Linux kernel hastily adopts standard Code of Conduct

Linus Torvalds temporarily steps down

Recently, Linus Torvalds announced he was taking a temporary leave of absence to “take a break to get help on how to behave differently.” Many people lauded the Linux kernel “benevolent dictator for life” for finally taking steps to address his verbally abusive behavior. However, it turns out Linus stepped down because he knew this article was about to be published about sexism in Linux:

Torvalds’s decision to step aside came after The New Yorker asked him a series of questions about his conduct for a story on complaints about his abusive behavior discouraging women from working as Linux-kernel programmers.

The Linux Foundation preps for bad PR

The reporter contacting Linus gave him and his employer, the Linux Foundation (who paid him $1.6 million in 2016) time to plan a response. On Saturday, Greg Kroah-Hartman, acting as a representative of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board, pushed through a hasty commit to change the Linux kernel “Code of Conflict” over to the standard Contributor’s Covenant. On Sunday, Linus announced he was stepping down temporarily, and handed control over to Greg Kroah-Hartman. On Wednesday, the New Yorker article on sexism and verbal abuse in the Linux kernel was published.

It’s interesting to note that the Linux kernel community’s change from the “Code of Conflict” to a standard Code of Conduct was only signed off by 6 out of 10 members of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board. That’s a huge change from the first Code of Conflict, which had over 60 community members sign off on it. This is a big change that wasn’t signed off by the other Linux kernel leaders. There’s now a process for Linux kernel developers to pledge to follow the new Code of Conduct, but it’s an afterthought.

Should we trust them?

The most important question is whether the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board will promptly and appropriately respond to a Code of Conduct violation report under this new Code of Conduct. The board is currently comprised of 8 white men, one Asian American man, and one African American man. Does a board with no women on have enough understanding of diversity and inclusion to respond to someone who is being harassed because they’re a minority in the community?

To answer that question, it’s important to look at the history of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board. Board members are voted by the Linux kernel developers who can attend a particular Linux Foundation event. In previous years, the voting was held at the event after party, usually when people were distracted with conversation or alcohol. People who have been nominated to the board would need to give a short speech. People who can’t attend the event could send in a written speech, but those were usually read in a monotone voice and remote nominees received few votes.

Because of the way the voting for the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board works, it screws towards a particular demographic. Someone has to be financially well off enough to go to the conference, which skews towards people being paid to work on the Linux kernel. The voting is held at an after party, which might be hard to attend for parents, people who don’t want to be around alcohol, and Deaf people who find noisy environments too hard to participate in. It’s really unsurprising that the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board is mostly white men.

[Content warning: rape apology]

It’s also important to note that four of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board members did not sign off on the new Code of Conduct. One of them is Ted Tso, who was banned from Linux Conf Australia for questioning rape statistics on the conference mailing list. Ted expressed doubt that rape victims experienced real harm because in the majority of cases “the perpetrator did not threaten to harm or kill the victim”. He called into question whether rape victims actually gave consent for sex while they were “plied with alcohol.” Based on Ted’s view that rape is over-reported, I believe he is unfit to review Code of Conduct cases involving sexual harassment with a person of any gender, cases that involve sexism, or cases that involve a woman reporter or reported person.

[/Content warning]

Downfalls of a copy-paste Code of Conduct

While it’s good the the Linux kernel community is adopting the standard Contributor Covanent, copy-and-pasting a Code of Conduct does have some downsides. Unless a community customizing the Code of Conduct by adding reporter guidelines, it’s unclear how the committee will handle conflicts of interest.

If someone wants to make a Linux kernel Code of Conduct report, but doesn’t trust one member of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board members, it’s unclear what to do. The new Code of Conduct points to the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board members page, which doesn’t include any individual contact information. Additionally, since not all Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board members signed off on the new Code of Conduct, it’s unclear which of them are open to receiving reports. That means a person who wants to make a Code of Conduct violation report would find it difficult to contact a subset of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board who didn’t have a conflict of interest.

It’s telling that the new Code of Conduct doesn’t include reporting guidelines that detail how the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board will handle a conflict of interest. I believe that means the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board hasn’t put any thought into how to handle a report that involves a board member’s friend, employee, manager, or family member. The Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board is comprised of leaders in the community who have been involved in Linux for decades. A conflict of interest is bound to happen sometime.

Will reporter privacy be protected?

Another thing that’s missing from the new Code of Conduct is any guarantee of reporter privacy. Reporting guidelines typically discuss how the community stores reports about a Code of Conduct and who has access to the reports.

The Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board put no such thought into reporter privacy. They ask people who need to report a Code of Conduct violation to email the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board mailing list. That mailing list includes members of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board. Several key Linux Foundation staff members also have access to it. The Code of Conduct does not mention which Linux Foundation staff have access to the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board mailing list.

Further, the mailing list has a private archive stretching back to the creation of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board. When a new board member joins, they have access to years of archives. That means they have access to any reports made against them. People who need to make a report against leaders who might someday in the future be elected to the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board might be concerned about future retaliation. Thus reports against Linux kernel leaders are likely to be few and far between.

How can we push for change?

I have no faith that the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board will respond to a Code of Conduct violation promptly or with a well-thought out response. We should call on them to release anonymized Code of Conduct transparency reports.

A few communities like the PyCon U.S. conference have been using anonymized transparency reports. A transparency report anonymizes away the personal information of the reporter, but gives enough detail for people to understand what kind of report was made. The report includes how long it took the community to respond to the report, and what action was taken. This shows the community that the leaders do take action against discrimination and harassment. Without a transparency report from the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board, we can’t be sure they have promptly and properly handled any Code of Conduct reports.

My ask to you is to push the Linux Foundation and the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board to release an anonymized transparency report for all the Code of Conduct violations they’ve handled since their “Code of Conflict” was put into place. You can contact the Linux Foundation on Twitter or via email. The email addresses of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board members who signed off on the new Code of Conduct can easily be found in the original patch.

We need to push the Linux Foundation to be open and transparent as Linus Torvalds and the Linux kernel community attempts to live up to their new Code of Conduct.

Evolving Code of Conduct Language

Spray paint of the word evolve, showing backwards 'love' in red.

CC BY ednawinti

In the Mozilla Diversity and Inclusion panel last week, one of the presenters said that when they were editing a Code of Conduct, they would “always read it with a victim’s mindset.” The use of the word “victim” was particularly jarring to me.

The person meant that they were reading through a Code of Conduct with the mindset of someone who had experienced trauma and needed to make a report. Centering the needs of people who are from under-represented groups who are likely to face harassment or discrimination is important. However, I believe that there are broader, more inclusive words to use than “victim.”

This blog post explains my rationale for moving away from the terms “victim” and “harasser,” toward more neutral terms of “a person who reports a Code of Conduct violation” (“the reporter”, for short) and “the reported person.”

History and Context

There’s a long history of using the terminology “victim” and “harasser” in Codes of Conduct, especially in technical and Free and Open Source (FOSS) communities. The push for technical events to adopt a Code of Conduct in 2010 came after many years (decades, really) of sexual harassment and assault at events being swept under the rug. The early Code of Conduct language took a clear stance against sexual harassment, while also giving a nod toward addressing other forms of discrimination.

From “Victim” to “Reporter”

Supporting and believing people who have experienced sexual harassment is extremely important. It is essential that Code of Conduct enforcement teams avoid “victim blaming” and “tone policing victims.” Victim blaming includes blaming someone for “provoking” sexual harassment. Tone policing victims means harshly judging a person who is expressing anger at discrimination or harassment.

There are a lot of connotations that come with the word “victim.” Wordnik definitions of victim range from “one who is harmed or killed by another” to “one who is harmed by or made to suffer from an act, circumstance, agency, or condition.” In both of these definitions, there’s a sense of helplessness, of being unable to stop or deal with the harm caused by another person. Many people therefore prefer the term “survivor” when describing themselves because it gives them more agency, more control over the situation and their healing process. Some people might not identify with survivor or victim terminology.

The connotations of the word “victim” don’t necessarily apply to every Code of Conduct report. To give a personal example, earlier this year I was standing at an event registration table with pronoun stickers. Someone said to their friend that ‘they/them’ pronouns were ‘made up language.’ I felt anxious about being around a person who didn’t support non-binary people, so I left the area. However, I wouldn’t consider myself a “victim” of “harassment.”

The person’s refusal to accept ‘they/them’ pronouns (thus denying my non-binary gender identity) is against the Code of Conduct. Their words certainly made me feel unwelcome, uncomfortable, and unsafe at an event on the basis of my gender identity. However, putting on the label of “victim” in order to make a Code of Conduct report feels like a very high bar. Will I have to explain to the event organizers what being non-binary means? Will they have the lived experience or learned empathy to understand why an overheard statement (not even directed towards me!) should be considered “harassment?”

In the end, unless I knew the Code of Conduct enforcement team personally, I probably wouldn’t report this. It’s just another reminder that most people assume gender is binary. I face these reminders several times a day at a typical event. After the event, I’ll take stock of the damage. If there are a lot of these smaller incidents (or major incidents), it’s not worth my mental health to come back. The event (and its attendees) just aren’t inclusive enough.

The event is unlikely to know about the issues I face as a non-binary person if I don’t trust the Code of Conduct enforcement team enough to tell them. Some communities celebrate the fact that they have never received a Code of Conduct report. However, people from underrepresented groups are very likely to experience discrimination and harassment. If a community received no Code of Conduct reports, it’s likely that people don’t trust the community organizers to properly handle a report.

Lack of trust and unreported issues can lead to toxic situations where people are constantly feeling unwelcome and powerless. No one brings up issues until something finally pushes the situation to explode. Explosive situations are incredibly draining for Code of Conduct enforcement teams and everyone involved. That’s why it’s better to address smaller issues sooner.

Additionally, it’s helpful if the community knows that the enforcement team handles a wide variety of issues. A person who fears public backlash may be reluctant to make a report if they think every report results in a ban from the community. If they understand that some Code of Conduct reports can be addressed with a simple warning, they may be more likely to report.

Addressing Microaggressions

It’s essential that people who are from groups underrepresented in your community feel comfortable making a Code of Conduct report. Which groups are underrepresented will vary from community to community. To use one example, the PyCon 2018 U.S. Code of Conduct says the conference is “dedicated to providing a positive conference experience for everyone, regardless of age, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, ethnicity, nationality, race, or religion (or lack thereof), education, or socio-economic status.”

Event organizers who are dedicated to providing a positive event experience know that they need to make their event inclusive. People shouldn’t feel marginalized, unheard, or face constant reminders that their identity is not considered “the default.” Subtle behaviors that cause people from under-represented groups to feel unwelcome are called microaggressions.

A microaggression is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).” It’s important to note that microaggressions can be caused not just by prejudice. Microaggressions can be caused by bias towards people who are most similar to you, or bias towards groups with the most power in your community.

For example, event vendors who provide free t-shirts are most likely to pick the cheapest t-shirt style option available. This is typically a ‘unisex’ shirt. The term ‘unisex’ is misleading, because these types of shirts are much more likely to fit men. ‘Unisex’ or ‘mens cut’ or ‘straight-cut’ shirts are not likely to fit slimmer people, shorter people, or people who have larger bodies or curves.

The person picking out the ‘mens’ t-shirt style may not be prejudiced against women, but they are making a conscious or unconscious choice about which gender will wear their shirts. The impact of that choice could be a woman feeling disheartened and unwelcome after looking at row after row of event vendors with t-shirts that don’t fit them.

While this example is very subtle gender discrimination, women face many of these kinds of microaggressions at events where they are gender minorities. Microaggressions add up over time, taking a heavy emotional toll.

It’s very important that Codes of Conduct enforcement teams deal with microaggressions promptly. Sometimes a simple warning is all it takes to correct the situation. Other people may constantly push boundaries. If they’re asked to stop one inappropriate behavior, some people will test whether they get called on a new inappropriate behavior. Inappropriate behavior may be ramped up over time to avoid immediate consequences. Removing or banning a persistent boundary pusher may be the best solution for your community.

From “Harasser” to “Reported Person”

A persistent boundary pusher is generally what people think of when they hear the word “harasser.” Harassment is defined as “deliberate pestering or annoying.” The problem with using the word “harasser” in a Code of Conduct is that it implies that a person had to “intend” their behavior to be harmful for it to be a Code of Conduct violation.

In my experience, there are people who violate a Code of Conduct and don’t intend to harm another person. When a person’s identity is the default (such as being White or able-bodied), they may not understand that their actions cause harm. The person may be unaware that their language or behavior causes people from groups underrepresented in the community to feel anxious, unsafe, invisible, or worthless.

However, their behavior still causes harm. People with “good intentions” or who are “just ignorant” can and do cause harm. The job of a Code of Conduct enforcement team is to ensure that the harm stops, regardless of intent.

That’s why I’ve shifted towards language like “reported person” rather than “harasser.” It removes the burden of proof of intent. Instead of asking whether the person intended to harm another, the enforcement team can instead ask, “After we talk to this person, are they likely to repeat the behavior?” If it’s unlikely they’ll repeat the behavior, a simple warning might suffice. If the team is concerned that the person will repeat the inappropriate behavior, then a stronger response might be called for, such as a temporary or permanent ban.

Intersecting Identities

Moving away from “harasser” also broadens the scope of what’s considered a Code of Conduct violation. It allows enforcement teams to consider complex situations where people’s identities intersect in a diverse space. Let’s examine something that happened to me at a conference this year as an example.

A person sat down with me at a conference lunch and said, “Hello, Miss Sharp.”

I had a spike of anxiety at being misgendered (assumed to be a woman when I’m not). I mumbled, “It’s not ‘Miss’, it’s ‘Mx’. I’m non-binary.” They made a noise, and largely ignored me for the rest of lunch.

Later, the person came up to me and said, “I want to talk about what you said at lunch.” My anxiety levels spiked again, because I was worried they wanted to have an argument about my gender identity. I carefully nodded, evaluating my exit routes. They said, “I’m sorry, but I’m hard of hearing. I could tell you had corrected me about something at lunch, but I couldn’t tell exactly what you said. It made me uncomfortable, so I didn’t talk with you at lunch, and I apologize. Could you tell me what you said?”

At that point, I was very relieved. I explained that I am non-binary, and that ‘Mx’ is a gender-neutral alternative to ‘Ms,’ ‘Mrs,’ or ‘Mr.’ They apologized for misgendering me. I thanked them for talking with me, and I apologized for not speaking more clearly. We shook hands, and both left feeling more supported.

Although this situation has a happy ending, it could have ended poorly. I might have felt unwelcome due to being misgendered, and the other person could have felt unwelcome because their disability wasn’t accommodated. Neither of us would have been a ‘victim’ nor a ‘harasser.’ There was simply unwelcome behavior on both sides (not speaking directly to a person who is hard of hearing and misgendering a non-binary person) that needed to be corrected.

Third-party Reports

Shifting away from “victim” and “harasser” to “reporter” and “reported person” broadens the scope of a Code of Conduct. The only place where this new language might cause confusion is when a person reports inappropriate behavior that wasn’t targeted at them.

One example would be a White person overhearing a racist joke about Black people. A racist joke has the impact of re-affirming White supremacy, whether or not a Black person is around to hear the joke.

In this case, the White “reporter” is not directly impacted by the reported person’s discrimination towards Black people. Similarly, there is no “victim” of the racist joke. However, the community is less inclusive if community members are making racist statements. It’s entirely possible that the person who made the racist joke has made more subtle racist comments to community members of color. If there isn’t a visible response to racism, Black community members may not trust leaders to act on reports of racism. People of color in the community may be silently impacted by racism and leave.

Enforcement teams shouldn’t discard reports that don’t have a clear “victim”. Even though inappropriate behavior may not directly impact the reporter, it’s still important for the Code of Conduct enforcement team to address the inappropriate behavior.

Summary

I want to acknowledge that there are people who do feel like “victim” and “harassment” are appropriate terms to use in their Code of Conduct report. However, widening the scope of our language ensures that everyone feels comfortable reporting behavior that makes them feel unwelcome.

By changing the term “harasser” to “reported person,” we widen the scope of the Code of Conduct to include microaggressions. The term also acknowledges that people with different identities protected by a Code of Conduct can still cause harm to each other. By moving away from “victim” to “reporter,” we allow people who don’t identify with the “victim” label to still feel able to report behavior that makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable.

If you’ve enjoyed this blog post and you’re a part of a Code of Conduct enforcement team, please consider hiring me to train your team!

Otter Tech offers an online Code of Conduct Incident Response Workshop. The workshop uses role-play to help enforcement team members to practice calm and firm responses to Code of Conduct incident reports. This is especially useful for new team members who haven’t experienced giving a Code of Conduct report or following up with a reported person. Practice in taking a report and dealing with inappropriate behavior is essential to ensuring your community is inclusive.

Discrimination, Inconvenience, and Opportunity

When I give Code of Conduct Incident Response workshops, one of the subjects I cover is discrimination. Sometimes there’s an attendee who has questions about “reverse discrimination”. This is a tough subject to pick apart, so this post is a little long.

First, let’s start with a story.

Community Center Blues

I work out at a community center in my town. I choose the community center because it’s one of the few community centers that has a pool. The community center has everything you need to work out: a weight room, treadmills, exercise classes, and, of course, men’s and women’s locker rooms to change and shower.

The community center also has several private changing rooms that are marked as being reserved for families with children, seniors, and people with disabilities. The showers in the private changing rooms are equipped with grab rails and a foldable seat (so people with mobility issues can sit while showering) and two shower nozzles (one at adult height and one at a child’s height).

Like a lot of community centers, the shower is operated with a push button that only allows the water to flow for a specific amount of time. The private changing rooms with a dual shower head have two buttons.

The other day, I noticed a funny thing when I accidentally pushed the lower shower button. The lower shower head ran for a longer time than the upper shower head.

This puzzled me for a moment. Having two shower heads makes sense. Outside of elementary or primary schools, buildings aren’t made for children. Having a shower head at their height with a button within reach gives them independence. It also helps people with mobility issues who are sitting on the bench.

Discrimination vs Inconvenience

But why would the community center make the shower water button for children and people with mobility issues run longer? It’s certainly an inconvenience for taller, able-bodied adults to have to mash a button every 15 seconds when you’re cold, wet, and have soap in your eyes. It might feel unfair to you that the community center wouldn’t make the shower water timer equal for everyone. Maybe it even feels like discrimination against able-bodied adults. “Reverse able-ism” if you will.

I often see this type of conversation come up. People see that a particular group benefits from a policy, or someone makes a space that’s explicitly designed for a particular group of people, and some folks feel left out. Hurt. Angry.

On Equality

“Why can’t we treat everyone equally?” some people might ask. “Why do those people get special treatment?”

You could imagine the great lengths the community center could go to ensure everyone gets an equally pleasant showering experience. Instead of push buttons that provide a timed amount of water, they could install sensors that would turn on the water only when a person was standing or sitting under the shower.

That would create an equal experience… assuming the sensor manufacturer tested their product with people who had a variety of different skin colors.

Even if an equally effective sensor was installed, it would probably cost the community center tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars to rip up the walls and install sensors and new shower heads and maybe even new water pipes.

All so that able-bodied adults could stop pushing a button every 15 seconds.

Going to all this renovation work in order for all people to have equally pleasant showers seems a bit extreme. After all, lots of buildings provide unequal access to folks. Some buildings only have stairs, and lack elevators or ramps for people who use mobility devices. Theaters often lack closed captioning for people who are hard of hearing, or provide sub-par experiences with closed caption devices that skip lines or obscure the movie.

Public places could provide an equal experience for all, but that costs time and money to accommodate everyone.

Every day, people make decisions about who gets a better experience, whether it’s at a theater or at a community center. The lack of action to accommodate people with disabilities and people of color builds up over time, with hundreds of thousands of people making small decisions every day that exclude people.

The end result is that every day people with disabilities and people of color are faced with the fact that their lived experience is less important to white, able-bodied people.

Does that sound equal?

Diversity Programs

In order for everyone to have an equally pleasant showering experience, my community center would need to invest in new tech and undertake a giant construction project that would probably inconvenience everyone. The project would likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A better use of those community center funds might be to give children free swimming lessons. My town has several different deep rivers that run through it, and it’s legitimate to worry about children drowning.

Maybe the community center could even offer swimming classes to children of color who live in the neighborhood. You might wonder why they would choose to teach that particular group of children to swim. However, once you look at America’s history of race and gender at public pools, it makes sense.

Initially, public pools were designed for young boys of all races. Once girls gained access, white adults objected to boys of color being around white girls. Cities made the public pools “Whites only”, and some white people would even beat people of color who tried to use the pool.

When the courts forced American public spaces to become desegregated after WWII, many cities simply shut down or filled in public pools rather than allow people of all races to swim. Pools moved into private clubs, which only allowed white members.

The end result of the cities’ policies around who can use public pools is that the overall drowning rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives is twice the rate for White Americans, and the rate for Black Americans is 1.4 times the rate for White Americans.

The community center offering classes for people of color to learn how to swim would help correct the results of the cities making decisions to exclude people of color from public pools.

Intersectionality

“But what about the poor white kids?” some folks might ask. “Weren’t they hurt when pools moved into private clubs?”

Yes, and no. Children from lower income countries are more likely to face drowning deaths than children from higher income countries. Around the world, WHO estimates that low- and middle-income countries account for over 90% of unintentional drowning deaths.

However, even when you take income into account, drowning rates in pools are the highest among Black American males. A study of Americans who died from drowning in pools from 1995 to 1998 showed that, “Seventy-five percent were male, 47% were Black, 33% were White, and 12% were Hispanic. Drowning rates were highest among Black males, and this increased risk persisted after we controlled for income.”

By offering free swimming lessons to children of color, the community center is choosing to focus on a particular group of people who are at higher risk of drowning. It’s no different than making sure older adults get tested for diabetes. There’s always a risk of children and teenagers developing diabetes, but diabetes is more prevalent in seniors vs children (25.2% vs 0.24%).

The question becomes, “How do we focus resources on the people who are more likely to need it?”

Lost Opportunity

That’s not to say white children in lower-income families don’t face a lot of issues. They often face food insecurity and the threat of becoming homeless. In fact, the neighborhood around the community center has a couple low-income housing units. The idea behind low-income housing is to offer apartments at a lower-than-normal rent, to ensure families can afford a safe place to sleep. Low-incoming housing in America is far from a perfect solution, but it is a step to address the problem of financial inequality.

When I was a college student facing another rent increase for on-campus housing, low-income housing frustrated me. I didn’t have a job, and my only source of income was scholarships or summer internships. Even if I took that income into account, I was still technically eligible under the income restrictions for low-income housing. However, every low-income apartment building explicitly banned students from applying.

I was annoyed by this, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I could take out student loans, and face the debt when I got a job. There was cheaper housing way out in the suburbs if I was willing to commute an hour by public transit into campus. I might be able to find a roommate who was willing to share my tiny studio apartment. If worst came to worst, I could move back in with my parents, consolidate my classes to two or three days a week, and commute by car for a couple hours each day.

The point is, I had other options. Some of them weren’t necessarily pleasant options, but I had more resources than most people whose income was below the poverty level. Just because I was denied access to low-income housing didn’t mean I was denied all housing opportunities. I just couldn’t access that particular opportunity, which was explicitly designed for people whose only other choice was moving into the street or camping out in their car.

The important question to ask is, “What is the impact of this lost opportunity?”

If someone can find another apartment, job, internship, conference, or event that fits them, it’s not discrimination to offer those opportunities only to people who would normally have a hard time getting access to those things. Instead, it’s correcting all the decisions other people have made that exclude people of color, people from low-income backgrounds, and people with disabilities.

Summary

It’s important to frame discussions of “reverse-isms” around statistics about who is more likely to face discrimination, how we can focus resources to help those people who are more likely to need them, and the real-world impact to people who benefit from diversity initiatives.

It’s important to acknowledge the lost opportunities people have when a diversity initiative isn’t designed for them, while emphasizing that those initiatives are there to correct historical and ongoing inequities that deny others opportunity. When talking to people about how the lost opportunity might impact them, it’s important to drill down into why they fear losing that opportunity.

Often the root cause is a fear of being excluded from a group, a feeling of being pressured to change in ways they don’t understand, a refusal to acknowledge discrimination exists, or a deep mistrust based on past experiences. Moving the conversation into a place where people can openly talk about those feelings takes a lot of patience over a long period of time. It involves managing the other person’s anxiety while gently nudging the person towards tolerance and acceptance.

If you’re curious, this post was written for people in the “defense” stage of the “Development Model of Intercultural Sensitivity” (DMIS). Judging where a person is on accepting other cultures is something that takes a lot of time and experience.

It often takes several interactions with folks at various stages of acceptance to recognize common misconceptions and pitfalls. It’s  useful to consult with an expert who can help you create a plan to move your community or company into a stage where they’re more accepting of diversity.

Otter Tech is here to help with one-time or monthly advice sessions to help you make your community more inclusive.

Code of Conduct Enforcement Warning Signs

Recently, people have been speaking out about the mishandling of a Code of Conduct violation by the Chaos Computer Club conference. A person was violently assaulted. The conference refused to ban the attendee with the history of violence, even after the organizers were presented with hospital records and a police report. The victim was notified that the person who assaulted them would be attending this year’s event. They were notified during the event setup, after they had already spent time and money traveling to the event.

This event does have a Code of Conduct, so the question is, “Why didn’t they enforce it?” I think some of the answers lie in an older version of their Code of Conduct. Cultural change takes time, and events often put on a veneer of polish to silence critics while still not having a plan to enforce a Code of Conduct.

CC BY Michael Coghlan

As someone who runs a business that provides diversity and inclusion consulting and trains people on Code of Conduct enforcement, I read a lot of Code of Conducts. There’s often warning signs that a Code of Conduct is not likely to be enforced. I’ve compiled my list of common warning signs.

Many of the warning signs that a Code of Conduct won’t be enforced apply to the CCC Code of Conduct. In particular, the old CCC Code of Conduct exhibited warning signs #3, #4, #5, #6, #8, #9, #10. The new CCC Code of Conduct attempts to address the issue of hate speech in #9, but still includes the original sentence about freedom of expression, which leads me to assume there are still organizers who disagree about whether hate speech should be allowed. The new Code of Conduct now lists some (but not all!) of the common protected classes (#5). The five other warning signs (#3, #4, #6, #8, #10) still apply to the new CCC Code of Conduct.

Here’s the full list of common warning signs that an event won’t enforce their Code of Conduct:

  1. The email address to send Code of Conduct incident reports to is an info@ or reports@ email address with no indication of who is on the recieving end. Is there an actual person who will answer an emailed report? I’m never sure.
  2. The email address to send Code of Conduct incident reports to is a single person, who is the lead event organizer. This indicates that the event doesn’t have a group of people trained to be incident responders. What happens when a Code of Conduct violation involves the one person who is designated to receive incident reports?
  3. The Code of Conduct text lists no contact information at all. Maybe the organizers are giving attendees the contact information at the event. However, conference attendees ditch paper. They don’t read the program. When an incident happens, they’re likely to be frustrated, angry, distraught, or maybe even in shock. They might be stuck in a bathroom trying to avoid a drunken attendee and physically unable to flag down a staff member. Most people will try to find contact information on the event website. If a simple Google search for “EVENT NAME Code of Conduct” doesn’t come up with the contact information for the event’s incident response team in the first five hits, incidents are less likely to be reported.
  4. The Code of Conduct doesn’t list a range of consequences for violating the rules. This typically indicates that event organizers aren’t prepared to enforce their Code of Conduct. Vague phrases like “violators will not be welcome at the event” may mean an event doesn’t have an incident response plan that includes a tiered level of responses to deal with everything from inappropriate jokes up to interpersonal violence.
  5. The Code of Conduct doesn’t include a list of protected identities. Will the conference organizers understand why a homophobic comment is wrong? I don’t know, because the Code of Conduct doesn’t say organizers are looking out for LGBTQ attendees. Will the conference organizers respond to a sexist comment, or will they try to argue “it was just a joke”? I don’t know, because the conference doesn’t list gender as a protected identity. Will the conference organizers deal with an attendee who refuses to stop using abelist terms? I have no idea. Without a list of protected classes, I can’t assume what the event organizers’ views on systematic discrimination are.
  6. The Code of Conduct assumes a baseline of unbiased “good will”. When a Code of Conduct uses a phrase like “Be excellent to each other” it means the authors assume the worst case scenario they’ll have to deal with is someone being “mean” to another. It means organizers are less likely to believe a victim’s report, especially against a well-known event attendee. It means the organizers are likely to be dismissive of CoC incident reports of verbal abuse, harassment, or comments that perpetuate a system of inequality, such as sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. It means organizers are unlikely to have a plan for handling serious Code of Conduct violations like on-going harassment or stalking.
  7. The organizers introduce the Code of Conduct in a dismissive way. If they use a phrase like, “We’re all adults here, and I’m sure people understand the Code of Conduct,” then that tells me that the event has never had to deal with a Code of Conduct violation that involves adult crimes like assault, sexual harassment, domestic abuse, or rape.
  8. The Code of Conduct makes philosophical arguments about morality that undermine it. Some people (especially those in the infosec community) try to argue that there is no “one true moral compass” and that people should be free to do whatever they want. In a moral-less society, there are only consequences to actions, and if you’re willing to accept the consequences of your actions, “do as you will,” these folks argue. However, one of the consequences of refusing to “take sides” or asserting that conference attendees are the only ones responsible for their behavior is that people may decide not to attend the event, your community may lose trust in you, and your event might lose sponsors.
  9. The Code of Conduct talks about “freedom of speech” or “freedom of expression”. When I see this phrase, I always replace it with “freedom of expression for the privileged”. For example, say a speaker starts spouting off xenophobia in the middle of a talk, and the only three Muslim attendees choose to leave a conference because they know the organizers will protect the speaker’s “freedom of speech”. In that case, the organizers are silencing the voices from a group who are underrepresented in tech in order to protect the “freedom of expression” of the majority group in tech. This phrase means the organizers will protect the speech and expression of the privileged over the safety of people who face discrimination.
  10. The Code of Conduct doesn’t list the team members who are in charge of enforcement, or the event allows enforcement team members to join on the day of the event. This is a bad privacy practice, because it doesn’t tell victims who their incident report is going to be shared with. Will it be shared with a friend of the person who assaulted the victim? Unknown. When I don’t see an enforcement team list, I have to assume the enforcement team isn’t trained on how to handle Code of Conduct incident reports.

Training a team of Code of Conduct incident responders is a commitment to the safety of your event attendees. It’s a commitment that your Code of Conduct will be enforced, and is more than just words on a page. Otter Tech can help you train your event staff with a Code of Conduct incident response workshop. Please send us an email if you’re interested in Code of Conduct enforcement training.

Sage Sharp is the founder of Otter Tech, and is an expert on Code of Conduct creation and enforcement. They have over 10 years experience with open source communities, ranging from being the Linux kernel USB 3.0 driver maintainer to being an organizer for Outreachy, which connects people from groups under-represented in tech to paid internships working with open source.