Conferences and dark alleyways

I’m scared to go to OSCON or the Community Leadership Summit this year.

After I was assaulted last year, an awful lot of people pointed out that if I go into dangerous situations, I should expect bad things to happen, and that if I don’t want bad things to happen, I shouldn’t go into dangerous situations.

I was harassed at OSCON & CLS last year. I got a lot of grief after I wrote about my experience at ApacheCon. And I fully expect that some of the people responsible for both of those things will be at OSCON & CLS this year.

I don’t think it’s realistic to assume that I’ll be able to get through this year’s conference without being harassed again, and O’Reilly don’t seem to be willing to assure me that I’m wrong. But worse, I genuinely get the impression that if anything does go wrong, if I do get harassed, that O’Reilly don’t want to know, they don’t care, and they won’t do anything to help me, to help prevent it happening again, to help prevent it happening to someone else.

A very smart friend of mine reminded me that fear is not a good driver, and suggested that I consider whether OSCON is valuable and whether I can send a positive message by attending.

I’ve been looking forward to speaking. My slides have been rewritten from a previous version of this talk that was very well received, and I think they’re a really good deck. It’s a topic I care about, and I love being able to share my knowledge. Plus, I’m expecting a couple of potential employers to be there, as well as many friends.

And aside from that, there are so many talks I want to see, often several at once! There are people I want to catch up with, and parties I’m looking forward to. So yeah, OSCON is valuable to me.

Can I send a positive message? I’m not sure. I’ve seen the research, and I know from my own experience, that open source events and projects need more role models, and need more women as role models. And frankly, I don’t want people who’ve gone through things like I did at ApacheCon to think that it’s “ok, game over, I can’t go to industry events any more”. That’s not true; I’ve been to and enjoyed many conferences since then. But OSCON is a big event, and it’s a big message to send.

On the other hand, I really don’t want my attendance to be taken as a message of “everything is fine here”. I don’t want to be held up as a statistic, as an example of “plenty of women speaking at OSCON”.

So, on that front, I don’t know if I can send a positive message. I’m just not sure.

I don’t feel safe going to OSCON, and I want your advice.

Is this a dark alley that I should stay out of? Or is there some reason you think I’m wrong, and that I’ll be safe at OSCON?

And to those of you who’ve offered to join my posse, I’m grateful, but I was assaulted at ApacheCon in a bar with dozens of my friends, so I don’t assume that even the best posse will keep me safe.

29 comments to Conferences and dark alleyways

  • [...] This is what happens to people that are uncomfortable and speak up. [...]

  • [...] the adoption of conference anti-harassment policies in open technology and culture.July 2011: Nóirín Shirley blogs about her reluctance to speak at OSCON and the related Community Leadership Summit due to being harassed at both events the previous year. [...]

  • [...] That posting was written a few weeks after Noirin Plunkett, technical writer at Google, blogged the following: [...]

  • [...] she writes about the ugly, unacceptable phenomenon of sexual harassment at technical conferences here. I’m glad she decided to show up this year; OSCON benefited from her [...]

  • ace

    God, this Noirin character is such a drama queen!

  • Noirin, I was delighted to see you in the hall at OSCON today. Your strength and willingness to speak up is as commendable as it is remarkable. Thank you for facing fearful situations – both in speaking out as well as returning to the conference and setting a great example. I hope the rest of us in the FOSS community can live up to your example. Thank you for showing us how we can (and must) change the world.

  • [...] I totally should be working on my talks right now, but instead I’ve been talking with people about the lack of a code of conduct for OSCON. [...]

  • I’m glad you’re speaking up. It seems like O’Reilly is trying to address this issue (although perhaps a little too late)

  • Hi Noirin,

    I am shocked to hear about an incident occurring at the Community Leadership Summit, and this was news to me. I want to assure you that any kind of harassment will not be tolerated.

    I have put in place an anti-harassment policy at and I am keen to hear feedback if you feel we can improve the event in this regard.


  • Why not take advantage of the conference to put in place a community consensus “code of conduct” for *all* tech conferences, and then encourage conference organisers to adopt & advertise it?

    There’s not much organisers can actually do beyond saying that such behaviour will not be tolerated, so ultimately it will be up to the community to enforce the rules (and police to enforce the laws).

  • Jen

    Firstly, I would urge you to re-phrase what you’ve said about O’Reilly in this blog post as it is potentially libellous.

    Secondly, while I sympathise with you and wouldn’t wish what happened you on my worst enemy, I think you’re asking too much for an event organiser to take responsibility for what happens to attendees off-site. As far as I remember, you were assaulted in a pub. Why is that the event organiser’s fault? If you were assaulted by a co-worker in a pub would you believe Google had a duty of care to protect you when you weren’t on the premises? Of course not.

    What happened to you could have happened anywhere, in any pub. The fact you were attending a tech conference during the day is irrelevant. Have you stopped going to the pub for fear you may be assaulted again?

  • I’m very sorry that your were harassed and then had a compounding followup. It is simply unacceptable that O’Reilly would be so cavalier about the safety of attendees.

    Plus, it really sucks to be in your double bind.

    One first step to improving matters would be an anti-harassment policy. The Ada Initiative could help with that.

    I think your first obligation in this instance is to yourself. I can’t see how obliged to either expose yourself to the stunning disrespect of your person or to hide yourself away.

    In any case, if you are ever back in Manchester, I would be most happy to arrange a seminar slot at the School of Computer Science on any of a number of topics.

  • Paul

    Actually, I should have read further. Glad to see that this is taken up in early comments!

  • Paul

    I see two components here:

    1. A personal decision for you about attending

    2. A community issue about O’Reilly not being prepared to put in place an anti-harassment policy.

    You have asked for advice on 1. and the possibility of the message it sends, and people are providing advice.

    But I am surprised at the lack of attention to 2. by those commenting. This is not only one individual’s personal dilemma, this is about everyone being in an atmosphere free of harassment. What pressure can the Open Source Community exert upon O’Reilly to provide a conference where everyone can feel safe, so that those in a particular demographic will not have to make the decision between feeling safe and attending the conference?

  • Fran

    What shocks me is “O’Reilly don’t care”. There will always be vicious spiteful people who harass others, but event organisers ought to be making every effort to prevent it as a duty of care. It’s no different from making sure the water doesn’t make people sick and that there are enough fire exits. I shall be tweeting about this to @oscon, and emailing all the conference exhibitors and sponsors. Send the message to the ones who write the cheques!

  • Hey Noirin,

    I’d like to see you at OSCON, selfishly.

    I don’t know what else to say about it that hasn’t already been said.


  • Amy

    “After I was assaulted last year, an awful lot of people pointed out that if I go into dangerous situations, I should expect bad things to happen, and that if I don’t want bad things to happen, I shouldn’t go into dangerous situations.”

    This is the part I want to comment on. If women avoid dangerous situations in order to avoid assault, they limit their opportunities for advancement in every sphere. We each have our own ideas about what is “too unsafe” for us, and I wouldn’t suggest that anyone push further against that boundary then they’re ready to.

    But! Here you have an additional “risk” being piled on top of the first one — a risk that someone will hassle you for having gone into that dark alley and having the temerity to call out an assailant. What I hope for you is that you can dig down deep in your heart and truly believe that the the people who hassle you about this are being idiots.

    I grew up being warned so strongly about exposing myself to certain sorts of risk that I might well have kept quiet about an attack, rather than admit that I’d been walking to the library alone after dark. Sometime in my late 30s, I got over that. I believe that the message I internalized wasn’t quite the one my mother intended (I’m less sure what the makers of horror movies intended!), and after all, she grew up in a very small town in the 1930s. But sometimes I read the comments on the internet, and I get the impression society hasn’t progressed much in this area.

    The thing is, when a person feels he or she has a right to be in a certain place, and not to be assaulted there, that person is far more likely to react effectively to an attack (of any sort). I think that person is also going to take less emotional damage if they’re attacked than would someone who felt they “shouldn’t” be in that place.

    It seems we still have a lot of people who don’t want women to feel they have as much right to be in some places as men do.

    I hope you’ll find a way to feel safe enough to go to OSCON, and I hope the organizers step up and do a bit to address your concerns.

  • Hoss, it’s easy for a person to say things like “My general philosophy is that you shouldn’t let fear dictate your actions” when they’re in a social position that insulates them from anything truly scary.

  • First Last

    As a female who is registered for OSCON and who had no idea that there were so many incidents of this nature in the open source conference world, I sympathise with your concerns but hope that you do decide to attend and that your experience this year is much better than that it was last year. Reading the comments to your November 5, 2010 post was extremely depressing — I guess I never realised that so many people in the open source world, who are ostensibly intelligent, could hold such inane viewpoints and find it appropriate to attack you based on them. It was quite sobering, and just based on some of the responses you received your not attending would be quite justified — and yet, please don’t let something like this stop you! There are few enough females at open source conferences already :(

    Still, you’re fighting the good fight, and whatever you decide, props for your honesty and courage in telling your story.

  • Addie

    Noirin, thanks for writing this, and for being honest about your fears.

    I find it ironic (and telling) that the “Community Leadership Summit” is a place where you have experienced harassment in the past and a place you are afraid to go in the future. That speaks poorly of our “leaders”. I think your reasons for hesitating on attendance are 100% valid; as a fellow woman in tech I’m well-aware of peers in the community turning into “wolves in sheep’s clothing” given the right prompt or provocation. I experienced verbal abuse in the workplace several times over the last few years, and in the outset I see so many technical events as “dark alleys” where they formerly weren’t and still aren’t for most of my peers.

    All of your comments so far seem to be from men in tech, so I figured it was useful to provide my own. I think it’s easy to say something like “don’t let fear stop you” when going to work (be it at the office proper, or at a technical conference) doesn’t mean assuming the risk of being physically, verbally, or sexually assaulted. I can relate to assuming that risk, and to the tradeoff you’re making, and how much it sucks.

    IMHO, *not* going seems the best way to both stay safe and make a statement. Your honesty about all of this has been a lifeline for women in tech like myself, but I understand, just from my own experiences, how exhausting it is to put yourself out there, and keep putting yourself out there, given that a percentage of the population always feels an obligation to push back. It is not your job to go to this conference and *also* make a statement (although that might be an effective approach for legitimately committed allies). But I’d be feeling similarly torn – this is *my* career, and behavior of others shouldn’t prevent me from having the exact same opportunities as everyone else – and yet, the reality is, the behavior of others has done just that. I only wish that the consequences weren’t so one-sided. We should be able to pursue our careers and interests without risking assault or harassment in any form.

    Best wishes with whatever route you choose to go, and thank you so much for being open about all of this.

  • I think you’d be safe at OSCON.

    An I think, that without OSCON putting an anti-harassment policy in place, you shouldn’t go.

    I’m not normally the type of person who thinks about these things. I’m white, male, 6’4″ with blond hair and blue eyes. I’m never at fear going places… But, not everyone is me.

    I’ve come to the realization that if I just ignore the problem and go to the conference, I’m silently permitting this type of thing to happen.

    I think if you go, no matter how much you try to bring it to people’s awareness when you’re there, you’re silently capitulating that little needs to be done, and you’re willing to tolerate that–which you shouldn’t. Ever.

    If this doesn’t get fixed, what’s going to happen a few years down the road when my daughters want to attend conferences? Do they not deserve the freedom to attend without being harassed?

  • Bruce Byfield

    I hate the idea that anyone has to face this dilemma.

    At the same, I understand that this isn’t an abstract issue for you, and that attending a large conference could be uncomfortable and even disturbing.

    However, if you can bring yourself to attend, I think that just showing up would be a much-needed answer not only to your assaulter, but to all those who attacked you verbally last year. Not to attend could be interpreted as a sign that you accepted their condemnation and perhaps the blame — and, more importantly, that there’s nothing any woman can do about the situation.

    And if you want to make sure that people don’t mistake your attendance for a sign that nothing is wrong, then perhaps a pithy T-shirt and some civic action would help to make matters clear? For example, what about having you and other people collection names for a petition for an anti-harassment policy while at the conference?

    All things considered, I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to draw attention to yourself again, or go through the effort of publicizing the issues. But if you do feel up to the effort, I think you might do both you and other women some good.

  • Hoss

    PS: A *literal* can of Mace (to go along with the figurative one) wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

  • Hoss

    On the other hand, I really don’t want my attendance to be taken as a message of “everything is fine here”. I don’t want to be held up as a statistic, as an example of “plenty of women speaking at OSCON”.

    Is this a dark alley that I should stay out of? Or is there some reason you think I’m wrong, and that I’ll be safe at OSCON?

    My general philosophy is that you shouldn’t let fear dictate your actions. If there is something you want to do, and a dark alley is the only way to get there, don’t let your fear of that dark alley prevent you from going.

    Walk tall through the alley, carrying a 200W flashlight, and a can of mace.

    “If I were in your shoes…” I would make a couple of T-Shirts that say “OSCON Condones Sexual Assault” in big bold letters, front and back, and wear one every day of the con.

    Leveraging your soap-box as a speaker to comment on the tshirt and shame OSCON with a few slides is a great idea as well.

  • Jack, the fact that Noirin would be good at it doesn’t imply she’s obligated to put herself at risk to do it.

  • MadGastronomer

    If it were me, I think I’d write an open letter to O’Reilly, detailing what it would take to get me to show up. A harassment and assault policy, to start. Maybe a talk specifically on the topic. And maybe visible, uniformed security for me, specifically for the purpose of making a very visible statement about how unsafe it is there.

    But that’s me.

  • @Jack_Repenning There is talk about having a code of conduct at all conferences, the Anti-harassment Policy Resources page over at the Geek Feminism Wiki contains everything a conference needs. In addition, Open Source Bridge makes their Code of Conduct available under a Creative Commons license. There’s a list of conferences which have done this all successfully. Bridge does an awesome job and directly shares a community with OSCON.

    This has all been brought to O’Reilly’s attention by multiple people, including myself. They have the resources, they’ve heard the arguments, they know about the incidents, and they remain unconvinced a policy is necessary.

    Non-participation is the next step I’m taking. I’ve spoken at OSCON for over ten years. I will no longer be speaking at O’Reilly events until they have a policy.

  • I really hope it is, I really hope you do, and I really hope that O’Reilly takes it seriously.

  • I recognize your fears, and acknowledge that, in the nature of things, I can sympathize only in an abstract, unthreatened sense. But you’ve already shown that you’re as effective and positive a spokesperson on this topic as anyone I can name. If you can’t find a way to deliver the message positively, then who?

    Wasn’t there some talk about a call for codes of conduct from all conferences? I can’t see that it’s gone anywhere. Perhaps it could be kick-started with a logo and slogan? Put them on all slide ware for a gig or two, then consider non-participation.

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