Why Diversity at Conferences Matters


A scientist is presenting on stage to a diverse audience


Contributed by Maria Valadez Ingersoll, Ph.D student at BU URBAN Program

(4 minute read)

As graduate students, attending conferences is an important chance for us to contribute to advances in our fields, to make connections with future employers or colleagues, and to create collaborations across institutions. Yet, simultaneously, conferences are a source of multiple stressors for graduate students and early-career researchers, especially those from marginalized backgrounds. Conferences can be a financial burden for graduate students, often requiring expensive registration, travel costs, and hotel accommodations. Additionally, they may be hosted in areas that have dangerous political or social climates for individuals of certain backgrounds (e.g., in states where safe reproductive health care is not protected or in countries that do not protect those with LGBTQIA+ identities) or that require visas for attendees from certain countries. Many conferences are conducted entirely or predominantly in English, and for students for whom English is not a native language, presenting in front of an audience yields an additional challenge. Finally, and possibly as a result of these and other factors, conferences often have a low representation of the diverse identities held by individuals within the discipline, which is often already limited due to systemic barriers to higher education.

This observed lack of diversity at conferences may actually be stymying progress across disciplines. Indeed, studies have demonstrated that diversity (ethnic, gender/sexuality, cultural, etc.) in collaborators leads to higher innovation and impact within that field of study. A study published in 2015 showed that peer-reviewed journal articles that include authors from different institutions, multiple locations, and diverse ethnicities are more likely to be published in higher-impact journals and to be cited more frequently (Freeman and Huang, 2015). Another paper published in 2017 demonstrated that teams and collaborations involving participants representing gender diversity are more effective at problem-solving, and they produce more creative and innovative outputs that utilize the areas of expertise of each team member (Nielsen et al., 2017). Finally, increases in innovation, production of novel ideas, consideration of alternative approaches, and performance in problem-solving scenarios have all been causally linked to increases in racial diversity of the researchers through multiple studies (Phillips, 2014). In the context of academia, many of the connections that foster collaborative projects and papers are made at conferences. Thus, conferences have a critical role in promoting a more diverse and inclusive academic environment.

In the fall of 2022, I attended the National Diversity in STEM conference (NDiSTEM) hosted by the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In contrast to other, discipline-specific conferences I had attended, the efforts made at NDiSTEM to be intentionally inclusive of attendees and participants from diverse backgrounds ultimately made this conference feel more successful and fulfilling in scientific, career, and personal aspects. Firstly, the language of the NDiSTEM promotional material and call for abstracts made the priorities of the conference clear: to promote novel research while supporting nascent scientists’ whole selves: 

Over the course of the event, college-level through professional attendees are immersed in cutting-edge STEM research, professional development sessions, motivational keynote speakers, and the Graduate School & Career Expo Hall, as well as multicultural celebrations and traditions, and an inclusive and welcoming community of peers, mentors, and role models. Simply put, the SACNAS conference is a broadly inclusive space where you are encouraged and empowered to bring your whole self to STEM.

Second, diverse keynote speakers encouraged space for reflection by pairing discussions of their research with conversations on community, belonging, and the importance of diversity. Finally, NDiSTEM fostered and encouraged (explicitly and implicitly) peer-to-peer mentoring and support networks through one-on-one mentoring and feedback on research, professional development workshops, and space specifically reserved for Native/Indigenous Gathering.

The intentional inclusivity exemplified by NDiSTEM can provide a guide to inclusivity in other aspects of academia as well. As graduate students and future leaders in our respective fields, we can bring these lessons to our classrooms, workshops, meetings, and more. In our current roles as educators of undergraduate students, we can take actions such as inclusive language and peer-to-peer mentoring into the classroom in small but meaningful ways. As an example of using intentionally inclusive language, we can explicitly promote diversity in our syllabi, or start the first class by making a statement on the importance of diversity (see these resources on syllabus diversity statements from Brown University and Cal Poly). These actions set the tone of a class to be one that is welcoming and inclusive of learners from all backgrounds and identities. As an example of peer-to-peer mentoring, we can set aside blocks of five minutes for group check-in time throughout the class in which students can reflect on and share key points from the lecture. As another example, we can promote and advertise student-led study/work groups outside of class hours for students to work together on class material. 

In conclusion, the importance of conferences to graduate students extends beyond the opportunity to present and share research. Successfully diverse conferences demonstrate inclusive practices and offer the possibility for diverse collaborations, lending us a model for inclusivity that we can implement in other aspects of our work, like in the classroom. In this way, we can support a more diverse and inclusive new generation of academics to more effectively tackle the unanswered questions within our fields.