Every time I fly home from one of ‘these conferences’ I stare out the window wondering how the hell this keeps happening… that bad taste in the mouth from yet another program lacking in diversity and novelty. While this week’s conference wasn’t guilty of the most heinous and thoroughly discouraged practice, namely an all-male plenary line-up, it had a number of things that really make me question why I even registered. Where do I begin?
The most festering sore…the panels. Oh my god, what an epic fail. On the Sunday there’s a ‘what makes a great leader’ panel, two men & one woman, and then, as if leadership is something women need extra education on perhaps (I’m still trying to work out what the actual underlying message was), there’s a ‘women in leadership’ panel, all woman panel & chair, on the Tuesday. Got to love the token ‘women’s issues’ panel, especially after so many iterations, just to absolve yourself of your other sins … and man, where there sins!
On the program for Wednesday was an all-male panel on how to get your first job. Oh, the irony of three senior male academics at the top of the ponzi talking to an audience where most have buckley’s of getting a similar shot at being an ‘academic for life’. And the pièce de résistance, a 6-person panel on academic-industry relationships, all male including the chair.
Some of you will have read my prior blog post on minimum standards for conferences. I got ambushed on this one. I had already registered, the conference having met threshold on speakers at my 2020 standard, only to see those panels and want my money back. I stupidly walked into a mistake I pointed out on twitter last year – paying your registration to conferences with bad practices is simply enabling them financially. So, I felt duty bound to make a stand on this one to redeem myself.
It began about a month ago when the organisers spammed an advertisement about the panels to the conference email list. I sent an email to two of the chairs that I knew personally, one of whom I’ve raised this issue with several times before, telling them in no uncertain terms how bad a message this sends to people in your audience, and offering to assist with suggestions to remedy the situation.
I never even got a reply.
I arrived at the conference, the updated program on the app, still the same panels.
OK, time to step it up then, so I decided to lob a grenade at the ‘women in leadership’ panel. I can’t remember my exact wording, something along the lines of “This may be a controversial question, but one can’t help but notice that the next two panels at the conference are all-male panels, including one with 6 men on academic-industry partnerships, a topic I think any of you would be very qualified to talk about. Clearly, we are well beyond awareness on this issue, what do we start doing to stop this from happening?”
Amanda Ellis gave a really good answer to this, something like “It is time for men to step up and do something about this because women can only do so much. Start refusing to be on biased panels, start making it clear to organisers that this is not ok.” I think this is some of the solution, let me come back to it below, but where did things go after this…
Wednesday’s panel arrived, now there’s three men and one woman. Ok, we’ve gone from manel to token, but it’s better than nothing. Not exactly what Amanda was suggesting, and I would have much more respect had one of those three panelists actually made the sacrifice to lead by example and clear a chair to get to 33% rather than just 25%. Optics matter, particularly in leadership.
Thursday’s panel was a howler, and a good example of why last minute fixes are shit for everyone. The 6-man panel had gone to 6 men and 2 women, who had clearly been dragged into this in a hurry. Why do I say clearly? Well, each panel member got to introduce themselves, the men all had a stack of curated slides, something of a mini-talk so to speak. The two women had no slides at all, and got to be the last two to introduce themselves. As if it wasn’t obvious enough that they were an after-thought from program and seating layout. The arrangement and chairing of this panel can only be described as woeful (I am being diplomatic). The panel had 40 minutes available, and 35 minutes were consumed by the ‘introductions’, the last two shorter than most, such that there was barely 5 minutes left for discussion. Two questions were put forth, one was barely answered, the other never even got that. And that folks, was it. I felt pretty shit after this, all I seem to have achieved by calling the conference manels out was to put two of my female colleagues into the shit-sandwich of being pressured at the last minute to give their best performance in a shemozzle that was little more than an insulting waste of their time (I sincerely apologise to them both on behalf of people who should have done a better job so that this never had to happen).
An interesting question is: Does this have any blowback against the organiser of that panel or of the other panels? How about the conference chairs? After all, the chairs have a leadership and oversight role and therefore a responsibility to ensure quality, equity and diversity in their program. Of course not. We all go home, some of us pretty disappointed at the whole thing. They put their contribution as a line in their CV, get positive credit for it (accumulate merit-cookie), and move onto the next conference. Where it all happens again, and again, and again.
This experience, and Amanda’s answer, got me thinking. Surely this isn’t down entirely to men being invited onto panels to take a stand. Sure, that’s some of it, I 100% agree, but that cannot be all of it. What we need here is some mechanisms for accountability for the organisation of these conferences.
There’s limits to what you can do. Conference series are somewhat independent structures; you can’t act punitively on them easily. The chairs are also hard to exert pressure on. They’re not going to own up in their CV to “Chair of Conference X, which by the way, was a total sausagefest.” or “Chair of panel on Y, which descended into farce because I can’t manage a piss up in a brewery”. Neither can you exert pressure via, e.g., funding schemes, for example, simply because these things aren’t really the criteria, and taking out your grudge that way is just unethical.
So how the hell do we do it? I can see a few mechanisms here.
The first would be via Athena Swan awards. One possibility here would be to have every conference and its outcomes tied to the conference chair’s own organisation’s Athena Swan measures. If there are co-chairs, then this would be divided equally between the co-chairs’ organisations. Since this has an impact on something a university cares about in terms of PR, this would mean that university’s DVC Equity & Diversity can lean hard on the conference chair. This could include rescinding financial support, since those often do come from the home university of the conference chair, but also extend to punitive measures directly on the chair from a HR perspective, e.g., for damaging university reputation. After all, this conference I was at had a hell of a lot of University of Queensland branding floating around, and I will forever associate UQ with that conference. I doubt the top folks at UQ would like to be hearing me say that (esp. since I once almost became academic staff there). This Athena Swan approach could be both a stick and a carrot – particularly good conferences should be able to advance a campuses Athena Swan measures as much as the bad conferences hurt them. And there could be financial rewards for staff for doing so!
The second would be to start advocating for conference sponsors to make demands of the conferences they sponsor. A good route to achieving this would be to start publicly asking the sponsors why they are supporting and enabling the most egregious cases whilst showing gratitude for supporting positive action. Sponsors will be more even responsive to negative PR than the universities; they sponsor entirely for marketing reasons and there PR really matters. We could start by encouraging sponsors to write minimum equity standards into their sponsorship contracts, for example. It’s good for these businesses because better diversity of speakers and panels means larger more engaged audiences, and increased customer base to interact with.
The third would be for delegates to become more savvy (myself included after this experience). What I learned this time around is that early-bird registration is perhaps not the best option. Sure, it saves some money (in this case about 14%). But that’s peanuts compared to going to a conference that disappoints you the entire time and sends you home feeling annoyed or uninspired. I would happily pay the $160 early-bird gap out of my own pocket to undo my decision to attend knowing what I was getting into. By delaying registration, you have more pressure over the committee. They take your emails more seriously if you say ‘if you don’t fix this, I just won’t register’. After all, nothing makes a conference committee panic like low registrations. There’s significant ‘upfront’ in any conference budget, and most of the savings given to early-bird registration are really a ‘certainty cost’ to the conference budget.
The fourth would be for delegates to be more discriminating. There are a lot of conferences on the market, more than we can ever obtain grant money to attend. They can also be expensive – registration is regularly at the $1k+ level now. And that’s before you include travel and accommodation. If all that’s going to happen is you are going to see the same old plenary speakers over and over again, or be subjected to monocultured panels, or be in a program so disorganised that it might as well have been put together Nostradamus style (throw the abstracts down the stairs, pick them up, and that’s the talk order) then why waste the money? If there’s only going to be 13 disinterested people, half of them looking at their phones, during your talk then why spend the $1k at all? Your talk opportunity is compromised by the lack of audience, and your listening opportunity is compromised by having to hear the same old plenaries again and again.
There’s always better opportunities, right?
This is particularly the case for the big ‘meritocracy & showcase’ conferences, which are more often than not totally soul-destroying experiences that I end up wishing I had never attended (MRS Fall is the only exception). Especially when you never have much hope of ever getting a major talk because the same old people keep being given the slots ‘because it’s meritocracy, stupid’. This conference included at least 3 plenaries that I had already seen more than twice in 5 years. One is even now at: seen twice, skipped 3 times, and one time attended but listening to Amon Amarth on my AirPods just for some giggles as I was there for the next speaker, who I’d also seen before but wanted to see their two new slides. In another upcoming major conference, the same Nobel laureate has spoken at it every single time I’ve ever gone since I was a Ph.D. student, the talk is always much the same. We’ve often joked that when he dies, they’ll wheel him out, Weekend at Bernie’s style, stiff with merit, just to watch decay for 45 minutes and bask in his meritious glory. Meanwhile, you go to a standard session, and you see some really cool stuff crammed desperately into contributed slots, it would make a great plenary, but no one on the committee has the imagination and the meritocrats at the top would never give them the chance. Especially when committees are using plenary slots to buy influence.
Feeding off this, the fifth would be to start looking for ways to be visible that don’t include the conference circuit. After all, in a carbon constrained world, we’re going to need to stop going to so many conferences (at least until we’ve decarbonised our transport options). The one positive I saw in this conference was that some plenary speakers didn’t come but delivered their talks by Zoom. The quality was just as good as in person, if anything, in the giant theatre you could actually see them without needing binoculars. Why can’t we watch talks in our own time without conferences? Why can’t an academic website host your ‘plenary talk’ for people interested to see at any time? You don’t need conferences to give you a platform, the internet is your platform.
I’ve hit my word limit, so I might stop there and leave this for discussion in the comments? What other clever ways can we end these bad conferences? Feel free to make some suggestions.