I have become increasingly saddened and dismayed in recent years at the level of sexual harassment, and what I see as inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour by a surprising number of men at the ICT conferences and exhibitions convened by some international organisations. This ranges from generally loutish actions by some groups of young men, to what can only be called predatory behaviour by some older and more senior figures in the sector. Until the last couple of years, I had thought that such behaviour had largely disappeared, but from what I have witnessed myself, from what I have heard from women in the sector, and from what I have read, it is clear that action needs to be taken urgently by all those in the sector, and particularly those who are organising conferences and events.
The ICT industry has for far too long been dominated by men, much to its disadvantage, and it is good that an increasing amount of publicity is being shed on the sexism that has come to dominate the sector more widely. In 2014, the Guardian newspaper ran an interesting series of reports on the subject, one of which was entitled “Women ‘belittled, underappreciated and underpaid’ in tech industry“, and in 2015, the BBC also featured a report on “Sexism in Silicon Valley and beyond: tech wake-up call” following the case brought by Reddit boss Ellen Pao against her former employer, venture capitalist Kleiner Perkins. However, this is the tip of the iceberg.
UN Women Watch has defined sexual harassment as “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature”, and has provided an excellent detailed document describing this in more detail and giving example of verbal, non-verbal and physical sexual harassment. Such behaviour can certainly be by both men and women, but the vast majority of perpetrators are men, and it is high time that concerted action is taken to stop it.
As a first step, I am issuing this call for all international organisations in the field of ICTs to issues guidelines on expected behaviour at their events. I prefer guidelines to codes, because codes generally require policing, and the imposition of penalties or sanctions should anyone be found guilty. In practice, this is extremely difficult to implement and enforce. Guidelines, instead, reflect expected norms, and should be acted upon by everyone participating in an event. If someone witnesses inappropriate behaviour, it should be their responsibility to take action to ensure that the perpetrator stops. In far too many cases, though, people at present do not take enough action, especially when the harassment is by someone senior in the sector. This has to change. We must all take collective responsibility for bringing an end to such behaviour, so that everyone can participate equally at international ICT events without fear of being harassed because of their gender or sexuality.
To be sure, there are very complex cultural issues to be considered in any such discussion, but the fundamental aspect of harassment is that it is any behaviour that someone else considers to be unacceptable. Hence, we must all consider the other person’s cultural context in our actions and behaviours, rather than our own cultural norms. Just because something might be acceptable in our own culture, does not mean that it is acceptable in another person’s culture. Despite such complexities, some international organisations have indeed produced documents that can provide the basis for good practices in this area. Some of the most useful are:
- The UN’s Standards of Conduct for the International Civil Service, which has a useful paragraph (21) on harassment: “Harassment in any shape or form is an affront to human dignity and international civil servants must not engage in any form of harassment. International civil servants have the right to a workplace environment free of harassment or abuse. All organizations must prohibit any kind of harassment. Organizations have a duty to establish rules and provide guidance on what constitutes harassment and abuse of authority and how unacceptable behaviour will be addressed”
- The Internet Governance Forum, has a short and straightforward code of conduct, which begins by stating that participants must “Treat all members of the IGF community equally, irrespective of nationality, gender, racial or ethnic origin, religion or beliefs, disability, age, or sexual orientation; all stakeholders of the IGF community should treat each other with civility, both face to face and online”. This could be more explicit with respect to harassment, but it is at least a start.
- One of the clearest and most detailed documents is the conference anti-harassment policy template, developed by the Geek Feminism Wiki. This has useful suggested texts of different lengths, with the shortest being “$CONFERENCE is dedicated to a harassment-free conference experience for everyone. Our anti-harassment policy can be found at: [URL for full anti-harassment policy]”. It goes on to give medium and full length policy templates, as well as suggestions for actions that participants and staff should take.
I look forward to the day when all international ICT conferences do indeed have such guidelines on sexual harassment, and hope that this will begin to create a better, safer and happier environment where we can all work together more effectively to reach appropriate decisions about these important technologies and their use.