The Academic Conference: a meeting of great minds; a forum for debating the newest ideas, for revealing incredible discoveries, and for challenging hardened dogma. We laugh about the quirks of our conferences, the one guy who always has a “comment, rather than a question”, or the awkward standing dance the session chair does when someone has overrun their time. Phil Baty, of Times Higher Education, recently tweeted a light-hearted request “Ok, what’s the most terrible behaviour you have witnessed at an academic conference?” and received an unexpected reaction. What happened on conference refused to stay on conference, as women described the sexual misconduct they had suffered and endured at conferences. For them, their biggest worry wasn’t whether the coffee break was condensed, it was whether they would be followed back to their hotel room.
Conferences provide an environment where people feel a little freer of their normal responsibilities at the same time as reducing the protections usually in place. They are often in an unusual location, away from families and friends, away from teaching and chores, and near a bar. Professional boundaries which can be loose at best in academic departments can disappear entirely over a conference dinner, hiding the inherent power imbalances and exposing vulnerable early career researchers to behaviour which for many reasons may not take place in departmental environments. The behaviour described in the tweets does not only happen at conferences, as our research for The 1752 Group has shown (see Silencing Students and Power in the Academy). Sexual misconduct in higher education in general is prevalent, but conferences provide a singular environment where sexual misconduct can not only occur more easily, but also go undetected and unpunished more easily too.
When an incident of sexual misconduct occurs on campus, there is normally a pathway by which you can complain, whether to a union or the institution itself. Of course, these processes are often not fit for purpose, but that’s another blog post. In conferences, there is often no clear pathway. Do you complain to the institution that is affiliated with the organisers, the institution hosting the conference, or the institution that employs the perpetrator? Maybe the conference organisers themselves? And as conference organisers, receiving a complaint of sexual misconduct brings these questions into sharp focus as they seek to find out whether they have the authority to escort someone off the premises, or lay a formal complaint.
The annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) found themselves in just such a situation in April 2019, with Michael Balter, a freelance journalist, resorting to personally escorting an individual off site. The social media confusion and anger of the victims during and after the event shows what can happen when an organising framework “has not done the groundwork of having contingency plans for just such an occasion,” as Katie Hinde, an anthropologist at Arizona State University in Tempe explained.
Perpetrators of sexual misconduct are not shy in throwing about legal threats relating to defamation and discrimination, which when directed at the nuclear physicist, the zoologist or the sociologist who had the misfortune of sitting on the organising committee, can result in even the most well-meaning of individuals quickly backing off. The MeToo movement has resulted in a rising number of confident activists and academics calling for change who are no longer shy about standing up for victims of sexual misconduct. There is power in numbers, and huge power in the Me Too movement more widely, but when faced with the reality of a person harassing you or a colleague, there is often no army there to help. Even the most dedicated ally can pause when faced with threats of retaliation or legal damages. The fact that these threats may be groundless is beside the point, that pause is enough for victims to feel betrayed and the perpetrator galvanised. It is not right. But it is, perhaps, understandable.
So what can we do to prevent conferences becoming a lawless environment where sexual misconduct can occur without consequence to the perpetrator? Now, the important bit, so important I’m going to make it really big and surround it with a pretty pattern.
This does not mean you can discriminate against protected characteristics; this is never your right. What it does mean is you can deny someone registration on the basis that their abstract wasn’t interesting enough, that they are too junior for the workshop, or that they have a history of sexually assaulting women.
As with most areas of sexual misconduct, prevention is the best policy. It is much easier to deny someone entry in advance, than eject them in person on the day. We recommend setting up a code of conduct which is available as soon as the conference is advertised, and that must be tick box acknowledged at the point of registration, ensuring all participants are bound to this behaviour. This sets a tone for the conference and makes it clear that those contravening the policy are not welcome. This does little to deter particular individuals, but it does everything to make participants understand acceptable behaviour, recognise violations to the code of conduct (whether as bystanders or by experiencing them) and hopefully for anyone who has experience sexual misconduct (and other violating and discriminatory behaviours) to feel like they can speak up. A code of conduct should have a clear pathway for raising concerns and conference organisers should have a procedure in place to deal with this. These codes of conduct have become standard in the astronomy community since the mini-metoo #astrosh revolution of 2015 and examples are listed at the end of this article.
Registration should be treated as a registration of interest, not as an automatic right to attend. The registration form for the .Astronomy 2019 conference has an excellent way of preventing harassers from attending (see image below). They state that registration is an application only and you will be issued a formal invite if successful. Simple, easy, effective.
Critical to creating spaces where everyone can participate is a change to current practices: Rather than having on the day registration, close your registration a week before the conference actually starts and publish an attendance list on the website if possible. This means that the organisers can be alerted to possible harassers in advance and, crucially, have the time to enact fair safeguarding procedures. This will involve acquiring evidence, from individuals possibly, but preferably institutions, in order to minimise retraumatising victims. This can take the form of seeking references from the individual’s HR department asking whether they were currently being investigated or had an upheld allegation against them. Along with a blanket policy of not allowing these people in, this can form an effective barrier in theory. Acquiring evidence is unfortunately not necessarily an easy task as universities are often reticent to reveal outcomes even of upheld cases, and that’s assuming a process has even been fairly carried to conclusion. Many perpetrators don’t have a record of sexual misconduct because of the culture of under-reporting and informal resolution of complaints and, for example, may only perpetrate at conferences, leaving organisers with no paper trail with which to aid a decision. All of these complications mean that preventing harassers from attending in the first place is paramount.
Sexual misconduct policy in higher education is a broken machine. Bit by bit we are replacing the cogs: zero tolerance commitments, codes of conduct, and active bystander training are all emerging at individual universities. The trouble with addressing sexual misconduct at an academic conference is that it depends on too many other cogs. It requires that institutions don’t employ or fund sexual harassers to go to a conference. It requires that funding agencies don’t fund someone who has sexually assaulted a student or staff member (or anyone else). It requires that when an organising committee request evidence of a disciplinary process outcome, universities are forthcoming. None of these cogs are in place. Still, universities refuse to acknowledge disciplinary outcomes, leaving the burden on survivors to speak out about their experience, and the risk on the organiser for ejecting someone. Without that evidence organisers may not have the confidence or evidence to act, no matter how much bystander training they have had. We can talk about how best to prevent a harasser from attending and strengthen allies into feeling they can ignore legal threats and call security, but really we need to stop the academic staff who commit sexual misconduct, who are allowed to continue in part due to institutional enabling of their behaviour. Until we solve that, what happens at conference will stay at conference… except for the survivors, for whom the impact may stay with them for the rest of their life.
Example Codes of Conduct
Thank you to Kate Devlin, REACH, Sara Custer, Cara Gibson, and Andrew Pontzen for pointing us to the above resources via. Twitter and private communication.
Note that this blog is an opinion piece and does not constitute legal advice.
Dr Emma Chapman
23rd May 2019
updated 4/6/19 to include reference to .Astronomy conference