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During the depths of the pandemic, Zoom and other online platforms not only helped connect faculty, students and others throughout the campus, but they also allowed conferences, seminars, networking events and the like to continue in a virtual format. Although far from perfect, that online pivot greatly increased the accessibility of such events for many people, including those who may have been unable to attend or participate fully in past live events due to parenting responsibilities, disabilities, financial precarity, visa status or other situations.

Now that we’ve returned to in-person or hybrid conferences and other events, how can scholarly communities like professional societies and other organizations across academe improve and increase accessibility at those live events?

Capitalizing on this transitional moment, ReMeDHe (the Working Group for Religion, Medicine, Disease, Health and Healing in Late Antiquity) organized a workshop to establish a record of best practices for scholarly societies that aim to be inclusive of historically marginalized groups. It created a working guide, a living document to put those values into action and to disseminate the collective suggestions for best practices more widely in the academic community. In this piece, we’ll introduce this resource, framing its guidance around three core areas of activity encountered by many scholarly societies: leadership and membership; conferences and other events; and outputs, self-assessments and continued development.

Laying Strong Foundations

Despite media trends or politics, the issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) remain core to human dignity and intellectual excellence in scholarly communities. In the context of scholarly societies and other organizations, not only does the enhancement of DEIB signal a regard for an individual’s value and a commitment to their well-being, but it also provides countless benefits to scholarship and academic communities. DEIB measures contribute to intellectual excellence, innovation in the field and the fuller participation of scholars who have been historically excluded or marginalized. As such, DEIB measures promote a more robust academic enterprise in the present and lay the groundwork for a healthier future. In short, equality and excellence go hand in hand, and greater inclusivity makes for better scholarship.

To ensure real impact and change, scholarly and professional societies must build DEIB measures into their foundations. Societies should reflect on their current leadership structures, membership and pathways into the field and then consider how the introduction of DEIB measures could enhance inclusivity. They should consider not only how their leadership slots are filled—for example, whether through nominations or appointments—but should also evaluate the implications of those processes, reflecting on how they might privilege majority interests or replicate the scholars in the majority.

To increase transparency and support more inclusive goal setting and planning, we suggest that societies provide annual reports on the demographics of their board, membership, conference presenters and attendees, as well as authors of articles in society publications. When collecting that demographic data, organizations should also provide an option for members to use the identity terms they prefer.

Societies should also introduce more DEIB measures at all levels of their membership and expand and develop new pathways into the field or fields they represent. To increase members’ access to a society’s programs, for example, they could allocate a portion of the operating budget for discounted memberships and conference registration fees, travel grants and the like. They could also pair the application process for financial support with or even before a call for papers and announce the result of such applications along with the acceptance of papers. And they could form partnerships with coalitions and working groups representing historically excluded or marginalized scholars and involve these partners in society programming.

Creating More Inclusive Events

Conferences require event planning, program development, climate and safety measures, instructions for presenters and session chairs, and networking opportunities. And at all the stages of such an event, the organizers should reflect on ways they can integrate DEIB measures more effectively. Venue considerations, for example, are vitally important for improving inclusivity and should be part of the contract negotiations with hotels, conference centers and event companies. Topics of concern should include childcare provisions, safety considerations and accessibility supports, among many others.

Securing diversity in the program committee is another crucial step toward designing an inclusive conference program. If you serve on such a committee, offer breakout sessions, roundtables, workshops and other alternatives to the traditional panel format to help bring scholars who tend to be silenced or marginalized in such formats into the discussion. Also, schedule at least some of the receptions and networking events throughout the day, as evening-exclusive events can be prohibitive for some attendees, such as those with caring responsibilities. In addition, be sure to offer opportunities for positive and supportive networking, such as mentorship programs, peer-to-peer networking and certain events targeted at supporting early-career researchers. You can find many more ideas along these lines in the working guide.

Societies should also aim to be proactive in their training and responses rather than reactive in the aftermath of a conference incident or societywide conflict involving diversity, equity and inclusion, as has been the case historically. They should offer up-to-date training for society leadership on best practices for handling such incidents.

Building on Inclusivity Measures

Publications may be the most concrete outputs of conferences, but networking and community building, as well as recognition and awards, are equally important—especially for those starting their careers. For marginalized early-career scholars, the introduction, integration and expansion of inclusivity measures along these lines can have tangible and long-lasting impacts on both their individual progress and the composition of their field. Those efforts support the long-term development of a more diverse and inclusive group of society leaders and conference organizers.

We suggest, for example, that societies devise standard evaluation criteria for their awards and prizes, creating a rubric or standard list to minimize the use of ad hoc, scattershot—and therefore often inequitable—approaches. They should also carefully consider whether to create awards for scholars from specific backgrounds. Such recognition can be not only tokenizing but can also unintentionally limit such scholars’ ability to win awards open to all members of the society. As an alternative, we recommend developing awards that celebrate innovative approaches and new perspectives or that reward contributions in particular areas.

When it comes to publications tied to the conference (or other society-related publications), we recommend that editors and editorial board members actively reach out to underrepresented scholars and invite them to submit papers. They should also excise all discriminatory comments in peer-review reports before sharing those comments with the underrepresented scholars who have written the manuscripts. And we recommend assessing the effect of these types of inclusivity measures by collecting data on scholars’ publishing efforts as well as other forms of field engagement, such as peer-review invitations.

Indeed, seeking data, soliciting feedback and keeping records are key to the effective self-assessment of inclusivity measures implemented not only during conferences but also other society initiatives. Regularly raising demographic questions with the membership (along with an explanation of why this information is being sought and the confidentiality measures in place), and collaborating with events companies to solicit participant feedback can all help societies promote a more inclusive culture. Indeed, in revising current society practices, gathering direct feedback from the membership on the present state of affairs is crucial. Inclusivity efforts should be grassroots, collaborative processes, not imposed from the top down.

In conclusion, when describing the working guide, we use the word “living” deliberately. Just as disciplinary practices like those we’ve described should be consistently revisited and revised to stay useful, so too should interdisciplinary outreach efforts, including the guide. We welcome you to share your strategies, experiments, victories and questions with us, ensuring that it continues to evolve and improve.

Claire Burridge is a senior researcher at the University of Oslo. Misa Nguyen is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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