Conference organisers ‘failing to promote diversity’

‘Well-meaning’ codes of conduct do not lead to initiatives that make a difference, study finds

August 3, 2020
Conference audience
Source: iStock

International academic conference organisers are not doing enough to guarantee minority groups’ safety let alone encourage their involvement, new research suggests.

An Australian study has found that efforts to overcome barriers to attendance at conferences about conservation and ecology – fields in which awareness of inclusivity and social justice supposedly runs high – are “rare”.

The study, by University of Sydney conservation scientist Ayesha Tulloch, found that fewer than one in 10 conferences took steps to keep potential attendees abreast of safety and accessibility issues. Most offered little more than “cursory information about avoiding being alone”.

Dr Tulloch cited a conference where most evening social events took place outside the conference venue, requiring long walks through streets acknowledged us unsafe on a conference website that counselled women to “avoid isolated locations or travelling alone after dark”.

The study, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, reviewed actions and policies of the organisers of 30 international conferences staged over a decade by nine academic societies for ecology and conservation.

Slightly more than half the events featured codes of conduct to counter discrimination, implicit bias or harassment on the grounds of gender or sexual orientation. But Dr Tulloch found that these codes were not achieving their intended goals.

“They have no correlation with the implementation of half of the diversity initiatives reviewed in this study,” she wrote. “Initiatives supporting equity and diversity across sexual orientations and gender identities are inconsistent and variable, even across conferences run by the same society.

“Discrimination and harassment persist in conservation and ecology conferences despite well-meaning codes of conduct.”

The study highlighted affordability as a significant barrier. “In all cases the accommodation at the conference venue was the most expensive option provided, which is likely to discourage low-income and vulnerable minority groups from attending.”

Timing of events was “also an important consideration”, with some programmes starting before 8am and finishing after 7pm. As well as being “exhausting”, such scheduling discouraged participation by people with young children and low-income delegates forced to commute to conference venues.

Only three of the nine academic societies were able to provide data on the diversity of their attendees, the study found. Dr Tulloch acknowledged hurdles such as small sample sizes and attendees’ reluctance to volunteer personal information, but said that the lack of data was a “critical gap to improving conference inclusion and equity”.

The study found that 47 per cent of plenary speakers across 29 of the 30 conferences were women – an improvement on levels of 15 to 35 per cent reported at US ecology events between 2000 and 2015.

“However, despite informal and formal procedures for minimising implicit bias and increasing gender equity, the proportion of female plenary speakers has not increased during the past 10 years,” the paper says.

It says that the Covid-19 crisis offers a rare opportunity to take stock. “During the current hiatus in physical conferencing, we have the opportunity to rethink how we conduct conferences and move to a model that better supports equity, diversity and inclusion.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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