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Where are the women?—Academic conferences

I recently presented at a political science conference in the UK where I was one of 5 women presenting, as opposed to 25 men. Notably, only one of the women was an academic; the rest of us were PhD students. Giving my presentation felt oddly like talking to a wall of men who are senior to me—not that they weren’t friendly or helpful, because they were. But it was weird.

I attended the group’s AGM on Saturday night and asked “why are there no women here?”, following which we had a useful discussion about the disparity and some basic strategies for improving the diversity of voices present at future conferences. (It’s worth noting that similar strategies could be applied for engaging minorities.) I was asked to share some of these outcomes, and so here goes—I’ve broken it down into (a) doing the research, (b) conference planning (c) marketing, and (d) at the conference itself.

Note that this list is a starting point, and is by no means comprehensive—if you have other strategies or ideas, please do leave them in the comments.

Doing the research

I understand that I’ve only been a member of academic associations for the past ~3 years, but in that time, I have never been sent a survey or opportunity to give feedback on why I attend conferences or events—or why I don’t. Figuring out why people don’t attend, and what might lead them to attend, is an important first step in redressing the disparity.

Conduct the research with association members. Email a survey asking open-ended questions about what leads them to attend or not attend a conference, and ask what would induce them to attend in future. Consider holding focus groups, online or in-person, to emerge issues and suggestions. Run experience surveys after the event to see what could be improved for next time. Document learnings so that they can be remembered and implemented. Ensure that questions are sensitive and appropriate.

Planning

Different people have different needs. The last conference I attended was held entirely upstairs, and I didn’t notice a lift—I’m not sure how someone in a wheelchair would have fared. It’s hard to think about things that aren’t our daily lived experience. Here are a few things to consider when planning the conference:

  • Do not permit manels (all-male panels). This seems like a no-brainer, but if this is the first time you’ve encountered the idea, manels show that only men have research worth listening to; the conversation generated between panelists, and between the panelists and audiences, means that panelists may be more likely to be cited; and citations are taken into account in hiring decisions. I.e. manels feed into structural gender disparity. See also here.
  • Think about the time of year. Is your conference being held on or close to school holidays? Where women have disproportionate responsibility for childcare responsibilities, this may restrict their ability to attend. Can the timing be changed?
  • Is the conference child-friendly? Plan for baby changing tables, spaces for breast-feeding or -pumping, and child care capabilities. Advertise that these are all available. The International Studies Association does a great job of this (see below).
ISA advertise that childcare and breastfeeding facilities are available for their conferences in mail-outs and on conference websites. I even once saw them arrange breastmilk courier services.
  • ‘Women’ are not a ‘progressive’ issue. I’ve seen papers on women and/or feminist approaches grouped into a panel which also included LGBT and environmental concerns. ‘Half the population’ is not a matter for progressive sidelines; it may be appropriate to embed feminist scholarship alongside ‘traditional’ (male-centred) approaches to politics.
  • How is the room set up? How are the speakers rendered objects? Are speakers given advance notice of what will be in the room (e.g. lecturn, or a row of chairs, or a table which does or does not show panelists’ legs as they are sitting down)?
  • How is accommodation managed? If accommodation is arranged in association with the conference, or booked as part of it, how is this managed? Do people share rooms? Is it possible to request separate sections for different genders? (If youth hostels can manage this, anyone can.) Can people request to be away from certain people they know? (Consider a situation where an academic has been harassed by a fellow, and may not therefore feel safe in attending the conference or staying at the accommodation with their colleagues.)
  • Where are social events held? Are they staged at the conference venue, at the hotel, or elsewhere? If elsewhere, can people feel safe getting home, and are directions and options sent out?
  • Are there options for online attendance? This may open the door for under-represented groups, while cutting down on carbon emissions.

Marketing

Invite women. Specifically. “Women, [appropriate regional language for minorities/POC/differently-abled], and others are invited to submit proposals for conference…”

Show women. Include images of women in your marketing, and on your website, for the conference and/or association.

At the conference

I’ve seen several associations hosting roundtables to assist junior women academics in building their career, as well as mentoring opportunities, e.g. by arranging coffee meetings with senior academics who are in a position to offer guidance. Consider ‘academic speed-dating’ events, but please don’t call it that, as it invites uncomfortable remarks: rather, consider facilitated networking, where junior academics from all kinds of backgrounds are able to introduce themselves and their research to others at the conference, then move onto the next expert when a bell sounds. This may be an introvert’s nightmare, but on the other hand, could help those suffering from imposter syndrome or feelings that they aren’t ‘good enough’ to speak to the academics around them.

Remember that women tend to be socialised differently to men. There are different norms around politeness (and cutting off mansplainers…!). People are more affronted when women interrupt. Women ask fewer questions at academic seminars (see also here), and participate less in brain-storming seminars. Consider what panel, roundtable, or feedback format would allow as many people as possible to engage meaningfully.


Generally, show that you support women, and minorities. Ensure your leadership team is representative. Have reporting mechanisms for harassment, and follow through. Embed feminist and critical scholarship, and don’t treat it as an incidental concern. Consider making diversity data public (attendees, speakers, members, prize winners). Representation and seeing ‘people like me’ is important. We did this for the charity anthology I edited a few years ago—it’s not so hard.

Cite this article as: Laura M Skillen, "Where are the women?—Academic conferences," Laura May: Live, 17 January 2020, https://lauramay.live/2020/01/where-are-the-women-academic-conferences/. Accessed 19 October 2020.

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