Kelly J. Baker

Editor at Women in Higher Education

Should Academic Conferences Have Codes of Conduct?

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Image: Traffic squad police, 1911 (Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

About three years ago, I was on multiple panels at a major joint conference in my field. In the first panel, an argument broke out among male audience members about the significance of gender in the presented papers. The conversation took an unpleasant turn when one dude suggested that the gender of panelists mattered, too. This would be more obvious, he stated, if female panelists “presented papers in their underwear.” Awkward silence reigned as the audience tried to figure out how to respond. I quipped to my fellow panelists that, while I usually presented in my underwear, this panel was an exception. Some laughed nervously. The chair looked frightened as he attempted to direct our attention to another paper.

Still bothered by the exchange, I hoped my second panel would be uneventful. My paper went well, but the Q&A session did not. Another male audience member gestured to me and asked how “someone who looks like you” could study the topics that I did. Humor again became my defense. When the panel finished, I resisted the urge to bolt. Instead, I chatted with fellow panelists and even the offending audience member who had more thoughts to offer. As soon as I could, I fled the convention center to get physically as far away as I could. Writing about this years later unsettles my stomach.

Sadly, those experiences were not entirely new to me (or to my fellow attendees). I’m a woman scholar in a field that still skews toward men. I’ve encountered comments about my appearance (from benign to hostile to overtly sexual); dismissals of the merit of my work because of my appearance; utter disbelief that I’m actually the Kelly Baker who wrote the article/book they read and cited (yes, I am, I promise); and snarky, snide remarks about being a mother. At one smaller conference, a male senior scholar stood up at my panel and told me to “doll up in Klan robes,” so that I could write better scholarship on the Klan and white supremacy. I ignored his suggestion.

Those were not isolated incidents nor does that behavior happen at only conferences in religious studies.

Academic conferences, unfortunately, can become hostile environments for female, minority, and differently abled scholars. Academia is still a space that privileges white, male, cis, and able bodies. Writing about conferences in medieval studies, Dorothy Kim explains, “An increase in non-normative bodies in a traditionally white, cisgendered, male field comes with an increase in abuse.” Microaggressions, harassment, stalking, threats, and physical abuse occur “to put the divergent body in its place.” Her insights, however, can be applied widely to academic conferences in other fields, too. Kim suggests that one way to prevent abuse at conferences is for organizers to create and adopt a Code of Conduct.

Ashe Dryden, an activist and educator on diversity issues in technology, defines such codes as “a public statement that sets the ground rules for participating in an event.” (Here’s a template of an anti-harassment policy at the Geek Feminism Wiki.) Increasingly, organizers of tech and sci-fi/fantasy events are employing conduct codes to explain behavioral expectations for attendees — partially in reaction to harassment at these meetings, but also in an attempt to define a culture of mutual respect.The codes define harassment and other inappropriate behaviors, set ground rules, explain the consequences of misconduct, and set up a system to make it easy to report violations.

While hundreds of tech conferences, cons, meetups, and groups have adopted conduct codes, academic organizations and learned societies tend to have standards on professional conduct and codes of ethics but not guidelines that govern behavior at conferences. For example, the American Academy of Religion has a policy on sexual harassment and a complicated grievance procedure, but not a general anti-harassment statement for the annual meeting.

Academic conferences, then, should start adopting conduct codes for their annual and regional meetings. Conference goers need clear guidelines about how they should act, how to report incidents and abuse, and what action the organizers will take regarding misconduct. Everyone should feel safe at conferences. Safety should be a priority of our professional associations, not an afterthought.

I wish learned societies would follow the example of the American Library Association (ALA). In 2014, it published a statement of appropriate conduct for its conferences, emphasizing the need for an “environment of mutual human respect” and the shared responsibility of attendees to make sure that happens. The goal of the policy is to provide a conference free of harassment for all attendees “regardless of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, physical appearance, ethnicity, religion or other group identity.” The document lists prohibited behaviors, explains that all participants must observe the rules, and expects that participants comply when asked to stop the harassing or hostile behavior. The document further gives information on whom to contact to report misconduct, and what to do in case of emergency. Acceptable and unacceptable conduct is clearly demarcated for all attendees to see.

Librarian Andromeda Yelton writes that the statement was not just “a mechanism for addressing disputes,” but a “declaration of values: It signals to everyone who we are.” The ALA wants its meetings to be safe spaces for all members. Harassment, Yelton notes, becomes “more visible by naming it.”

Conduct codes would be a move in the right direction. We must identify harassment to combat it. Yet we also need to make sure that these documents are clear and enforceable. Just posting a code on a website and encouraging attendees to read it is not enough.

Maggie Zhou, Alex Clemmer, and Lindsey Kupper argue that “a code of conduct is not a replacement for culture.” We also have to take a hard look at how we treat one another.

I still attend my annual disciplinary conference. I skip the big receptions for members, so I don’t get hit on. I dread the Q&A at every panel, in which I present. Would a code of conduct make me feel better about attending? Maybe. I would know that the conference organizers cared about my well-being enough to call out bad behavior. At least, I would feel like someone had my back.

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