Researchers find current academic conference codes don’t prevent sexual misconduct, discrimination


Source: Northwestern Now

Researchers found academic conferences lack codes of conduct that prevent sexual misconduct and discrimination.

Marissa Martinez, Summer Editor

Over the course of their careers, many students and professors attend academic conferences, which can be spaces for networking, research and speaker panels.

However, after examining almost 200 biology conferences in the United States and Canada, researchers discovered a majority don’t have a code of conduct, and half of those that do fail to mention sexual misconduct. Many do not give steps for reporting misconduct that occurs during such a conference nor list any consequences.

The lack of such guidelines can lead to discrimination against members of marginalized groups, including people of color and women.

Northwestern Ph.D. student Alicia Foxx said the team did not find a single conference that met all their criteria — mentions of identity-based discrimination, sexual misconduct, how to report a violation and consequences for violators.

“Conferences tend to be a strange hot spot of misconduct because attendees are away from their home institutions in an informal setting,” Foxx, the first author of the study, told Northwestern Now. “Codes of conduct are really important for guiding behaviors. It sets a standard for how everyone should act in certain situations.”

While they can be sources of community and information, academic conferences can also promote power inequities that especially harm marginalized groups, according to the study’s abstract.

All six authors of the paper said they have experienced inappropriate behavior at similar conferences.

This type of mistreatment at conferences often leads to members of marginalized groups not attending at all, or even leaving their field of study. Foxx said there are stories of women feeling physically threatened or unsafe to avoid attackers while at conferences.

“Someone might not want to go back to a conference because they had a horrific experience that makes them uncomfortable,” Taran Lichtenberger, co-author of the paper, told Northwestern Now. “That hurts their career because they miss out on networking and presenting their work.”

Codes of conduct don’t work unless they follow a set of criteria, researchers concluded, and must have a good system for reporting negative experiences. Some of the sampled conferences asked attendees to report misconduct to the CEO or hosting body of the event, but imbalanced power dynamics and host bias don’t always make that possible.

They recommended that conduct codes should: be accessible to read, center marginalized groups, provide an anonymous reporting channel, provide protection against retaliation and use surveys to improve the conference, among other suggestions.

The study, a collaboration with the Chicago Botanic Garden, was published earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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