Oxford University has published a practical guide to organising conferences and events that welcome a diversity of participants. Claire Hann, Equality & Diversity Officer in the university’s geography department, shares the recommendations and explains how they have been successfully put into practice.

Think back to the last conference you attended. Who were the speakers? Who asked most of the questions? Who was in the thick of the conversation during the networking sessions? Chances are, the answers will be senior white men. Promoting equality and inclusion is something that public bodies and professional organisations increasingly aspire to, yet many conferences are still not representative of people working in the field.

A recently published guide to developing inclusive conferences aims to pave the way for change. Written by Claire Hann and Alice Chautard from the School of Geography and the Environment at Oxford University, the guide provides practical suggestions for making conferences and events more inclusive - not only in terms of the diversity of speakers, but also the ways in which participants are welcomed, respected and involved. The guide draws on best practice from conferences around the world, as well as the authors’ own survey of more than 230 people working in higher education and the wider public and private sectors.

Almost 85% of survey respondents agreed that it is important for conferences to have policies in place to promote greater diversity amongst panel members and other speakers. However, less than one third of respondents (32%) felt that conferences they had attended had been organised in a way that promoted women’s participation and exposure.

Why develop an inclusive conference?

Speaking at a conference can raise people’s profile considerably. Providing women and members of other under-represented groups with this visibility and exposure demonstrates the value of their contribution to your sector and helps to support their career progression. Secondly, conferences provide excellent opportunities to foster new connections, ideas or collaborative projects, through networking.

Consistently inviting the same people to speak risks limiting the types of collaborations and innovations that are generated. Thirdly, it is important that professionals in the early stages of their career see a diversity of speakers when they attend a conference. People who have succeeded regardless of their gender, ethnicity, sexuality or disability can be important role models for the next generation of professionals.

Pre-event logistics

Accommodating a diversity of attendees needs to be built into the conference planning from the outset. Facilities at the venue can make a big difference. As well as the more obvious considerations like making sure there is disabled access, it is useful to consider providing gender neutral toilets; small additional rooms for prayer, feeding babies, or taking a break from networking; and facilities for live-streaming or recording the conference for those who can’t attend on the day.

Putting some thought into the timing of the conference is worthwhile too, particularly if you wish to appeal to people with caring responsibilities or who need care themselves. The guide recommends avoiding key religious or national holidays, as well as school holidays when childcare and travel can be prohibitively expensive. Being flexible over the conference timetable is helpful too - for instance, scheduling networking sessions at different times of the day (not just in the evening) or offering reduced priced tickets for people who can only attend part of the conference.

Catering for a variety of dietary needs is becoming more commonplace, but it is also worth ensuring that not all social activities at the conference are alcohol or bar-centred. As well as collecting information on dietary requirements when delegates register, it’s helpful to ask participants to specify any other needs, such as learning or physical disabilities, or care needs, so that you can make provision for these at the event.

A diversity of speakers

Women and people from minority groups are less likely to be chosen as speakers in high-level roles (such as keynote speakers, discussants, or opening panels). In recent years there has been a move away from all-male panels, or ‘manels’, with many men committing to turning down invitations to speak if there are no women on the panel. However, it’s important not simply to give women and minority groups the opportunity to speak at a conference, but to ensure that they have equal status and visibility.

As one female respondent in the inclusive conferences survey explained: 'I am a confident person and... have a lot of experience, and yet I find that less expert male panellists are being given more air time, and their contributions more often go unchallenged.' So how can you avoid selecting the ‘usual suspects’ to speak at your conference? Having a diverse group of organisers makes a real difference. A study in the US showed that symposia organised by women (or women and men) had twice the number of women speakers and poster presenters than symposia organised by men.

It is worth taking time to broaden your search for potential speakers from under-represented groups. In some sectors there are databases and other online lists of women professionals working in the field, which can help. Caring responsibilities can be a real barrier to participation at a conference, particularly for women, so offering bursaries to cover care costs, providing childcare facilities at the conference, and giving plenty of notice of the conference date and time can help address this.

Finally, if you are putting out a general ‘call for papers’ rather than personally inviting speakers, consider encouraging collaborative submissions, anonymising submissions to reduce the influence of implicit bias, and ensuring that the tone and language of the call for papers are welcoming to women.

Inclusive participation

Putting together a diverse speaker line-up is important but not sufficient to ensure an event is inclusive. All conference delegates should be able to participate fully in the event, whether through Q&A or discussion sessions, or more informal networking opportunities. 

Research shows that men are more likely to ask a question at a conference; however this changes if the first question is asked by a woman. Taking questions from a diversity of people helps to create an environment where everyone feels encouraged to participate. Providing a means to raise questions without raising your hand - such as through an app like Slido or via Twitter - can also be very effective.

Networking can be a source of anxiety for some conference participants. As one female survey respondent said, 'I am a leading professor in my field and I still feel intimidated [by networking].' The guide suggests trying more structured formats for networking, including making this part of a poster session, or allocating a specific theme for networking.

Allowing people to pre-arrange networking meetings with other delegates or asking more established professionals to act as ‘buddies’ for more junior colleagues and facilitate introductions can also work well.

Communicating diversity and inclusivity

Creating a clear statement about the conference’s efforts towards equality and diversity, to use on your website and when opening the conference, should set the tone for an inclusive event. Using images of a diversity of people in all conference materials in print and online is also important. More specifically, it’s good practice to ensure that all signage and presentation slides can be easily read by people with visual impairments or dyslexia.

Putting recommendations into practice

The idea for the inclusive conferences guide arose whilst planning a major international conference on water security and poverty, held in Oxford in March 2019. Many of the recommendations from the guide were successfully put into practice at that event, which was described by several delegates as the most inclusive they had ever been to.

Half the speakers were women, half were from a Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) background and one third were early career researchers. All session chairs were asked to take a question from a woman or early career researcher first, which visibly changed the dynamic of the Q&A sessions, allowing a wider variety of views to be expressed in an open and receptive setting.

The new guide demonstrates that it is possible and desirable to organise conferences that are both high quality and inclusive. In future, the measure of a successful conference should be not only that it has provided a showcase for cutting-edge work and sparked productive collaborations, but that it has promoted diversity of attendance and inclusivity of participation.