Are ecological conferences safe?

Conference season is upon us! We’ll get to travel, eat free food, read our emails during talks, and it’s going to be a blast. For all of us? Maybe not.

INNGE coordinated a survey (that got IRB cleared and all of that, so you know it’s legit) about whether or not harassment happened during ecological meetings. Before we dive into the results and write it up as a paper, I will have a first look at the results.

We asked a few different questions. First about the overall harassment experience (have you seen it, or have you been a victim?), then about how people feel about implementing policies. There are good example of anti-harassment policies in some conferences, and we wondered whether the same thing would be useful in ecology.

I won’t talk about the free-form comments here. They ranged from really awful things that should probably have been reported and investigated, to meh, to “How dare you take away our right to have fun at meetings by making snide remarks”. They range from supportive of the initiative, to “This does not apply to Europe because you don’t understand our culture, it’s all more casual here” (as a French, I understand European culture well enough, thank you very much). And one (through a personal email) “This is just an act so the girls will like you”. Ah, the good fun I had reading these comments.

Are ecological meetings safe? Not as much as they should.

Out of 396 replies, 261 were cis-females, 125 were cis-males, and 10 people where either multiple-genedered or not expressing a gender identity. The age distribution is mostly 30-something.

Age distribution

Now, the key two questions where (i) have you ever witnessed harassment, and (ii) have you ever experienced harassment. And here is the contigency table:

  Have experienced Have not experienced
Have witnessed 77 72
Have not witnessed 17 230

Across all ecologists we surveyed, 37% witnessed harassment, and 24% experienced it, at least once, only taking into account what happens during scientific meetings. This… wow, this is a lot.

How does it breaks down by occupation status?

Status Prop. that have experienced Prop. that have witnessed
Non academic 0.29 0.45
Other 0.27 0.45
Tenured faculty 0.27 0.50
Non-tenure-track faculty 0.25 0.43
Post-doc 0.25 0.29
Graduate student 0.22 0.36
Tenure-track faculty 0.12 0.31
Undergraduate student 0.00 0.23

There are a few things to read from this table (and from parsing the comments). First, the correlation between the two is high, around 0.8, with $R^2$ of 0.6; those that are more likely to experience harassment are also more likely to witness it. But look at the absolute values: the rate of having experienced harassment is similar for all folks, and at approx. 0.25 (which kind of questions my linear regression, doesn’t it?). People seem to be overall nice to tenure-track faculty and undergrads. ████ ███ ██ ███████ ████ ██ ███ ██████████ ██████████ ████ ████ ███ ███, ███ ████████ ████████ ███ ████████ █████ ███ █████ ███████, ███ █████ ███████ ███ █████ █ ██████ ███.

How about age?

Age Prop. that have experienced Prop. that have witnessed
18 - 25 years 0.17 0.28
26 - 35 years 0.23 0.39
35 - 49 years 0.29 0.38
50 - 64 years 0.21 0.50

It’s not really clear. Again, folks in the 26-64 ages seem to experience and witness harassment at the same rate. This is as good a place as any to mention the fact that we also have information about the nature and handling of harassment (and there are some correlation with age and professional status). We also have information about respondent ethnicity, but since these were collected using a free-form text for obvious reasons, they will require a bit of cleaning to be usable. So I won’t talk about these today.

Gender Prop. that have experienced Prop. that have witnessed
Cis-female 0.28 0.38
Cis-male 0.13 0.34

This one is interesting (other gender identities were omitted because it was not meaningful to measure proportions on the very small sample size). Considering all causes of harassment, females were twice as likely as male to report having experienced it. I dug a little bit into the finer categories, and although sexual harassment was more prevalent for cis-females, so were other types of discrimination.

What can conference organizers do?

We then asked six questions, rated on a scale from 1 (strong disagreement), to 5 (strong agreement). All received, on average, a rating of around 4, regardless of whether the respondent had experienced, witness, etc, harassment. So in short, there is a strong agreement that conferences should do things to prevent harassment from happening. Here is the breakdown by proposed measure. The reported values are the proportion of people in each category that gave a particular rating.

Should conferences implement policies about harassment?

Rating Have experienced Have not experienced
1 0.01 0.03
2 0.05 0.05
3 0.18 0.22
4 0.16 0.29
5 0.59 0.41

Should conferences communicate in advance about these policies?

Rating Have experienced Have not experienced
1 0.01 0.03
2 0.03 0.08
3 0.11 0.19
4 0.22 0.31
5 0.63 0.39

Would attendees feel safer if policies were in place?

Rating Have experienced Have not experienced
1 0.11 0.14
2 0.08 0.11
3 0.23 0.37
4 0.15 0.20
5 0.44 0.18

This one has the least clear-cut support. As several people mentioned in the comments, harassers gonna harass, whether or not there is a policy in place. All that a policy can do is make sure the proper response happens.

Should conference designate people to handle harassment issues?

Rating Have experienced Have not experienced
1 0.02 0.02
2 0.02 0.02
3 0.07 0.10
4 0.16 0.26
5 0.73 0.60

This is the proposition that received the most support. Many comments also asked societies to create positions for diversity officers or similar.

Should (well established) harassment be ground for termination of society membership?

Rating Have experienced Have not experienced
1 0.05 0.02
2 0.05 0.07
3 0.18 0.17
4 0.23 0.30
5 0.48 0.44

Should (well established) harassment be ground for being banned from future events?

Rating Have experienced Have not experienced
1 0.05 0.03
2 0.05 0.05
3 0.18 0.12
4 0.24 0.33
5 0.47 0.47


I was surprised by three things.

  1. The extent of harassment itself. 1 out of 3 people is not an epi-phenomenon. We need to do a better job of making sure ecological meetings are safe places.
  2. There is a really strong support for ecological societies to implement policies. This is actionable now. More importantly, previous experience with harassment did not made a difference in the agreement with the various solutions. This is a good thing, as it means that a vast majority of people want to make sure that conferences are fun and inclusive events.
  3. Folks are not opposed to strong punitive measures, such as the harasser being removed from the event, and/or banned from the society altogether. A few people thought this opened the possibility to have witch hunts. This would most likely not be the case if (i) there are clear and very explicit guidelines, and (ii) there are people in place to talk to in case these guidelines are not being followed.

So here it goes. If you are interested in the issue, we are going to start writing the paper any time soon. So now is the right time to drop me an email and say that would like to contribute.

And as a conclusion, I’m just going to leave this tweet out there, without further comments:

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