As the organizing team of Frontend United, we have recalibrated our moral compass towards equality, diversity, inclusion and unacceptable behaviour. Being able to do so, we first had to better understand the wording and language of equality. Having clear labels will make it easier to be more competent in this field. Once you get that competence, you will slowly develop the confidence to act.
We understand that intervening regarding harassment, inappropriateness or discrimination is not something people feel comfortable doing. We weren’t comfortable either at the start of our journey. So in this blogpost we want to inspire you as organisers to feel more confident and competent yourselves to intervene when necessary. Not only during your conference, but just maybe, in everyday life as a very regular human being too.
So let’s start with the very basics, and move on to 50 shades of hairiness.”
When someone takes the stage of your conference, you are letting them speak in your name. If one of your speakers makes a racist comment, it means that you as a conference, commissioned a racist. You therefore have ownership of the racist comment.
You have to understand that freedom of speech, is not the same as being allowed to say whatever you think. There are some things that your speakers can think, but that they cannot share.
Freedom of speech comes with the responsibility to respect public morals and the rights of others. As a conference you have to outline your moral values in the form of a Code of Conduct (CoC). You have to let your speakers confirm that they understand those values before the event starts.
Have a Code of Conduct
As a conference, the very first thing you should have, is a CoC. It might seem useless in the beginning, but without one, you have no basis to intervene or act. The CoC becomes your basis on which you can act. Without one, the only time you are allowed to intervene, is if someone does something illegal. If you want to create an event where you want to have an atmosphere that’s better than “legal”, get yourself a Code of Conduct.
You can link to an existing one: https://confcodeofconduct.com/ or you can copy and edit one you find online from another conference.
Have a contact person for CoC
Writing down some ground rules is not a fantasy game, where you have a laugh when someone breaks them. The CoC reflects the ground rules that every attendee, speaker and sponsor lives by, during the time of your conference.
Having a CoC without someone willing to enforce it, means that you might as well have no CoC at all. Claiming to stand up for equality, and actually doing so, are 2 different things. As organisers you can’t be on every corner or in every discussion, therefore it is a joint responsibility of everyone attending, to report someone breaking the CoC.
To avoid confusion and to ensure confidentiality and appropriate action, reporting should happen to a central person. That person, or the “contact for CoC”, has the responsibility to handle each case. Having a contact for CoC means that people will feel more comfortable reporting, and won’t leave them with a feeling of helplessness. For someone being harassed, it is also more easy to reach out to a trustworthy person that will treat them with respect and understanding.
It is important for people to report, so you should lower the threshold as much as possible. Publicly show the contact details during your event, such as telephone number, email, social channels and a recognisable photo, so people know who to walk up to. To further lower the threshold for certain people, try to have more than one contact for CoC, preferably as diverse as possible.
If you decide yourself to become a contact for CoC, it’s important that you don't treat everyone the same.
Don’t treat everyone the same
If you treat everyone the same, it means that you are not respecting every single person as a separate individual.
For example: If you are teaching a course to 5 individuals, and one person is dyslexic, you shouldn’t “treat everyone the same”. If you teach as if no-one is dyslexic, then you give 1 person a disadvantage. If you teach everyone as if they are dyslexic, 4 people will be disadvantaged.
Equality means that you teach all 5 people individually the same things. You give them equality of access and resources.
A wheelchair user does not want to be treated the same in certain aspects as someone that is not in a wheelchair. Treating everyone the same would mean you ask everyone to take the stairs. Equality means you work on providing equal access to each individual, because everyone single one of us is different.
If the word diversity is still one of those vague terms for you, you can simply translate it as: “accepting difference”.
Let’s take the example of a garden:
The beauty of a garden lies in its difference. The roses, the trees, the grass, even the weeds bring difference. You can like the trees more than you like the grass, but you won’t like a garden if it’s all the same without any difference, won’t you?
It is in our nature to love difference, but yet, in our next breath, we like to criticise it. Diversity doesn’t mean you have to agree with every difference you encounter, but it does mean you should accept them. And you will encounter them, as the world is such a diverse place.
If you are not accepting difference, often, it means that you are discriminating. For example, if you can’t spot discrimination in the news today, then you won’t be able to spot it at your conference. If you want to try this out, watch the news and wait until politicians argue that something is “common sense”.
If someone is ignored, that person is also discriminated against. For example, if you only serve beer or water at your social event, you are discriminating against people that don’t drink alcohol.
Very often, this type of discrimination doesn’t happen deliberately. For example when someone hears a racist remark that is not directed at them, that is also indirect discrimination. Someone doesn’t have to be spoken to, in order to be discriminated against.
Direct discrimination is when someone is treated unfairly and worse than someone else, because they belong or don’t belong to a certain group.
These groups are often based on age, physical or mental disability, gender, marriage, civil partnership, race, skin colour, nationality, ethnicity, national origins, pregnancy, maternity / paternity, sex, sexual orientation, religion, beliefs, etc…
Sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. are all a form of lower thinking and unconscious bias. It is at the root of why we discriminate. We all know that we can’t judge someone because they are in a wheelchair, or have a different skin colour. But still we unconsciously do.
Understand the origins of harassment
Many forms of harassment are unintended. There is a big chance you have unwillingly and unknowingly made someone uncomfortable in the past. You might have reacted with surprise the first time someone pointed that out to you. Having personally been on both sides of harassment, the excuses are usually: “Shit, I didn’t mean that” or “It‘s a misunderstanding!” or “My action wasn’t intended towards that person”.
We will cover how to to handle your own mistakes later, but before we do, it’s important to know, why we react this way. Harassment is often unintended because they are caused by our own unconscious bias. Unconscious bias happens by our brains making quick assessments of people and situations without realising it. Every single person has this, and understanding your own unconscious bias, is the current frontier of equality.
There is some good news and some bad news. The bad news is, that you can’t get rid of your unconscious bias. The good news is, that you can be alert to when your brain is doing it, and by reflecting you can stop doing it in the moment.
For the non-believers, consider this: there is something in your subconscious that is telling you to breath. If you go to sleep there’s something in your subconscious that tells your hart to beat, your lungs to work, and your hair to grow. You are not sitting there thinking “hair grow!”, “heart beat!”. So there is a part of your subconscious that is bigger than you. It doesn’t rely on you because if it did, you’d likely be dead. There is a bit of your brain you’ll never understand, because it’s not in our design to understand it. It’s running you and it needs to operate without you.
Unconscious bias is this automatic brain taking over in social contexts. It’s making you decide something that if you think about it a bit longer, you would decide on differently.
Ever tried to write a friendly reply to a massively rude email, directly after reading it the first time? It is close to impossible, our unconscious brain is in control on quick decisions, because that’s the way we are designed. Our fast system of thinking is out of sync with our slow system. It’s often better to take a step back, reflect, think, evaluate, research and only then make a judgment.
Another example is first impressions. There are still more male CEO’s than female ones, partly because our unconscious favours a male voice over a female one. A study showed that 68% of people listening to the male pitch, believed it was a good idea. While only 32% of participants believed in the same pitch brought by a woman. If you don’t believe in unconscious bias, than hit us with an explanation of why 60% of CEOs in the US are over 6 foot, while only 15% of the US population is that tall?
Unjustly, these biases are passed on through our environment, our culture and the way we think. They turn in to a habit of thinking that if left unchallenged, stays with us. You cannot give up smoking unless you first admit, being addicted. You won’t act against your unconscious bias unless you first accept you have that ugly, but very human, habit.
Most forms of discrimination that we are about to cover, are examples of unconscious bias. Habits people have, that without someone, “me? ;)” challenging them, we’ll keep doing. A clear one to tackle is stereotyping.
Stereotypes, or as Oxford Dictionary puts it: “A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing”.
Stereotypes come from categorising people in to groups. We often don’t have the intent to question associations made with these stereotypes.
As humans we are brilliant in spotting patterns in the real world, but these patterns unfortunately don’t stop with shapes and colours. We find human patterns and create our own generalisations. We have the tendency to give preferential treatment to others whom you perceive to be members of “our group”.
Every backend developer is bad in CSS.
Sometimes the difference between talking in stereotypes and talking in an inclusive way, is dropping the words ‘all’ and ‘every’.
Nationalism, patriotism and racism should have been left behind in our tribal past, but it’s still very much alive. Don’t treat individuals as the stereotype you have in your head, but as an individual that they are.
You patronise when you try to do good, but you project condescending superiority, as if the other is inferior.
For example: *intonation
That last talk was brilliant, even though it came from a black woman and it was super technical!
This is a common pattern of patronising: you mean well, but your bias is patronising. Mentioning that the talk came from a woman is irrelevant for the message you wanted to convey in that sentence. It projects a condescending superiority towards either her being black, or the person being a woman in a technical field. Ask yourself: why were you surprised of the quality of that talk, was it because it came from a woman, or was it because it was super technical?
Every part of that sentence by itself is completely fine, except for the words “even tho” and the intonation. The way you decided to compose that sentence is where it goes wrong. We currently live in a sexist world, where women speakers have to have 110% the skills of their male equivalents to reach the same acknowledgement. This kind of speech sustains that imbalance.
Be sensitive, and by all means don’t pretend you don’t acknowledge the person for who they are. If a black woman is on stage, don’t say “I don’t see colour” (visual impairments aside). It’s patronising to pretend to not see colour, as that implies that you associate the colour of someone’s skin with a certain status/skill/bias. You are supposed to see a black woman! But you are not supposed to judge that person because of the colour of their skin. Talking in a patronising way, tells more about your own bias, than about the message you want to bring.
People that are patronising often don’t realise it. They usually don’t have the knowledge and confidence to not be patronising. They assume for example that stereotypes are accurate, and are unknowingly discriminating.
Believe reports of harassment
As a conference organiser, this is where we arrive at the scary parts of organising. Someone tells you they feel uncomfortable or harassed. Questions race through your head:
Is that person right to feel uncomfortable? Should I take this person seriously? How many complaints of harassment should I get about person X, before I should act on it? Do I try to resolve the harassment by explaining the other person’s point of view? Do I ask that person to just stay clear of the harasser?
Most of the above questions are irrelevant. The rule of thumb you have to stick with is this: The feeling of the person being harassed is always the correct feeling. It is not up to you, to question the reasons why or to defend the harasser in an effort to nullify the report.
Harassment is defined by how you feel. You can’t fabricate a feeling out of thin air, therefore the feeling is always right. If certain behaviour is not appreciated by you, you are correct in reporting that.
Understand the difference between harassment and victimisation
When someone has been harassed and reported it, they become a victim of harassment. If the harassment doesn’t stop after that report, then we no longer call it harassment, then we call it victimisation.
Because harassment is almost always done by people unknowingly. It’s important you speak up about feeling harassed. You don’t only help yourself, you also protect people from being harassed by the same person.
You have a right to complain. And if the person doesn’t stop after being complained about, they are victimising you. Victimisation means that someone didn’t respect someone’s right to complain.
Know how to act
If someone complains of inappropriate behaviour, you as an organiser should first label it as harassment. Next you have to talk to the harasser to let them know how other people feel.
If the harasser doesn’t stop towards the person that filed the report, you have to label it victimisation. Be aware that you should only label it victimisation, once the harasser has been told about the report.
If someone is victimising, it is enough of a reason for you as an organiser to take bigger steps. It justifies removing them from the conference, or from the organising team.
Don’t fight feedback
It’s also possible that the harassment report is directed at you as a conference.
Why does your Twitter account always uses the word ‘‘guys’’ to address everyone?
A common stand we’ve seen conferences take, is to fight the messenger and claim over-sensitivity on the reporters part. It’s wrong to assume that everyone lives in the same culture, you live in. If you address “people” publicly, you address everyone, so try to be as inclusive as possible.
Please don’t interpret the last paragraph as “I am not allowed to say anything anymore”. Yes, you are not allowed to be openly sexist or racist anymore. If you don’t have the social skillset to be fun, without discriminating people, than yes, maybe you should not say anything anymore.
Don’t avoid having fun
Equality is not about creating a sterile joke-free environment. What is fine for one person, will be inappropriate for someone else. So who decides when something is fun or inappropriate? Where do you draw the line?
A common misconception:
I made a sexist joke to my best friend yesterday, and it was hilarious! I can now make that same joke to everyone else.
Some people can tell you certain jokes and other people can’t. You have a different personal relationship with each person. If you are certain that a joke will be appreciated by the other person, you can make it. It’s a personal choice to decide what you find appropriate and not appropriate in each dialog.
I heard 2 black people making jokes to each other about being black, so as a white person, I can joke in the same way to each one of them too.
Because 2 people feel comfortable making certain jokes to each other, don’t have the arrogance, to expect the same flexibility of either one of them. There are people that can touch you on your leg while sitting next to them, and there are people who can’t.
If you want to tell a joke to someone in a public place, realise that other people might be able to hear your remarks. You decide where and when to say something. Have a look around you in what context you are saying something. Please be aware that it matters to avoid indirect discrimination.
As a conference organiser, lead in the same way as you want your speakers and attendees to behave.
Think of a conference as if, it were your birthday party. You want everyone to have a good time, so you decide who to invite. You make sure you have a dancing floor, so no-one is stuck talking to your intoxicated uncle.
As a conference organiser, you can’t choose who buys a ticket, but you can choose who to send home. In contrast with family members, you have the flexibility to decide how everyone should behave. Prepare for the annoying uncle showing up and in doing so, you become the equality champion, you claim to be.
People will like you less if you have that strong moral compass (my uncle for example). But all in all, being aware of equality, diversity and inclusion is more important to me than being liked.
Don’t be stiff
An easy way of organising a conference is to stay clear from the grey zone of diversity. As an organiser, you have a position of power. If you use that privilege of power to stand spineless in the shade of political correctness.. We will call you stiff.
If you are sheltered off from inequalities in your daily life, educate yourself about what’s around you.
When we develop features for our work, we follow documentation.
When we run in to a bug, we Google/Stackoverflow it.
When we are confronted with inequality as an organiser, we … panic?
While instead we should be doing some research. There are loads of things we don’t know, and it’s fine to admit that. Here are some of the things I only recently discovered.
— The parts in brown shows where it’s still legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Blue shows where it’s legal in certain scenarios.
— A whopping 5 countries in the world also have a death penalty for being lesbian or gay and a prison sentence is possible in 73 other countries.
— The 2nd biggest group in LGBT is bi-sexuality, right after homosexuality. Source: National Center for Health Statistics
— No more than 14% of the population in the world identifies as being white.
— There are 187 religious holidays divided over 143 days https://www.interfaith-calendar.org/
It’s ok to Google what Sikhism is, it’s fine to look up labels you don’t understand. It’s enlightening to look up certain habits of foreign cultures. If you are reading this blogpost in the hope that I’m going to give you a clear-cut answer on, how to not screw-up, here it is: Educate yourself.
I didn’t suckle this blogpost out of my thumb. As a team, we took a course to get to the understanding, we have today. My next misstep is just around the corner, but I am prepared to dive in head first. The worst thing that can happen, is that my good intentions were too enthusiastic, and I am told to be wrong.
I am prepared to apologise, but I won’t play the ignorance card.
Do positive action
If you want to do good, but your actions are based on your own biases, it’s very likely going to be discriminatory. Your actions can be discriminating if you can qualify and quantify the need. If your action is backed by data, it becomes a positive action.
As a conference, we have a Call for Papers (CFP) for females only.
Without any data backing this up, it’s a sexist thing to do. But if you already had a first CFP and saw that only 20% of the submissions were made by women, you then have the data to take positive action.
If you want to create a lineup of 50% women and 50% men from that CFP, it would mean you would need to have different standards for selecting women than you would have for selecting male speakers.
Personally, we haven’t done this correctly in the past, so it deserves highlighting: you never ever let a woman speak just because she’s a woman. You’ll be patronising her. She has to be good. If you can’t find enough good female speakers, you are not looking hard enough.
Please note that you can’t gather data on everything, so faith, age and sexuality are no good field to do positive action in. If you do not have data, do not take the action, as data gives you the justification.
If someone takes offence, you can send them the data that you based your action on, so they can see the justification.
The main reason for organising a non-profit conference is and will always be: to share knowledge far and wide. The reason we blog about equality, is not to boast what we are doing, although we are proud of it. It is in our hope you’ll copy some approaches from us.
Most of it is common sense, but writing it out makes it more clear for everyone. So here are our new initiatives we will be trying out for the first time.
Ask for slides in advance
If we give a stage to a speaker, it is with the intention that the speaker will talk about the subject that they are brilliant in. If the subject is “web design”, and if the explanation doesn’t have anything to do with race, then we expect the speaker to leave race out of it.
However, if the person is given a stage and they feel like they want to get something off their chest in terms of the field of equality. We’ll fully support them, but they have to be competent and confident enough to sidetrack in to one of these matters.
We will publish the slides behind a login-wall on our site, where all the remote organisers can find them.
This also acts as the hinge for our next initiative.
Cross culture inappropriateness prevention
The conference is actively reaching out to different locations across the globe to set up remote events that will livestream our content to a venue of their own. What is appropriate in one culture, will be inappropriate in another. You can not tell a culture that they are wrong, therefor complications are unavoidable.
Instead of avoiding the complications, we want to find a balance for each remote event on how to handle the differences between our cultures.
Is it ok to broadcast a gay speaker to a homophobic country?
On one hand it could help the suppressed gay people in that country. But on the other hand the local organiser could face personal retaliation. The compromise lies in seeking where the local organiser wants to take a stand and where not. without giving away our integrity of supporting LGTBQ.
Asking the slides of the speakers also helps us facilitate these preventive compromises. Each remote event can compose their own timezone-adapted local program. In doing so, they can now shift through the slides and see if there is content that they deem inappropriate. Cultural nuances can take many shapes, and because inappropriate behaviour is a social construct, it’s important each remote event can make that decision of live-streaming any session or not.
Cross culture anti-stiffness
It would be easy for each remote organiser to stay clear of anything that pushes their own frontier of equality. Therefor, we’ve invented labels that each remote event can achieve.
Because we are live-streaming from us to them, we are facilitating them in organising the remote events. Therefor we are offering the remote organisers a stepping stone, on the path to what our current definition is of equality. When we, as an international conference evolve towards live-streaming multiple events to each other, we can benefit from a 2-way street, where each remote event can bring their values to other events. Personally I can’t wait for that to happen.
Prepping for translating
Having the slides behind the login-wall, also makes life easier for interpreters. They will be able to look up some less used technical terms in advance to prepare themselves. For example: the organisers in Burkina Faso are looking in to live translating to French. And we also know of an interpreter that will translate the content of some sessions to sign-language for one of our speakers.
In conclusion: be sensitive
Not many people are racist, sexist, homophobic or misogynistic, we believe the majority of humanity are good people. There are just very few people that are confident to work and think in this field of equality because they are not competent to do so.
Being a champion of equality, means that people will challenge you. You will have to challenge back, but never to a point where it destroys the relationship with the person in question. Try to always keep a line of communication, so don’t preach from on your soapbox, but also don’t shy away from speaking up.
You decide how competent you want to become in this field. You decide what is appropriate in your conference and what isn’t. You define how safe our communities are.
Diversity is being invited to the party,
inclusion is being asked to dance,
belonging is dancing like no one is watching.
Dancing quote based on a quote from Verna Myers.
Special thanks to Equality and Diversity UK for facilitating a tailored course on becoming equality champions as conference organisers
Special thanks to Trevor Gordon from Gordon French Associates for a brilliant way of delivering that course, and being open to all of our questions. Without your inspiring words, this blogpost wouldn’t have happened. Also #sorrynotsorry for stealing your lines.
Thanks to Mathieu Spillebeen for writing this blogpost, and for allowing us as a team to retract references to de-icing dinosaurs and rainbowflag-pooping Nyan cats.
And last and final thanks goes to every person on the team of Frontend United, for believing in this equality initiative, and for being part of an incredibly supportive environment where we allow learning from mistakes.