Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Your conference needs an anti-harassment policy

Update 16/5/2014: To follow up the actions I took at the end of this post, I am pleased to say that one major conference in my field now has an anti-harassment policy

Your conference needs an anti-harassment policy. This might not seem obvious at first and many people will probably backlash to that initial statement with something like "I know what is and isn't appropriate behaviour at a conference, why patronise me by spelling it out?" The likelihood is this policy doesn't exist because of you. But your personal experience does not exclude the possibility that there are people out there who are less savvy and socially capable than your good self. Crucially, it also doesn't mean that harassment doesn't happen. 

Sometimes it can be hard for people to realise that harassment is happening, even when it is literally happening right in front of their eyes. Let me tell you a story…

One beautiful summer evening in Bruges I stood on the outdoor terrace of the fine art gallery as contrails swept across the blue sky overhead. The sun was starting to go down casting a photogenic light on an already beautiful city. As I delved into conversation with another attendee about proton therapy and particle accelerators, I nabbed a glass of champagne and sampled some of the goodies from the trays of gorgeous canap├ęs as they whizzed by. Next thing I knew, I felt someone behind me softly but quite perceptibly touch my bum.

Mid-conversation my head turned quickly to see who had bumped into me, only to see a conference attendee shuffling slowly past, hands by his sides. He did not react to me suddenly turning around to look right at him and seemingly hadn't noticed he'd bumped or brushed against me. In the blink of an eye I was back to the discussion. It was a crowded reception and accidents happen.

Five minutes later, another brush on the bum. Another head check. The same guy. 

I'd already recognised the perpetrator as someone who had harassed me at a conference earlier in the year, but this was starting to seem a little odd. He again didn't react and wasn't even looking at me so I put it down to chance.

About two minutes later, as he circled round the reception, it happened a third time.

I waited until he was out of earshot then I interrupted the conversation I was having with this really quite interesting cluster of people to do something I've never done before. I spoke out.

"Oh my god that guy has just touched me on the butt for the third time in a row!"

Cough. Splutter. A group of eyes on me. "What?"

I said it again. They were, needless to say, shocked. The other woman in the conversation later told me the same person had harassed her in the past too. This guy was a serial offender. 

The men in the conversation knew who he was but had absolutely no idea that he had been harassing their female colleagues. The other woman said she would tell the conference organiser.

So the informal female network sprung into action and I am aware that at least two other women were actively warned about his behaviour in order to avoid it. It became the in-joke among the small group who were there to have a laugh about my "dear friend". It was a joke and I went along with it, but I felt slightly uncomfortable when it was brought up repeatedly as I didn't want to be seen to be making a big deal or a spectacle of being harassed.

As far as I am aware, that was the end of it. I'm not sure if it was even reported in the end. To be honest I didn't know who to report it to exactly, or what the outcome of reporting it would be. It didn't really faze me. I can't believe I am writing this but I am used to this kind of behaviour.

One of the reasons for my reluctance to act or report it was because just like most scientific conferences, this conference didn't have an anti-harassment policy. Even if I had reported it, what would have been the outcome? Aside from embarrassment for me and probably an unnecessary and ill-judged fuss.

But I am writing this post now because I want things to change. (Better late than never.)

Recent events in the online science community have made me want to take action. First, a female scientist was called a whore for declining a request to write a blog post  after establishing that the work would be unpaid. Then a high profile member of the science blogging community was named and called out for sexual harassment. The wonderful outcome of the furore that has followed is that people have started openly discussing sexual harassment and sharing their experiences through blogs, twitter and of course in person.

There has been a huge upsurge of support and it felt like a huge relief to hear that I am not alone in having had many experiences of sexual harassment. While individual workplaces and employers usually have anti-harassment policies, for me conferences really stand out as one place where harassment is more common than usual*. While at work I would know who to go to and what action would be taken if I was being harassed, at a conference it is far less clear cut.

I realise that over the years I've built up mechanisms and techniques for dealing with this. I've even written blog posts about how to deal with it. But one of the outcomes of reading, sharing and discussing these issues was that I realised that rather than learning to 'deal' with sexual harassment, it actually shouldn't be happening at all.

It might seem obvious to you, but this was quite a realisation for me.

So rather than delving into the countless experiences that women (and men) have of sexual harassment at conferences, I want to propose something positive that can be done to improve the situation. If you are an event or conference organiser, you should implement and enforce a public and visible anti-harassment policy.

You don't need an anti-harassment policy because you expect harassment to happen, rather you need it because you don't expect it to happen. But if and when it does happen, it is better to know about it and have a pre-determined course of action and a policy in place. If there had been a policy at the conference I was attending I would have known what action to take.

What's more, anti-harassment policies do work. The result in the open source community has been a record percentage of female attendees and speakers. It can take a few years of concentrated work to get to the point where there are specific and enforced anti-harassment policies, but making conferences a safer, more friendly place for everyone is really important and it is more than worth the effort.  

On the back of this realisation I announced on twitter that I was going to contact the employer of the man I discussed above. The support was unanimous and overwhelming. Thankyou! 

Unfortunately his position seems to have been a visiting one and I am unable to track down his present employer. But I have contacted the organiser of the conference I described above. I have also contacted the chairman for the next major conference in my field to raise the implementation of an anti-harassment policy as a suggestion. I am eagerly awaiting their response and hopefully, the beginnings of change. 

In the meantime I encourage other conference organisers and attendees to think about implementing or asking for the implementation of anti-harassment policies. Thankfully this path has been navigated before and there is even an example policy, as well as a thorough discussion of the reasoning for these policies which emerged from the open source and computing community. There is also a good list of suggestions for actions individuals can take in support of the adoption of a conference anti-harassment policy. 

I look forward to updating you on progress in the future.

*I don't have the numbers to back that feeling up, but if you do, let me know. 

UPDATE 24/10/2013:
After emailing the chairman of a big upcoming conference, I received this quick reply. It both confirms my growing suspicion that many men in our field (including those in positions of power) are simply unaware of the level of harassment that women encounter at conferences, and happily, promises to at least start some action on it.

Dear Suzie,
Many thanks for your email regarding an anti-harassment policy.  I have
to admit that this is not something that has been raised before, to my
knowledge; nor have I previously heard of any incidents.  However, I'm
aware that cases of harassment often go unreported for many reasons, and
while it saddens me to think that it may be necessary to introduce a
policy concerning the issue, it is of course something that must be
taken very seriously.
Thank you for the link to the sample policy - this is very helpful. I
will raise the issue with the [big international organising committee], and we will look at adopting
an appropriate form of policy for the conference.  I can raise this also
at the Co-ordinating Committee for conferences in the [conference] series (which
brings together representatives from Europe, Asia, and North America),
where the possibility of introducing a "standard" policy for future
conferences could be considered.
Thank you again for bringing this to my attention.
Best regards,
[Conference chair]

UPDATE 16/5/2014
The anti-harassment policy of this conference has now been implemented. A small step in the right direction in a very male-dominated field. I hope that my efforts will mean that fewer women in my field in future will have to experience the harassment that I have experienced.


  1. [Note: Just trying to capture some a long conversation I just had on FB about this. Commenters names removed but can re-instate if they want. sorry I think i have lost some longer bits of comments and some of Commenter 2's comments altogether... ]

    Commenter: Why do you need a conference-specific anti-harassment policy? Isn't that taken care of, from the legal point of view, on a wider national level, at least in most countries?
    In general I have the feeling it's much better to make it work what we have than try to devise new, very specific solutions.

    Commenter 2: I don't think it's an issue of inventing something new and specific so much as reinforcing "normal" behaviour in environment where, regrettably, some feel that, away from home, the normal rules don't apply, by formalising and publicising such a policy and emphasising that the rules *do* apply. An example practice would be to appoint an harrassment officer (for any harrassment, not just sexual on women). As an analogue, it is unthinkable now (in the UK) to have any organization (such as Scout groups or junior badminton clubs as I have been involved with) without appointing a child protection officer - a priori (not after there have been problems). Such visible presences help everyone just by being there. IMHO

    Commenter 3: Just read the post, and was shocked to read such problems were so prevalent. I suppose one thinks such problems occur in other peoples' workplaces and not ones own.

  2. Commenter: Personally I have the feeling that this "officers" in whatever context have the only practical effects of reassuring the general public that something is being done, without actually doing anything. What reduces the sexual harassment,for example, IMO, is not a lecture every other year but the cultural pressure that make people realize how wrong that is. If there is anything that would make the guy Suzie was talking about to stop, is not an appointed official, but the fact that the ladies, Suzie in particular, had the strength to speak up, thus applying a strong cultural pressure on this guy, that is probably going to think twice, thrice and more about that stuff and hopefully realize that it was wrong and it was hurting someone else's dignity, and actually even more his own, IMO.
    Commenter 2: I think that is well meaning faith (no offence ) that takes no account of the real world. So you would leave ladies who don't have that strength, for whatever reason, to drown - would it be their "fault" because they don't have that strength? - I knew such a lady in our organisation who was harrassed. It's a tough truth that what puts perpetrators off is the idea that the harrassment officer at an international conference will report them directly to their institute director- no messing - and that they know the receiver of harrassment has someone to go to that is independent. I wish the world was your world but I feel it isn't!
    Suzie Sheehy OK so this is a big issue and [Commenter] you make one very very pertinent point: these people need cultural pressure to stop being douchebags and harassers. You know who they won't feel pressure from? Their victims or targets. This is why this is a cultural/societal issue and not a 'womens' issue. Men need to reject and call out others on this just as much as women do. But, how can you if you don't even know it's happening!? And how can you if when it does happen, no one says anything because they don't know who to tell and can't see it would do any good anyway?? We need a conference anti-harassment policy so that people who DON'T know what the correct behaviour is have a reminder and those who DO know are able to call out the douchebags. It also empowers people to speak up when they see a violation of that policy whether they are the victim or not. But I need to say I DID NOT speak up at the time because it was not clear to me how/why/or even if I should. Having a clearly stated policy would improve reporting of harassment. If someone like me (pretty outspoken and won't take bullshit from creepy dudes) fails to speak up, how many cases do you think go completely unreported? Also, taking something to the "legal system" is a completely different kettle of fish from saying "hey, this guy was creepy and harassed me, please tell him it's not OK". Finally, conferences are held all over the world and in some countries the laws we expect are, in fact, not in place and the reporting of harassment and even rape can and are routinely ignored. In fact, this happens in countries you would expect to take it very very seriously indeed too... (

  3. Commenter: Actually is more of a lack of faith in the "officers" not much because of a fault, but because I'm quite skeptical in general about the power of law in changing behaviors that are unfortunately deeply hinged in our culture. In Italy there is a saying: for every law made, a workaround can be found. And in situation that are fuzzy the law always lose.
    Commenter: I perfectly agree on the first part of your argument, Suzie. What I disagree is this sentence:
    We need a conference anti-harassment policy so that people who DON'T know what the correct behaviour is have a reminder and those who DO know are able to call out the douchebags.
    Try to turn it completely around:
    We DO NOT need a conference anti-harassment policy so that people who DON'T know what the correct behaviour is have a reminder and those who DO know are able to call out the douchebags.
    In my opinion this makes more sense. It's not a piece of paper that would make me call idiot/piece of shit (I think you're overly polite with that "douchebag") someone that acts like that. I will do it because I know that that is wrong, and you don't need a piece of paper to push you that way.
    And I perfectly agree that is primarily due to other men cheering for such "endeavors" that those are "almost normal" in the first place.

    Suzie Sheehy Please see my very first paragraph of the blog post. I think you naively believe that all men know this behaviour is wrong. Many don't, and others don't even realise they are doing it. The system you suggest is what we have RIGHT NOW and that is quite obviously not working. When I was in the computing room and this same man grabbed me on the shoulder and inappropriately commented on my appearance the room was FULL of people who could hear and witness it. How many of them called him out or reported it? How many people checked if I was OK even though i was visibly shaken, confused and upset? F*CKING NONE OF THEM. How many of the guys I was talking to when I mentioned the guy had touched my butt for the third time offered to go have a word with him (they KNEW him) or report him. NONE OF THEM. And they never do. Sorry to get worked up over it but I think it is difficult to understand that people are not as nice/helpful/upright/good as you think and even if they are they don't act on it.

    Commenter: The only advantage that I can think of, of an officer of some kind in these situation is that it can take notice of the complaints, try to address the situation discretely, especially to verify if the problem was maybe just a coincidence or a misunderstanding, before going further through official channels if something that was malicious actually happen. But personally I think this is something that should be done on a regular basis with every type of conflict and complaint, that's why I don't believe in a specific officer for a specific violation in a specific context. Otherwise you should have a: plagiarism officer, an anti-homophoby officers, an anti-racism officer and so on for ever.

  4. Commenter: I do not believe at all that everyone feels this behavior is wrong. I know for a fact that many people, even women, are pretty comfortable condoning such behaviors. And I actually remember your previous story about your encounter with this guy. What I think is that you do not need a specific officer for just this kind of problem and that, even if you had that, it's power and utility will be close to nothing. On the other hand I think that the fact that you spoke out, which also made other people share their experience, was the most powerful and hopefully useful reaction but I'm also quite sure that not so many people have the strength to do something like that and many women, and men as well in other situations, would simply prefer to ignore the fact to avoid being involved in an embarrassing episode.

    Suzie Sheehy Firstly such a conference policy is about all types of harassment not just sexual harassment. Plagiarism is already covered in both the peer review and copyright policies. It is not about having some kind of 'officer' or 'harassment police' but a policy that everyone is aware of. You then need to be able to enforce such a policy when it is violated and have systems in place such that if a complaint is made it is dealt with appropriately. If there is any such 'officer' it is simply a named person that complaints can be taken to (so in my example this is the person I would have spoken to) who is trained about appropriate action to take. As a conference organiser if you don't have such a policy and haven't thought about such a complaint it is perfectly possible that when it arises it will be dealt with insensitively, inappropriately and possibly do more harm than good to the person reporting it. That's if they report it, which is unlikely. I worry that your first reaction to this suggestion was to say "no. we need to keep the system as it is now" because that denies the existence of the current problem and shows that you seem reluctant to change the status quo. If the status quo is that it' OK for people to harass and attempt to grope me and get away with it then that is very f*cking not OK.

    Suzie Sheehy If you do not feel this behaviour is wrong you need to seriously examine your beliefs. I am not overstating this, I am really serious. You and I have had long discussions on sexism topics in the past. I really encourage you to read more on this topic. Men and women condone these behaviours because we are culturally and socially conditioned to accept the objectification and harassment of women from a very young age. It took me a long time to realise that this behaviour was wrong and this is why I have finally spoken up about it.

    Commenter: I do not like the status quo, I just not believe in cultural changes done by the force of law, in general and not just in this case. Cultural changes are brought about by cultural pressure that comes out of person like you that are not afraid to speak, and hopefully a bit by person like me that deeply despise people that treat others, and in this case women, as object-like entities that exist to satisfy whatever "lust" they might have in that moment.

  5. Suzie Sheehy An anti-harassment policy IS a cultural change! It's a group of conference delegates and organisers saying "we want our conference to be safe, happy and enjoyable or ALL our delegates and we will actively tell people that". If you really believe what you are saying you should be 100% agreeing with the idea!
    Commenter Maybe there was a little misunderstanding. I strongly believe something like that is wrong and I know that not everybody notices it, and people like that I usually not like, to put it mildly.
    Suzie Sheehy OK *phew* sorry I misunderstood. You have in that case pointed out why we need such a policy (it is really as simple as a statement on the conference website) - because there are men and women who don't see this behaviour as wrong.
    Suzie Sheehy I also agree with you that bringing about cultural change be force of law is, in most cases, not going to work. But as a scientific community we need to recognise that a) there is a problem b) we want to fix the problem and c) we want to openly and pub...See More
    Suzie Sheehy Also, this might be helpful/interesting:

    Commenter: I really believe what I'm saying but that doesn't imply that I agree 100% with the idea that a piece of paper will change things. The first example that come to my mind is the struggle for racial equality in the US. What made something change was the push of hundred of thousand of people to make everyone realize that we are all the same, whatever skin-color we have. Laws followed but those laws are meaningless without the consciousness of people that have to apply in their everyday life, in their own heart. And the best testimony to that is that, even with the same law in place everywhere in the US there are areas where they simply are useless because most of the people simply do not care. That's why I'm a bit skeptical about the usefulness of such paper-policies.
    Commenter: A) Bursting through an open door
    No doubt about it
    C) If you really feel the need to put it on paper, your welcome by me, but personally a piece of paper won't change anything for me because I will speak out, as you will, with or without that piece of paper. In the best case scenario, people that are less incline to put themselves out will have somewhere to go to complaint. On the other hand my personal fear is that it will more likely just act as a way to say: sure look, we are taking care of that, we even wrote it down, so that you can be free to actually do nothing about it.

  6. Suzie Sheehy This is not about changing the law. The laws already exist. Also, this is not fictional - IT REALLY WORKS and has worked in other communities for their conferences (open source, geek conferences etc). Links at the bottom of the blog post. While I agree it may not be perfect, it could make a huge difference. There will always be people who don't care, just as there will probably always be douchebags, but what we're doing here is saying, loud and clear "harassment is not welcome here". At the moment, the message sent to most women is "yeah, you will probably be harassed at conferences". Being skeptical is one thing, but failing to act on a known problem simply because you think the solution is not 100% ideal or going to 100% solve the issue is not really ok... but I do understand your concern. It is very hard for you to personally understand why it is necessary because you wouldn't do it. The policy is not there for you. Honestly this guy in my case would still have harassed me regardless of the existence of such a policy, but let's not focus on the douchebag - focus on their target/victim: I and all the women I know whom this has happened to surely want to feel that if something like this happens at a conference that it will be taken seriously, that there will be consequences if so desired and that they know how to take action. At the very least, it will give them a leg to stand on to say "I complained and despite the conference policy nothing was done".

    Suzie Sheehy I guess what I mean is the piece of paper/statement comes first. Getting it out in the open must come first before cultural change can happen. Just as 'standing up' and 'speaking out' gets it out in the open, a stated anti-harassment policy will also get it out in the open. At the very least if more discussions of the kind I've had with you tonight can happen in science it would be a very valuable thing.

    Commenter: Just to cite the article you linked:
    "That is wrong, and we should all label it so. We should all seek to promote not only appropriate rules, but also a culture of active discouragement and prevention of sexual harassment."
    As you said rules are there, in general, I do not think we need special ones for conferences, but I also never witnessed such episodes as you described in a conference. Maybe it was the reason why I always felt that among smart people such behaviors would be like white flies, which is maybe an optimistic assumption.
    I agree that is the target/victim one has to focus on and I think that the best way is a communal message of: "your not alone", "it's not you that should feel ashamed". If you think a piece of paper and a dedicated officer would help in that direction, that's fine for me. I personally believe that I can leave my mark much better by isolating those people and those behaviors.
    Commenter: As in the example that I made earlier, I believe in the opposite. The piece of paper is at most a consequence of a cultural change. It can seldom, probably never, act as a trigger
    Commenter: PS Sorry if we discussed it here on FB instead of your blog

  7. Suzie Sheehy I don't see why you think I am asking for 'special rules' for conferences. I am not. A policy/statement is there to reinforce exactly the quote you pulled out. I think we are agreeing overall but you are resisting the idea of such a policy being spelled out explicitly. If I've understood you, you think people should already know and promote a culture which prevents harassment. The very fact you have never witnessed it and yet I have been sexually harassed at almost every major conference I've been to surely shows why we are disagreeing over whether it is naive or not to think that people already know this, and over the need/urgency to spell out such a policy. (This is not to mention those who do know but violate such a culture intentionally and willingly, who really are the ones who ought to be kicked where the sun don't shine...)

    Commenter: Probably the fact is that, for me, the brushing of the hand on your butt is at the very best a childish behavior and that is so self-evident that stating the obvious feels like a way to wash your hands of the whole problem. I perfectly understand that this feeling of mine can be wrong or an underestimation and maybe I'm even ashamed that there are people like those you described around. Nonetheless I think that the best solution for such cultural issues is a cultural pressure, more than a piece of paper, the best solution are people, like you, that are not ashamed of speaking up.
    Good night and sweet dreams

    Suzie Sheehy: Oh yes it was childish indeed. And not appropriate for a work setting. And unwelcome. and that constitutes harassment. Don't worry I am not affected by it or shaken by it (though I was when he grabbed me on the shoulder and made creepy comments at the other conference). I am also ashamed that such people exist and thrive in our society. Good night & thanks again for the discussion.