It’s not just Noirin

Recently, Noirin Plunkett Shirley wrote about being assaulted at ApacheCon. Noirin publicly called out her assaulter because quietly reporting the incident to authorities and conference leadership isn’t working. She and many other women, including me, are still being harassed and assaulted at tech events on a ridiculously frequent basis.

Just off the top of my head, either I or one of my personal friends has been sexually harassed or physically assaulted at each of the following conferences: Ottawa Linux Symposium 2002-2006, Linux Conference Australia 2007-2008, Hackers 2006, Southeast LinuxFest 2010[1], Linux Storage and Filesystems Workshop 2008, OSCON 10[2], FrOSCON 10[2],and now ApacheCon 2010. These include multiple incidents of groping and unwanted kissing in addition to “just” incredibly rude and obnoxious verbal comments. [Edited to add on 11/29/10: Here is a partial list of sexist incidents in geek communities.]

One thing is undeniably true: Sexual harassment and assault is an important and underreported problem for many women at tech conferences. I’m posting this to say that Noirin is not alone – far, far from alone – in her experience and her frustration.

What can you, as a sympathetic reader, do? Well, now is a fantabulous time for conference organizers to announce their policies for handling incidents like these. If you aren’t an organizer, it’s also a good time to email the organizers of the next conference you are attending and ask if they have such a policy. Go ahead, do it now – this blog post will be here when you get back. But most importantly, speak up and oppose people when they say this behavior is okay or that reporting it is bad.

I stopped attending Ottawa Linux Symposium mainly because of the sexist comments from both the attendees and the conference organizers. Then I volunteered for, promoted, and spoke at conferences that had much more supportive organizing committees, like Linux Plumbers Conf, LinuxCon, and LinuxConf Au. I know I was not the only person who did so. It’s to your conference’s benefit to take a pro-active approach to crappy attendee behavior and establish a reputation for swiftly and firmly handling bad behavior. Otherwise, a few years down the road, you might discover you don’t have a conference.

[1] Changed from Ohio Linuxfest, my mistake.
[2] Added on 11/8/10.

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