Most of the academic conferences that I attend take place during the summer months from May to August. This means that many people are hard at work during the upcoming months putting together conference programmes. Having organized a conference myself I know how much work this requires and I have the utmost respect for these volunteers who work tirelessly so that we can have a valuable experience. This task includes organizing events that are research related such as symposia, keynotes, plenary sessions, etc. It also involves organizing events that are more social in nature that allow for networking and the development of new acquaintances and the renewal of long-standing friendships. My overall experiences at conferences have been mostly positive, but over the years I have witnessed or been privy to inappropriate and unprofessional behaviours and when these occur they diminish my enjoyment of meetings. In the past I was often silent about these incidents as there were large power differentials at play and I felt I was at a vulnerable stage of my academic career. Now when I see these things happen I point them out. In some cases this involves challenging the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours of colleagues and in other cases it involves speaking directly to organizing committee members or society representatives in order to effect changes that remove systemic bias. I have been attending academic conferences since 1998 and present my biggest pet-peeves below. Wherever possible I offer solutions to these challenges.
1) Our goal should be to have a professional conference. Knowing that people sometimes act unprofessionally despite this fact, a written, clear, code of conduct and repercussions for unprofessional conduct should be generated, made widely available, and enforced. This includes mechanisms for the safe reporting of unprofessional conduct and transparency of these processes and the outcomes. Conferences should have a zero tolerance policy for harassing, threatening, or disruptive behaviour. This provides a means of addressing overly aggressive questioners/hecklers to addressing incidents of sexual harassment and ensures that conferences are safe spaces for everyone.
2) Child-care, elder-care, and accompanying persons should not be an afterthought or receive only lip service. People have complex lives; do the best that you can to recognize and accommodate this fact. At the very least, do not put up additional barriers that have to be overcome in order for scientists to attend and fully participate. For example, does your venue have a lactation room? If you have ever had to breastfeed your child or pump milk in a filthy toilet stall you will understand why this is important.
3) When picking your venues for events, please think about safety and accessibility. Are you forcing people to choose between networking and personal safety? I especially dread the late night walks in unfamiliar surroundings from the pub back to the hotel that seem to be a staple of academic conferences. Can everyone fully participate in all of your events if they wanted to? Are you using older buildings that lack ramps or elevators? That networking session in the loud bar is a nightmare for anyone who has a hearing impairment. Does your venue have gender-neutral washrooms or washrooms that can accommodate those who require assistance from an attendant? Are your food and beverage options meeting the dietary needs of your participants?
4) Ask yourself if the speakers/presenters at your conference are reflective of the diversity of your profession and professional society. If they aren’t then you need to try harder. You’re a scientist; use your creative problem solving abilities to fix it.
5) Are your registration and accommodation costs reasonable and varied? Can you offer discounts in exchange for volunteering? Please make an effort to remove financial barriers to attendance. This is especially important for student and post-doc participation.
6) Do you have any hazing rituals that are disguised as “hallowed traditions”? Perhaps it’s well past time to rethink those and end them.