Where Our Professional Conferences Fail Us

Apr 30, 2021

Where Our Professional Conferences Fail Us

Why failing to provide certain courtesies and services at conferences are costly discrimination tactics.

 I’m cold and I’m starving. It’s been two days and there’s another long one ahead of me before I can leave in search of food. My mind is tired. My body is tired. And I’m trying to find my compassion for the conference organizers as I explain for the dozenth time that I’m gluten-free (gf) and dairy-free (df) and yes, cheese is dairy. I’m at a conference and unfortunately this is typically how it goes. What are my options?

  • Be hungry and angry – hangry. No fun for anyone. (Personal Cost)
  • Hope and pray the city/town has gf & df options and that those options deliver. (Financial Cost)
  • Leave the conference and miss educational sessions or valuable opportunities to network with colleagues so that I can find real (non-salad) food. (Financial and Professional Cost)

None of these options are good and all of them cost me. Not only did my registration fee go towards food I can’t eat and sessions I’ll potentially miss, but now I’m also spending more money to buy food I can actually eat.

This is my own personal conference issue, but there are more issues that exist and they’re all rooted in fundamental exclusion. Or, to put it more plainly (and no, this isn’t hyperbole), it’s discrimination.

Where’s the DEAI in “Conference”?

Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) are not a trend. Each is a principle that has a long history and these principals are experiencing a renaissance. Right now, in my museum and archive conference circuit, I see DEAI play out in presentations with a few institutions beginning to experiment with what DEAI can look like. What’s ironic, and sad, is that we as a conference community don’t even think about how we can apply DEAI to the conference experience.

Gender and the Right to Pee

In our growing awareness and support of the LGBTQIA community one of the actions we are taking is to provide gender neutral bathrooms. Everyone has the right to choose which bathroom they wish to pee in and the right to do so in peace and safety. An added benefit to this change is that there are now even more bathroom options available for those that tend to pee more frequently and often suffer longer lines – women. The museum, library, and archive fields are statistically dominated by women and yet every conference location offers the same number of men’s and women’s toilets. Stripping the gender requirement from toilets helps to bring equality to the conference experience for both the LGBTQIA community and women.

I now challenge us to more fundamentally change how we support the LGBTQIA community. Here are some recommendations:

  • Stop asking for “preferred” pronouns and just ask for pronouns.
  • Offer educational sessions or pamphlets with suggestions on how we can transition our language to be gender neutral. No more sayings like “you guys”, people.
  • Review and actively alter our collections to be inclusive of the LGBTQIA community. Libraries, you’ve made a great start. Archives and Museums? We can do better.

Conferences Don’t Need be Religious but People Are

Larger conference centers have non-descript prayer rooms. Some conference programs will assist with directing people to local religious centers, but there is room for improvement. Our conference season typically occur during religious holidays. For example, Ramadan often takes place while the weather is heating up and conference season is upon us. Ramadan requires fasting from sunrise to sunset for those who observe the Muslim faith. Our conferences tend to happen in hot places during hot times of the year because that’s what’s cheap. Can you imagine attending an all-day conference while fasting and in 100+ degree heat? Do you know what makes it worse? People who ask why you’re not eating and then apologize (while still eating), turning the conversation to you and why you’re not eating – and maybe that’s just none of their business?

Here’s how we can begin to do better:

  • Offer education and awareness to all conference attendees about what religious holidays may be taking place during the conference and what those religious times require of those who observe the faith.
  • Offer dedicated prayer rooms with appropriate items of all faiths and make sure it’s clearly marked on the conference program and website.
  • Be thoughtful about when and where our conferences are and make better decisions around how we support people who are practicing their faith while they’re conferencing with us.

 If I Have to Eat One More God Damn Salad I will Scream

Salads are great, just not as entrees and certainly not as entrees for every meal. It’s absolutely incredible to me that conference food organizers forget the simple principle that everyone’s meal should meet nutritional standards. Each meal should offer protein, starch, and vegetables. Instead, I’m often left to ask the conference hosts which foods I can eat only to discover I can have the salad and maybe the red meat.  How hard is it to put the cheese or cream sauce on the side and offer steamed rice? Additionally, dairy-free options would help to nutritionally support those who eat kosher or halal.

Dietary restrictions exist for many reasons: religious, health, or none of your fucking business. My dietary restrictions are in place to help manage my chronic pain and autoimmune issues. I adhere to them in order to function and this is especially true while at a conference where I need to feel my best in a place that’s not my home.

Here’s how to do better:

  • Require that each conference meal offer protein, starch, and vegetables that meet every dietary restriction.
  • Clearly label food!
  • Have the local arrangements committee or conference staff research restaurants that accommodate dietary restrictions and clearly identify those on the conference website and program.
  • Support food delivery to the conference site, especially if the food options are inadequate.
  • If the conference can’t or refuses to provide appropriate nutrition then provide a discount for conference registration.

Conferences Are for Extroverts

Conferences are geared toward extroverts: those who are energized by being with other people. Introverts and those living with conditions where they can be emotionally or sensorially overwhelmed need a place to retreat to in order to take care of their needs and reenergize. My attendance at the American Alliance of Museums was the first time I encountered the Quiet Room. The Quiet Room also served as the Nursing Room, which was not the wisest decision as kids don’t care to be quiet. But, the room had the lights dimmed, talking was frowned upon, there were comfy chairs, and water and tea were provided. It was seriously heaven within the conference din. Studies show that at least 50% of the population are introverts, so why are conferences extrovert-centric? We need to find a more balanced approach in order for both personalities to thrive within a conference setting.

We Are Not Kidless Automatons

Kids are a thing. Many people have them and yet you wouldn’t know it due the complete lack of acknowledgement or support from our places of work or professional conferences. Some conferences are beginning to offer nursing rooms and that’s a start. But can we get a daycare in here?! By not offering subsidized childcare, conferences are forcing professionals to choose between personal or professional sacrifice. As a society, we know this burden impacts women disproportionately. And again, women make up the majority of the library, archive, and museum communities. So, certainly we should be doing a better job of supporting women and families, right?

Also, kids or not, conferences need to take place during the work week. In our profession we already sacrifice a lot, we shouldn’t be required to sacrifice our personal time, time with our families, to attend a work conference.

We’re All Here to Learn, But Can We?

There’re the above issues I’ve mentioned and each have their own nasty outcomes when needs aren’t met. The universal outcome of not supporting these groups is that their opportunity and ability to learn will be negatively impacted.

We’re also (still) failing those who live with different physical abilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 and almost 30-years later we still suck at including this community.

Here’s how we can do better:

  • Collect all slides ahead of time and provide them on the conference website for download so that screen readers and other ADA tools can be used during presentations.
  • Require the microphone to be used at all times. I don’t know what it is with people thinking they’re loud enough that they don’t need a mic. You may not think you need a mic, but guaranteed there are other people who need you to use the mic. Additionally, I’ve been to locations where microphones weren’t automatically provided. They need to be there every time, no matter what.
  • Presenters need to audibly describe the images and text on their slides so that all contextual information to the presentation is conveyed.
  • Make sure your font is at least font size 22 and clearly legible.
  • Resources should be provided to presenters and speakers to assist them in crafting their presentations to be as accessible as possible.

This is Costing Me and It’s Costing Us

Conferences cost money. It costs money to attend (which goes towards all my salads). It costs me more money to feed myself outside the conference food. And it costs me money if I have to leave the conference to find food. If I or others can’t attend a conference then it costs us the professional development opportunity and the ability to connect with colleagues. This can have a repeated negative impact on our careers.

And it costs the profession if I or any of the persons who fall in the groups I’ve covered decide we can’t attend a conference because our attendance isn’t supported. That means the profession misses our contributions to the professional community with the compound effect of limiting diversity within the participating profession.

 Can We Do Better?

Can you imagine discriminating against the following?:

  • LGBTQIA persons
  • Women
  • People of faith
  • People with dietary restrictions
  • People with health issues
  • People who need mental and/or emotional introversion
  • People with children
  • People with varying physical abilities

That’s a long list with many on it belonging to communities that have been repeatedly and systematically discriminated against. Discrimination doesn’t have to be an active act to prevent or stop a group or persons from participating. In this instance, discrimination can be passive and impede or prevent a group or persons from participating through thoughtlessness or lack of prioritization. By not providing a conference experience built to include everyone in the library, archive, and museum communities we are discriminating against these groups.

With so much focus on DEAI we (as a conference community) need to start our practice by including and caring for the very people who attend our conferences.

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