Two young female delegates at a science conference look at a touch screen display

A study reviews policies and practices to promote equality at conferences.Credit: EPNAC

Ayesha Tulloch was reluctant to go to a conservation-biology conference in Malaysia, where laws discriminate against people of specific sexual orientations. “It came as quite a shock to me that the discipline I felt was the most accepting and tolerant toward the queer community would choose to have a conference in a place that’s really not queer friendly,” says Tulloch, a conservation scientist at the University of Sydney in Australia.

She did end up going to the meeting in Kuala Lumpur last year, organized by the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), but she wondered whether the society’s processes for fostering a diverse and inclusive meeting had failed when it chose that location.

Tulloch went on to analyse policies and practices for supporting equity, diversity and inclusion around gender and sexual orientation, performing the first investigation of this kind. She looked at 30 ecology and conservation conferences held since 2009 and reported the results in Nature Ecology and Evolution1 on 3 August. Tulloch found that about half of the events had codes of conduct promoting equity, diversity and inclusion. Those conferences were more likely than others to have initiatives that discouraged overt discrimination, such as a point of contact to report misconduct and facilities for breastfeeding and childcare.

But having a code did not always lead to initiatives that reduced implicit biases and barriers to participation, says Tulloch. For instance, conferences with a code were no more likely to advertise pronoun guidelines for name badges, select diverse speakers or choose locations safe for people of all genders and sexual orientations than were events without a code. Almost 40% of the conferences were held in locations where laws and societal norms discriminate against people of specific genders or sexual orientations. And only two provided information on their websites about how they planned to ensure participants’ general safety, for example by providing shuttle buses for safe transit between venues.

Graphic highlighting that 40% of conferences were held in locations where laws and societal norms discriminate against people.

Source: Ayesha Tulloch

The analysis shows that codes of conduct have limitations, and putting a policy in place is not enough, says Lisa Kewley, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University in Canberra, who advocates for diversity at astronomy conferences. “A lot of attention is being paid to having codes of conduct, but organizers are not going the full way towards having comprehensively inclusive conferences,” she says.

Rationale for the code

Tulloch analysed the three most recent events for each of ten major ecology and conservation conferences, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress, which takes place every four years. She examined conference websites and interviewed organizers about their codes of conduct, and reviewed 23 types of initiative that conferences used to reduce gender and sexual orientation discrimination, remove barriers to entry and promote inclusion.

The presence of a code was linked to some initiatives — 9 out of the 23 — but not others, according to Tulloch’s analysis. For instance, conferences with more female speakers did not necessarily have a code of conduct.

“Diversity initiatives are not being done in a strategic way,” says Tulloch. A key issue that she identified was a failure to collect relevant information about participants and evaluate which initiatives had an effect on diversity.

But others say the analysis assumes that codes of conduct are supposed to promote diversity and inclusion, which is not necessarily their intended purpose. Codes are designed to protect against harassment and to clarify which behaviours will not be tolerated at a meeting, says Robyn Klein, a neuroimmunologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. They are not meant to have any bearing on whether a meeting has a diverse group of speakers or participants have access to childcare, she says.

Klein and other researchers have shown2 that to improve gender diversity and equity, conferences need diverse representation in the organizing committee, a parameter that Tulloch’s analysis did not look at.

Leslie Cornick, a conservation ecologist at the University of Washington Bothell, who was chair of the 2019 SCB congress in Malaysia, agrees that codes of conduct are not necessarily intended to foster diversity, equity and inclusion, but says their role is broader than just policing behaviour. “They are a statement of our values,” she says.

But Tulloch says that codes are in place to address identity-based discrimination, which includes ensuring that participants have equal access and that the conference includes a diverse range of speakers. “The idea that a code is only there to prevent overt misconduct is outdated and incorrect,” she says.

Conference locations

Cornick notes that when choosing conference locations, organizers have to consider all members, including those who cannot afford to travel long distances and those who have limited opportunities to share their work. “There is always going to be a subset of our constituency who is disadvantaged from attending no matter where we hold it, and that is why it rotates around the world,” says Cornick, who says she had no part in deciding the location of the 2019 meeting in Malaysia; this decision was made by the SCB’s board of governors.

Nathan Spillman, director of communications and membership at the SCB, says the society issued a statement ahead of its marine conference in Kuching in 2018, which explains its decision to host conferences in Malaysia. The SCB chooses locations that are accessible and welcoming to as many delegates as possible, considering the cost of attendance, likelihood of successful visa applications and local legislation and culture, according to the statement. The society recognized, however, that a conference in Malaysia would be difficult for LGBT+ participants to attend, and provided travel advice prepared by a local non-governmental organization, and offered to provide ways to attend from afar.

Tulloch agrees that there might never be a perfect location, but says some are worse than others. And if a substantial number of members might not feel safe attending, she says, organizers should consider holding conferences online.

The coronavirus outbreak has made this a reality for many meetings. “The pandemic does offer some silver lining with accessibility to conferences,” says Kim-Vy Tran, an astrophysicist at the University of New South Wales Sydney, who is based in Seattle, Washington. Tran has developed guidelines for holding diverse and inclusive conferences. She thinks that even when international travel resumes, there will be a push to enable participants to join conferences remotely.