Andy's Math/CS page

Friday, December 10, 2010

Harassment Policies for Theory Conferences

Following offline conversations and recent discussions on other blogs (hat-tip to Anna and David), I want to promote the Geek Feminism Blog initiative asking computing conferences to adopt explicit policies against sexual harassment. Bringing such policies to theory conferences that don't yet have them is an important step. (Note that this would mean putting them on conference websites and preparing conference staff. Just having some boilerplate document hidden somewhere on the IEEE or ACM websites is not enough.)

What is the value of such a policy? Geek Feminism provides a policy template whose intro spells it out well. Such a policy

"sets expectations for behavior at the conference. Simply having an anti-harassment policy can prevent harassment all by itself...

" encourages people to attend who have had bad experiences at other conferences...

" gives conference staff instructions on how to handle harassment quickly, with the minimum amount of disruption or bad press for your conference."

Stating such a policy would cost nothing, and local conference staff could prepare for their roles using anti-harassment training materials, which abound on the web -- I invite others to suggest good ones.

So why would we hesitate to adopt such policies? I will suggest three possible reasons, and explain why they're unconvincing.

First, there is a certain tendency to deride anti-harassment training as "sensitivity training" and as stating the obvious. But whether or not most of us know how to treat others respectfully, responding to disrespectful treatment is another story. Conference staff need to know there are circumstances under which they can and should reprimand attendees or even eject them, and they need to mentally rehearse for these difficult tasks. Attendees need to know the staff are ready to help.

Second, some might object that while harassment may be a major problem in other parts of the computing/tech world, it's less of a problem in our mature, enlightened theory community. Of course, this would be a self-serving belief without empirical support. I'm not aware of any systematic efforts to track harassment incidents at theory conferences, although Geek Feminism maintains wiki record of incidents in computing/tech more broadly -- I hope theory conference-goers will find and use it or something similar. But if we can agree that sexual harassment is seriously wrong -- harmful to individuals and the community when it occurs -- surely we can take the time to state this publicly and prepare ourselves to deal with it, whatever its frequency.

Third, might an anti-harassment policy inhibit our freedom of expression too much or make people afraid to interact? Let me turn this question around. Almost all universities and major employers have explicit anti-harassment policies (here's MIT's, for example). Most of us support these precautions and don't feel oppressed by the policies. Why should conferences, which are outgrowths of the academic system, be different? Do we believe there is some special spirit of lawlessness that we need to protect at conferences, and only at conferences?

Of course not. So I support the harassment-policy initiative, and encourage others to do so as well.