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. 


Want More Women at the Podium? Bring Conscious Awareness to Unconscious Bias.

You’re a meeting planner, a planning committee member, a symposium series organizer, or otherwise responsible for engaging speakers and presenters. You have an explicit goal of ensuring gender diversity* among the speakers you engage. And yet, despite your best efforts, you consistently fall short of your diversity goals. What is going on?

Your program is a victim of unconscious bias.

I experienced this early in my career, when I was running a grant program and was responsible for setting up review panels. I quickly learned that when asked the questions, “Whom should we invite to join the review committee next year?” the group, who at the time were mostly men, would quickly give me a list of names, all of them men. I would tear off that flipchart page, stick it on the wall, then say, “OK, now how about we come up with a list of qualified women.” And, invariably, I would end up with just such a list.

The good news is that these groups of men were quick to realize what had happened. Asked for the first names who came to mind, they named people who looked like them. To overcome that unconscious bias, I had to ask, directly and clearly, for what I wanted from them: a list of diverse candidates, not all of whom looked like them.

Unconscious bias looms large on the list of reasons why women and minorities struggle to advance in male-dominated professions, why they are less likely to receive promotions, funding, and awards, and why they are less likely to be considered as presenters and speakers at your meetings.

As I discovered, when what you are after is a list of potential speakers, reviewers, or award recipients, the direct approach works best. Whether in a committee meeting or a one-to-one conversation, these two steps will help you reach the diversity you want.

1.     State your desire for diversity up front and at the beginning of the conversation. Some variation on, “We are committed to gender diversity in our programs. As we talk about potential speakers (reviewers, awardees), I want you to give a lot of thought to identifying women who would fit well in our program.” Reiterate as needed.

2.     When you still end up with a list that is all or nearly all men, make your ask again, “You have recommended some fine people, and they are all (or mostly) men. Do you know any women whom we should ask?”

And don’t take “no” for an answer. If your current sources truly know of no women who qualify, ask another source.

  • Reach out to  “Women in [Subject]” groups, committees, or caucuses of scholarly societies.
  • Check with program officers or awardees of grant programs that support the advancement of women, such as the National Science Foundation Advance program.
  • Make use of databases like the one compiled by the RAISE project.

Do you have other tips for increasing diversity at the podium? Please, leave them in the comments section.

*Much of this is also true for racial/ethnic and other diversity goals. Gender is what I know best, so I’ll stick to that here.


The landmark 2007 study by the US National Academies, Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, noted that “Decades of cognitive psychology research reveals that most of us carry prejudices of which we are unaware but that nonetheless play a large role in our evaluations of people and their work. . . . Although most scientists and engineers believe that they are objective and intend to be fair, research shows that they are not exempt from those tendencies.”

If you think you’re unbiased, go take a few of the implicit bias tests available for free from Harvard University’s Project Implicit.

Books that describe research on unconscious bias and its impact include:

Madeleine L. Van Hecke Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things. Prometheus Books, 2007.

Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Shankar Vedantam. The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives. Spiegel & Grau, 2010.







What Are Your Favorite Job Interview Questions?

When interviewing for jobs, I recommend coming up with two sets of questions. The first set are all the questions you ask because you want the facts: salary, benefits, amount of travel, number of people you'll be supervising, the size of the budget, and so on. The second set are more subtle, because the answers contain information that lies beneath the surface of the answers you get. These are questions that give you information about the culture of the organization beyond the canned responses of "our values as stated in our strategic plan are . . ." or "we encourage all of our employees to . . . " . Here's an example from my own career: 

When I interviewed for the position of Scientific Director at a women's health research advocacy organization, I talked (separately) to three people: the Executive Director (CEO), the Deputy Director (COO), and a member of the Board of Directors. I asked each of them, "Is this a feminist organization?" and I got three very different responses. 

CEO:  "No, absolutely not, we can't call ourselves that and be effective in the work we do on the Hill and at the agencies."

COO: "What do you mean by 'feminist'?" (This led to a great conversation about how feminism influenced my management style, how I regarded and treated staff, etc.)

Board member: "Absolutely it is. I wouldn't be involved if it weren't." 

All of these were the "right" answers.  The CEO's focus was on growing the organization's reputation as a thought leader and its influence among lawmakers and policy makers, in order to achieve the organization's goals. The COO's focus was on how well I would fit into the organization's culture and style of management. The Board member had the big picture in mind - how does this organization fit in the wider world of policy and politics? 

What is your favorite question to ask when you interview for a job?






Don't Just Lean In - Speak Up!

In deliberative groups (i.e. committees, Boards, seminars, etc.), women speak up less frequently than men. Here's a link to one recent research report - there are data on this going back at least 20 years:

Gender Inequality in Deliberative Participation

This study found that in such groups, men take up about 75% of the time spent talking. Yes, that's men talking three times as much as women, even when women are 50% or more of the group. 

As a facilitator, I've been aware of this research for many years and it influences my facilitation work. In addition to ensuring that women have the chance to speak, I encourage groups in which women are a minority to, as much as possible, reach unanimity or at least consensus on any decisions. I am pleased that the authors of this report confirm my approach. They state, "We find a substantial gender gap in voice and authority, but as hypothesized, it disappears under unanimous rule and few women, or under majority rule and many women. Deliberative design can avoid inequality by fitting institutional procedure to the social context of the situation."

What are your thoughts on this? What have been your experiences as a member of a deliberative group? As a chair or facilitator of such a group?