Columns, Opinions

Meszaros GS: Increase protection for conference attendees

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, January 23, 2019

In the past few weeks, disturbing tales of sexist and racist harassment at academic conferences have been making headlines. Women scholars have been belittled at the American Historical Association annual meeting, and black scholars have been asked to prove that they belong at the joint meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies. As a result of this, many scholars have written responses to these attacks while some victims of harassment have chosen to leave social media and still other groups have decided not to return to the conferences altogether. Given the prevalence of harassment that historically marginalized attendees face at such gatherings, organizing bodies can and must do more to protect and empower these participants.

As integral parts of academia, conferences should be safe spaces for attendees, and hosting organizations must work to prevent harassment. Adopting a clear anti-harassment policy is one method to work toward this goal. Such a policy should outline specific behaviors that are prohibited but, more importantly, should define procedures for reporting behavior and holding attendees accountable. Moreover, it should be easy to find these anti-harassment policies — they should be advertised widely and freely to ensure that participants know what to do in the event of any incidents. As students attending such conferences, we should demand that hosting organizations adopt and publicize anti-harassment policies. As members of a university that hosts conferences, we need to require similar policies for organizations that host events in our space.

Conferences are often incredibly fun and productive. They provide environments to meet new people, learn new topics and explore new ideas. They help us to hone skills in crafting arguments, public speaking and perfectly illustrating arguments through internet memes. Feedback from conference presentations helps to further refine ideas and often leads to publications or other research opportunities. Conferences, then, can be excellent places to inspire students and academics. Additionally, conferences can provide platforms for voices that are traditionally marginalized in academia, centering ideas and empowering researchers that academia has often left behind.

But conferences are not always so intellectually pure or successful. The institutionalized role that such gatherings play in academia has created a number of issues. Presenting at conferences is as much a part of establishing academic credentials as publishing and may even be preferable in some fast-paced fields that rely on quick turnaround and rapid improvements. As such, students are expected to attend to build up their resume and engage in active conversations within their field of research. In addition, large academic conferences provide the perfect setting for job interviews and professional recruitment because employers assume that qualified applicants will attend these conferences. To further a career in academia, and often with the government and private companies, attending these meetings is of paramount importance.

Conferences have shown themselves to be breeding grounds for harassment, as the incidents at the annual conferences of the AIA and SCS and AHA in the past few weeks have demonstrated. Participants, especially women and people of color, experienced harassment at these events that the field and job market require them to attend. They were belittled and talked down to by their colleagues and  had the validity of their participation questioned. In these situations, conferences have worked not to provide platforms for marginalized voices but to actively silence them. While there’s something to be said for reconsidering the role that conferences play in academia, our immediate priority should be making conferences safe for historically marginalized participants.

To confront this issue, we have to ensure that conferences have anti-harassment policies that are both broadly publicized and actively enforced. Ramifications for harassing behavior as well as the process for reporting such behavior should be outlined clearly. Universities like Brown that host numerous conferences both large and small should consider establishing an anti-harassment policy as a prerequisite for use of space and materials. For instance, the University Event and Conference Services website outlines the steps for planning an event and exhorts the planner to “Make Your Event Safe & Accessible.” Yet the instructions for ensuring safety nowhere specify the need to establish and enforce an anti-harassment policy. Under “University Policies,” the site lists event disruption protocols and restates the University’s Diversity and Inclusion stance, but once again fails to describe a policy specifically against harassment.

I don’t think that the University Event and Conference Services are responsible for the actions of participants at conferences that they support, nor do I think that anti-harassment policies will protect everyone from the vitriol of ill-informed or mean-spirited attendees. I do, however, think that they can require groups to adopt anti-harassment policies that can help protect these participants, working to empower and uplift marginalized voices. If a small change like requiring anti-harassment policies can provide even a modicum of protection for conference attendees, we need to exhort our community to make it happen.

E.L. Meszaros GS can be reached at e.l.meszaros@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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