The issue of inequality in STEM has received considerable attention in recent years, as women and minorities are vastly under-represented in these fields. While governments launch campaigns to increase participation of marginalized groups and academic institutions rewrite their policies, what else can be done to tackle this problem?
At Morressier, we believe conferences should be leaders in transforming the status quo by creating safer and more inclusive places where everyone has the opportunity to make contributions and advance their careers. In this article, we cover a few steps organizers can take to make conferences more diverse and productive for all people.
Conferences have recently come under scrutiny for not having adequate representation among speakers. Last year, a study published in PLOS found that women ask fewer questions at conferences, even when there’s a higher percentage of women in the audience. Another study found an egregious lack of diversity in important roles at a geoscience conference it observed. Women were just 19 percent of invited speakers, and women of color made up no more than five percent of scheduled presenters.
A simple solution is to make sure that question moderators, keynote speakers, and panelists are diverse and, in the best case, that there’s a more even split between male and female speakers. This sends the message that a variety of perspectives are welcome and discourages one group from dominating over another. Moreover, conference speaking opportunities are highly prized and can provide substantial advantages for an academic career.
While your venue location is a calculation of many different factors, regardless of its perks it should be in a part of town that does not present a danger to delegates. Women can be more vulnerable when travelling by foot after sundown, and there should be multiple transportation options that enable attendees to get to their accommodation safely. Harrowing accounts have been reported that detail the risks and potential threats if this consideration is not prioritized. Providing a safe and secure environment will encourage delegates to return in following years and share their positive experiences with their peers.
Finding child care represents a significant barrier to attendance for many delegates who are parents. Although this issue faces all parents, female researchers are more likely to be juggling early motherhood duties with their already challenging careers in science. Ideally, conferences should set aside money and space for child care and supervision to make their event accessible and bring in as many delegates as possible. If child care provisions cannot fit into the budget, conferences should provide local suggestions for parents bringing their children to the event.
Unfortunately, sexual harassment remains a significant issue at academic conferences, and tolerating inappropriate behavior compromises the well-being of participants. 500 Women Scientists, a grassroots organization, has developed a guide for organizers to make their conference more inclusive. One of their suggestions is to include a code of conduct in online registration forms that attendees must adhere to. This provides a point of reference along with a clear procedure for reporting unwanted behavior, ensuring attendees are aware that any inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated.
Inequality in the sciences is a multi-faceted problem that requires involvement from all players to rectify. As conferences are at the center of academic life and the first place where new ideas are shared, they should also be at the forefront of encouraging diversity. These few steps can go a long way in achieving parity.
Photo credit by Morressier, taken at the 2019 ESRA Congress in Bilbao, Spain