The gears of the sexism-outrage-apology cycle in the tech world moved a little bit faster this week with not one, but two, major examples of brogrammers behaving badly in a very public setting. First, there was "Titstare," a presentation at TechCrunch's Disrupt Hackathon that pretty much speaks for itself. Then, there was the mounting criticism of Business Insider's (former) CTO Pax Dickinson over his offensive (misogynist and otherwise) Twitter feed. And while both the organizations responsible for giving the bros a platform have responded with action in the wake of their bad PR — TechCrunch apologized, and Business Insider parted ways with Dickinson — incidents like these are very much preventable.
Speaking to The Atlantic Wire, TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Tsotsis said that the organization is currently working on an anti-harassment policy for all of its conferences going forward — something not in place during their nearly four years of hackathons. "[Anti-harassment policies] are not a common occurrence in the tech industry," Tsotsis said, adding that in her personal opinion, "it should be." And TechCrunch will be developing a screening program for all future hackathon presentations. That's a change for the normally anything-goes-style event. "There's free speech, and there's making people unsafe," she said. "It's not always the same line, but it becomes clear when someone crosses it."
Until Sunday, Disrupt hackathon presenters underwent minimal scrutiny before getting a mic for a one-minute presentation, something that both critics and TechCrunch have blamed in the wake of Titstaregate. Their promise to change, to TechCrunch's credit, follows up on a pretty thorough apology for the incident. But TechCrunch's aggressive response to the debacle still leaves many wondering why it had to happen in the first place.
There seems to be a gap here between the solutions to the rampant unsafe spaces of the tech community, and their actual implementation. For conferences, that solution boils down to a basic due diligence by organizers to make sure every participant feels safe and welcome. But even as the tired trope of telling women in the tech industry to "lighten up" in response to discrimination framed as a "joke" wears out its welcome, the industry still seems institutionally calibrated to produce "Titstare" after "donglegate" after rape joke. Over the post few years, those moments have produced enough headlines for The Atlantic to create found poetry from them. And giving thought to preventing those moments is far from common among conference organizers. Anti-harassment policies designed for conferences have existed for awhile now, but few actually use them. That leaves us with a pretty unsatisfying best-case-scenario of the post-scandal "teaching moment": individual organizations adapting a series of changes after the fact to prevent another such debacle from happening at their events.
Those reforms aren't always easy to sell. At worst, suggestions aimed at making women feel more welcome in their profession are met with hostility:
feminism in tech remains the champion topic for my block list. my finger is getting tired.— Pax Dickinson (@paxdickinson) September 9, 2013
Taking a look at what happened at TechCrunch, it's possible to get a better grip on just how easy it is to prevent the next "Titstare" — or if you're not careful, to become its next host.
How the presentations made it to the stage:
Tsotsis told the Wire that there was no formal screening process in place for last weekend's hackathon. Presenters were given the "benefit of the doubt," and asked only to write down their names and the title of their hack before going on stage to present. Tsotsis said TechCrunch was still investigating how exactly the duo secured stage time, but that one account indicates that presenters Jethro Batts and David Boulton listed themselves as "Number 68D." (The name of the product in the second questionable presentation of the day was not as obviously wrong: "Circle Shake.") There were, however, other incidental ways in which "Titstare" could have been stopped. Before the presentations, TechCrunch reps were interviewing "selected" participants in the hackathon, but not, to her knowledge, the Aussie duo. Plus, Batts and Boulton tweeted out a preview of their presentation hours before taking the stage:
Our TechCrunch Hackathon entry. It's all south from here. pic.twitter.com/eDmpSQrUvS— Hate You Cards (@HateYouCards) September 8, 2013
Then, there's the question of why "Titstare" and "Circle Shake" got their full minute on stage, even though the majority of both presentations were clearly inappropriate. Tsotsis didn't know why the presentations weren't interrupted as they happened on the stage, and chalked up the company's initial tweet about the product presentation to a "lapse of judgement" on the part of the person managing social media.
What happened next:
Tsotsis says that TechCrunch began interviewing the remaining presentations after the second offensive bit of the night. The rest were "clean," she added. Shortly after, the conference, and Tsotsis herself, released an apology promising to increase screening at the hackathon. That screening, she added, will include short interviews with every presenter before taking to the stage. TechCrunch doesn't currently have an anti-harassment policy or community guidelines in place for Disrupt, but Tsotsis said that the company is working on drafting up a set, which will go into effect immediately after they're announced.
Tsotsis is correct about anti-harassment policies not being close to the norm in the industry, but there are some examples. PyCon, home of Donglegate, had a particularly thorough one, as does the free software conferences KDE/Akademy and LibrePlanet, and the Linux conference SCALE. Tsotsis said she was looking at Geek Feminism's resources for anti-harassment policies, along with other existing resources. Here's what Geek Feminism says about those policies:
No one likes rules and policies and other bureaucracy. A small conference with hand-picked attendees may not need many guidelines, but as conferences grow beyond around one hundred people, it's statistically almost impossible that everyone will have the same behavior standards as you, the organizers. Policies may seem annoying, but they pay off in preventing bad press either from incidents or from how the organizers responded to incidents.
But those policies can't just exist in order to do any work. They have to be distributed, and enforced. For example: LibrePlanet's anti-harassment policy, based on resources from Geek Feminism and elsewhere, bans explicit sexual imagery and language, defines harassment in very specific terms:
verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.
And outlines specific enforcement procedures, while designating a contact for the conference. And yes, all of that takes work. But as should be obvious from the fallout of any of these events, being proactive is a lot easier than cleaning up after becoming the next organization connected to the next, inevitable, "Titstare."