The good, the bad and the ugly of scientific conferences

e0fe4565b225a208f7b14a3d7b605910--stencil-graffiti-stencil-designsThis post is inspired by two unrelated events and it is a a bit of a rambling. The motivating events are the recent Twitter chatter on sexist remarks and harassment at scientific conferences and my attendance to the BES Macro 2017 meeting (I emphasize that these are unrelated events, the BES Macroecology group is awesome!).

The ugly part of conferences relates to the first event. You can read more about that issue here and here. Importantly, the point goes beyond gender issues. Discriminatory remarks or harassment towards any person should have no place at conferences (or in life). Do not do it, and do not allow others to do it to you, or others. As a society we need to educate each other (and ourselves). I may make comments that are offensive to someone; having them, or a bystander, explain to me why these can be offensive is good. However, as societies and individuals we also need to acknowledge, and I will argue embrace, the fact that there are differences in sense of humour, cultural boundaries, and fashion choices. And I personally like to live in a world with those differences, it is more fun that way. Due to these differences sometimes you may unintentionally offend or be offended and it is good to be told, but sometimes people appear to confuse discrimination with criticism (someone else’s thoughts on topic). They are not the same thing. And I worry that when the arguments against discrimation gets entangled with issues linked to, for example, criticism of fashion choices, the arguments against discrimination become weaker. Your choices (and this is important, some things, like your wardrobe, are generally choices, others, like your gender or skin colour, are not) do say something about you. If you are honest, that is probably why you made them (even if unconscioulsy). You should not allow anyone to bully you for your choices, but you should probably consider what they may mean to others and acknowledge their right to react and your opportunity to consider how you respond to feedback and perhaps even question your choices. We make choices based on our aesthetic or cultural values, and these may not match those of others. So if I choose to wear socks with sandals because it is more comfortable when my feet are sweaty, I need to understand I am prioritizing comfort over style*, and that says something about me**. I can get upset if someone makes a joke/remark about it, but I need to separate that criticism from the fact that I am a women. Of course if my male colleague also wearing sandals and socks is accepted and I am not, then we do have a problem. But assuming that is not the case, I would argue their joke offers an opportunity to ask myself whether wearing socks and sandals to give a plenary talk is sending a different message that the one I want to convey, and whether I am happy with that message. Note that this is an example, I have not given plenary talks wearing socks and sandals (not as a matter of choice but due to lack of opportunities in the form of invitations to give plenary talks).

The bad for me is a slightly more personal issue, to which others may not relate. I like going to conferences and I try to attend 1-2 per year, but I also often find myself feeling unproductive and unaccomplished once I am there. All that cool research, all those clever people, so young and so far ahead in their career! I should be having better ideas, more collaborations, greater networking skills… These feelings may reflect reality in some ways (certainly I need to work on my networking skills) but I suspect there is also a bit of a “Facebook syndrome”. At conferences everyone showcases their best and you, being aware of both your best and your limitations, can feel unaccomplished. If you do, I just wanted to let you know you are not alone.

And finally the good. The good is the chance to meet new exciting people, learn about the cool stuff others are doing, get a confidence boost when someone finds your work cool, and sometimes even find new opportunities in the form of jobs, collaborations, etc. The opportunities to occasionally combine those with visits to exotic and exciting new locations is, of course, “la guinda en el pastel”.

*Of course, style here is defined by the general aesthetic values of the society in which I live, socks and sandals may be perfectly okay if I lived in Germany – now hopefully this jokes does not offend anyone!

**I will let the reader explore other examples here, perhaps evaluating their own fashion choices.

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