I’m a woman with a successful career in tech. I’ve attended 100s of conferences and I still love them.
Since I repeatedly do the same thing, in this case attending tech conferences, one could reasonably assume I get something net positive out of it.
When I read articles about A girl’s survival to a tech conference or a Twitter account of someone with a negative experience, I wonder if I’ve lived a charmed life. Why do I feel like that’s not the world I live in? Turns out it is the world I live in, I’ve just figured out good strategies for navigating it.
I’m better than you, that’s all.
When we talk about the specifics of what is happening — the negative experiences each woman is having with harassment at conferences — I have a story to match or top each one. I’ve had all those negative experiences. I’ve had drunk guys try to kiss me unsolicited. I’ve had people pick me as a partner just because they want to flirt with me. Thankfully not very often, but I have had them. And yet, I see my experiences at conferences as a positive. As an awesome part of my job and my life. Where friends are made.
If things are net positive, then the negative experiences don’t count. It’s like how cookies are calorie-free if you share them.
I wish for a world where we all feel like conferences are the place where friends are made. Here’s my list of how to avoid feeling harassed at conferences and how to build up your community.
Instead of acknowledging that harassers shouldn’t harass, I’m going to list out some tactics they can use against you later to say that you deserved it because you didn’t do all of these things.
1. Make your intentions clear.
I learned this trick when someone tried it on me. We were all hanging out in a bar in Austin after an event and I was talking to this guy — about open source software — and all of a sudden he started talking about his wife and his kids. I realized he wanted to make it clear that he was in a relationship with someone else. Awesome. I love that trick. (I actually think he thought I was hitting on him, not that he was worried that I thought he was hitting on me.) So for the past decade and a half I’ve made it clear that I’m happily in a relationship. Now I don’t think there’s a person in the tech community I interact with that doesn’t know I have a partner and kids. (If you don’t have a partner or kids, you’ll have to work on a strategy that works for you but it’s still possible to make your intentions clear.)
Humans are only worth being treated politely if they have a partner and talk about them without any prompting or relevance. If you’re single, sucks to be you!
2. Don’t assume people are hitting on you.
Maybe I’m a glass half full type of person but I really don’t think most of my interactions with men at conferences have any sexual undertones at all. The interest seems genuine and related to work and friendship. Don’t reject all intense conversations because you are worried that it might be construed as flirting. It’s hard to make good friends without intense conversations!
Since we’re all just internet nerds, there’s no way we could possibly know what flirting actually is. Plus flirting definitely leads to harassment no matter what, because rejection is a serious offense, even when it’s just that the other person didn’t notice or didn’t reciprocate.
3. Make friends with the men.
Men are the majority of the tech world and there are lots of them that are willing to be your friend without hitting on you. I’m sure of it. If you are having trouble, see point #1. Also, talk mostly about work but don’t forget to make the conversation real by including parts of you — either your humor or stories or something about you. Those friends will become your support network. That time someone launched himself on me, it felt like a dozen guys grabbed him and pulled him off elsewhere. And made sure I was ok. I came away from what could have been a very negative event feeling like I was part of an awesome community. I had friends who had my back.
Men only respect other men when it comes to women.
4. Make friends with the women.
I read a lot of posts talking about how women don’t support each other. This doesn’t match my experience at events at all. I first realized this after my first OSCON keynote in 2003 when I think every woman in the audience came up to talk to me afterwards. I find women super willing to chat and often willing to be that person to talk to in those awkward social situations where you are trying to figure out who you might know to talk to. Just be sure to return the favor and introduce them to the people you find that you know! (And because I’ve heard women don’t help other women, I always go out of my way to meet and help other women.)
I’m definitely being supportive of women by telling them how they’re doing all these things wrong and that’s why they’re being harassed. Also, we should stick together, like in Clueless or Mean Girls.
5. Leave before the party takes that turn.
Sometimes that party goes a little too long and everyone has a bit too much to drink — or a lot too much to drink. I recommend leaving right before that point. You can tell that point by watching people’s behavior. As soon as they start doing or saying things that you are sure they’ll be embarrassed about the next day, it’s time to think about leaving. I haven’t always followed my own advice, and so far I’ve been lucky (and had some good times) but there’s been more than a few parties where I see pictures and hear stories and I’m just really glad I left at 10 or 11pm instead of 1 or 2am. I recommend this to everyone, not just women.
It’s totally fine that tech has a culture of drinking.
6. Recruit help.
If you are experiencing an uncomfortable situation, do not wait. Immediately tell your colleagues, your friends, anyone you know at the event. Activate your own personal army of supporters. Even being able to laugh about it and roll your eyes with someone will help. You can ask your friends to walk you back to your hotel, you can ask them to step in if they see that person approaching you alone and you can ask them to watch out for you.
Just tell people when somebody is bothering you, everybody will believe you immediately without asking for evidence and the harasser won’t go on to do the same things to other people, promise.
In the tech industry — and in the open source world in particular — most of our networking, team building and idea sharing happen at events. Let’s make sure it’s a positive experience for everyone so that we can all participate and build awesome things together!
Let’s stay positive, even as I’m insisting you spend your energy compensating for jerks!