As people who work in technology, content, and the web, we’re at the forefront of cultural change. And we need to take responsibility for the way we run our communities, both online and face-to-face. Let’s talk about some of our problems.
The academy is dead, long live self-development
The old educational model of god-like experts pouring knowledge directly into the brains of students doesn’t work any more. In the era of connection, you’re responsible for your own development, whether that’s writing a blog post or attending a conference. A community event will only help you if it challenges you, because learning is uncomfortable—and you need to make yourself vulnerable in order to learn. You’ll only be willing to do that in a safe space. Here’s the problem: we’ve failed to create a safe space for so many people.
We have an inclusion problem
We’ve seen some constructive discussion in the tech industry recently (1, 2, 3, 4) about inclusion in events, mostly directed at conference organizers—for example, making it clear that it’s not acceptable to have all-white-male lineups at conferences. I think this is fantastic—we organizers need to raise our game by learning what the community needs and redesigning our events to match, for example by running open calls for talks. We need to make inclusion an explicit goal of our events, and we need to work on making conferences, meetups, workplaces, etc., a safe space for everyone. Which means setting standards, expectations, and boundaries about acceptable behavior. And modeling inclusion and respect on stage—which is why inclusive speaker lineups are so important. But before you let yourself off the hook, this isn’t just a problem for organizers. We’re all community organizers now. This is your problem too.
Harassment is widespread in our community
I didn’t understand harassment until it happened right in front of me. Recently I was at a web conference with a female friend and colleague, and one of the organizers behaved in a sexist, insulting, and aggressive way towards her, on more than one occasion, right in front of me.
Initially I was shocked, because I’ve never had that kind of behavior directed at me, so I naïvely assumed that nobody else experienced it either. (Attention white men: people behave differently towards us.) Was this an isolated event? No, I learned, technology conferences (and much of the business world) are rife with sexist behavior, which is one reason why so few women choose to stay in the field—a problem for all of us.
But hang on, my shock is irrelevant—I was a bystander, not a victim. What happened next? This incident happened at an official conference event, in front of several male attendees (including me). It felt like everyone knew the organizer was behaving inappropriately, but we had no idea how to object, so we stayed silent and left my friend to fight him off alone. (I attempted to intervene but got stuck on the idea that I shouldn’t speak “for” my friend, as if that would imply that she couldn’t speak for herself.) The “topic” of the aggressive behavior—the thing he was shouting about—was ostensibly a web industry issue, and I guess the others told themselves this was an “argument” about web stuff, which they felt uncomfortable about interrupting. I learned that we live in a sexist culture, to the extent that when three men witnessed something we knew was wrong, we didn’t have the language nor the courage to intervene.
We need to set boundaries about acceptable behavior
I realized that this guy must behave like this all the time, and the people around him choose not to call him out on it. (Since then I’ve confirmed that he has a history of aggressive behavior.) Our instinct might be to retaliate by publicly shaming him—but that’s the easy way out, and it won’t work. People are abusive and aggressive when they have shame issues (eg low self esteem)—that doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it shows that trying to tell the world that he’s a bad person won’t stop him behaving like that. He’s not a bad person, he chose to behave in an unacceptable way. If we tell him what’s wrong with his behavior, and explain that we won’t engage with him unless that changes, he might make a different choice tomorrow. Instead of labeling people as good our bad, we have to set boundaries with them, and that makes us uncomfortable. We have to say, “this community doesn’t allow that type of behavior”, and we have to mean it.
You’re responsible for the culture you’re part of
What does this have to do with you? Whether you’ve experienced this kind of behavior or not, you’re part of this community, and you need to be part of the solution. If you agree that a more inclusive culture would help the industry, our careers, and our work, then reconsider the choices you make. You choose which conferences to spend your money on—do they challenge you by taking you outside your comfort zone? You can give organizers feedback about their speaker choices and harassment policies. You can pitch talks to events, or encourage people you know from under-represented groups to do the same. You can start your own meetup or conference.
You can be alert to harassment in the workplace, at events, online—and when you see it, you can try to uphold the community’s values by calling out inappropriate behavior. Something like, “the way you’re behaving is inappropriate.” Difficult to say, and yet essential if we’re going to redesign our culture around respect, empathy, and collaboration.
Let’s get uncomfortable and remake our culture
I’m trying to make cultural change part of my work. Here’s what I’ve achieved so far:
- I’ve co-organized open calls for speakers for two conferences about content strategy, both of which resulted in a diverse range of backgrounds, genders, and countries. (Far from perfect, of course—there’s always more work to do.)
- Together with Richard Ingram I’ve organized 11 (and counting) London Content Strategy Meetup events, all of which featured female speakers.
- I’m trying to set boundaries at the events I organize, based on the values of respect and inclusion. I’m working on harassment policies for my events.
What are you doing to change our culture?
Photo by Rhiannan Walton