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making conference a safer space for women

This post was coauthored by Eugene Yokota and Yifan Xing


We need to change the culture around tech conferences to improve the inclusion of women (and people from other backgrounds too!). For that, there needs to be clear signaling and communication about two basic issues:

  1. No, it’s not ok to hit on women at a conference.
  2. Assume technical competence, and treat women as professional peers.

These points should be communicated over and over at each conference before the keynote takes place, and before socializing hours.

retention is the problem

If you’ve been to a tech conference around Scala, you might notice that overwhelming majority of the speakers and attendees are men. In the recent years, there is more awareness around it, and we are seeing some uptake on female speakers and attendees.

During the Diversity and Inclusion panel in Reactive Summit, Tara Hernandez who is a Senior Engineering Manager at Google said about workspace diversity:

People complain about the recruitment pipeline, but it’s retention that’s the issue that causes the problems.

In other words, problem is not finding women: it’s about keeping them.

This principle also applies to the Scala community. If we can’t retain women (or people from different backgrounds), it’s obvious we won’t see significant increase over time.

hey, you’re cute..

Unfortunately, in conferences I’ve gone around the world, I keep hearing about:

You might be surprised to find that these things happen in Scala conferences. According to the women I’ve had chance to talk to, it happens “very frequently” to almost all female tech people. So if you didn’t know, it could simply mean that you either don’t talk to female programmers or scientists often, or they don’t trust you enough. Well, now you know, and you can contribute to fixing this problem.

You might also think, “hey what’s the big deal?” Let’s see the situation from a female attendee or presenter’s point of view here:

She has technical knowledge (just like you), and came to the conference to exchange technical ideas and learn together. She may have spent weeks preparing for a talk etc. She wears a dress like usual. She gets interesting questions, and she’s excited to meet new people.

The answer is “no”, but your mood is dampened if not ruined. You tell yourself “This was never a safe space. What was I thinking!?” (There are so much more psychological dilemma and tradeoff that goes on for reporting such incident, which I am not going to go into.)

But truthfully, none of this should be female attendees’ problem.

forming a culture

One of the quotes I heard somewhere that I keep coming back to in different contexts is:

Culture is the patterns of behaviours that are encouraged, discouraged and tolerated by people and systems over time.

Walking the talk

This means that a culture is not only a collection of things we encourage each other (“be kind” etc), but it’s also about something we should never do.

If we collectively want to improve women’s inclusion in tech conferences, I think the first step we should take is to say “no” together, and codify it as a system.

You might be thinking “seriously, I would never hit on anyone at a conference,” but that’s besides the point. What we need to do is move the entire bell curve forward and make sure everyone understands it. That includes people who are new to technical conference scene, or open source culture.

Edit: safe space

After posting this, I realized that not everyone is familiar with the term “safe space.” Here’s a definition I found:

Safe space can be defined as a place where any young person can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwanted, or unsafe on account of biological sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, race/ethnicity, cultural background, age, or physical and mental ability. It is a place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect and strongly encourage everyone to respect others.

Advocates for Youth

ScalaMatsuri code of conduct

Inspired by reports of harassments, I proposed back in 2015 to adopt stricter policy on making advancements at ScalaMatsuri and any related events, and it was accepted by other organizers.

Here’s the first example of “harassment” in ScalaMatsuri 2019 CoC:

Harassment includes, but is not limited to:

  • Asking other participants out (comments about appearance, romantic or sexual interest) or inappropriate physical contact.

As many Feminism-Wiki-derived Code of Conduct, it starts with “All communication is expected to be appropriate for a technology conference with professional audience including people of many different backgrounds,” which is probably the most important line. I am also happy to report that both Reactive Summit and Scala Days currently adopt ScalaMatsuri style CoC.

prevention over enforcement

Making this a rule is a good start, but that’s not going to do much on its own. The rules come to life when it becomes part of the education process. Drawing inspiration from stylish Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America’s security videos, I bought up the idea of making a video introducing the CoC. An artist with ScalaMatsuri staff wrote up the storyboard, and CoC video was produced professionally:

See Code-of-Conduct video at ScalaMatsuri 2016.

During the character design, we avoided obvious villain-looking stereotypes like monsters, germs, and big bully types. We intended to infuse the idea that we all harbor the seeds of prejudice, and often the majority group is unaware of how the other side might feel.

There’s a plot in the video where Mr. Cat tries to pick up women and take pictures together. Referee whistles with red flag, and Miss Bunny explains that picking people up at the conference is forbidden.

We should think of this as explaining air travellers that the seat needs to be kept upright position during the takeoff. This is explained before the takeoff every single time by the airliner. If you’ve flown before, this information should be a common sense, but it’s still explained every time in case there are someone new. If you actually fly frequently, you should know that some percent of people actually do not keep their seat upright, and flight attendant must tell them. One in twenty, maybe?

It might be counter-intuitive, but it’s important not to vilify the majority group (male in this case) since doing so would making them more defensive. Just as we don’t kick people out of the plane immediately for not keeping the seat upright, we need consistent and firm messaging, but without burning them at the stake.

conference organizers

Here are some work-in-progress tips for conference organizers.

Include the two basic rules into Code of Conduct:

  1. Ban asking other participants out (comments about appearance, romantic or sexual interest) or inappropriate physical contact.
  2. Assume technical competence, and treat women as professional peers.

sponsors, speakers, attendees

If you’re a sponsor, a speaker, or an attendee of a technical conference, you should ask the organizer to clearly communicate its policy on making advances. If asked, lobby for banning to make advances. Let’s say “no” together so we can build a professional space for women to participate in our conferences as fellow programming nerds.

If you think someone looks attractive, please don’t verbalize it. Talk about JSON parsing, category theory, autonomous driving, or cryptocurrency instead.