This post co-written by Sarah Milstein and Eric Ries, co-hosts of The Lean Startup Conference.
Our goal in hosting The Lean Startup Conference—which starts in just over two weeks—is to help entrepreneurs learn absolutely useful things from each other. For our participants to stay open to the unique ideas we’re presenting and to share the advice they each have, we need an environment that’s dynamic, professional and respectful. We believe most conference hosts aim to create a great atmosphere for learning.
But as an endless number of conference episodes have shown, you can’t leave that to chance. Among the dozens of recent examples we’re aware of, here are just a few from 2013 alone that make the point:
- TechCrunch Disrupt kicked off with hackathon demos that included an app called “Titstare” and, separately, a guy on stage simulating masturbation. Whether intended as jokes, plenty of people saw them as far from funny.
- CES—the giant Consumer Electronics Show—was most noted for a booth in which four women were hired to appear in nothing but thongs, pasties and blue body paint. Thousands of attendees, men and women, tweeted and talked about why this and other, similar displays, made them uncomfortable.
- Rape jokes were directed at a woman on stage at a Microsoft’s E3 press conference.
- A woman was sexually assaulted by her boss during the drinking scene at CodeMash. (She detailed the event on her blog, and it was corroborated in posts by at least two witnesses. After receiving hundreds of rape and death threats in the comments on her post, she took it down. A small piece of the original post is quoted here.)
- We probably don’t need to remind you about Adria Richards’s experience at PyCon, where two men behind her during a keynote talk made sexual jokes. After reporting the incident via Twitter, she was subject not only to a tsunami of rape and death threats, but she was also fired and doxxed, which had additional ramifications. (We’re proud to have had hosted her as a speaker last year and a mentor this year.)
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Here’s a list from Courtney Stanton of other, similar episodes over the past few years. And here’s a “timeline of incidents” on the GeekFeminism Wiki dating back to 1973, plus a list of sexually objectifying presentations from the past decade. If you follow news around business conferences and those affiliated with the tech sector, you’ll know these examples are just the very tip of the iceberg.
We don’t want to be the conference hosts who have to write an apology after our event. We do want to do our best to actively support productive dialog among all conference participants. In line with our efforts toward transparency, and in hopes of encouraging other conference hosts to take pro-active measures to foster awesome professional spaces, here’s what we’re doing this year.
We’ve published our code of conduct, which lays out the conditions for participating in the conference for all us: speakers, sponsors, attendees, staff and volunteers. We invite you to take a look. As you’ll see, our code of conduct insists that conference participants think of ours as a professional event, and that everyone conducts themselves accordingly. That might mean that some of us have to think carefully before joking around, flirting with coworkers, taking pictures, etc. and err on the side of caution. We’re comfortable with that mild restriction. For the good of the community, we’re looking to create the most vibrant and thorough possible exchange of ideas, one in which a range of people are able to fully talk and listen.
Teresa Nielsen-Hayden—who is not only the foremost expert on managing online comments, but who also runs a blog with the best discussions perhaps on the whole internet—has pointed out that if you create an atmosphere in which anyone can say anything, you will necessarily give prominence to offensive comments and hateful behavior, because people who don't like or can't tolerate that sort of thing won't participate. In other words, there's a tradeoff when you have no rules. If there's a tradeoff in having rules, and it's that some of us will have to speak thoughtfully when in the public areas of events and, perhaps, apologize if we offend people, we’re all in favor of that exchange.
We train our staff, and we invite you to speak up. As far as we know, The Lean Startup Conference does not have a history of participants’ behaving in ways that would violate our code. But, frankly, we can’t be sure, because a common effect of harassment is that people feel they can’t or shouldn’t report it. We’re hoping to make it as easy as possible to speak up if you experience or see a problem. The code of conduct includes phone and email for our executive producer, who will contact the two of us immediately if she receives a report. In addition, we’re training our staff and volunteers on a straightforward procedure for responding to reports.
We review all speaker and sponsor materials for inappropriate imagery. The professional environment of the conference is established in no small part on the stage. To take in the material of the conference, attendees need to be able to feel open to what’s coming from the podium, not braced for potential shocks. So we’re aiming to ensure that any visual materials displayed on stage, or associated with the conference via sponsorship, fall within the range of what anyone would consider professionally appropriate. Lolcats: yes. Rape jokes: no.
Our speaker roster is diverse, setting a tone for the event. We’ve talked about this at some length recently, but to reiterate here, we have, through extensive outreach and a meritocratic application process, created a roster of speakers that is more than half women and people of color. We’ve also sought out new attendees by posting to a variety of mailing lists, and through partnerships with a number of organizations. We did not reach out to 4chan.
We’re limiting alcohol at onsite events. We want attendees to have fun, but this thing is not a frat party. And is should come as no surprise that many harassing, offensive actions at conferences take place at receptions and other events where alcohol has, by tradition, flowed freely. The Lean Startup Conference is addressing issues important to professionals, and that’s the tone we want to foster, including during social events. We’re thankful in particular to Pivotal Labs, which is sponsoring our reception on Monday, December 9 and is working with us to create networking opportunities that are effective, inviting, and work beautifully when you aren’t three drinks in.
By talking about our intentions, we hope to draw those of you who are eager to help us create a very lively scene at The Lean Startup Conference—one where you really can learn from each other and have an amazing time as your brain lights up. If you haven’t registered yet, please do so now. We want you to be part of this great event.