Technical events and unsuitable content

Last night at SLUG I attended my second technical talk featuring projected slides of scantily clad women (the first was at the Open Source Developers’ Conference in 2006, see the presenter’s account of it and also my jam). I wrote something quite long about this tonight and have thought better of publishing, at least at the moment.

However, in brief, a couple of things for event organisers. First, it is apparently necessary for Free Software events who don’t wish to have sexualised material shown at the conference (and neither OSDC or SLUG do, as far as I know: neither the sponsors of OSDC nor the hosts of SLUG were impressed with what happened at their respective events) to warn their speakers of this. Here’s something you could adapt:

[Event name] is an all-ages event, attended by people of different cultural backgrounds and sensitivities. Please make sure your talk and slides are not likely to offend or upset people unnecessarily: particularly we require that no sexual material and nothing targeting people on the basis of age, religion, race, gender, sexuality or ability appears in your talk or slides.

Second, it would be good for chairs to be aware of how to react: being unable to seize the moment is common in anything to do with inappropriate behaviour, because of lack of experience. Something like the following would work from the chair:

  • Stand up and move towards the speaker. If their slides are inappropriate right then, block the projection, disconnect their laptop from the projector or turn the projector off. Otherwise ask them to halt the presentation at the current point.
  • Tell the speaker quietly that the material is inappropriate and that they may not continue the presentation.
  • Address the audience and apologise for inappropriate content and let them know the talk is ending. If the speaker seems genuinely contrite allowing them a brief apology would work.
  • Let the event organisers know what happened, if they aren’t in the room. They may wish to do something more or be prepared for questions about what happened.

The reason you need to end the presentation is that otherwise the audience is stuck in the very uncomfortable position of needing to continue responding to a talk after seeing both out-of-line material and seeing an intervention about it. The speaker is also likely to be embarrassed and off-put.

Note that the audience should not be expected to demonstrate openly that they feel uncomfortable before you intervene: they have far less power than the chair or conference organisers do. Don’t ask them for their opinion of the material that you’ve already decided is inappropriate (and don’t let the speaker ask them either). It’s pretty uncomfortable to be asked to identify yourself as someone who was just offended, it’s seen as a weakness. Also, don’t assume that children or women or homosexual people etc were necessarily the only ones who were upset: for example some heterosexual men find hetero-male oriented sexual material distasteful when used in technical talks too. Just apologise to the audience as a whole.