Inclusive conferences: thoughts on why and how we can (and must) do better (Alice Chautard and Claire Hann)

This post reflects on how conferences, and events more generally, can be planned to ensure and promote diversity of attendance and inclusivity of participation.

Inclusive Conference Blog_Fig 2

Last May, a Twitter user and Times Higher Education journalist, Phil Baty, asked people to share the worst behaviour they had experienced at a conference, alongside a ‘conference bingo’, inviting respondents to choose between different options such as ‘presentation goes overtime’ or ‘senior professor asleep in backrow.’

Phil Baty tweet

His posts received hundreds of replies – but they were probably not quite what he expected. Respondents started to use this thread to share personal stories of bullying, harassment and discrimination, leaving us all to wonder: are conferences this bad?

They can be, but it does not have to be this way. In March 2019, the REACH programme (based at the University of Oxford) organised an International Conference in Oxford. Well aware of the lack of inclusivity and diversity at many academic conferences, we wanted to do things differently. During the planning phase, we spoke to event organisers, gender and diversity experts, and looked out for guidance on developing inclusive conferences. Yet to our surprise, we found a limited number of comprehensive resources – so we thought there might be value in creating our own.

Since September 2019, we have dived into the literature (published and grey) on inclusive conferences, spoken to experts and organized our own survey of more than 230 people working in academia, as well as the wider public, third and private sectors.

Inclusive Conference Blog_Fig 3

We compiled our findings in a ‘best-practice guide’ covering six areas of conference planning. You can access the full guide, or read our key take-aways in this summary brief. In the remainder of this post, we would like to share some further reflections.

Multiple layers of diversity

Over the past few years, there has been a real push to give women more opportunities at conferences (calling out #AllMalePanels, ensuring women get more visibility as keynote speakers etc.). Many institutions also now have measures in place to support the advancement of women’s careers, such as the Athena SWAN Charter. These are important initiatives; however, we must also ensure that other aspects of diversity – ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, age – are not left behind, as Kalwant Bhopal and Holly Henderson highlight in this article about racism in academia. Recently there has been increasing interest in the concept of intersectionality – that is, that individuals’ identities are shaped by multiple, intertwined factors, which impact upon their experiences, such that the experience of a Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) woman would be different from that of a white woman, for example. This was evident in our survey, where, although the vast majority (just over 80%) of our survey respondents identified as white, some BME respondents highlighted the lack of focus on other aspects of diversity.

‘When you speak of equal gender balance, the focus always ends on white women who get most of the opportunities and attention’ (woman BME survey respondent).

As such, developing a guidance document that takes into account these multiple and intersecting forms of diversity was a priority for us.

Visible and invisible barriers

Our findings highlight that there are some clearly identifiable barriers limiting diversity at conferences. For instance, selecting a venue that does not meet accessibility standards or that does not make childcare provisions (see also several Conference Inference posts on care).

However, more subtle, ambiguous types of discrimination also exist – many of which are the result of implicit biases that are shaped by the society and culture we live in. Why do many conferences lack diversity in speaking roles? Is it because the field itself lacks diversity (although in many fields now there is sufficient diversity to pick from)? Because conference organisers tend to select the usual suspects? Or because of implicit biases that influence people’s perception of who might be appropriate for the role?

Separately, research suggests that women ask fewer questions during Q&A sessions. The authors point to internalised gender stereotypes for the observed imbalance, as well as structural factors (women are more likely to ask questions if a woman asks the first question).

These ambiguous types of discrimination create more subtle barriers that can be difficult to identify and address. Yet evidence suggests that, in the workplace (or work-related spaces such as conferences), these ‘micro-aggressions’ can negatively affect people at least as much as more overt discrimination.

We recognise that changing norms takes time, and recommendations within this guide are not sufficient to address those. Nevertheless, doing our best to recognize and understand both visible and invisible barriers is essential to improving our practices.

A role for all to play

For the right reasons, there are increasing pressures on conference organisers to develop more inclusive conferences. Nevertheless, we do recognise that some of these changes go beyond the capacity of event organisers. Our view is that there is a role for everyone to play in making conferences inclusive, in particular from:

  • Programme directors and senior professionals who make strategic decisions about conferences’ content, structure, speakers and more;
  • Event organisers who take care of conference logistics such as venue selection, meals, communications with participants;
  • Attendees who might have implicit biases, and could be more mindful of who they speak to, network with, take questions from – and how they do so;
  • Institutions who could better support their employees in attending and participating at conferences. For instance, offering bursaries to cover care costs (for attendees with caring responsibilities or attendees with disabilities needing to be accompanied by a carer), allowing employees time off to attend conferences, or providing training or mentoring to improve their presentation, networking, and other relevant skills.

Inclusive conferences: high interest but a lack of resources

The most surprising and unexpected aspect of our guide was the response it received. Within two days of its launch, it had already been retweeted over 70 times. Eight months in, the guide has been accessed over 800 times, and professionals across the globe have let us know they will be using our guide to develop inclusive policies and practices for their events.

In our opinion, this highlights that (1) professionals recognise that lack of inclusivity and diversity at conferences is a real problem;  (2) many of them are genuinely interested in improving their practices; (3) but there is still a considerable lack of resources available that are easy to use (i.e. non-academic), low-cost (i.e. without requiring external consultants), and comprehensive (encompassing all aspects of conferences, and multiple dimensions of diversity).

Looking ahead

We believe inclusivity is an ambition that organisers can and should continuously work towards, always allowing room for learning and improvement. We recognise that much more could have been included in our guide, and  we view it as a starting point rather than an end in itself. We hope it can evolve over time with further recommendations.

Ultimately, we are strong believers that change happens when we see others changing. Preparing and publicising the guide has also brought to light the excellent work led by many professionals to improve their practices. We are convinced that making those more visible can inspire and encourage others.

We are interested in creating an online platform to highlight examples of inclusive conferences and best-practice to trigger conversations, highlight possibilities, build a community of doers, and inspire others. If you are working or are interested in this space, please do get in touch!

About Alice Chautard and Claire Hann

Alice Chautard (School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford) is the Communications and Knowledge Exchange Manager for the REACH programme, a nine year DFID-funded research programme led by Oxford University to improve water security for the poor in Africa and Asia. She leads the communications, research into action and events strategy for REACH. As part of her role she is committed to increasing visibility to women, BME and early-career researchers, as well as developing inclusive events. She also currently sits on the Equality & Diversity committee of the School of Geography and the Environment. Alice has a BSc from McGill University, and an MSc in Water Science, Policy, and Management from the University of Oxford. She is also a photographer interested in using photography as a tool to document global climate, water and social justice issues. In 2017, she founded the Himalayas to Ocean (H2O) project. Alice tweets as @alicechautard

Claire Hann (School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford) is Equality & Diversity Officer and Researcher at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. After graduating from the Universities of Oxford and Leicester she worked as an economic researcher in Regional Development Agencies before taking a 7-year career break to look after her two young children. Her current role focuses primarily on gender, including managing her department’s Athena SWAN award submission and implementation of activities to promote gender equality. She runs the departmental mentoring scheme and works to promote staff development and improved communication within the School, as well as acting as its Disability Co-ordinator. Her other part-time role allows her to pursue her long-standing interest in social science research – particularly related to equality, demography and education.

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