Gender equality at conferences. Does it exist? 

Waiting in the airport lounge after a tiring week of networking, talks and discussions, I sit here counting down the minutes until my flight leaves…and the the inevitable DELAYED pops up on the screen..

wp-1498839403117It does however give me time to sit here and think Will I ever go to a conference and be treated equally?

For the majority of this conference I was treated fairly and from what I could tell, listened to as an equal. But it is always the isolated incidents that stick in your memory and make you think Are these really isolated incidences? How much longer will I have to put up with this? How long will it be before women in science is not a topic of controversial discussion? 

The first incident happened when I attended an industrial talk on a topic I did for my PhD. I sat there eagerly, looking forward to hearing about the companies technological advancements. However I soon felt out of place and uncomfortable when the speaker started comparing machines to “girls”:

We name the machines after girls here… You should treat your machines well like you treat your girls and be nice to them. Then they will work.

I’m not quite sure if I was more offended by the use of the word “girl” instead of “woman” but nonetheless my exasperated look and loud exhale of breath said it all. The speaker’s colleague sat next to me however decided this was highly ammusing and started laughing, as did many of the audience… Mostly who happened to be male. I have never felt so out of place and unwelcome, so I got up and left. The biggest shame, aside from the acceptance and encouragement of misogyny, was that the science might have been useful.

The second incident happened at the tradeshow. I overheard a discussion between a male colleague (you might not think it important to discuss the sex of the person, but later all will be clear) and a company man who worked in industry. My ears pricked up as I heard him ask about the science that I currently work on and I thought it would be useful to join in. Myself and a second male colleague walked over. I joined the conversation and said that I had heard him talking about this topic. Before I could follow up with anything useful, he cut me off and said he is late for his flight and has to leave. But rather than leaving, he promptly started a new conversation with my two male colleagues in front of me. This continued for 5 minutes. I then attempted to enter the conversation for a second time and guess what happened? He suddenly remebered he had to leave again. This was then followed with a him giving my male colleagues a hand shake each and then, to my surprise, he acknowledged my existence, shook my hand, but then… leaned in and kissed me on the cheek! What had just happened?! Was he my long lost Uncle or family relavtive, the only men that kiss me on the cheek? Or was this some weird kind of power play? Or was he just oblivious of his inappropriate behaviour?  Whatever it was, it left me feeling embarrassed, undermined and angry.

Things like these two incidents, and in my experience, much more blatent sexual harrasment, happen in conferences all over the world. How many women have left science because of incidents like these? To me, these seemed like reminders that science is still controlled by men and some don’t want that to change.

Whilst some responsibility lies with the individual, I also believe the conference organising committees have a duty to address gender equality; whether this be through ensuring all-male panels are a thing of the past or more actively including seminars, celebrating women in science or discussing gender equality.

Let’s bring the topic of gender equality at conferences out of the shadows and into the light. Lets take the weight off the women’s shoulders who experience such inequality and move to a time where equality at conferences is a loud conversation had by all.

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3 thoughts on “Gender equality at conferences. Does it exist? 

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  1. I feel your pain. This kind of thing is so frustrating and demoralising.

    My male boss sometimes jokingly refers to me as his ‘glamorous assistant’. It is done in jest but he obviously wouldn’t say it if I was male.

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  2. The simple fact that on many places there’s even the question about this subject. I mean from wondering how “real” problem this is to minimizing people experiences. We have to acknowledge this as a reality and take action. Perhaps not consciously but the reality is that we’ve reached this point by taking biased actions, and we must take proper action to change this.

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