An Open Letter to the C++ Community

A Call to Action?

Alice (pseudonym), 09 January 2023

CW: Sexual harassment and a certain convicted rapist in the C++ community


I have something to say, something that I’ve only told a handful of people since it happened several years ago. Ideally, I should’ve come out with this much sooner, and for that I apologize, but this is an extremely difficult subject for me to discuss. I don’t consider what happened to me to be particularly “severe,” considering the kinds of things that could have happened, or have happened to others in similar situations. Nonetheless, I am writing about it now to raise awareness as it concerns the governance of ISO/INCITS and what I believe is a longstanding, deeply entrenched cultural problem within the wider C++ community and with leadership in the community.

The Incident

I was sexually harassed by a prominent member of WG21 (the ISO C++ committee) at an in-person meeting several years ago. This person (who I will call “Dick”1) was a subgroup chair at the time. To briefly summarize: I had met Dick shortly before the meeting at another community event, where we bonded over shared interests. At the WG21 meeting, he asked me for kisses.2 I rejected him (by attempting to ignore the inappropriate behavior), and instead of dropping the matter, he escalated: he demanded that I explain my reasons for rejecting him, seeking me out multiple times at the venue to do so, and harassed me via text messages for several weeks after the meeting, even after I had told him that his advances were unwelcome. His antics during the week of the meeting and his apparent obsession with me (as evidenced by the long, rambling texts he sent me) made me so uncomfortable that I became concerned for my personal safety.

I am fortunate that nothing more came of this unpleasant experience, as he eventually stopped his harassment, but sadly, I was all too willing to ignore his initial inappropriate request. I myself did not want to believe that this man, who had up to this point behaved as a friend, and who I respected professionally, would disregard my own wishes and boundaries so completely. And I felt especially vulnerable as a young woman, alone and far away from home, who felt intimidated and out of her depth at her very first WG21 meeting.

WG21’s Response

Several months after the meeting, I finally worked up the courage to report Dick’s harassment to WG21. Due to the nature of my allegations (which Dick himself did not deny to WG21), and the evidence that I presented (Dick’s inappropriate text messages), my Code of Conduct complaint eventually resulted in Dick’s removal from his leadership position as subgroup chair, which I suppose is a positive outcome. But the way the matter was handled by Herb Sutter (the WG21 convenor) and the committee still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Most egregiously, Herb never fully explained the remedies that were available to me in the ISO Code of Conduct process (namely that I would have to escalate the matter to ISO in order to actually accomplish anything, e.g. ejecting a WG21 member), and he also never informed me of Dick’s removal as subgroup chair.

(I learned about it, like everyone else on the committee, from an announcement email on the ISO C++ reflector, where the news of him stepping down was “batched” with a bunch of other organizational updates. Due to the way the email was written and other rumors that were circulating at the time, I was actually uncertain that my report had anything to do with Dick’s removal and I spent the following years feeling extremely discouraged as a result.)

To this day, Dick remains a very active participant in WG21, and as far as I know, he still struggles with understanding the very concept of sexual harassment.

But, like I said, worse things could have happened. I didn’t suffer physical harm. As unsatisfying as the outcome was, I didn’t want to waste anymore of my life dwelling on it. And so I tried to forget about the incident, simply resigning myself to the fact that I could never participate in WG21 meetings again so long as the person who sexually harassed me would be present.

ISO’s Response

Up until this point, I was under the impression that WG21 had considered the question of Dick’s continued membership in WG21 and decided in his favor. It wasn’t until early in 2022, after Patricia Aas blew the whistle on the Standard C++ Foundation protecting a convicted rapist and registered sex offender , and that same convicted rapist later officially joining WG21, that I came to understand that WG21 had essentially zero power to limit participation.

And so, several years after the incident in question, I finally decided to contact my national body and file a formal ISO Code of Conduct complaint, which they sent to Dick’s national body on my behalf.

I am sure the fact that I had waited several years to make my ISO complaint had a negative effect on my complaint’s resolution. I was also told that my complaint was ISO’s first-ever known case of sexual harassment,3 which didn’t help my confidence. The response that I eventually received from Dick’s national body was patronizing; they acknowledged the seriousness of Dick’s misconduct but were concerned about “due process,” “double jeopardy,” and “proportionality,” and so they said they would simply require Dick to take diversity training,4 and declined to take any further action.

Maybe this was the best that someone in my situation could have hoped for, but I felt this response trivialized what I had gone through, and did nothing to address my safety concerns. (“Diversity training” is not an effective or proven means of changing problematic behavior.) So I attempted to escalate my case to a higher body (the ISO Technical Management Board), only to be met with a similar response (they declined to get involved).

Some Reflections

Having exhausted ISO’s entire Code of Conduct process by now, I feel slightly foolish for having hoped for a better outcome. At the very least, I was hoping they would consider my suggestion of a ban from in-person meetings or ejecting Dick from his national body for at least a year (which is one of the suggested penalties in ISO’s own Code of Conduct guidance). Really, I was open to anything more substantial than a one-time “diversity training” session.

But no, I was told by my own national body (who was supposed to advocate for me) that any further consequences would be excessive and inappropriate.

And maybe that’s true? Maybe my expectations and my concerns about personal safety (and the safety of others) were unreasonable? Maybe I should trust that diversity training will successfully teach Dick to not proposition women at professional events? I don’t know anymore.

Generally speaking, I am not against allowing an offender the opportunity to learn from their misconduct. In an ideal world, everyone should be allowed that opportunity. However, in the real world, this often comes at the expense of the victims of such behavior. Communities and institutions are often focused on the possibility of “rehabilitating” an offender (sometimes going to great lengths to excuse or downplay misconduct, while only performing a token effort to prevent another offense), while victims’ concerns are minimized or ignored.

Moreover, any potential “redemption” requires that the offender is capable of introspection and is actually willing to put in the work to learn and grow from their experience. And for that to happen, the offender has to first acknowledge the harm that they have caused. Given that, in his last communication with me, Dick had the audacity to be offended that I refused a (completely unexpected and unsolicited) birthday gift, I think it is unlikely that Dick will ever admit fault and take responsibility for the way he has treated me.

Lastly, I don’t know who needs to hear this, but Dick’s behavior towards me was not harmless. This entire ordeal has already affected my career (e.g., as previously mentioned, I can no longer represent my employer at WG21 meetings). On a personal level, I am much more wary and guarded around men who I don’t know well. And the trust I had in certain leaders and institutions has perhaps been irreparably damaged.

A Warning

If you are currently a participant in WG21, or are thinking of joining or participating in the committee in the future ( and particularly if you are also a woman or femme-presenting), I honestly don’t want my story to dissuade you from being a part of the standardization process. I sincerely hope that you feel welcomed and respected by your WG21 colleagues.

However, in the unfortunate event that something similar does happen to you, here are my notes:

  • First of all, it’s not your fault. You didn’t ask to be treated this way. The Dicks of the world are grown adults who should know better.
  • Should you choose to report, the people in ISO responding to your complaint will (probably) have close to zero experience dealing with such matters and may not treat your case with the gravity that it deserves.
  • ISO’s own Code of Conduct process is not designed with such scenarios in mind (e.g., where the personal safety of one party may be threatened by another), and may ultimately fail to protect you while protecting the offender.
  • On the whole, I perceive a lack of motivation/urgency on ISO’s part to address the previous two items above, especially as it relates to the participation of a known, convicted rapist in WG215 (though I acknowledge that such organizations are slow-moving by nature and that I don’t know what discussions are happening behind closed doors). Even if my perception is incorrect, which I hope is the case, it will take an excruciatingly long time for changes to materialize.

If something more serious than sexual harassment were to occur (like stalking or sexual assault), I have my doubts that ISO will do anything more than shrug and suggest reporting to the police, instead of making sure that the victim is able to continue participating in ISO without fearing for their safety.

A Call to Action?

I don’t pretend that I know what the ideal solution is, for any of the situations that I described. (After all, I am only a programmer and not an expert on human behavior.) All I can do is describe a set of problems, with the hope that people more experienced and qualified than I am will come along with a concrete plan to address them.

As I see it, these problems (which are sadly not specific to the C++ community) include:

  • Some people in the community still think certain behaviors (like sexually harassing women at a professional event) are okay.
  • Some people in the community (including leadership) are hesitant to call out bad behavior or enact stronger consequences against bad actors, and—for some reason—are focused on the needs/inclusion of bad actors (to the detriment of the people that are negatively impacted by them).
  • Institutions like ISO/INCITS don’t currently protect victims and are slow to adapt to changing times.

ISO and INCITS: if you are truly serious about diversity and inclusion ( and especially about increasing the representation of women within ISO), I urge you to consider the impact of your decisions regarding bad actors (like Dick and now Individual X), whose continued involvement in your organizations may cause women to reconsider their own participation. Moreover, though I recognize that these issues are complex and fraught with legal complications, it’s my opinion that outright forbidding discussion on the topic of Individual X by rank-and-file members (by enforcing rules against “disparagement,” as ISO/INCITS has been doing these past few months), as well as making any sanctioned discussions (which I understand has been happening in secret between members of the INCITS Executive Board) completely opaque to interested parties is, at the very least, damaging to your D&I efforts, and only reinforces the perception that your organizations are uninterested in changing in any meaningful way.

As for everyone else: if you share my concerns, I believe the best thing you can do is to simply call out bad behavior when you see/learn about it, and to not let it go unchallenged. If you are in a position to raise awareness or effect positive change, please don’t let personal discomfort or inconvenience stop you from having this much-needed conversation and moving the needle on the current state of affairs.

Sincerely, “Alice” A Concerned Member of the C++ Community

TL;DR: I was sexually harassed by a WG21 member, I reported it, and ISO thought it was a good idea to simply assign Creepy McCreepFace “diversity training.” Does ISO think this is a good practice going forward that will entice more women to join ISO? Who knows. (Also, doing nothing about a certain convicted rapist on the committee will definitely help! /s)

  1. I am not directly naming the person who sexually harassed me at this time, due to concerns about my privacy. 

  2. I distinctly remember him clarifying that he wanted me to kiss him “on the lips.” 

  3. I have my doubts that this is actually true, as it seems difficult to believe, given ISO’s long history. 

  4. I had to ask for clarification on whether this “diversity training” (which was described in extremely vague terms) would include sexual harassment. 

  5. I realize that the facts of my experience with Dick and the situation with Individual X are different, but I feel that the responses to both are related.