Responding to offensive presentations at conferences

Selena Deckelmann is a software engineer for End Point Corporation, a PostgreSQL developer and user group liaison for it’s global development group, and co-chair of the Open Source Bridge conference in Portland, OR. She likes bikes, sourdough bread and her steak medium-rare. This entry was originally posted on her blog.

How to handle WTF conference presentation moments.How to handle WTF conference presentation moments.

On a couple mailing lists I participate in, people have raised the question: “When something offensive occurs during a conference presentation, what’s the right response from the audience and/or conference organizers?”

Unfortunately, at least one of these discussion lists is private, so I can’t directly quote the individuals who posted. But the content was worth sharing, so I’m summarizing the group’s thoughts in my own words below.

Here are some of the suggestions for handling offensive, unprofessional or inappropriate presentation content:

  • Train session monitors for a conference to contact the conference chair in the event of an issue, so that the conference chair can make a decision on whether to stop the talk or directly address the issue immediately (or later)
  • Conference chairs/committees make it clear to presenters up front what the expectations are (Presentation be rated G/PG-13/R, none of the “seven forbidden words” allowed, no commercial pitches, etc) — and there were dissenting opinions about this (esp G-rated issue — examples were given of things that were G-rated but also incredibly offensive depictions of women and minorities)
  • Screening presentations ahead of time (typically not something that open source conferences are able to do because of the habits of our presenters, and the rapidly evolving nature of the topics, but possible for a subset of presentations)
  • Audience members could address something that is offensive during Q&A (and audience members are encouraged to operate under the assumption that the speaker unintentionally offended)
  • Leave room for judgment on the part of conference organizers when developing community standards, as conferences are an “intentional community” and are free to set standards which are more or less strict than other conferences/communities
  • Bake a WTF cake, and serve it to the presenter (WAY underutilized tactic)

One theme that emerged was the need for some kind of immediate response that communicated both to the audience and the speaker that something was wrong. However, many situations require individuals to use their best judgment in responding, and stopping a talk should likely be left to the discretion of a conference chair.

Also, treating the speaker as though they have made an honest mistake and did not intend to offend anyone (I have yet to experience a situation where this was not the case, personally) is always the right way to start a conversation about it.

Photo courtesy of SanFranAnnie, under a Creative Commons License

29 thoughts on “Responding to offensive presentations at conferences

  1. Rachel Cervantes

    Hello. Sorry this is off topic but the “rules” page said in order to contact you, leave a post on a recent thread. Hence, said post.

    I am putting together an up-dated blogroll with particular attention paid to liberal feminist blogs. Would this blog fit that description? (I’m adding it to my blogroll either way, I simply want to be able make a note about which blogs are libfem.)

    1. Skud

      Hi Rachel,

      I wouldn’t say this blog were specifically libfem. The bloggers here take a range of feminist viewpoints, and while some might identify with liberal feminism, others would identify more closely with other forms of feminism, or have a mixture of views drawn from many different feminisms.


  2. Rachel Cervantes

    Thanks, Skud. I have you on my blogroll. If you know of specific libfem blogs, I’d appreciate a heads-up.

  3. Mary

    Presentation be rated G/PG-13/R

    Another problem with this is that these are really location specific. It can’t be adapted for conferences in many countries, and international presenters may not have a clear understanding of what they mean.

    I guess I’d probably do something more explicit about the conference presentations complying with the conference’s diversity and harassment policies. Which of course requires that the conference has them, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

    1. Selena Deckelmann

      Mary: Yes, that issue was definitely raised. The rating system thing applies and probably only really makes sense to USA audiences. I mostly hear about issues around offensive coming from US-based conferences, although speakers and those concerned with content have not all been US citizens. I don’t know many other conference organizers on other continents (LCA being the main exception).

  4. Jonquil

    I think forbidding the “seven dirty words” is extremely problematic.

    1. I’m a woman and I swear like a sailor. In fact, the last time I was at Fleet Week, seven sailors fainted from shock. My daughter’s mouth shocks *me*.

    2. American society (the only one I can speak for) is much, much, MUCH more foul-mouthed than when Carlin recorded that routine. Nobody even considers “tits” dirty — vulgar, but not dirty. “Shit” is, frankly, the commonest expletive to communicate mild frustration. Drop a can on your foot? Find a P1 bug in your code? Hear some a-hole* say “Women aren’t in open source”? Oh, SHIT.

    * Note: I’m afraid I say that word a lot, too … and it isn’t even on Carlin’s list.

    3. We (geek feminists) are constantly being accused of wanting “a nanny state”, of “censoring speech”, of “being prudish”. We should save language complaints for the language that really matters to us — the language that excludes us from the software community. We’ll be accused of being prudish anyway, but only for topics that are central to us. A reasonable person won’t call “Why is that naked woman in your slides?” prudish; a reasonable person (me, for instance) could call “Don’t say ‘shit!'” prudish.

    1. Jonquil

      Case in point: After posting this, I went off to grab last night’s clean laundry; as I was hanging it in the bathroom, I found myself thinking, “Where the F are my clean bras?!??!”

      Only I didn’t say “F”.

      And ain’t I a woman?

  5. Selena Deckelmann

    Jonquil: Yeah, I am known for my lack of inhibition around saying ‘fuck’, or any of the rest of the forbidden words.

    The point was just that if a conference has a certain standard they’re trying to uphold, they aught to make that clear up-front, and using generally understood standards. Or they should ask the presenter for a preview, before allowing the talk to proceed if they are really that concerned. For example, different standards apply for a presentation that is appropriate to a typical 9-year-old in the US, versus something appropriate for a typical 25-year-old programmer in Brooklyn.

  6. Mackenzie

    Speaker acceptance letters for Ohio LinuxFest this year included:

    – I hate to have to bring this up, but in the past couple of years there’s been a surge of talks at various conferences – including OLF – that are have contained inappropriate content. Please remember that Ohio LinuxFest aims to be a family-friendly and professional event. Anyone who cannot meet this basic standard will be escorted from the stage immediately and then bbqed and served at the DIOS workshop the next day.

    Someone still tried to put boobs on one of his slides. The Speaker Chair saw the slides before he went on (they’re friends), and she told him get rid of them or he’s not going on, period. He argued, saying if he hadn’t shown them to her, he could’ve gotten away with it because nobody would complain about a couple boobs. She reminded him that she was completely serious about talks ending immediately if there was anything inappropriate. Slides were changed.

    1. Selena Deckelmann

      Haha. I like it. I think using humor appropriate for the event and the speakers is a great way of getting your point across.

      Great job. I’ve heard lots of wonderful things about Ohio Linux Fest, and met Beth last winter at SCaLE.

    2. Melissa Gira Grant

      I think I get the thinking around these guidelines — and the totally male-dominated conference circuit that needs to hear this sort of guidance — but I just am stuck on this:

      How do we keep guys (or anyone) from non-sensically using sexual or sexualized imagery and language in their presentations and preserve the right of people to use that information when it’s actually really, really what the presentation concerns?

      This might be beyond the scope of these guidelines, but I am thinking back to the first BlogHer, during a “Birds of a Feather” session organized by self-identified mommybloggers, who were irritated that when they discussed the biological particulars of childbirth and childrearing, they were told they were being unprofessional, NSFW, or “overshare-y” — or, obscene.

      It’s hard to address intent in this stuff. And I don’t want to sit through anymore stuffed-shirted dude “presos” on boring web marketing that just have some naked women sprinkled throughout to “sex things up” — because usually, those are the same dudes who don’t actually want to hear women talk honestly about sex, either.

      In the FLOSS community, this may be a more specific concern with a history of problematic presentations, I know, and I’ve followed some of that through this blog — but tech/geek conferences can be pretty influential in establishing norms, and I’d not want to see a very flattened idea of what “safe” is promoted when those kind of norms can end up used to women’s speech & expression, too.

      1. Skud

        Good point, Melissa; reminds me of a lot of the arguments in Nadine Strossen’s “Defending Pornography”, i.e. that efforts to protect women often end up getting used — and getting used disproportionately — against women.

  7. pete

    oh, so just because we’re women we’re supposed to solve all problems by going into the kitchen and baking? I’m offended.

      1. Rick

        Yes! Baking has a long and glorious revolutionary history. One needs look no further for proof of this than the fact that the canonical way of ridiculing a prominent personage is to pie them.

        You need a permit to hold a protest march, but they’ll sell anybody an oven. ;)

        1. koipond

          Grocery stores are good too. They tend to not card you when you want to buy the ingredients to make said pie. Though you can cheat and just buy the pie crust and a can of whipped cream.

      2. pete

        since I’m the one who got offended, shouldn’t I be baking? I can do cookies or croissants. I’m nowhere near Portland tho, so you’re safe from the health hazard that is my cooking :p

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