Why I cancelled my ReactiveConf talk

What would you do if conference organizers themselves committed a Code of Conduct violation against you?

This was the precise situation I found myself in recently the night before I was scheduled to speak at ReactiveConf, a React community conference hosted in Bratislava. I’d already travelled halfway across the world to attend, put weeks of work into a talk and slides I was excited to present, and was missing a company onsite for the team I’d just joined.

ReactiveConf’s Code of Conduct states that “harassment includes … sexual images in public spaces”, and makes a point to remind event sponsors “to not use sexualized images… or otherwise create a sexualized environment”. That is why it was a shock to receive my speaker gift just before the speakers’ dinner at the end of day one, only to see that the conference organizers had photoshopped my face onto a sexualized image of Wonder Woman without my consent, printed it out, and framed it. On top of that, this was the image they had intended to display on the big screen before my talk to 1000+ attendees, as they had already done for speakers earlier that day.

An uphill battle

As a woman in the tech industry, being taken seriously is already difficult enough. I’ve been sexually harassed at a conference, have received lewd comments on my published talk videos, and regularly have to field questions from men asking if I know how to code. That’s why it was so hurtful and alienating to receive this image from the very people who are tasked with creating a supportive and professional environment at the event. 
 
By portraying me in a sexual way to attendees, this would have opened the door to additional harassment, and added yet another hurdle I’d have to overcome in order to be perceived as a competent professional. The fact that nowhere along the way did ReactiveConf organizers recognize how this gift could actually be harmful, to me, demonstrated a complete lack of empathy for women in tech. That’s not an organization I want to associate myself or my employer, Meteor Development Group (MDG), with.

Not only is the photo itself problematic, but also the fact that ReactiveConf never asked for my consent. I was never informed that ReactiveConf was planning on altering my photo for the event, nor did I see the superhero picture until after day one of the conference had ended. None of the organizers explicitly asked for my permission to display the picture on the big screen. Had I presented my talk on day 1, I would have been completely blindsided as I walked on stage, which is what happened to a colleague of mine who was also unhappy with his picture.

Speaking at a conference is already a monumental investment of mental, emotional, and physical effort, right up until the plane ride home. The will to continue investing any more energy into an event whose organizers had showed so little consideration for their speakers vanished as soon as I received the gift. After consulting with trusted members of my team, I decided to withdraw and leave the situation immediately.

Cancelling my talk was not a decision MDG and I took lightly. I know many of the attendees were disappointed by my withdrawal; however, I wasn’t willing to stay at ReactiveConf at the expense of my values and feeling additional discomfort.

The aftermath

Just when I thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, it did. To date, I still have not received a sincere apology, public or private, from the ReactiveConf team. They received a firm but considerate email from a teammate who was able to let them know I was withdrawing while I was in transit without cell service. Instead of respecting my decision or acknowledging the role their decisions played, they resorted to shaming me on Twitter:

On the conference Slack, ReactiveConf organizers have attempted to cover up what happened by claiming that we speakers gave them permission to release our images. This is completely false.

The facts are simple: the ReactiveConf team never asked the speakers for permission to photoshop our images. We did not see the pictures before they were printed, and many of us did not see them before they were tweeted and displayed on the big screen.

But the exact ordering of events aside, their response has continued to demonstrate disrespect and an inability to take any responsibility for their decision-making. They have implied that I should not have been offended because it was not their intent to offend, and that I owed them further explanation and discussion. Nowhere was there an understanding that I might not have been ready to go into more detail about how upsetting I found the situation, or that withdrawing came at great personal expense as well given the effort I’d already put into speaking. 
 
Their response only confirmed that I had made the right call.

A silver lining

A big thank you goes out to all my colleagues and friends who have defended me publicly and offered to help over the past couple days. Your support means the world to me. ❤️

Throughout this situation, MDG has stood by my side every step of the way. From helping me find last-minute travel arrangements and navigate communication with the organizers, to welcoming me with open arms at GraphQL Summit, everyone on the team has been nothing short of amazing. I feel very fortunate to be a part of an organization who isn’t afraid to stand up for what’s right, even if it may be unpopular or controversial.

At MDG, we value transparency and think incidents like this one are a good opportunity to provide feedback. Hopefully, conference organizers can learn from what happened at ReactiveConf to make event experiences better for everyone.

Takeaways

In the future, I will be more selective with where I choose to devote my energy & time. There were several red flags leading into ReactiveConf, such as the lightning talk debacle and their refusal to book my travel arrangements in a timely manner, that should have clued me into how I would be treated when I arrived.

Speakers, trust your gut. If you get bad vibes early on, you should reconsider whether you want to invest in that event. Additionally, if you are harassed by the conference staff, please don’t feel guilty for standing up for yourself and withdrawing from the conference. We need to call out bad behavior when we see it in order to prevent incidents like these from becoming the norm.

Organizers, please remember that your speakers are vital to the success of your event. We devote countless hours of our free time, often without pay, in order to ensure that your attendees have a great experience. Please reciprocate our efforts by treating us with respect. Respect our image by asking for permission before altering and publishing a speaker’s photo. Respect our time by booking travel arrangements and reimbursing expenses promptly. If something goes wrong, apologize gracefully and respect the speaker’s decision if they no longer wish to participate in your event.

Attendees, research conferences before you decide to attend. If you care about the well-being of the people who travel to present there, then vote with your wallet and support events that work to create a respectful and professional atmosphere for attendees and speakers alike. If your company regularly sponsors conferences, make sure they are sponsoring events whose organization aligns with their corporate values.

It may not be easy, but let’s all work together to ensure a better conference experience for everyone.


If you would like to see the talk on Apollo Client 2.0 that I was scheduled to present at ReactiveConf, you’re in luck! Check out the video from GraphQL Summit 2017, the slides, and the accompanying blog post. 😊