Diversity is much more than just race, age, gender, learning abilities and education levels. For conferences, diversity is not only reflected by the diversity of participants involved in events, but also the accessibility of the event to all attendees and how they can benefit from it. The goal of all conferences is that everyone can participate fully. Taking diversity and inclusion (D&I) into account for conference organising is important for the success of the conference as well as growing the return rate of both participants and speakers.
It is well known that gender imbalances exist in scientific careers, with women and minority groups particularly underrepresented at senior levels. Many conference guides have covered tips for the technical organisation and logistics of a conference extensively (summarised at the end of the article). The most important factor in organising a diverse and inclusive conference is that it starts from the core. The success of any conference depends on the dynamics and diversity of the organising team. Bringing team members with different strengths to work towards the same goal. Evidence shows that a correlation exists between diverse organising committees and higher diverse representation in conference speakers (Bouvy and Mujoomdar 2019). We particularly enjoy reading the top 10 rules to host an inclusive conference by Joo et al (2022; Fig. 1) and would encourage you to read it in more detail.
Figure 1. Schematic diagram of the top 10 rules to host an inclusive conference by Joo et al (2022). The rules are organized into 3 groups: foundation (Rules 1 to 3), design (Rules 4 to 9), and continuity (Rule 10). The paper summaries these rules in detail.
In this Plantae article, we focus on some extra ideas, tips as well as untried suggestions on how to promote D & I in a conference for organisers.
- Name tags. As subtle and trivial as they seem, name tags are one of the most important ways to increase visibility of attendees and they’re the passport to building connections and opening doors. Most conferences include basic information such as the participants name, roles and affiliations. We would recommend giving participants an option to add pronouns, nationalities or country flags to help all participants reduce unconscious bias. International(-looking) participants have many times been identified by their accent, or colour of their skin, based on assumptions. Name tags could also include social media handles for ease of professional networking. Alternatively, a LinkTree QR code that summarizes links to social media handles, personal websites or any HTML link can be an option for participants to include. This allows participants to easily find relevant information of the person that they are networking with and bookmark relevant web pages if desired.
- Alternative conference activities. Diverse conference activities are just as important as diverse participants and speakers. Organizers could consider a few alternative activities such as:
- Non-academic workshops that are related to academia such as unconscious bias, mental health and cultural awareness training. This allows opportunities for those from institutions that do not organize such training, to participate.
- Invite a guest speaker from the D&I community to speak to the academic community on how they can make improvements in their workplaces
- Provide low-stakes speaking opportunities such as lightning talks or micro-sessions to underrepresented applicants as well as ECRs. This session also allows those who were not selected for a longer talk to share their research and get feedback from the diverse community.
- Organise quizzes and games during breaks. They are effective in helping people disconnect from heavy information load from lectures and connect socially in an educational way. One fun game related to inclusion and diversity could be matching technical science terms in a different language to english. This helps the community to appreciate the diversity in science language and appreciate another level of difficulty for non-native English speakers. We also highly recommend using interactive surveys and polls throughout the conference to maintain attendee engagement.
- D & I drawing board. Having a whiteboard or a big piece of paper with markers and encouraging participants to write or illustrate their perspectives on D & I. Organizers could take advantage of the diverse pool of participants that come from all over the world, from different institutions and cultures, and collate ideas, concepts, feelings, and policies related to D & I.
- Ticket price. Income is an important area of diversity that is often considered by conference organizers to set the most reasonable ticket prices without losing money. This decision is undoubtedly a real headache for conference organizers. Many conferences lack the options of daily registration fees and charge only multi-day ticket prices instead. The unavailability of daily tickets could be a huge barrier to those who could only attend part of the conference, mainly those with caretaking responsibilities, as well as those coming from countries with a weaker currency. Alternatively, organizers can improve accessibility by setting up a live streaming option. An interesting idea is for organisers to trial a pay-it-forward ticketing option for their conference to fund participants who could not afford it. They could also trial a crowdfunder in a large conference and use the money to subsidise tickets to those who need it. Alternatively, conference organisers can recruit volunteers to help with logistics on the day in exchange for free access to the conference. A potential D&I initiative that has not been widely adopted yet is for organisers to consider giving free attendance for personal assistants to attend.
- Give feedback. Sometimes, conference organisers struggle to receive diverse speaker or poster applications. One of the reasons could be that not all underrepresented applicants have opportunities to access feedback or support for their work, impacting growth and confidence. So far, most conferences send out a boring formal email announcing your application status. One suggestion for conference organisers is to provide feedback when rejecting any applications that might not seem to be a good fit for your conference. Reaching out to any applicant with feedback makes them feel like you care and appreciate their efforts, especially underrepresented groups. Giving feedback could greatly improve the chances of getting a more diverse applicant pool in the next conference that potentially has more confidence and better quality of work. Writing personalised rejection emails along with encouragement might increase chances of them reapplying them next year and spreading the word.
- Turn passive participants into active participants. The organisers can only implement so many D & I initiatives in their conference. It is also important to get all participants to be actively involved in D&I. One suggestion is to implement an optional diversity bingo icebreaker throughout the whole event to get a small prize or an online badge. Most icebreakers in conferences are compulsory and are only allocated a short period of time to complete which could be stressful. This ensures that people can opt out if they don’t want to participate for various reasons. The success of the diversity bingo is also dependent on the quality of bingo questions included as well as the follow-up question that has never been included in the bingos I’ve been in before. In addition to encouraging a participant to ask a stranger “Have you ever dropped a box of pipette tips before?”, important follow up questions are needed to continue the conversation. A simple implementation of the 5W1H (the Where, When, What, Who, Why and How) after each bingo fact can help participants, especially those who might be more introverted, to get the ball rolling. There could be diverse reasons on why one drops a full box of pipette tips amongst the participants!
- Quiet rooms or nap rooms. What are quiet rooms? Put simply, it’s a multi-purpose space that’s dedicated to noise-free activities. The REACH conference has previously provided bookable rooms for private meetings as well as quiet rooms for people to take a break from networking or ‘get away from it all’ or to even take a nap. Participants were welcoming and appreciative of quiet rooms and this is something future conference organisers can consider doing as quiet rooms can promote participants’ mental wellbeing and inclusivity. It would be interesting for organisers to trial a ‘nap room’ in their conference and get some feedback from the participants on its usefulness (if any). Napping could help improve participants’ focus in conference activities and help them get more out of it, rather than falling asleep in talks due to a drained mental battery.
In conclusion, there are plenty of conference organising guides online. We have summarised a few here for you:
About the Author:
Yen Peng (Apple) Chew is currently a 4th year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. She works on developing CRISPR gene editing technologies in green microalgae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. You can find her on Twitter at @_applechew.