First of all, some very important context caveats, as I’m well aware a lot of your reading this won’t know me, or the conference.
- I am quite easily triggered at the moment by misogyny in technology after my short tenure at Cloudflare earlier this year. They insta-fired me and flanked me off site (with no warning) a few days before my last cancer surgery in March this year, due to my being entirely unhappy about illegal interview questions and processes that prejudiced against women, and amongst other things happening there. I am sick to the back teeth of how women are treated for standing up to misogyny in this industry, and so I am bringing proceedings against them. This means I was triggered and reacted stronger than normal, I genuinely had a strong physical reaction (I have been shamed for shaking and crying, at the conference. I feel zero shame for having these emotions).
- I’ve organised and run a conference myself. I know how hard and stressful it is, and understand the moving parts.
- I love boobs. This is important. I also identify as queer/pansexual, and a bit of a perv – I adore bodies of all types and sizes and shapes, and all body parts. My point is: I am in no way a prude or in any way offended by the human body, as my tweets frequently show, BUT I WILL DEFEND the right of any human to feel comfortable and welcome in the technology industry (or in fact any profession) regardless of my own comfortableness with a pair of boobs on a tshirt – and this is the context of what I want you to understand. This was a professional event, where a man was wearing a tshirt of a naked, sexualised (that sexualised bit, also super important) woman. The messaging from this is deeply unpleasant on both how it frames the speaker and conference’s acceptance of women being there for the sexual pleasure of men. For women (and men, and enbies) who find sexualised imagery uncomfortable, and our upcoming youth who are watching up and how we conduct ourselves in our profession, this is terrible. This is why we have problems with diversity. This is why kids like mine (who both program, and excel in maths) take one look at tech and think, nah. I’d rather do something where I don’t have to feel uncomfortable. This is why I made a stand and left the talk.
- Thinking Digital is an exceptionally good conference in Newcastle, that’s been run for 11 years, and apart from yesterday’s kerfuffle: seamlessly. I have nothing but respect for the team and Herb who founded and runs it. This is not a cry for pitchforks at them, and I’d prefer it if everyone kept their conversations kind and civil. Dealing with a crappy incident like yesterday is awful for everyone involved. What I’d like this post and experience to achieve is conferences thinking about whether they really mean their Code of Conduct and if so, what action they’d take if something like this happened at theirs.
- I’ve been called out for being shameful for making this public, and not taking the speaker & event organisers to one side personally. Firstly, this is a public event that was being livecast, and photographed live. Therefore, the only way to deal with this is publicly. This was not an ok thing to happen in public. There are plenty of other people who would have felt very uncomfortable about this but didn’t have the voice for whatever personal reason to speak about it. I speak for them, I speak for those watching at home, I speak to raise awareness and I speak for my daughter’s generation who may find this content in future and wonder wtf. If I don’t speak out publicly, then it becomes normalised. It appears accepted. This is not acceptable. It is actually even harder than ever to speak out on this specific occasion because as I’ve said time and again on Twitter: I see Herb as a good friend, and wish him no ill at all and yet I know this will be an unpleasant situation for him. The easy and socially best thing to do would have been not to mention it at all. BUT, that wouldn’t help anything. Secondly, I did speak with both the speaker and the organiser personally, as well, at the time.
So, on with what happened. This, basically:
I was sat in the second row of the conference, and the speaker got up with a tshirt on that has a sexualised woman, with an open top, sat back on a bed with her breasts and nipples out looking rather provocative.
This made me feel very uncomfortable that this was happening on a conference stage (as I said before, boobs are fine, I have no problem with boobs, but in this context this is extremely inappropriate), and no-one was batting an eyelid. So I made a stand and left the talk. I also directly @’d the conference organiser and the hashtag on Twitter to make sure that the conference knew asap this was not ok in real time.
Other than my twitter feed blowing up with mostly super kind and supportive humans (thank you, this really helped me feel supported), nothing else happened. The talk continued, went over in fact, and then the break. No one from the conference approached me or him, either on or offline, so I decided I should leave as I was very upset and disappointed.
As I went to leave, the speaker was outside having a smoke, next to the exit. As I walked past him I let him know very calmly I’d found his tshirt inappropriate, I felt seeing as I’d called it in public it was the right thing to do in person as well, to attempt a conversation. At this stage it got immediately pretty nasty, without letting me finish even my first sentence the speaker very aggressively told me to “FUCK OFF” and his entourage joined in. My friend Dan was on a call about 15 metres away so I shouted at him to come over (I wasn’t sure if I was about to get duffed up, to be honest) and so he at least saw the tail end of the rebuttal.
And at which point the speaker responded thusly (worth reading this linked to tweet thread) < — sadly this has now been removed because he’s ashamed of what he said. Happily, I have at least some screenshots. He blocked me immediately after my reply below:
By now, I’m feeling pretty shitty to be honest. Bear in mind as well, I’ve never once said I was offended.
- I’m sad that the guy wore the shirt.
- I’m sad that the conference organisers thought it was acceptable to wear on stage.
- I’m sad that no-one else at the conference left the talk, or commented on it (props to Dan Hett who called it online though after seeing a live conference photo)
- I’m sad that the speaker felt threatening behaviour was acceptable and appropriate.
- I’m sad that when I then reported the incident of abuse to the organisers and team, there was no action taken – despite a code of conduct.
And lastly, I’m sad that although Herb made a very personal and heartfelt apology on stage, it was to me directly and used my name and Twitter handle. I understand this was done in the best intentions and for that I am touched and thankful, but that made me feel even more uncomfortable and very vulnerable. I was already in a state, so being called out and having people look for me in the audience was pretty terrifying. I felt extremely awkward, and the victim blaming started up shortly after on Twitter from other conference goers. I would rather the conference apologised for it’s behaviour and on behalf of its speaker to everyone because what happened was not acceptable. This isn’t about me – this is about our industry and the ability of those in power both on an off stages to shape how inclusive and welcoming we are.
I sense tested my thoughts on my 9 year old daughter this morning.
If you want to see if I’m being overly sensitive, try this yourself on your own kids, or any children you know. Try it on most adults, even. And you’ll see.
In conclusion, I want people to come away with three things.
- If you are in a position of power either on or off stage it is your duty to make sure the messaging we send out about our community is one of inclusion, and respect for all.
- If someone lets you know your behaviour has been inappropriate, just take a breath and listen. You’re not being attacked, you’re being given the respect of someone who would like to help you be better. They could easily not tell you and people will just think you’re a wally.
- If you run a conference and have a Code of Conduct, it literally means nothing unless you are prepared to act on it in the moment when a situation happens. Make sure you have a run through pre-conference of exactly what should happen if there is an incident of someone being harassed or threatened. Doing nothing is not acceptable.
EDIT – update, 29th May 2018 – I noticed someone say something very unpleasant and personal to Paul on Twitter that made me really sad, today. This was never about attacking Paul as a human – just a point about what tshirts are acceptable on stage, and what to do when you need to deploy your code of conduct. I realise Paul’s part of that story: but we are all human and all can react in ways that aren’t becoming sometimes thanks to our own baggage and back stories. Anyway, long story short – I reached out and let him know that was never what I wanted to see happen to him, and he came back receptively and with lots of genuine apologies via personal message. We’ve shared stories about why each of us approached this how we did to better understand the other’s viewpoint and shared a virtual hug.
Herb has now asked me to help him proof read and edit his post, which is a great step forward for collaborating and making sure this is dealt with as a joint force instead of at odds to each other, which I am very grateful for. I will do this tomorrow (30th May 2018).
A HAPPY ENDING. Huzzah.
<Jerry Springer final thoughts/>:
Change and open debate can be really painful (for all involved) but when the result is collaboration and new understanding it’s totally worth it.
Thanks to everyone for all their support to me along the way with this.