Code of Conduct for TOC

If you haven’t read the important and heart wrenching post by a brave female theoretician about sexual harassment and rape as part of her academic life in our community, please do it now. The word “brave” here is an understatement. Hard for me to imagine the strength that facing these memories again and taking the risk of exposure must have required. I also don’t use “important” lightly as it doesn’t only make the pain that comes with sexual harassment so vivid but also because it demonstrates the cost to our community. We have lost so much of the voice and perspective and creativity of our dear colleague and I know that not only hers. There may be very little that I can say or do about the rape that you experienced. I wish I could hold your hands and cry with you. But I could have done much more to make our community more supportive to all and hostile to none. I therefore not only thank you for the post but also apologize for any inaction, let alone, for any insensitive action I might have been guilty of.

Empowered by the #metoo movement, a group of us (Edith Cohen, Vitaly Feldman, Ronitt Rubinfeld, myself and others) have been discussing in the last few weeks what we can do moving forward. I want to share some of our thoughts (and one additional comment). We would love to hear your thoughts.

  1. In a different context I wrote: “Our collaborators, our audience, our points of reference, are not only the colleagues next door but probably more so our colleagues across the globe.“ In this sense, our community is also our work place and it is very appropriate to view sexual harassment in conferences as creating a hostile work environment. But usually, in our “official” work places we have HR or other representatives that we can contact for support. Who do we contact about sexual harassment in a conference or a visit?
  2. A partial answer is: the chair of the conference or the representative of the academic society that runs the conference or the work place of the offender etc. Indeed, most of these institutions will be obliged to act. See for example ACM’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.
  3. For a victim to act at the face of sexual harassment and against colleagues with influence on the victim’s career is hard enough in regular circumstances. Sending a victim to complain to any of the institutions above seems unrealistic.
  4. We (the aforementioned group) believe that TOC needs its own, widely accepted, code of conduct. This will at the minimum let all of us acknowledge our joint responsibilities (in addition to any relevant legal, ethical or contractual obligations we already have).
  5. We also need a committee of senior individual that can be contacted by victims. Such a committee may not have any legal power but it will have a moral authority to act. In particular, to inform all the relevant entities and to mitigate any threat of retaliation.
  6. Finally, I want to point out a rather old post that seems very relevant to our discussion (even after we take away rape and harassment): on intellectual passion and its unfortunate confusion with sexual passion (and how it may relate to issues of gender).

18 Comments on Code of Conduct for TOC

  1. There has been recently some discussion within MIT Theory group on these issues. One particular thing most of us agreed would be good is to write a “guide on how to interact with female colleagues”, which should be distributed among all starting TCS graduate students.

    I also believe that what aggravates the situation in academia (and in TCS, in particular) strongly is the self-centeredness and social awkwardness of a non-trivial fraction of the community (men, women, anyone really). Not sure how to fix this one though.


    • Happy to hear that so many groups of us are actively thinking of these issues! Its great that we are opening the discussion.

      I am not sure that TCSers are socially awkward in significant fractions. I always found the community mostly occupied by fairly communicative and well-balanced individuals. I don’t want to give ourselves any discounts here.

      I think that we need more of discussion on aspects of our community. For example, we all have notions about it but would be nice to flash out the question of how we deal with collaboration and co-authorship. Regarding the “guide on how to interact with female colleagues” there is something about it that makes me feel a bit uneasy. How did the female members felt about this idea?


      • > I don’t want to give ourselves any discounts here.

        Quite the opposite: as a pre-requisite to not saying things women might find inappropriate, one needs to develop the skill of picking up the cues that the person one talks to feels uneasy or upset with the conversation.

        > How did the female members felt about this idea?

        Actually, it was some of them who suggested it. The idea sounds a bit “funny” indeed, but given all the cultural backgrounds, and different level of social skills, it might help to make the atmosphere (somewhat?) more comfortable for women.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting. My first instinct was that a “guide on how to interact with female colleagues” indicates that the issue is with the female colleagues. I would suggest “treat them with the same respect and professionalism you treat your male colleagues” as the summary of the guide 🙂 Would love to hear other ideas that people have on what this guide should include


  3. There is a danger that this will serve to further isolate women. Male students/researchers may find it much easier and less wrought with danger to communicate/collaborate with male colleagues, and since 90% of colleagues around are male, why bother with women? Networking and building collaborations is not easy for women as it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Then, the natural question becomes: is there *anything* you can do at all without such a danger?


      • This is quite belated but the correct answer is obvious: Give credible assurance of FULL commitment to due process. If men don’t have to worry about their lives being ruined by false accusations, if false accusers are punished sufficiently to deter such behavior — men will be more confident in mentoring and socializing with women. Otherwise, the sensible thing to do is to apply the Mike Pence rule.


  4. People are people and you cannot create completely sterile safe environment. In these matters one may, with very good intensions, do more harm than good. As a female researcher my hope is to be treated like everyone else in professional settings, and I don’t want my gender to play any role in it. I feel that creating special rules for interaction with women will make this much harder, and will end up hurting female researchers. As for private, non-professional settings, I don’t think it is our business as a community to set rules. The same rules as in any human interaction apply. Plus sexual harassment policies that most universities have today should take care of this.
    By the way, my own personal experience in the TCS community has been great. I love going to conferences and meeting with colleagues from all over the world. I truly feel I belong to the community. Of course as in any community there are some unpleasant people and there are some unpleasant incidents, but for me the positive experience by far outweighs the negative. I recognize that this may not be the same for other women. I’d be curious to get some statistics on the experiences of other women in the area but I’m not sure how to do this.


  5. Ronitt Rubinfeld // February 16, 2018 at 12:36 pm // Reply

    I appreciate the efforts of colleagues (grad students, researchers etc) to think about how to make the community better for all of us. I suggest that we not get hung up about which words are used to describe these efforts, as this is a complicated topic, and if people are concerned about being misconstrued, it will be difficult to make progress.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am general chair of the EC conference, and at Tal Rabin’s suggestion we posted a code of conduct for the conference ACM made me tone down from the analog of Cryto’s code: I would love to have a TOC code of conduct to point to also, with maybe a bit more teeth than the ACM one.

    BTW, can we call this as “guide on how to interact with colleagues”?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. 1) I agree that I don’t like the idea of a guide on how to interact with women in TCS. It should just be an explanation of expectations in the professional environment to ensure we’re all on the same page, despite different cultural backgrounds.

    2) I completely agree with Omer’s post about finding avenues to officially handle harassment at conferences. 100% of my own problems within TCS have been at conferences/workshops/Simons, i.e. environments where there is no structure dictating how to handle it, and also a lack of guidelines on conduct. Typically within universities/industry labs, people have received codes of conduct on harassment, but the same is not true at conferences. In particular, something that needs to be addressed is conduct at social events that occur surrounding conferences etc; this is one of the biggest problems that I’ve noticed and heard about. Some people see dinner or drinks after the conference, or a movie night at Simons, or exploring the area where a workshop is held, as a purely social event. Others see it as an opportunity to connect and discuss with colleagues, and hope to continue to be treated with respect and feel safe even though the nature of these events is social; these events are still work-related. Sadly, these often clash and lead to problematic experiences.

    3) Adding a code of conduct for conference is really excellent and comforting. However, I also was completely unaware of these for Crypto and EC, and I’m not sure they serve to do much unless people are aware of them.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. For point 3) I believe these code of conducts are all new. Certainly new at EC. Not yet sure how to make sure everyone becomes aware of it before the conference. Advice would be very appreciated


  9. As general chair of crypto 2018 I have introduced a Code of Conduct and the registration form will require to acknowledge that you have read the Code of Conduct.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I think Tal’s implementation is great. I think it would also be great to have the conference chair mention and support (in person) the code of conduct when opening the conference the morning of the first session.


  11. Another thing that can help is to publicize a good “bystander guide” alongside the code of conduct (there’s a ton of them out there).

    Not that the advice found in such guides is so amazing, but it helps to think ahead of time about how you would react if you witness inappropriate behavior. It can also make you notice situations that you might just overlook otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. One possibility is requiring registrants for major theory conferences to complete a short quiz. Like what Shai said, it makes people think about such situations ahead of time, whether they are possible offenders or bystanders.


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