Sexual harassment and Assault is a Problem in Every Community of Interest
Including Computer Security


(For related material, there is a link farm at the bottom of this posting)

I work in computer security, am an avid science fiction fan, and am a fan of a number of skeptical/science bloggers like PZ Myers and Greta Christina. In the last 2 years, there has been a storm of incidents coming to light about sexual harassment in those three communities, and the reaction in each of them has been more or less the same:

When someone comes forward and says "I was assaulted" it is absolutely critical to take them seriously. A great deal of the time, however, what happens instead is victim-blaming and minimization of the incident: "Are you sure?" "She asked for it!" "She was tipsy" etc... Sexual assault incident excuse-makers tend to ignore the odd fact that nobody ever says "sure, Fred stole my wallet, but I was drunk at the time" or "well, that guy mugged me because I was well-dressed, I suppose that makes sense" - the excuse-making and minimization surrounding sexual assault is revealingly inconsistent. If you are reading this and are thinking I'm perhaps making too big a deal out of this problem, you are exactly the person I need to reach so please - I beg you - keep reading.

The part of the cycle I outlined above that concerns me now is the backlash and stabilization part. When minimizing and dismissing an assault doesn't work, people who feel threatened by this topic often resort to attacking the person who brought the problem to their attention. Instead of just acknowledging that it's a problem, rolling up our sleeves and asking "what can we do?" it's not appropriate to turn our anger on the person who identified the problem in the first place. Fairly consistently, however, the people who try to get sexual harassment brought forward as an issue are attacked for attempting to do so; one of my favorite bloggers, Rebecca Watson, publicly commented about a fellow conference-goer who awkwardly tried to invite her to his room after first cornering her in an isolated elevator, and has been subjected to a prolonged harassment campaign because she publicly discussed the fact that this was inappropriate behavior. How do we stabilize it? Well, for starters, those who lead (who have power and/or privilege or who control the microphone) in these communities need to push back against these behaviors by supporting the targets of sexual harassment as well as backlash harassment.

A friend of mine asked me, shortly after Georgia Weidman was assaulted at a computer security conference in Poland, "What should we do?" and I realized that those of us like myself, and him, who are speakers - have a little bit of power to try to move this community in the right direction. We are the performers who make a conference successful, and we have a small amount of leverage with the conference organizers and, by extension, the marketing sponsors of the conference as well. I cooked up the idea that if we, collectively, started asking conferences to have a posted anti-harassment guideline, it would help raise awareness and modify behavior. So I drafted a letter to my peers asking if they'd be willing to sign on collectively to a statement that we wouldn't attend conferences that don't have posted sexual harassment guidelines. I socialized the letter with a few of my friends and an odd thing happened: half were very supportive, and the other half were dismissive. They apparently didn't even read to the bottom of the letter, where I explained that there's solid social sciences research that shows that telling people how you expect them to behave in a situation really does help change behavior. In other words, if a conference says "do not sexually harass your fellow conference-goers" there's going to be a marked improvement in the likelihood that someone might think twice before they don't take "no" for an answer. This is an important point, because - especially if alcohol is involved - people don't always think clearly and it's easy to forget what you're supposed to do in a particular situation. That also applies to the conference organizers! When a conference organization puts up a sign of anti-harassment guidelines, it mentally and emotionally prepares them, by making them recognize that that's a problem they may have to deal with and that'll reduce the chance that if someone comes and complains they will try to sweep the problem under the carpet because they don't know what to do. If a conference's management says publicly "we will call the police if you harass your fellow conference-goers" the probability they will actually do that goes way up, if push comes to shove. That way we hopefully won't get a horrible situation like the conference in Poland that tried to sweep Georgia's assault under the carpet by, apparently, blaming her for hitting her attacker in the face while defending herself. So, is a sign going to help? The answer is an unequivocal "YES"

In computer security I often hear people lament the fact that there aren't more women in our field. Could there be a connection?

Shorly after the Weidman incident, while I was still socializing the idea of getting the speakers to act together, the awe-inspiring John Scalzi (who at the time was the president of Science Fiction Writers of America) had to deal with an incident of harassment at one of their conferences. A senior and well-known industry figure was apparently a serial harasser, who had been allowed to skate over and over again. Scalzi's reaction was to blow the whole thing open and take the problem public, which worked for him because he's popular enough and outspoken enough to handle the inevitable backlash. Basically, Scalzi's a razor-witted slapper of internet trolls, and was not subject to the kind of threats and harassment that Rebecca Watson got because:

  1. He's clever and well-spoken and will make you look foolish if you tangle with him
  2. He's a male

And at the same time that was going on, PZ Myers, a science and skeptical blogger that I follow, took public a similar situation, in which Michael Shermer, a well-known skeptic and publisher, had apparently been taking advantage of a bit of alcohol as a seduction aid for impressionable female conference-goers. PZ, again, was able to survive the backlash for more or less the same reasons as Scalzi, though Shermer threatened lawsuits (and, apparently has backed off since truth is an absolute defense against defamation). I wrote a bit about alcohol and seduction here, if you are interested.

As a regular conference speaker, I'm amazed that anyone who was invited to speak at a conference would be stupid enough to risk getting preying on the conference attendees. When I'm speaking at a show, it's work and I'm representing the conference, my company, and lastly myself. I'm not there to pick up entries for my little black book, I'm there to help the conference organizers put on a smooth, interesting, computer security event - and I've been around long enough to know that when you start becoming a source of drama, you don't last very long on the speaking circuit. All it takes is one conference organizer to say something like, "Oh, we had trouble with him" and any other conference organizer with half a brain will steer clear. After all, conference organizers have got a huge amount of headache and hassle to deal with, already, the last thing they want to do is invite more trouble onto their already-full plate by inviting a sexual predator.

During all that time, there was one small ray of sunshine: I was speaking at LOPSA East 2013 in New Brunswick and - lo and behold - they had a big sign up at the registration desk with a sexual harassment and tolerance policy.

Perhaps the tide is turning a bit. But this isn't a physical tide caused by orbital mechanics, its a behavioral tide and it's something we actually can change if we push together in the right direction. At RSA conference 2013, I observed a ridiculous number of "booth babes" and wrote a sarcastic little piece explaining that it's just bad marketing. There was, as usual, push-back (Mike Rothman trots out the naturalistic fallacy) and support (Winn Schwartau) but at RSA 2014 there were only 4 booths with "booth babes" (and, mercifully, no "look at our CEO's Ferrari!" booths). I'd like to imagine that a few little nudges have helped.

If anyone else wishes to sign on to this initiative, please email me, and I'll add your name to the list. Feel free to use my link-farm and/or letters as you see fit.

(Bellwether Farm. March 24, 2014)


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