Think you’re alone here (at an academic conference)? You might be right.

If you are a woman, a minoritized person, or, in particular, a woman of color, you might have attended an academic conference and thought ‘wow, I feel really out of place here’. It is not an uncommon experience to attend a conference and feel awkward and out of place. This feeling of ‘being out of place’ and its racialized and gendered context motivated my co-authors and I to study the demographics and behaviours of conference participants, presenters and audience members at a 2017 geophysical conference held at UBC. The resultant paper was published yesterday in FACETS Journal, and you can read it here.

The paper first examines basic demographics of attendees, presenters, and audience participants, broken down by disciplinary sub-section. Results show that women and people of color are unevenly distributed throughout Canadian geoscience, illuminating where gains in diversity have been made and where further effort can be usefully targeted. A quarter of all conference sessions had no female presenters, and a quarter had no people of color presenting. Further, women are over-represented as poster presenters rather than oral presenters in a way that cannot be explained by a higher percentage of students who are women, suggesting that women either ask for more poster slots or are disproportionately assigned to them.

Second, the paper analyses the division of scientific labour in Canadian geoscience in terms of how women and people of color participate in geoscientific research. We found that the division of labour within each subdiscipline is unequally distributed along gender and race lines, and we call attention to areas where efforts to diversify the geosciences might be concentrated.

Finally, we found evidence of a ‘chilly climate’ in conference sessions that correlated with an absence of women within those research fields. Behaviours that contribute to this climate include the use of gendered language and jokes, less adherence to time keeping and aggressive questioning styles. Collectively, we argue that these behaviours create a sense of who ‘belongs’ in these spaces and who does not. We also found that presenters of color experience significantly more audience disturbance than do white presenters.

Unfortunately, conferences are just one of the spaces in which the effects of identity and belonging affect a person’s experience within the institution of science. Efforts to address diversity in science have often focused on practical and tangible issues such as access to childcare, harassment and mentorship.  Addressing these barriers to equality is essential, but fails to deal with the multitude of small, cumulative cues about belonging that influence a person’s ability, interest, and opportunities for success within science. We hope that this paper can provide an opportunity for reflection and discussion on these experiences at conferences as well as in science more broadly.

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