The XX Factor

Codes of Conduct Around Inclusion and Harassment Are a Sadly Necessary Trend

Conference rule no. 1: Don’t harass each other.


Within the last few years, “codes of conduct” have become such standard practice in tech settings that a conference or community without one is considered suspicious. Many open-source projects abide by a “contributor covenant” that forbids behavior like harassment and unwelcome sexual attention, for example. At Microsoft’s upcoming Build 2017 conference, the code states in part, “We do not tolerate harassing or disruptive behavior, messages, images, or interactions.” For Facebook’s annual developer conference next month, organizers have issued detailed community guidelines that includes a list of specific “conduct that is not OK,” including:

  • Derogatory or insensitive jokes, pranks, or comments
  • Slurs or epithets
  • Harassing photography or recording
  • Displaying or sharing images that are derogatory or sexually-oriented
  • Making offensive comments about people’s bodies or appearance

Recently, the March for Science became the latest STEM-related entity to clarify in writing that it does not tolerate harassment or bigotry. What many of these communities have in common is that are supposedly neutral, meritocratic spaces that in reality can be incredibly hostile to anyone not part of the majority culture. The protest, which takes place Apr. 22 in Washington, is intended to rally scientists and “science enthusiasts” to “support and safeguard the scientific community” in the context of the Trump administration’s confusing and alarming approach to science policy. But issues related to diversity and harassment have been a problem for the event from the start. Stat News reported Tuesday that “plans for the march are plagued by infighting among organizers, attacks from outside scientists who don’t feel their interests are fairly represented, and operational disputes.”

Like the Women’s March on Washington, the March for Science started as an idea online that attracted enthusiasm that quickly outpaced its early organizers’ expertise. Plans coalesced online in January and have expanded quickly, with more than 400 satellite events set to take place around the world. Early on, the March’s Twitter feed suggested it was “nonpartisan,” and organizers published a diversity statement that did not include disability issues, to name a few early stumbles. “#STEM is not a neutral enterprise,” astrophysicist Jedidah Isler, an activist on behalf of women of color in STEM fields, tweeted in response. “If your STEM policy work and/or activism depends on it, we’re not fighting for the same thing.” Otherwise supportive critics asked organizers to promote an “intersectional platform” that explicitly included scientists with “marginalized identities.” Organizers responded quickly, tweeting that intersectionality was a core principle, and announcing that they had formed a diversity committee.

That, in turn, attracted other critics. Prominent cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker groused that the March had “[compromised] its goals with anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric.” In apparent response, March organizers softened their diversity language, which predictably sparked a much bigger backlash. Other bumbles included a now-deleted tweet asking “ladies” to explain the gender pay gap, and another one (still up) asking “females” to describe why they opted against a career in engineering. (Sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos compiled a thorough account of the controversy last week.)

Broadly speaking, these were gestures in the direction of inclusiveness, but they also reeked of cluelessness. On Mar. 10, organizers released the fourth (!) version of their diversity policy. They also recently posted an online anti-harassment policy that includes the provision that “targeting individuals or communities with violent language, including statements that reflect racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, or any form of bigotry, will result in banning and/or blocking.” In another series of tweets this week, organizers again attempted to crack down in response to accusations that critics had been subject to “vile messaging”:

What does it mean when this much energy must be expended to ensure that professionals and activists, say, don’t actively harass each other? The rapid spread of codes of conduct both online and offline is unequivocally a good thing, an apparently necessary measure to help more people feel safe and welcome in spaces that have traditionally been homogenous and even dangerous. Still, there is something a bit melancholy about their existence. When a person’s dating profile says “no drama,” it usually means they attract more than their fair share of drama. When a conference or a protest or a community has to say “no harassment,” it suggests a similar failure.