As social media accounts and hashtags, such as #manelwatch, demonstrate academic conferences often fail to represent the diversity that exists in academia. In this post, Alice Chautard reflects on how conferences can be planned ensure/promote diversity of attendance and inclusivity of participation and presents 10 insights from the best practice guide she co-authored after implementing these inclusive planning principles at the annual REACH conference.
If you are a researcher, chances are you will be very familiar with the practice of attending and presenting at conferences – with good reason. Conferences provide an opportunity for researchers to disseminate their work, network, develop new ideas, and form collaborative relationships for future work. They are thus important for career development.
For institutions, organising conferences, are also an opportunity to demonstrate excellence and showcase cutting edge work by leading professionals and academics. As women and many minority groups are still underrepresented in academic and scientific professions, especially in leadership roles, this is often reflected in the speaker line-up and other aspects of the conference programme and logistics.
Guide to inclusive conferences: why and how?
In March 2019, we, at REACH, organised an International Conference on Water Security and Poverty. Well aware of the lack of inclusivity and diversity at many academic conferences, we wanted to do things differently. In the early stage planning of the conference, we spoke to conference organisers, gender experts and academics, and looked out for guidance on developing inclusive conferences. Yet to our surprise, we found few comprehensive resources available online – drawing a blank we thought why not create our own ‘best-practice guide’ and save everyone the effort of replicating our work.
In collaboration with Dr Claire Hann (Equality and Diversity Officer, School of Geography and the Environment) we dived into the literature on inclusive conferences, spoke to experts and organised our own survey of more than 230 people working in academia, as well as the wider public, third and private sectors.
Almost 85% of survey respondents agreed that it is important for conferences to have policies to promote greater diversity at conferences. However, less than one third of respondents (32%) felt that conferences they had attended had been organised in a way that promoted women’s participation and exposure.
Based on our research we prepared and released a best-practice guide to inclusive conferences, which covers six areas of conference planning and aims to “encourage rather than prescribe” (see image below).
Our 10 takeaways for developing inclusive conferences:
The guide presents more detailed practical recommendations, but I highlight below our 10 overarching messages:
- Many early decisions about conference planning can lock you in to an ‘un-inclusive conference.’ For instance, picking a venue that does not allow children on site, does not meet accessibility requirements, or is located in an ‘unsafe’ area; picking a date that overlaps with school or key religious and national holidays.
- There are specific barriers limiting a diversity of speakers at conferences (e.g. caring responsibilities), however we also all have implicit biases that are shaped by the society and culture in which we live and operate. Recognising and understanding both, is essential to developing an inclusive conference.
- Diversity should not solely focus on gender. Many minorities also experience challenges in being excluded or discriminated against at conferences on account of their ethnicity, religion, gender identification, seniority, physical abilities or other characteristics of their identity.
- Speaker diversity should span beyond panels. An inclusive conference should aim to spread diversity among all speaking or presenting roles (keynotes, session chairs, poster presentations, closing speech etc.).
- Choosing alternative formats can help create a more inclusive conference. The default format is often the keynote lecture in a large lecture theatre, with the aim of presenting cutting edge work. Recognising that conferences serve other important purposes – fostering collaborations, building skills and raising profiles– can justify the adoption of other types of formats that are more conducive to sharing knowledge, generating new ideas and building partnerships.
- Ensuring speaker diversity is important but not sufficient to developing an inclusive event. We recommend that conference organisers work to ensure everyone (speakers and attendees) has equal opportunities to participate in discussions, and actively engage in Q&As and networking opportunities.
- Conference communications, too, should be inclusive. For instance, this entails ensuring diversity in who is featured and how, in online and print communications, before, during and after the event.
- Caring responsibilities can be a considerable barrier to attending and presenting at conferences for both men and women – although the responsibility is often largely borne by women. While conferences can be designed to help, more funding for caring costs is also needed.
- Recognise that incidents of discrimination and harassment happen, and make your stance clear. For instance by specifying what is (un)acceptable behaviour (e.g. code of conduct) and making sure there is a clear process for reporting incidents.
- We believe inclusivity is an ambition that organisers can and should continuously work towards, always allowing room for learning and improvement. You won’t necessarily get everything right the first, second or third time around, but learning from mistakes and sharing ideas and best-practices is key to improvement.
Our experience organising an inclusive conference
We were delighted to be able to successfully put many of the recommendations from the guide into practice at our REACH conference in March 2019. Half the speakers at the conference were women, half were from a Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) background and one third were early career researchers. We asked participants to sign a code of conduct and had a clear process for reporting incidents. All session chairs were asked to take a question from a woman or early career researcher first, which visibly changed the dynamic of the Q&A sessions, allowing a wider variety of views to be expressed in an open and receptive setting.
The result? We were pleased to hear several delegates mention it was the most inclusive they had ever been to. But most importantly, we felt that our efforts increased the visibility of many researchers, encouraged engagement and ideas sharing, energised our audience, provided a benchmark for future events, and, we hope, inspired others.
This being said, we recognise there is room for improvement. We were not able to support attendees with caring responsibilities, due to on-site restrictions and financial limitations. Although no attendee specifically made requests, we know from our own survey that not providing caring support can be an important barrier in even considering attendance. This is something we plan on putting more thought into next time.
Of course, inequality of opportunity within academia is not something conferences alone can tackle, but they are a good place to start because of their critical role for career development. In many ways, organisers can address these gaps by taking small steps – others obviously require more systemic thinking and cultural changes, but it is not impossible.
The good news is that many conference organisers are now proactively trying to make conferences more inclusive. We hope this guide will further support and encourage professionals within academia and beyond.
You can access the guide here. For any questions or comments, please email Alice Chautard: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alice Chautard is a communications and knowledge exchange professional, with a background in environmental science and water management. Her work focuses on using a blend of communication tools and approaches to disseminate and increase the uptake of research. She is currently the Communications and Knowledge Exchange Manager for REACH, a DFID funded programme led by the University of Oxford to improve water security for the poor in Africa and Asia. She is also a professional photographer and founder of Himalayas to Ocean (H2O). She tweets @AliceChautard
This post has been adapted from a previous post on the REACH blog.
Featured image credit: Alice Chautard/REACH 2019 International Conference on Water Security and Poverty
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