So You Want To Be Inclusive

A reader is asking for guidance on creating inclusive events.  Their problem?  Not every attempt to be inclusive works.  So for those with experience, what strategies have proven reliable?  What can you do if your ideal conference line-up all decline the invitation?  What do you say if the colleague organizing this year’s colloquium series has pulled together a rather marginalizing list, despite your suggestions?  How do you translate the aspiration to be inclusive into actual inclusion?

A female colleague recently reached out to me about a lack of inclusivity in an academic setting. This got us talking about a variety of things. One thing was strategies for making conference/colloquium schedules more inclusive. I asked her for advice about this. She recommended that I reach out to you (all).

Context: We were talking about how there are a variety of ways in which even progressive departments and conferences (i.e., ones run by progressive people) fail to be inclusive. E.g., one otherwise inclusive department’s colloquium schedule does not feature any non-white non-male (etc.) speakers.

My own experience: Some of my attempts to be inclusive don’t pan out. And many of my second, third, etc. attempts don’t pan out either. In the moment, I felt like I am going out of my way to be inclusive and somehow not succeeding — I am sure there was more to it than this, as will become clear in a moment.

I am interested in brainstorming ways to be inclusive when putting together, say, conferences and colloquium schedules: anything that involves inviting scholars to participate in something, really. I have searched through this blog and gathered some ideas — I particularly enjoyed reading “I Dreamt Of An Inclusive Conference,” by the way. One idea is for conferences to be held online, eliminating some of the difficulties associated with attending a conference and thereby making it easier for people who might not otherwise be able to participate. Still, I imagine that there are all sorts of things that have not even occurred to me. (And in my more anxious moments, I worry about how I might be clueless to the fact that I am the (or part of the) problem).

Any guidance/correction/resources/etc. would be very much appreciated.

It seems to me that there are at least four separate stages worth considering:

  1. How are conference funds and organizing duties distributed within a department?  Who is making invitation decisions?  Are they responsive to criticism?
  2. If you have the opportunity to organize an event yourself, how should a desire to be inclusive affect the planning stages: the conception of the topic, the kind of event and how it will convene, the keynote selection, etc.?
  3. Once the event is in the works, how do you ensure representative participation?  Where and how do you advertise the CFA/CFP?  How are you evaluating the submissions you get?  Where and how do you announce the event to encourage outside attendance?  Should you engage in outreach?  Should some funds be reserved to facilitate attendance by those for whom attendance is difficult?
  4. As the event approaches, and as it’s underway, what should you do (and what resources should you set aside) to ensure that attendees are able to participate fully?  What instructions should chairs be given on managing the queue?  What can you do if the tenor of Q&A or discussion turns exclusive?

And a difficult question raised by the reader’s concern: what constitutes a good faith effort?  What should you do if attempts to be inclusive fail?  Can you reach a point where you’ve done all you can?

Thoughts?  Suggestions?

4 thoughts on “So You Want To Be Inclusive

  1. The last question should be answered with an affirmative Yes! Let’s all agree that sometimes best efforts do not pan out. Sometimes we can do our best, and not realize our goals. Let’s be clear on that.

    I’m a mite surprised by the first set of questions, since it seems to me that most academic conferences are not organized by departments. How wonderful if they are, though! Then distribution of efforts could actually be a thing that happens.

    I would encourage organizers of events to start planning for inclusive and diverse events well in advance, although I realize the service of planning is done as catch-can, often. Some of us have received last-minute invitations that suggest attention to diversity came after scheduling everything else, rather than before.

  2. I agree: I think “start early, rather than compensating later” is one of the most important strategies to adopt.

    As for the first stage of questions, organizing a colloquium series is often a service position within a department, so I think it makes sense to ask how such duties are distributed. Who’s responsible for gathering speaker suggestions and narrowing down that list to a workable calendar? How are they making those decisions? What is the procedure, if there is one, for criticizing the calendar once it’s announced? And yes, few conferences are organized by departments, but in cases where department funds are allocated to support conferences planned by department members, we can ask who receives those funds, and how those decisions are made. It’s important to talk about how to organize and host inclusive events. But I think we also need to ask the institutional question: who’s organizing, and how is that decided?

  3. Last year, I attended a conference in Florence, organised by the EUI there. Once there, I was pleasantly surprised at not only the quality of the papers, but also the inclusivity: about half of the speakers were women, many of the speakers were early career academics and for most speakers, English was not the first language. In addition: the days were long, but there were three long breaks in each day and there was a daycare nearby. Two of the participants were breastfeeding their babies in these breaks. Three of the four organizers were women. I asked them how they managed this. We thought these factors might play a role. Some of these were within their control, some not:

    1. There was enough funding to put all speakers in a good hotel nearby and reimburse their transport. This was explained in the CfP, along with the intention to publish conference proceedings after the event. Unsurprisingly, the CfP resulted in a high number of abstract submissions (who doesn’t want to go to Florence for free?). These abstracts were then blind reviewed, so bias couldn’t slip in as easily. This explained partly why there were so many women, and also why there were so many early career academics, and also why there were academics from economically less fortunate areas in the world. It also explained the high quality of the papers.
    2. There was no (paid) high-profile keynote speaker invited. Not sure whether that played a role, but I’ll mention it nonetheless. In any case: nobody was sorry about the fact that there wasn’t a high-profile keynote speaker. We were all the sort of people who care more about fresh, quality research than about celebrities.
    3. The conference was interdisciplinary and the topic was religion and public policy. There were political scientists, lawyers, social scientists, anthropologists, and of course political and social philosophers. Perhaps this subject area knows a larger representation of women than, say, metaphysics or logic.
    4. The conference was very accommodating towards families and other commitments. For a small extra payment, speakers could bring partner and/or children along to the hotel, there were daycare options, long breaks.
    5. In addition, the hotel and the conference venue were accessible for those with impaired mobility, and a bus transported us all to the venue and back.

    It is worth noting that at no point was there any positive selection on gender, residence, race or ability, as far as I’m aware. I’m just pointing that out because it happens often enough to me that people voice concerns that they might have to reject a good male speaker in favour of a mediocre female speaker if they want an inclusive conference. As said, I thought the average quality of the papers was much higher than at many other conferences I’ve attended.

    Another conference I attended, on philosophy and psychoanalysis (again interdisciplinary, linking philosophy with a field where women are better represented than in philosophy), also had a fair number of women speakers (both philosophers and psychoanalysts). Here, the speakers were all invited based on their published research, so there was no CfP. Again: excellent quality papers. This conference also benefited of quite some funding, plus there were nearly 200 paying attendees.

    Of course, not all conferences are backed by enough funding to do the above, but I think making a conference practically attractive and accommodating for women, early career academics and others with little means, plus a blind abstract selection procedure increases the chances of women representation and potentially other underrepresented groups too.

  4. I don’t think the problem is keynote speakers per se, but that conferences often have only white male keynote speakers. Perhaps this leads to a different set of submissions than they might otherwise receive, and then it is more difficult to select a diverse lineup of speakers even when anonymous review is used. It’s difficult to be sure if this is an important factor but it doesn’t hurt to try, either.

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