expect as a society.

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Many CoCs fail because they do not consider the needs of ALL attendees. The specific nature of each conference or event will require tailored guidelines for attendee behavior. Most of all, however, there should be an effective plan for what happens when and if a rule is broken. Are staff trained in how to react? Are victim support units with trained counselors from local organizations involved?

The reaction to a complaint is so important. How will you, as event organizer, deal with a police report or complaint? When you choose a venue, is it accessible? Are there quiet areas? Are food choices broad? Can badges signal desire for or against social interaction or photos?  

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The second reason for a clear CoC is empathy. One of my main areas of interest is inclusion for people with autism or Asperger’s. This recent discussion on Twitter might be helpful to explain why CoCs are so vital:

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Many tech workers choose to work remotely as they find office environments or social interactions very difficult. This exchange developed from a lively discussion about the value or importance of remote work to “introvert” behavior. The quoted Tweet is supportive, but requests “data”. The response explains feelings and physical stresses that many people will be unaware of.

This is why CoCs matter: in a world that is increasingly narcissistic, we have to actively consider other people’s needs.   

Social situations such as conferences can be highly stressful or draining for attendees. There are a multitude of reasons for this and even the most social or energetic person can feel worn out after a day of meetings and talks. We have to start approaching our interactions and event planning with a more inclusive attitude.  

Whilst I do not seek to criticise the author of the Tweet who is requesting data, I do want to use it to highlight the way that we treat those who are different from ourselves. We are not accepting. We request proof of diagnosis, of need, of want. Sadly, even if academic or medical research exists, a person may not even have an official diagnosis.

Should we carry research papers that prove our needs in the same way that we carry ID? Ridiculous as it sounds, that is how society treats those with differences, disabilities, difficulties or impairments.

The conversation needs to be more about “how can I make this easy for you” rather than “prove to me why I should”.  In fairness, this Twitter exchange was supportive and each side listened and was receptive. However, this attitude carries over into the general conversation around inclusive environments. Mention diversity and you will hear many conversations about quotas and whether underrepresented groups are given preferential treatment.

For example, below is a quote from an online discussion I saw recently:

So the point this person is making denies the need for inclusion and demands that the community remain dominated by one group. This comes from a position of privilege and power. But representation matters. If people can recognise themselves in speakers, attendees, sponsors or recruiting company websites, then they are inspired to participate. If you can see it, you can be it. This also applies to bias – if you can see bias, you can also overcome it!

It is also true that conferences in and of themselves can be exclusive environments. Attending generally requires the purchase of tickets, travel, accommodation and food, as well as arranging care for dependents during your absence. So there are explicit expectations of financial and social means just to attend.

This is why diversity scholarships are so important. Underrepresented groups are so because they struggle to be heard and to be accepted. In fact, these groups have been suppressed forever as society places so little value on their voice or rights. It is uncomfortable to realize that you may be part of a system that represses others, especially when you consider yourself a good person, but today more than ever we need to move from words to actions, from complacency and being complicit to direct supportive actions that raise others up.

We have learned that battles are not won via Tweets and thoughts and prayers; the value you place on someone is not measured in Facebook or Instagram likes, but in solid actions to amplify that person’s voice and give them equality.

In the fight for inclusion, dialogue and listening are important foundations. CoCs are not aimed at preventing behaviors, but more at promoting good habits. The majority of conference attendees are good natured, respectful and considerate of others. CoCs help us all to evaluate how truly helpful and inclusive our actions are. So while you may not post online abuse or harass a fellow attendee, do you perhaps insist on talking to the person next to you? Are you thinking about restroom policies and food choices or quiet areas if you are organizing the event?

Codes of Conduct are intended to create inclusion and empathy in a world that leaves many behind.

These should be thoughtfully created through consultation with different groups. They are there to make the conference experience more relaxed and comfortable for us all. If you have never felt threatened or uncomfortable at a conference, that is absolutely wonderful, but you need to accept that this means you have privilege.

We need the people who are undaunted and comfortable in their position and power to join us in our fight for inclusion. We need allies.