Not Just the “Old Boys Club”: Cater to the Content Needs of a Diverse Audience for Your Virtual Academic Conference
Traditional, in-person academic conferences have been criticized for catering primarily to established white males from privileged Western universities, that is, the “old boys club.” For example, Stanford University attracted flak for organizing a conference featuring 30 white men and just one woman. Conferences, being an avenue for networking among academics, implicitly affect an individual researcher’s chances of being cited and recognized in their field. However, researcher participation in such conferences is contingent on being physically capable of travelling, having sufficient funding for travel and accommodation, having adequate childcare support, etc. Thus, attendance is difficult for women, disabled people, early career researchers, and researchers from low- and middle-income countries. Virtual conferences are one way of reducing many of the barriers posed by in-person conferences, especially travel costs. To make virtual conferences even more accessible to less-privileged groups, organizers can look at making the conference content more inclusive. Here are some ways:
1. Video recordings of events
If an event is solely livestreamed, it is accessible mostly to those in the right time zone, with good Internet connectivity, or with highly flexible schedules. Posting video recordings after the livestreamed event increases access for people in other time zones and countries, those who can’t afford time off during the workday to attend the event, those caring for young children during the day, etc.
2. Pre-recorded speeches
Lack of diversity in panels has been an ongoing concern. In-person conferences are often marked by “manels”: panels with heavy male representation. Having speeches pre-recorded, rather than livestreamed, opens up opportunities on panels for researchers around the world, especially those with poor Internet connectivity as well as those who can’t take time off from other responsibilities (e.g., teaching, childcare) to livestream. In other words, by allowing panelists to record their speeches beforehand, conference organizers can ensure that diverse backgrounds and perspectives are represented in every panel.
3. Subtitles and transcripts
Adding subtitles, captions, and transcripts to videos makes the material more accessible to not just disabled people but also non-native English speakers, who could be unfamiliar with the speaker’s accent.
4. Chat rooms and forums
In offline conferences, men are known to take the lead in asking questions of speakers and general interactions. A lot of networking at conventional in-person conferences happens at events like happy hours in a local pub or an evening banquet. The informal social groups that form at these events are often inaccessible to female researchers and those from racial minorities. Virtual chat rooms and forums devoted to specific topics are one way of levelling the playing field. When commenters know that their comments could be saved (and scrutinized later), they are less likely to be overtly sexist, misogynist, or racist.
5. Plain language summaries
Climate science, ecology, management, gender studies, and even medicine are fields that interest a wide section of the population, not just those with PhDs. To make research findings accessible to non-specialist audiences—including patient advocacy groups, civil society groups, journalists, and even undergraduate students—conference organizers could prepare and disseminate plain language summaries (PLS). A PLS is a brief summary of a research paper, written in language that is easily accessible to non-specialists.
6. Flexible payment options
Conventional conferences typically had a standard registration fee (and perhaps separate fees for additional pre-conference sessions). This resulted in researchers paying for sessions or events that they weren’t actually interested in, besides also bearing costs of travel, accommodation, visas and foreign exchange, etc. Hence, conference attendance was harder for early career researchers or those from the Global South, who had limited funding and grants. The online format enables individual purchase of specific content pieces or access to chat rooms and other virtual events. Thus, this option is more cost-effective and accessible.
The year 2020 saw not only a meteoric rise in the number of virtual-only academic conferences, but also a renewed interest in diversity and inclusion, especially in the US. With continuing travel bans and fears of further waves of Covid-19, virtual conferences are likely to remain mainstream in the immediate future, and hybrid (online + offline) models are likely to become popular even after the world returns to “normal.” Hence, conference organizers will find it worthwhile to invest in means to promote diversity and inclusion at virtual or hybrid conferences, especially through content.
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