Codes of conduct: Why do we need them?

The case for codes of conduct

The existence of codes of conduct and similar texts is not exactly new. If you dig deep enough into your fellowship contract, your employment agreement, or your University website, you’ll probably find some reference to some code of practice or code of ethics.

So why are codes of conduct being talked about so much in astronomy these days?

Indeed, you may have noticed conference organisers now asking you to sign off on a code of conduct, or very clearly informing you that by attending the event you are agreeing to the terms of its code of conduct. It may even be mentioned in a talk at the beginning of the first day, as is customary at the PyAstro yearly conferences.

Now, dear reader, if you are one of the people wondering why we need all this “faff”, I dedicate this piece to you, and I hope to convince you that codes of conduct are ace.

First of all, from where I’m standing I see two main factors fueling this movement:

  1. A surge in reported cases of bullying, harassment, and sexual misconduct.

  2. An increasing effort to create welcoming environments that foster diversity.

The increase in reports like the ETH bullying scandal or the sexual misconducts by a Berkley professor spanning a decade, is not due to an absence of policy: University rules obviously do not condone these behaviours. But policies are useless if they are not enforced, and they can only be enforced if victims are listened to; if people are empowered to speak up.

Empowering people to speak up is also crucial to nurturing a welcoming space for diverse individuals. People from an under represented background need to be encouraged to let their discomfort known if we want to challenge the behaviours that may be at odds with our desire for more diversity. But once again, it’s not like University policies condone casual sexism or racism…

So where are a lot University policies falling short?

Most of the ones I’ve seen are technical texts that people find hard to relate to. Since they are often the primary resource when claims or complaints are made, they have to be thorough and explain in details a number of complex internal processes. They do have their purpose, but since they are lengthy and jargon-y, they tend to be buried deep on University websites.

The consequence is that few people see them, and even fewer read them.

Finally, most collaborations and conferences are composed of individuals from a variety of establishments that probably all have their own policies written in their own way. And individual departments within a University have their own culture. The code of conduct then bridges the gap between the necessary pieces of internal policy and the people in our community. It does not replace, it synthesises existing expectations.

It verbalises the moral commitments we make towards each other.

‘How is a “commitment” going to change anything?’ you might be asking yourself.

And the only answer I have for you is: I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I’ve experienced it myself. When codes of conduct are visible and explicit, people speak up. It’s not just about the big cases of sexism or racism or sexual misconduct (although it is clear to see how allowing people to make their voices heard would be part of the solution to these issues).

It’s also about the every day stuff: The slightly sexist joke that people are used to making, the sexual references that everybody giggles about, the assumption of heterenormativity, etc... In environments with clear codes of conduct, I’ve seen people casually stating their discomfort, and I’ve seen the individuals responsible for these comments humbly listening and apologising. These interactions lasted a few seconds, there was not bad blood, no negativity. Just two people working towards addressing an issue and resolving it together.

To me this has the power to make the world a better place. These moments are what will change our culture for the better, and make our communities as welcoming as they can be. But they can only happen if people feel empowered to make their voices heard.

Codes of conduct are not the only tool to improve research culture, but they are a fundamental one.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some of the questions I’ve been asked or heard a multitude of times when talking to people about codes of conduct. Here are my answers.

  • “What’s the point? It’s just common sense!”

The problem is that it’s not obvious to everybody in all situations. An explicit and championed code of conduct asks people to make a moral commitment to their community and those around them to listen, be respectful and open-minded. Additionally, it tells those within our communities (and beyond) we care about making them feel comfortable and empowers them to speak up when they are not.

  • “Does this mean we can’t joke anymore?”

I hear this one a lot, especially in response to clauses about making jokes that contain sexual language. A lot of people I know are used to making so-called “dick jokes” with their friend, hence the root of this question.

What I usually say is this: no-one is policing your private interactions with your friends. If you are all fine with it, giggle away. That being said, in a conference or University setting, when working or socialising with colleagues or acquaintances, if you don’t know whether others are as comfortable with these comments, you may want to avoid making them.

And if I you do make such a joke in the presence of a person who is not comfortable with it, they should feel free to tell you and know that they are not going to be dismissed with a “ooooh come on, I’m just kidding” or “can’t you take a joke?”.  

  • “What if I didn’t mean to offend anybody?”

Most people don’t mean to offend others. It’d be kind of messed up if we did. I have offended people without meaning to in the past, and I will most likely do it again. So have you, and so will you.

It is not about intent, it is about impact.

A visible code of conduct in your establishment or at a conference doesn’t mean you’ll be thrown out for saying something insensitive. It just means people are more likely to call you out.

If people call us out on our behaviour, whether they invoke a code of conduct or not, it is very common for our first reaction to be defensive, and along the lines of “I didn’t mean to”. It’s normal. Most of us want to be seen as good people, and someone pointing out our offensive behaviour goes against that idea.

You need to fight the heck out of that instinct so you can learn. Making a mistake does not make you a bad person. But dismissing other people’s voices when they’ve had the guts to speak up does nothing to fix your blunder.

So what do you do if you’ve offended someone without meaning to?

  • Step 1: Apologise. Even if you didn’t mean to offend them. Apologies are not for you, they are a show of respect to the person by whom you did wrong, and they are the best way to show you truly had no ill intention.

  • Step 2 (optional): If you are not sure what was offensive in what you did or said, gently ask for clarification to the person, emphasising you just want to make sure you won’t do this again.

  • Step 3: Don’t do it again.

So I hope that I have shed some light on why so many people are raving about codes of conduct and why they are a crucial tool to fostering the positive and diverse communities we aspire to.

If I have convinced you, join me in part two: “Codes of conduct: How do we write them?” to learn how we wrote a code of conduct for our department, the lessons we learnt and the resources we used.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have something to say about this topic? Get the conversation going: Comment down below!

If you enjoyed this, feel free to give it a like <3 or share it!

You can also follow me on Twitter @Sydonahi