Remote conference attendees are not shirkers

Caring duties and environmental responsibility do not signify a lack of commitment to scholarship, says Danielle George

September 26, 2019
Middle finger online
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“Furious! Connected remotely to an international research workshop only to hear colleagues slagging me off for ‘not bothering to come’ and ‘not going the extra mile’. I have effing childcare commitments!! This really isn’t what we should have to put up with. #livid”

This wasn’t one of my serenest tweets. But “livid”, if anything, understated how I felt at another obstacle being placed in the way of my ability to simultaneously carry out my dual passions: being a research-active engineering academic and being a good mother to my four-year-old daughter.

I was scheduled to present at a research workshop held in Europe that coincided with the day my daughter had her settling-in “stay and play” session at school, in preparation for beginning her reception year this month, so I asked to present remotely. This is something that I and thousands of others do regularly – in my case, in an attempt to balance my work and family commitments – and it ordinarily works very well.

However, when I connected with the conference ahead of my presentation, I was shocked to hear colleagues from other institutions discussing my lack of commitment to the research agenda, on the grounds that “I couldn’t be bothered to attend in person”.

While I understood their frustration at having to spend time setting up three remote speakers and accommodating my request to change my presentation time, I did not expect my commitment to my research to be questioned.

Should I just have dismissed it as a one-off and not made a fuss? I decided against this because attending and presenting at conferences is a core part of academic and industrial research. It is known to be vital for academics’ career progression, networking and intellectual engagement. At the same time, conferences can be highly exclusionary. Caring responsibilities are just one of the reasons that some people find it difficult to attend such events; other impediments include income, employment contracts, border politics and venue inaccessibility – not to mention concern about long-haul travel and climate change.

Addressing access issues, therefore, is an essential part of conference organisers’ responsibilities. And, to be fair, more and more conferences are adopting professional conduct expectations and inclusive policies for attendees (the American Meteorological Society is a great example). By doing so, organisers can make simple accommodations that enhance the ability of academics to participate, and so create more inclusive spaces for sharing ideas and developing collaborations.

No one, certainly, should have to suffer derogatory comments and discrimination at any meeting, anywhere. So I brought my colleagues’ remarks about my lack of commitment to the attention of the conference organisers. I also decided to bring them to the attention of the wider world – and the 337 retweets and 3,500 likes that my tweet has received at the time of writing suggest that it really hit a nerve.

Many people in the higher education sector replied with similar stories. Women and men alike reported experiencing similar biases, such that they felt pressure to sacrifice either family or career. It made me wonder if this rather archaic view of working arrangements and commitment is one reason we struggle to attract young women in particular into science and engineering.

My field is dominated by men older than me, but I had assumed that they must have had similar balancing challenges at some point in their careers and thus would understand my current position. Yet there are those who seem to expect people to work as if they didn’t have children – and raise children as if they didn’t work. Surely this is not the message that we want to send to the next generation of scientists, engineers or business leaders – who will create the workplace cultures of the future.

Of course there are challenges in trying to balance a career and a family. There is no perfect road map. But it can be done – it has been done by many. Academia’s flexible working arrangements, after all, are generally very conducive to staff with caring and parental responsibilities.

And it is 2019. We have the technology to make flexible and remote working practicable. But we need to focus on changing the remaining areas of inflexible work culture so that the remote participant is not an outsider who is disadvantaged by missing the networking over a beer. This will require all of us to make an effort – including those who have supposedly already “gone the extra mile” to attend in person.

So here’s an idea. Let’s make academic research better by supporting all the people who conduct it. Let’s have external funders weighting departmental funding according to how many researchers remotely access conferences and workshops. And let’s reduce the block grants of universities that fail to reduce overseas travel.

Conference attendance in person is no measure of commitment to research. We need to change the dialogue so that travelling to exclusive gatherings that make no effort to minimise their carbon footprints becomes a metric of irresponsibility.

Danielle George is professor of RF communication engineering and vice-dean for teaching and learning in the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the University of Manchester.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: We remote conference participants are totally dialled in to work

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