If you follow me online at all you are probably aware that I help organize TrueNorthPHP, a PHP-centric conference for developers. This is the second time I’ve helped out, and I have been watching with a mixture of horror and fear how social media networks are filling up with tales of excessive alcohol consumption and sexual assaults of female attendees at conferences.
I know people hate talking about this sort of stuff, but I am keenly aware of the ridiculous amount of privilege I have in this society. White, male, over 40, heterosexual, married, well-paid, working in technology. Some of this has been earned, much of it just handed to me.
As I briefly mentioned on Twitter my goal is to try and create an environment where people can meet and find common ground. Sure, there will always be assholes who wreck if for you. Sometimes those assholes are the conference organizers themselves. Ultimately, the responsibility for the attendees feeling wanted, engaged and safe belongs to the organizers.
As I see it, there are two major concerns for a conference organizer in late 2013: too much alcohol makes people uncomfortable, and harassment of women by attendees. I wanted to share my thoughts on both.
I intend on enforcing a zero-tolerance-for-bullshit-behaviour policy at the conference. This includes harassing people based on gender, sexual preference, country of origin. In short, if you act like an asshole and I find out, chances are you will be escorted out personally with no refund. It’s not hard to avoid acting in an unacceptable way, and never mind your own incorrect opinions on free speech and the consequences that come with it.
It’s a shame that I have to say things like this to other adults, because I would prefer to trust people to know what is acceptable in such an environment.
Second, clearly, there is an alcohol problem in general at conferences. There is a huge cultural component to it (bros want to slam down the brewskis) and many people who do not drink alcohol (for whatever reason) are made to feel uncomfortable with not drinking it. The cheers when people hear that there is an open bar, the jokes about people not attending talks on the second day because they are hungover. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
In a culture where drinking, often to excess, is acceptable to a large percentage of the population, this is very tough battle. Personally, I am looking to offer free alcohol at the conference but in very limited amounts. The conference venue doesn’t allow any on-site alcohol so your only chance to have a drink on me is at our party on the Saturday. Which is at a bar near the venue.
If you don’t drink alcohol, come and sit with me at the restaurant and I will make sure you are welcomed and not uncomfortable. I don’t need to drink alcohol to socialize with my friends and peers, and neither will you. Being with a bunch of strangers is intimidating enough without feeling pressure to conform.
Third, people still have the attitude that computer programming should be one big sausage party. Women are expected to “know their place” and go along with all the crude humour and intimidating behaviour that those who think women are inferior are supposed to just endure with a smile. When I see comments like “you’re encroaching on a safe place for males” it makes me want to physically confront them about their incredibly wrong ideas.
I worked hard to attract women speakers who would provide interesting content to my conference. Did things go as well as I thought they could? No, it never does. I could’ve worked harder to seek out more talented women speakers, but there is only so much time and the list of things a conference organizer has to think about is long.
Any female attendees for TrueNorth can feel comforted that I will be 100% approachable and 100% on your side should you be subject to any objectionable behaviour by any attendee. As the father of two girls, I already see the bullshit they are being asked to put up with simply because of their gender. I won’t go along with letting it happen to you.
If you come to our Saturday social and are feeling uncomfortable, again, join me at my table and I will work my hardest to make sure you are as comfortable as I will be.
Last year, the conference was awesome and I didn’t hear any complaints. That doesn’t mean things didn’t happen, and part of me wonders if many suffered in silence because they thought complaining wouldn’t change anything.
I want you to enjoy yourselves at TrueNorthPHP, with an understanding that binge-drinking and harassment of attendees is something that will absolutely not be tolerated or promoted by the organizers.
The goal is to spend 2 days learning and sharing things about PHP and related technologies, while also having a good time in an environment where you should expect to be looked after and feel safe.
Don’t hesitate to track me down and ask me about ANYTHING while at the conference. I am here to help you.