Why are so many academic conferences hostile to women?

Posted on: 2018-08-03 06:30:00

I had looked forward to our association conference for months. I would be reconnecting with old friends and making new ones, visiting a new city, and hearing about exciting work in my field. In many respects, the event exceeded my expectations, with the kind of warm, collegial atmosphere that one hopes to find at every conference but seldom does. Yet anyone could see that something was wrong.

At the end of the day, the atmosphere was tense. Clusters of women huddled together in the hotel lobby, planning their routes home together, ordering taxis and sharing anecdotes of the street abuse they’d faced during the day.

Our conference hotel was in a rough, crime-ridden area. One woman arrived visibly shaken after being threatened and followed by a man for several blocks. Another had fireworks thrown at her legs while trying to cross the street. It was considered too dangerous to be out alone at night, so we walked in packs or took taxis.

Even that was no guarantee of safety. As we returned to the venue after dinner one night, a man punched the windows and rattled the doors of our taxi, forcing us to sit in terrified silence until he left and it was safe to get out.

This is an extreme example of a venue that was physically dangerous for women to access. But most conferences are, in one way or another, hostile places for women. Several weeks ago, a friend was confronted by a man who explained that her life would have meaning once she’d fulfilled her biological destiny and produced a child. Another recalled a conference where, as an early career researcher, she was chased around by a senior male academic who remarked on her “tight little skirt”. The international Women in Academia Support Network (#WIASN) Facebook page is full of similar anecdotes.

Talk to any woman in academia, and you’ll hear stories like these. Women are patronised, talked over, touched and harassed while simply trying to do their jobs and occupy space at academic conferences. Yet too few conferences have established clear reporting procedures for harassment and discrimination.

Even making it to the conference in the first place can be a challenge. In a world where women are responsible for the majority of childcare, many conferences are inaccessible because there are no daycare facilities or designated spaces for pumping or nursing. Information about childcare arrangements should be disseminated before a conference so that carers are not excluded from participation.

The Australian Sociological Association Conference 2018, for instance, has been exemplary in its efforts to include people with childcare responsibilities. We would all do well to follow its lead.

What can be done to better meet the needs of female academics? The most important first step is to gather data from as diverse a group as possible and listen to their experiences and ideas for change.

In the meantime, conference organisers should use their common sense. When choosing a venue, it’s important to be mindful of safety and accessibility. Research the location – don’t choose a venue that’s in a bad part of town. Visit the location at night. Is it well lit? Is it far from restaurants, hotels or taxi ranks? Would you feel safe walking around by yourself?

In the conference hall, organisers could help women feel comfortable by training and empowering moderators to shut down haranguing from audience members. They should think carefully about how conference traditions that we take for granted (like interviewing in hotel rooms) can be unpleasant for female delegates.

We need to ensure that female delegates feel like they have a voice. After all, isn’t the point of attending a conference to hear and be heard?

Source: The Guardian 

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