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Some men at ICANN meetings really are assholes

Kevin Murphy, March 24, 2018, Domain Policy

Several men have been accused of sexual harassment at ICANN meetings.

A group of women have written to ICANN with five stories of how they were groped, intimidated, objectified or otherwise harassed in violation of not only common decency but also ICANN’s year-old anti-harassment policy.

They’ve not named the alleged harassers, but hinted that they may do so in future.

If we assume the stories are all the unembellished truth — and we kinda have to nowadays — then the behavior described is unambiguously out of order.

Fortunately, none of the allegations rise to the level of the obviously seriously criminal. In these cases we appear to be talking more Hoffman than Weinstein.

But we’re not talking about bizarro Cheesesandwichgate-level interactions either. The stories allege groping, simulated sexual activity, and physical restraint, among other things.

In one allegation, a woman claims a drunk man touched her rear during a social interaction.

In another, a man is alleged to have attempted to let himself into a woman’s hotel room, prompting her to block the door from the inside with a chair, after his earlier advances were rebuffed.

Another woman claims a man she had never met chose, as his opening conversational gambit, to compliment her appearance and inquire after her marital status — during a daytime coffee break for crying out loud — and then grabbed her waist and wrists to prevent her from leaving.

“If you want to start a conversation, ask what I do, what do I work with and why am I here,” the woman is quoted as saying. “Do not acknowledge physical attributes and reduce me to this.”

“If you want to talk to women in a professional setting, do not tighten her wrists, do not grab her waist. Do not ask whether she is married or not,” she said. “Regardless, you should respect her integrity, not her marital status.”

Another man is accused of simulating a sex position with a woman during a cocktail event.

A fifth is accused of “body-blocking” a woman as she attempted to leave a room.

The letter states:

These actions which are definitely categorized as harassment and even assault, would not only affect the woman who went through the incident but it would also lead to several probable repercussions such as (1) Her withdrawal from the community and physical presence. We all know how important being present in meetings is on different levels of engagement in and outside meetings (2) When no solid response from the community is done towards the harasser, there can definitely be an increase in aggressive characters of harassers as there would be no accountability to stop them (3) With the increase in harassment there surely will be a decrease in the representation of young women’s voices in any proceeding which defies the core concept of diversity.

The letter (pdf) is unsigned, and ICANN broke with its usual practice of listing the sender on the correspondence page of its web site.

The letter also does not name any of the accused men, but it and a related comment from a group of women at the public forum at ICANN 61 last week, said the women “refrain from using names for now, in order to keep the focus on the topic and not the person”.

It’s been DI practice to not name either party concerned in such allegations, even when we know who they are.

While the anti-harassment policy exists to deal precisely with the kinds of behaviors outlined in the letter, we reported in November that the ICANN Ombudsman had received no complaints whatsoever invoking the policy, even after the post-Weinstein sea change in workplace sexual politics.

But the letter-writers say this is because the current Ombudsman, Herb Weye, is a man, and women are sometimes reluctant to report such incidents to a man. The letter states:

There should be a woman ombudsperson for harassment reporting. It has been proven by several studies that given the sensitivity of the issue, harassment reports are more prone to be tackled and come forth with, when the ombudsperson is (a) a woman (b) an expert in gender-related issues and mitigating harassment risks

They’re also not confident that the policy, which has yet to be tested, will cause more good than harm.

They also want all ICANN meeting delegates to read the harassment policy as a condition for attendance, and for signage at the meetings to warn against inappropriate behavior.

In response to the public forum comments, ICANN vice-chair Chris Disspain promised that the board will respond to the women’s letter, adding that the Ombudsman is taking a look at how the harassment policy has been implemented.

“It’s very important that ICANN is a safe place for everyone,” chair Cherine Chalaby told the women. “The more we raise awareness, the more it is safe.”

The message to certain blokes at ICANN meetings seems pretty clear: stop being assholes.

Like most places of work, the ICANN community is resplendent with examples of people forming lasting romantic relationships — or even just getting laid — but none of them began with a man grabbing a woman’s backside without her consent.