Law & Courts

Major Ed-Tech Event Overhauls Code of Conduct After Troubling Accusations

By Benjamin Herold — June 19, 2014 10 min read

Following a groundswell of concern around accusations of sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault in the educational technology industry, the organizers of the nation’s largest ed-tech conference have overhauled the event’s written code of conduct.

The policy changes made by the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, focus on explicitly outlining unacceptable and harassing behaviors, clearly delineating protocols for addressing such behaviors when they occur, and identifying specific consequences for violations. Such guidelines have been adopted in recent years by other conferences and events in the broader U.S. technology sector, where problems of sexism and sexual harassment have been widely reported and documented.

The extent to which such issues are also present in the ed-tech field is uncertain. Women are far better represented in educational technology than in most other sectors of the technology industry. But research on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the ed-tech sector is scant, and some prominent female voices in educational technology say that discussion of such problems has, until recently, been relegated primarily to private conversations.

“I do think there are incidents that happen all the time at conferences,” said Audrey Watters, a freelance writer and speaker on ed-tech issues who maintains the popular Hack Education blog. “They’re a huge issue we face broadly in our society, and I don’t think ed tech is immune to it.”

The suddenly public conversation about the treatment of women in the ed-tech field—and the significant changes to ISTE’s code of conduct, which will be in effect for the organization’s forthcoming conference, beginning June 28 in Atlanta—were ignited in large part by Ariel C. Norling, a 22-year-old graduate student and entrepreneur.

Earlier this month, Ms. Norling published online a first-person account in which she said she was raped and sexually harassed while attending ISTE’s 2013 annual gathering. Ms. Norling has not publicly identified or pressed charges against either of the men allegedly involved in the separate incidents, and her allegations have not been independently corroborated.

Nationally, 60 percent of sexual assaults go unreported, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, a sexual-assault-prevention organization based in Washington.

Impact Seen

Ms. Norling’s account struck a nerve for many in the ed-tech field.

“This was the first time that someone laid all their cards on the table and told the unfiltered story, and I think that’s had a huge impact on people,” said Margaret H. Roth, who, along with Sehreen NoorAli, founded EdTechWomen, a professional-development network based in Baltimore and New York City.

“I’ve been harassed,” Ms. Roth said. “Someone got drunk and sent me a bunch of inappropriate messages on Twitter. Those are the kinds of things that happen to many people, all the time, that don’t ever get publicly talked about.”

ISTE Code of Conduct Upgrade

A new code of conduct aimed at preventing and better responding to harassing and offensive behaviors will be in effect for the upcoming conference of the International Society for Technology in Education, to be held June 28-July 1 in Atlanta.

Key elements of the new code include:

• An explicit statement that “ISTE does not tolerate harassment of conference attendees or participants in any form,” with specific mention of behaviors including “deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, and unwelcome physical contact or sexual attention,” as well as any offensive behavior or communication based upon an individual’s gender, age, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity.

• Statements that “sexual language and imagery are not appropriate for any conference venue” and prohibitions against creating a “sexualized environment.”

• Clear consequences for “inappropriate, harassing, abusive, or destructive behavior or language,” including warnings, expulsion from the conference without refunds, and bans from future ISTE events.

• Specific instructions for reporting incidents, including contacting conference staff members or ISTE officials at 404-222-5800.

The full ISTE code of conduct is available online.

Related resource: Free, confidential help for victims of sexual assault and their friends and families is available from the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE and online.

Opinions differ on the extent to which such harassment occurs in the ed-tech industry at large, and at events such as the ISTE conference.

“I haven’t personally witnessed it,” said Kecia Ray, the executive director of learning technology for the 81,000-student Metro Nashville school system in Tennessee. “I can say that, in general, any time you mix groups of people with alcohol and other events, things can escalate.” Ms. Ray is also the chair of ISTE’s board.

According to the Washington-based group, roughly 65 percent of its 19,000 members—who include classroom educators, school and district technology officials, and entrepreneurs and industry representatives—are female.

In an interview, ISTE CEO Brian C. Lewis said an annual revision of the organization’s conference code of conduct was already underway when Ms. Norling posted her account. Her allegations, and the resulting explosion of online conversation, much of which was harshly critical of ISTE, “certainly informed” the group’s decision to overhaul its policy, Mr. Lewis said.

He said ISTE is also moving forward with plans to convene a working group of female ed-tech leaders, chaired by Ms. Ray, that will provide advice and recommendations on women’s experiences and opportunities in the field.

“Organizations like ISTE have a heavy responsibility to address these issues,” Mr. Lewis said.

Airing Charges

Ms. Norling is now based in Pittsburgh, where she is preparing to pursue a master’s degree in educational technology and applied learning sciences at Carnegie Mellon University.

In spring 2013, Ms. Norling helped found BetaMatch, a digital platform for matching early-stage ed-tech companies with tech-savvy teachers who want to try out new tools in their classrooms.

In an interview with Education Week, she said attending technology and ed-tech conferences has been a big part of her maturation as an entrepreneur and product designer. But she also said she has experienced a wide range of “misogynistic” behaviors at such events.

“I’ve received backhanded compliments, such as, ‘you’re too pretty to be smart enough to be here,’ so many times I can’t even place specific instances anymore,” she said.

In June of last year, Ms. Norling for the first time attended ISTE, which drew more than 13,000 participants to its 2013 conference, held in San Antonio.

She described a scene of intellectual discussions and professional networking during formal events in the day, followed by an active nightlife surrounding the conference.

Against that backdrop, Ms. Norling described the two alleged incidents in a blog post published on June 2 of this year.

In the first, she wrote, a man subjected her to repeated unwanted sexual advances that began after hours at a bar, continued through that night via social media, and persisted through a face-to-face exchange during formal conference events the following morning.

The second incident, she wrote, involved a man who raped her in his hotel room.

In the interview with Education Week, Ms. Norling said she did not press charges against the men or immediately publish her account of the alleged incidents “because I was too afraid for my own reputation and my company’s [reputation] to say anything about it.”

She has since removed the original blog post, after what she characterized in a subsequent online post and in the interview as an unsolicited effort by a third party to “name and shame” the men.

Her goal in making the alleged incidents public now, she said, is to encourage more women to share similar stories, as well as to help start a conversation about what she and others see as a culture of misogyny in the technology field.

Changing Behavior

Such experiences are all too common in the larger technology world, said Valerie Aurora, the executive director of the Ada Initiative, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that supports women’s involvement in open-source technology.

Along with Mary Gardiner, Ms. Aurora co-founded the organization in 2011, after a friend recounted being “groped” at technology conferences three times in a single year.

“I just snapped,” said Ms. Aurora, who said she twice endured similar experiences.

“Mary and I had both been working to increase the number of women in open-source software for about a decade,” she said. “But we had to make [the sector] better before I could encourage more women to go to a conference” and risk exposure to such assaults.

Since its founding, the Ada Initiative has helped push organizers of a wide range of technology and other conferences and events to change their codes of conduct, which tended to be vague. The benefits of better guidelines, Ms. Aurora said, include higher rates of reporting sexual harassment, greater likelihood that appropriate action will be taken, and changed norms that help mitigate the extent to which conference participants are targeted or belittled for talking openly about such problems as sexual harassment.

The focus of the revised codes in the technology industry is identifying specific behaviors that are considered unacceptable, such as using pornography in presentation slides or taking unwanted or explicit photos of unsuspecting women. Ms. Aurora described both forms of behavior as significant problems at technology conferences in recent years; many attendees, she said, believed they were socially acceptable until directly told otherwise.

Ms. Aurora said effective guidelines also include clear protocols for reporting and addressing offensive and harassing behaviors and explicit consequences for such behaviors, including evictions and bans from conferences and events. Such information was not previously included in most tech events’ codes of conduct.

Ms. Roth of EdTechWomen and Ms. Watters of the Hack Education blog said the overt forms of harassment described in the broader technology world do not seem as prevalent at ed-tech events. However, they described a variety of more subtle behaviors—from sexist jokes to demeaning assumptions—as widespread problems.

“Sometimes, we talk about technology as something that men need to explain to women,” Ms. Watters said.

Codes for Conferences

The changes that the Ada Initiative is working to foster at wider technology-industry gatherings are ones that EdTechWomen and others would like to see at conferences, including ISTE, in their field.

Ms. Roth described ISTE’s previous conference code of conduct as “blatantly insufficient.”

That earlier version, which was in place in June 2013, called on participants to treat one another “fairly and with respect,” but it did not provide specific descriptions of inappropriate conduct or clear means of redress related to harassing behaviors.

Other prominent ed-tech conferences and events do not appear to have in place the kinds of detailed harassment policies suggested by the Ada Initiative and promoted by groups such as the Chicago-based Professional Convention Management Association, which wrote about the issue extensively in the December 2013 issue of its publication, Convene.

The Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, for example, which hosts an annual gathering that is far smaller than ISTE’s, offers only a guide for vendors displaying their wares at the event.

Ms. Roth and others also said they were troubled by ISTE’s initial response to Ms. Norling’s post, which came in the form of a June 3 blog post from Mr. Lewis, the CEO.

In that post, Mr. Lewis wrote about being distressed at “an attendee’s report of her experience at one of our past conferences.” He defended ISTE’s previous code of conduct, highlighted the resources the organization puts into conference transportation and safety, and, in the eyes of critics, disclaimed responsibility for creating a safer conference environment.

“It was so, so disappointing,” said Ms. Roth. “I think that he let down a lot of people.”

In response, EdTechWomen published a call to “change the culture” of the ed-tech sector through a social-media campaign, public events, the use of teal ribbons (a recognized symbol for raising awareness of sexual assault) at conferences, and other means.

For his part, Mr. Lewis now says that both he and ISTE are “sensitive and committed” to addressing issues of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and misogyny in the ed-tech community. He expressed regret that he and ISTE were not made aware of Ms. Norling’s allegations earlier, and said he would have been “eager” to respond to them more quickly.

Though not everyone in educational technology supports the type of detailed codes of conduct advocated by the Ada Initiative, Mr. Lewis said ISTE’s new guidelines will be in effect for this year’s conference.

James Louis, the president of Best Meetings Inc., a Bloomington, Minn.-based company that provides meeting-planning services, described such policies as a necessary “risk management” strategy, especially for organizers of events that bring together large numbers of people from different companies and institutions. Such policies can not only protect conference organizers against being held liable for incidents that occur at their events, he said, but also ensure that victims are treated appropriately.

It is especially important, Mr. Louis said, that conference staff members be trained to provide victims with options for responding to incidents and to support them in the choices they make.

Ms. Ray, the ISTE board chair, said that sexual harassment and sexual assault will likely be discussed by the working group of women ed-tech leaders that will meet at this year’s ISTE conference. But she identified the “glass ceiling” and limited career opportunities for women, a lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the industry, and other issues as the major challenges that she and her professional network see for women in the ed-tech field.

“We’ve made great progress,” Ms. Ray said, “but there’s still a long way to go.”

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