The issue of inequality in STEM has received considerable attention in recent years, as women and minorities are vastly underrepresented in these fields. While some academic institutions are creating new policies to be more welcoming, there's plenty more that can be done to tackle this problem.
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. Here are four steps organizers can take to make conferences more diverse and productive for all attendees.
Diversity in Panelists and Speakers
Conferences have recently come under scrutiny for not having adequate representation among speakers. Last year, a study published in PLOS One found that women ask fewer questions at conferences, even when there’s a higher percentage of women in the audience. However, if the first questioner is a woman, more women will ask subsequent questions than if the first questioner is a man. This finding may be helpful information for panel moderators or mic attendants choosing where to begin if there are several questioners. Another study focused on a geoscience conference and found an egregious lack of diversity in important roles. Women made up 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 evenly split between male and female speakers. It may take a little more effort, but it sends the message that a variety of perspectives are welcome. Moreover, conference speaking opportunities are highly prized and can provide substantial advantages for an academic career so boosting minorities and women will, in turn, expand diversity at higher levels of academia.
Conference Venue Location and Safety
Your venue location is a calculation of many different factors, but 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 traveling by foot after sundown, and sacrificing safety to save money will lead to fewer female conference attendees. There are harrowing accounts that detail the risks if this consideration is not prioritized. Providing a safe and secure environment will encourage delegates to return and share their positive experiences with their peers.
Providing Child Care and Options for Parents
Finding child care represents a significant barrier to attendance for many delegates. Although this issue faces all parents, female researchers are more likely to be juggling early motherhood duties with their already challenging careers. Ideally, conferences should set aside money and space for child care to make their event accessible and bring in as many delegates as possible. If child care doesn’t fit into the budget, conferences should provide local suggestions for parents bringing their children to the event.
Monitoring and Policing Behavior
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 conferences more inclusive. One suggestion 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. Taking these few steps can take you a long way on the path to parity.
Sami Benchekroun is the cofounder and CEO of early-stage research platform and conference management software company Morressier.