Harassment at Meetings: Spot It, Stop It, and Prevent It

 

A note on terminology:

I use the term “meetings” to cover any gathering of members that is organized or produced by or for a professional membership society, trade association, advocacy group, or other organization (the "meeting producer"), including but not limited to conferences, conventions, trade shows, training sessions, and committee or governing body meetings. 

I use the phrase “meeting participants” to include everyone at the meeting: paying attendees, exhibitors, staff of the producing organization, venue staff, contractors, temps – essentially, anyone with a name tag or employed by the venue or producer.

Meetings are not optional, and should be safe and welcoming to all.

In most professions, attendance and presentation at meetings and conferences is key to career advancement. This is particularly true for people in science and academia, where giving presentations and networking with other researchers at scholarly society meetings are crucial for finding jobs, getting tenure, finding collaborators, and getting funding for research.

Most reasonable people would agree that in every professional setting, including meetings, all participants have the right to be free from unwelcome or unwanted attention and behavior. This includes behavior that makes the target uncomfortable or that implies or indicates that they do not belong where they are, based on any personal characteristic: gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. This includes any unwanted attention, any unwanted sexual advances, comments about appearance, verbal or visual insults, harassment, bullying, and assault.

Consider these comments, which I’ve heard from women I’ve talked to about their experiences with harassment at professional society meetings:

“I no longer go to any of the social events at the meeting. I’m probably missing out on a chance to make contacts, but I just can’t stand the dirty jokes, the comments about women’s appearance, the blatant passes and even groping that some of the men dish out.”

“I hate presenting posters, especially at crowded poster sessions. Being stuck at my poster makes me an easy target. I’ve been groped, I’ve been hit on, I’ve had men tell me obscene jokes. It’s so nerve-wracking.”

“I tried telling a security guard what happened, and he just laughed at me and told me to just take it as a compliment and get over it.”

“There are some meetings that I will never go to again. The anti-woman hostility I’ve experienced is overwhelming.”

One woman described to me several incidents that occurred at research meetings that traditionally include a dance. “Why do they have dances and booze at these meetings? These are supposed to be professional conferences,” she said. “It’s like the organizers are giving all the creeps permission and the perfect place to be creepy.” She described an incident in which her harasser refused to leave her alone, and insisted he would “escort” her to her room. She eventually tracked down someone from her lab and asked him to walk her to her room.

Obviously, some participants believe that at meetings the usual rules governing workplace conduct can be safely ignored. This attitude is reinforced when presenters use of sexist or offensive images or language in their presentations, and when exhibitors make use of sexualized images, double entendre slogans, or scantily clad booth attendants to draw attention to their wares. The meeting location sends a signal – many of the women I’ve spoken with simply will not go to meetings held in Las Vegas, for example. Even the way a meeting site is marketed has an impact: images that look like “fun” to some people looks a lot like “treating women as objects” to the rest of us.

Harassment is more likely to occur at social events such as receptions or dances; at off-site or ancillary events; at any event where alcohol is served; and when socializing away from the meeting (e.g. at “on your own” dinners). Events that are noisy and over-crowded, including poster sessions, are ideal places for predatory harassment such as groping, rubbing, and making suggestive remarks. 

Most meeting producers are generally unaware of how often harassment occurs at their meetings. Women are reluctant to complain about harassing behavior out of fear of retaliation, fear of damage to their careers, or simply not wanting being labeled as a troublemaker by colleagues.

Ignoring the problem of sexual and gender-based harassment at meetings means that meeting producers are emphatically not serving the interest of a large segment, possibly a majority, of their participants. At best, it jeopardizes the success of future meetings due to decreased attendance and revenue-generation. At worst, it may put meeting producers at risk of legal liability. 

Fortunately, there are things that all of us can do to spot, stop, and prevent harassment at meetings. Click here for more information. 

I'll be speaking in more detail on harassment at meetings and how to stop it at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives.