What can men do to help make conferences healthier spaces?

I first started attending scientific conferences as an undergraduate in the UK, more than a decade ago now. Over the years since, I have been fortunate enough to attend a range of events around the world in a number of different capacities; speaker, host/organiser, panelist, intern, general attendee, you name it. Through this, I have experienced many different communities, from open source and tech, blockchain, palaeontology, earth sciences/geosciences, biology/life sciences, and more recently, ‘open science’ and scholarly publishing/communication.

This wealth of experiences has afforded me perhaps a unique perspective, and chance to reflect, on how men in particular, can help to make professional academic/research conferences healthier spaces. Most of my experiences at such events are overwhelmingly positive, but there are always incidents and stories that get around that can leave these tainted. I have heard a number of absolute horror stories, and personally witnessed a number of behaviours that, well, let’s just say were not exactly respectable.

As a young lad, I have also engaged in my fair share of fairly unwise things at conferences over time. As such, much of this article draws on personal experience and what I have learned from personal mistakes, from what I have tried to impart upon others, and also based on the countless conversations on this topic over the years with a huge range of individuals. This is not to say that academic conferences are all generally unhealthy spaces and rife with misconduct. Just that there is always room for improvement.

To be clear, just because I am choosing this particular dynamic to reflect on, the things discussed here could still in theory be applied to everyone. This dynamic is just the one I have the most experience with (as a man), and therefore feel most comfortable discussing. There are probably many things women could do for men too, but it is not my position at all to say what those things might be.

I also don’t want to give out the impression that I feel women are some sort of vulnerable group that heroic men need to come along and rescue. Virtually all the women I know are exceptionally strong individuals, and more than capable of dealing with most negative situations themselves should they arise. Rather than addressing situations after the fact though, I prefer to try and deal with them at their source.

Therefore, the purpose of this post is just to try and propose a few guidelines for my fellow men to reflect on prior to attending research conferences in the future. I see this as part of our collective responsibility, and part of my own personal duty, to share knowledge and experiences so that others can criticise them, use them, learn from them, all as part of growth towards attaining a healthier research culture.

This is also not an exhaustive list by any means, but more just things I remain consciously aware of at events now, whatever my capacity. It is also not in any particular order. It is also not intended to be a patronising or micro-managing ‘code of conduct’ of any sort. If all of this seems really obvious to you, then great! Simply make sure that others are aware of it too.

  • Do not drink too much booze
    • At virtually every conference I have ever been to, there have always been social events, ice-breakers, receptions, and the like. At pretty much all of these, there is alcohol. Often free or subsidised, and often in vast quantities. No one is saying don’t have fun and enjoy a few drinks with your mates. Especially though, for annual events, often it is the case that you are seeing friends/colleagues who you rarely get to hang out with. Often, this leads to situations where there is excessive consumption of alcohol, which as we all know can lead to compromising situations.
    • At conferences, the overlap between professional, collegial, and personal is immense, and it can be exceptionally easy to overstep boundaries. Alcohol only makes sliding down that slope ever easier. I would say that this is the main thing to be highly aware of, especially in a culture where now the slightest slip-up can have devastating consequences for individuals. Best just to remain highly aware and avoid putting yourself in situations that you cannot control.
  • Don’t let other men dominate the conversations
    • Especially when you are in charge of the microphone, or the moderator of a panel discussion. Make sure that women are getting equal ‘air-time’. Several ways to do this are making sure that you are directing your questions appropriately, giving fair use of the microphone in the audience, and sometimes interrupting, ignoring, or even asking some guys to stop speaking; especially the more narcissistic ones with a love of their own voices.
  • Don’t exclude women from your groups
    • It looks really obvious when there are just groups of men standing around having ‘lad’ conversations and ‘banter’ in a locked-group format. It can be exceptionally off-putting to people from the outside to even try and engage. When having group conversations, try to make sure there is an even gender balance present. If not, consider stepping out, or making space so that others can join to even things out.
  • Don’t interrupt when women are speaking
    • Behind every great woman, is a man waiting to interrupt her. Your thoughts can wait until others have finished speaking.
  • Learn to listen, and listen properly
    • Related to the above. Do you ever find that, while someone is speaking to you, you have already prepared your response to them? That probably means you’re not listening properly, and not fully considering their viewpoints. Listening properly is a powerful skill, and can help us to be more reflective than reactive during conversations, ultimately creating a healthier dynamic.
  • Don’t make sexual remarks or about others appearance
    • We are typically evolutionarily geared to find members of the opposite sex physically attractive. While that in itself is fine, there is a time and a place for “flirting”, and conferences probably are not the best. I know so many people who met or hooked up at conferences and went on to have successful relationships or get married, and you probably do too. Indeed, I met several of my longer-term partners at formal research events in the past.
    • But still, those are best things that are kept strictly personal and away from the more public elements of conferences. This means simply refraning from making any sexual comments that others could find off-putting. It’s just not needed. While I have had a number of women make direct sexual comments about me at public events, in my experience it is my male colleagues who tend to overstep the boundaries a bit much. Keep it inside, lads.
  • If you are a senior academic in particular, keep it in your pants
    • It shames me a bit to have to say this one. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen senior male academics flirting, kissing, or even more with relatively junior female researchers in public at conferences. This just sends out oh so many wrong messages, even if you are both in a relationship together.
    • Same goes if you are married too. Seriously.
  • Don’t touch without permission
    • In my circles, my friends are very touchy. We hug, kiss, and generally show each other a lot of care and physical affection. However, this does not mean that others share those same relationship dynamics. Others might also not be comfortable watching others behave in such a way, so bear that in mind. Especially now that often it is the case, anyone can be anonymously reported by witness for touching another individual as ‘sexual harassment’, with career-destroying consequences.
    • In many cultures, hugging, kissing, and other physical contacts are considered to be cultural norms. Just be aware that these are not universal, and some might be uncomfortable or not used to that. If meeting someone for the first time, perhaps use it as an opportunity to explain how greetings work where you are from, and then from that you can decide on what is best for everyone.
  • When dancing especially, keep your hands to yourself
    • As above, lots of dancing cultures and styles involve a lot of contact, to varying degrees. When dancing in groups, especially after a few drinks, it can be too easy to make physical contact with others, especially playfully. In dance clubs in the UK (and elsewhere), it is a common site to see huge crowds gathering together and singing and embracing each other as they dance; whether or not you know the others involved. At a professional event, this can cause all sorts of problems if people are not familiar with particular habits, and again it is best to act on the side of caution. While dancing together can be a brilliant experience among friends, we have to remember that at conferences people are professional colleagues first, and friends second.
  • Speak to colleagues if you think they are behaving inappropriately
    • At the last palaeontology event I attended in the UK, I reported what I believed to be vastly inappropriate behaviour in front of many of our colleagues to a senior researcher, and was told by them to “Mind my own fucking business”. I can still remember the bits of spit that landed on my face as that was spoken. Lovely. Given the situation, I did not speak to those directly involved, as it would probably have just caused more issues at the time. On all other occasions when I have seen what I thought to be harmful behaviour, I have had a quiet word with those individuals, hugged it out, and moved on. Easy.
    • The same has happened to me couple of times in the past too, where people have taken the time to carefully explain to me something that I said that wasn’t appropriate, given me the chance to apologise and seek amends and forgiveness, and then move on. I believe that this should be the first action we all try and take, unless the circumstances are extreme.
  • If you attend with your partner, be careful about the signals you send out about them
    • At one event, I once slapped my then partner on the butt, as we were used to doing with each other a lot, and told her that she looked beautiful. Someone else mentioned to me after that, in a professional environment, this didn’t look appropriate as from the outside it looked like I was prioritising her physical appearance during the event. And perhaps not everyone knew that we were a couple. So, if you are one of those couples who is very affectionate in public, professional events are a good place to learn to keep it more under control.
  • Know your boundaries
    • At the last palaeontology event I attended (same as above), I wore a suit to one of the social events. When I arrived, virtually everyone who greeted me slapped me on the bum, because, well, I looked good, I guess. It started with one old friend of mine, and then everyone else, presumably seeing that I didn’t mind, followed suit. It was a bit weird coming from strangers, and actually ended up hurting a little bit in the end, but whatever – I was totally comfortable with it overall. My personal boundaries were not breached.
    • However, just because I have fairly low boundaries in this regard, does not mean that this behaviour or level of comfort applies to everyone else too. Most of us probably would find it deeply demeaning if strangers slapped us on the butts at conferences, and even consider it to be sexual harassment in some cases. Therefore, know what your own boundaries are, as well as others, and try to understand and empathise with how those interact with others around you. Humans are a complex social bunch, so this will obviously never be perfect and mistakes will be made. But this is how we grow and learn.
  • Stand up to bullies, if you can
    • In my experience, it is often those who are the most vocal as part of ‘academic mobs’ who are actually the worst violators, bullies, and harassers. The reason for this being that no-one has actually ever stood up to them and said that their behaviour is not okay. They are often senior, and have much more power than others. Standing up to them can be difficult, but courageous. If there are people you can speak to about bullies, and you have more than one person who can substantiate their behaviours, then it is always better to try and address the problems sooner rather than later.
    • One thing to bear in mind is that often, bullies will not think they are bullies. They might be your typical middle-upper class Oxbridge-educated type, where being an arrogant and elitist prick to others is part of the traditional education package – all part of a hostile method to eliminate your competitors. At times in the past where I have spoken privately with people like this about their bullying, it has typically been met with outright denial. So, at the moment, I don’t have any great solutions for this.
  • If you mess up, apologise
    • Similarly, if someone tells you that you messed up, don’t deny it. Don’t say sorry just to get forgiveness and closure. Make sure that you know what you did wrong, and the effect it had. Apologise sincerely. If someone is apologising to you too, try and accept it, even if it can be difficult at times. Compassion should always be in the front of our hearts and minds.
  • If you have status or a platform, use it responsibly
    • Over the last few years, my “popularity” has grown a bit. I have 17k+ Twitter followers, and give countless talks/workshops and have a number of media appearances. Most of this is focused on ‘open science’, which I generally believe is just part of creating a healthier and fairer research culture. Raising awareness of these related issues is all just part of using this status responsibly, of which I also see writing this post as part of. There are other things that we can do too, like helping to empower and provide spaces for other voices besides our own.

So, what do you think? Too much? Too little? Anything I have missed out, or think needs explaining more?

If you think that some of this is over-the-top, then it is worth bearing in mind that ‘cancel culture’, ‘academic mobbing’, and the like have descended into research quite smoothly, and now the slightest infraction of ever-changing social expectations can have devastating consequences.

Thank you to Monica Gonzalez-Marquez for indirectly encouraging me to finally write this post.

One thought on “What can men do to help make conferences healthier spaces?

  1. Hi,

    I recommend Small world by David Lodge (1984)… nothing changed really since then?!
    How academics are attending conference is already well described, and related issues also!

    From 1989 author interview (https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/interview-with-david-lodge):
    ‘The reason why I thought of using the Grail legend in Small World is a very simple one. When I started thinking about the novel, I wanted to deal with the phenomenon of global academic travel. The idea came to me at a James Joyce conference in Zurich, which in fact is one of the settings for the novel. I was getting into that international conference-going circuit myself for the first time. Indeed I went straight from Zurich to another conference in Israel. I was intrigued by the conjunction of high-level academic discussion with a certain amount of partying and tourism; by the mixture of cultures; and by the idea of people, all of whom know each other, converging from all over the world on various exotic places to talk about fairly esoteric subjects, and then flying off, only to meet each other again in another exotic venue. This is where I started: a kind of academic comedy of manners, with a global dimension. The characters would travel widely, having adventures as they went’.
    ‘This all corresponded to the modern world with its Round Table of professors: the elite group who get invited to conferences, who go around the world in pursuit of glory. Sometimes they take the opportunity to indulge in amorous intrigue, or to joust with each other in debate, pursuing glory in the sense of wanting to be at the top of their profession. There was room also for a mock heroic element that would suit my purpose. Once I realized that the Grail legend could provide the structural principle for my story, then I really felt my novel could work’.

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