Academic conference organisers have been urged to do more to protect attendees from sexual harassment and assault, following a torrent of reports of misconduct at events across the sector.
Unlike typical working environments, which have human relations departments and protective policies on working behaviour, conferences are “stateless, self-regulating spaces” that “lend themselves to rogue behaviour” from delegates, according to researchers and equality campaigners.
The debate came after women shared their stories of discrimination, assault and harassment at conferences, prompted by a Times Higher Education article on how to get the most professional benefit from such events. Posting on Twitter, academics said that inappropriate touching, groping, unsolicited sexting and comments on appearance were commonplace at conferences.
Meryl Kenny, senior lecturer in gender and politics at the University of Edinburgh, told THE that she had been speaking on a panel at one conference when she received a text message from a senior ex-colleague in the audience.
“He asked, when was I available for sex at the conference?” she said. “I was an early career lecturer in my first post, he was in a position of power…I was shocked at the blatantness of it, but on the other hand – and as a woman speaking to other women at conferences – I was not shocked, because I knew this kind of thing happened all the time.”
One US survey of female attendees at the 2017 Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics found that, of 455 respondents, three-quarters (74.3 per cent) said that they had experienced sexual harassment of some kind.
Emily Henderson, assistant professor of international education and development at the University of Warwick, who researches academic conferences, said that sexual harassment is prevalent at scholarly events “in the same way it is prevalent in universities and most other working spaces”. If anything, she explained, “it is potentially worse at conferences because people are not held responsible in the same way”.
“Conferences, especially big events across several days which involve travel, have a tourism element to them. People are often sleeping in the same hotels, and it becomes a 24-hour experience,” she explained. Meanwhile, the living and working environment “is determined by the conscience of the organising committee”, she said.
Emma Chapman, a member of the 1752 Group, which works to end sexual misconduct in higher education, agreed that “conferences, by their very nature, provide a haven for harassers, who make use of perceived blurred professional boundaries”.
At the same time, she said, “many organising committees feel paralysed in what to do” when cases are reported to them, since “organisers have no legal powers to physically escort a perpetrator from a conference, and they have little to no support from the corresponding universities or employers”.
Dr Chapman, a Royal Astronomical Society research fellow at Imperial College London, said that publishing clear anti-harassment policies was a vital first step for conference organisers. “A code of conduct is such a simple yet effective thing to have,” she explained. “It doesn’t stop perpetrators, but it does set the tone.” The 1752 Group has published an example code of conduct for events to adopt.
It was equally as important for conference leaders to enforce those policies, said Dr Henderson, including “educating staff on the ground so that they know exactly what to do if someone comes to them for help”.
When a prominent US astronomer, Geoff Marcy, was found guilty in a 2015 campus investigation of sexually harassing students, the American Astronomy Society published a strict code of conduct for all its events. Similarly, since the #MeToo movement took off in 2017, organising committees have become increasingly aware of the need to put preventive measures in place at their academic events.
But Dr Henderson said that the problem of harassment was still being “ignored” by some disciplines, and encouraged members of groups and societies without them to “put pressure on – blacklisting and boycotts have proven to be effective in the past”.
When incidents are recorded, she continued, organisers should act to ban perpetrators from future events in much the same way as football fans are banned for violence.
Dr Chapman said that planners should also consider publishing attendee lists “a week in advance, to give people time to contact their HR department if they have any concerns”.
In the US, significant debate has been generated by the circulation, at annual conferences of the American Historical Association, of a list of alleged harassers, designed to warn women about potential attackers.
But some academics remain sceptical about the value of anonymised reporting. “Academia is such a small world, the reputational damage that comes from [speaking out] is so long lasting, it makes it risky for those in precarious positions,” said Dr Kenny. “I’m not sure everyone would have faith in an anonymised system.”
While conferences organisers can and should do more to make their events safer, universities also have a responsibility to follow up allegations, said Dr Chapman, even when they occur off-campus. “I don’t think we treat it seriously enough. If research misconduct takes place, an investigation opens, and the guilty party will never get a look-in again…why is it not the same attitude with perpetrators of assault?”
Predatory behaviour: female academics tweet experiences of sexual misconduct at conferences
@ProfCathHarper Being stuck in downstairs loo with female colleague who’d been rendered almost unconscious by spiked drink at post-conference dinner plus six men who’d assaulted her. Had to turn very nasty to get them out of there and get her/me to hotel. Didn’t cry until on plane, then bawled.
@AtheneDonald The guy pinning me to the wall in a bar telling me how much rather he’d have sex with me than another senior woman at the conference.
@serena_chem As grad student, after conference dinner, in elevator to my room. Friends got out at lower floors, leaving me alone [with] a senior prof. Had to duck out of way when he tried to kiss me, telling me “you want this”. Got out of there, ran back to my room and cried.
@DrJessicaLanger A guy at the conference asked if I wanted to have lunch to talk about some of the conference content, and then proceeded to tell me he was planning to make a softcore porn film and asked me if I would be willing to be in it.
@microjology At my first ever conference, aged about 19, staying in halls of residence, having to barricade my door with a desk to keep two drunk male delegates in their 40s out.