Handling sexism in the community / guidelines best practices?

Hi all, I could use some advice about how to handle a situation happening in the private community I manage.

Some background: Townsquared is business-owner-only community based on geography (I manage the network for owners who operate businesses within New York City). It’s private meaning all users go through a verification process before joining, and you must be a community member in order to see any postings or comments.

Last week, a member shared information about an event they were hosting called “Men and Money,” inviting other members to attend. The description of the event included language like “men/fathers/head of household,” and “enjoy cigars and top shelf liquor” and - the kicker - “financial education and being catered to by women!”

WHOA - Red flag alert that this post was promoting an event by demeaning women to the level of catering to the needs of men, and insinuating that all heads of households are men. Not good.

I took down this post immediately and reached out to the member letting him know why. The problem is, when I tried pointing to our member guidelines as a way to back up the removal of his post, they seemed to fall a bit short of preventing posts like the one he created.

So, my questions for all you smart and experienced community managers out there are:

  1. How do you address sexism (and other oppressive language) in your communities?

  2. Here are our member guidelines. How would you change them? What’s missing?

This one has been particularly tough to navigate for me (especially because of the other members of the community who saw the post before it was removed, and have been reaching out to me to do something about it). Thanks in advance for your input and advice!

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Ouch. I feel for you.

I don’t think that guidelines will ever cover all of the situations, but I think that respecting others – your very first guideline – covers this. That language isn’t respectful (at best) and if you’ve had complaints from members then it is something that the community isn’t comfortable with.

So to answer your questions:

  1. I think you did the right things – removed the post and contacted the member. I’d approach it along the lines of explaining that while they have the right to use that kind of language in their own homes, you find it disrespectful and it has no place in your community. Your community is about empowering people and that kind of language is misplaced.

  2. I don’t think you need to change your guidelines. At the bottom it says "If you encounter a post that isn’t following the guidelines, that seems disrespectful, abusive, or spammy, please email us at support@townsquared.com. We’ll evaluate whether or not to remove the content. " In this case people felt it was disrespectful and contacted you – your processes are working.

Did you get a response back from the person that posted it?


I agree that you did the right thing. I don’t have anything to add beyond what Hawk said, but I wanted to say it.

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Thanks @HAWK and @Piper_Wilson for weighing in here, it’s easy to second-guess yourself when it comes to issues like this.

Yesterday, after I posted here, the saga continued a bit, and the decision has become about whether to allow this event to still be shared, but with edits to the description so it’s not offensive, or block the event from being shared altogether.

I heard back from the original event poster, who apologized and said he never meant to offend anyone. He asked for the chance to update his event description and re-share the event. I said that would be okay with me, as long as everyone was welcome (not just men) even though the programming might be geared towards men.

He agreed and sent me this updated post to review:

Next Event! Save the date 7/6/17. For centuries We were taught to work for money but very few have learned the concepts to have money work for them. The Men and Money event will provide information and education around a topic that most people have been running away from; money. The attendees will walk away with the tools to make solid financial decisions and put their money to work for them. The discussion will be geared towards men, but all are open welcome to attend. • Register ASAP as space is limited.

I thought that looked much better to me and gave him the go-ahead to post.

Meanwhile, I wanted to let the woman who had alerted me to this post know that this was happening. I sent her a quick note so she wouldn’t be surprised explaining that the poster wanted to rectify the situation and that I had reviewed the language and it looked better to me.

When she saw his new post, she immediately emailed me back and said she was frustrated and disappointed at how we handled it, because since the event was still called “Men and Money” it was excluding women or at least discouraging them from coming. She didn’t see what “men” had anything to do with the programming as it was described. Her argument was, “Imagine having an event called “White People and Money” with an original description that includes, say, blackface, and then reposting it, with the blackface reference removed, and the clause “People of Color encouraged to attend” added. And no explanation at all about how exactly the connection between White People and financial dealings would be explored. Would it be posted?”

She also left a shorter comment with a similar sentiment on his new post, and one other woman also chimed in saying, “yes, this is offensive to me as a woman.”

I took the new post down and called Joshua to explain that, at this point in time, I felt like the team needed to discuss and figure out our stance on events that cater towards groups that are traditionally privileged (i.e. men).

He took it well, and said he understands the need to moderate, but was disappointed the post was taken down because he would have preferred to have an open dialogue about it. He also explained why the event was called “men and money” – it’s actually a series they’re hosting, the first event was called “women and wealth.”

So, now my struggle is, do I put this post back up in the community and allow a public conversation about it? On the one hand, the community is about owning a small business, not about issues of gender equality. On the other hand, this conversation is about, “how do we want our community to be?” which does seem relevant.

Thoughts and suggestions on this? I find myself tempted sometimes to defer to the squeakiest wheel (in this case, the woman who reported the post), but that’s not really the right way to evaluate.

Thanks all!

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Hi @Linda_Missal,

Thanks so much for posting this. It’s one of those issues that will probably define a lot of online discourse going forward. If you don’t do it, you’re enabling hate if you do remove it, you’re the editorial police.

There seem to be three ways of going about this.

  1. *The Reactive Route
    When someone reports something they’re upset about or offends them, you look at it and remove it. This is the most common for small to medium-sized communities. It’s relatively sustainable but you’ll soon get problems of bias, treating different groups unfairly (e.g. do you remove the same posts that mention women?) and a host of other issues.

  2. The Free Speech Route
    Unless it falls into a clear and specific category of hate (defined legally, not by the community, you leave it up. People will be annoyed with you and claim you’re not protecting them and enabling sexism etc…Your argument is that if people are offended they can say so, they can discuss it, and come to their own minds. They don’t have to click on it or see it.

3) The Detailed Guidelines Route
This is what Facebook and other platforms have done. They’ve created broad public rules for the site accompanied with really detailed guidelines about how those rules are enforced. This causes a huge amount of controversy on where they draw their line (and who gets to decide that).

My broad preference in most situations is the second option. Both due to practicality and that it’s best for members to be able to respond to things that offend them. When you remove a post people find offensive you also remove the opportunity for members to express their disappointment and help others better understand why it’s offensive.

There are definitely limit to that, but whatever course you chart generally has to be something that ensures you can sleep at night and is sustainable over the long-term.


Agree with @richard_millington re the second option. Communities aren’t democracies – you get to make the decisions at the end of the day. There will always be people that don’t agree, so encourage constructive discussion.

In this case I’d post it anyway – I think it’s legit to have events geared towards a gender – you see female self-defence classes everywhere and AFAIK men don’t feel marginalised. The issue of language has been dealt with.


I’m still concerned by this quote from the original post. Although it wasn’t in the followup, was this the expectation? I’d worry that if a woman did show up (since it was clearly offered in the edited version) that she would feel… I’ll go with awkward.

I tend to manage the free speech route, but try to consider everyone that’s in the community. Going back to this one, my biggest flag is that quote. There are situations where it’s ok to have content and events that are targeted at sub-communities, including dudes. I recently went to an event called “Fathering daughters” - obviously targeted at dads and their interactions specifically with daughters and the nuances of that relationship. But it was attended by women (and the event was managed by a woman). No problem. But when you include “catered to by …” you end up in weird place.


Thanks Mark, this is a really good point!

I asked about this when I spoke to the member about re-writing his post. He said that, as part of the “women and wealth” series, they had the men of his firm as well as those in attendance run the event, help with checkin, and otherwise “cater to” the needs of the attendees so the ladies could focus on networking and the speaker.

He said he didn’t really think about how that phrasing would sound when reversed for the “men and money” event.

I’m not sure if that’s true, or maybe something he’s convinced himself of after being called out about it. I didn’t see any reference on the actual event RSVP page about “being catered to by women” so I figured I would give him the benefit of the doubt.

@mdfw what would you have done in that scenario? Would you have dug deeper with him, or maybe not let the event be promoted at all because of the original description?

Thanks @richard_millington - that’s really helpful as I’m leading the team in a discussion about our policies on this on Wednesday.

I’ll be sure to update you all on what we come up with.

@Linda_Missal You’re completely welcome. I really hope there’s some value here.

If you don’t mind the recommendation, this has been one of my favourite reads of the year:

It’s not the easiest read, but takes a very clever and nuanced approach to free speech in the internet age.

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Thank you! I will definitely check this out :slight_smile:

@richard_millington nailed it with his options, as well as his recommendation IMHO. So I’ll just refer to that response.

But let me add one other issue:

As a community manager, your decisions define direction as much as make individual calls on specific issues. You’re “setting policy” each time you make a choice, whether that choice is how you respond, what you accept on the site, or even how you follow-up. Confidence in your decisions is critical because you’re really building a culture that understands the boundaries. People see that, and they react accordingly in future activities.

In this case, you did the right thing in removing the original post. But you also did the right thing (IMHO) in letting the OP rework the message.

Whether a few members disagree with the content (whether men should be allowed to have non-sexist, men-only networking events), it’s ultimately up to you to drive that direction. It’s not easy, and especially in a case like this where it wasn’t intentional overt sexism, it was a reversal that didn’t work 1:1 in reverse. There will ALWAYS be dissenters who question your choices. Always. In fact, I’ve always joked that no community manager is fully salty until they have a Happy Gilmore “jackass” guy that hounds them.

Don’t get too wound up in trying to dissect or consider the multiple perspectives. It’s too easy to drive yourself crazy that way! :slight_smile: Focus on what you think the best solutions to issues are, be open to feedback about your choices, and move onto the next issue when it comes up.


@jake_mckee very good points! This came up yesterday when the team met about this.

Our primary outcome was that we will never be able to create guidelines that are “done” or complete. Our goal instead will be to create a consistent process and framework that we can turn to as a team to evaluate situations as they arise.

We also agreed that it’s beneficial to have a healthy dialogue within the community about issues like this one. We hope it will empower community members to more actively flag content and discuss (cordially, of course) what they feel.

Thanks again to everyone for your input here! Very helpful :slight_smile:


Does anyone know if there a community version of http://confcodeofconduct.com?

In the past years, many tech-conferences have simply posted that they expect you to abide by those rules. Since it is a third party, it elegantly prevents nitty gritty discussions about the specific rules.

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I can’t think of one that’s community-specific.

Tagging in @Carrie_Jones who might’ve come across this at CMX.

Could be interesting to create one though as a useful community artifact. Many of those principles could be quickly adapted for the community context.

Would anyone like to give it a go?

The closest thing I’ve seen to a widely accepted code of conduct is Discourse’s FAQ:

This (or a version like it) ships by default with all Discourse systems and has informed their design decisions. I don’t know how amenable they are to revisions to that FAQ. I think it’s pretty good, though a little vague.

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Mozilla recently published an updated set of Community Participation Guidelines. These are the result of a many-months-long process of community feedback and iteration, and are a huge improvement over the previous guidelines. The document is CC-licensed, and there are links at the bottom to other community guidelines that influenced these.


That’s such an awesome, useful, document @Janet_Swisher - thanks so much!

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Wow Janet, that is perfect!

I’m launching a new community in the coming months, I will definitely see if I can include a derivative of your guidelines there.

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In addition, my colleague Emma Irwin has published a series of blog posts about the findings from the research Mozilla has done about diversity and inclusion in our community:

As these posts illustrate, combating exclusion and promoting inclusion in a community goes way beyond having a Code of Conduct. Mozilla is far from perfect in this regard, but I’m thrilled to see it being treated as a strategic priority.