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Most Biology Conferences Lack Tools to Report Sexual Misconduct

Most academic biology conferences don’t have proper codes of conduct in place to prevent sexual misconduct and identity-based discrimination, a new study, “Evaluating prevalence and quality of codes of conduct” by Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden, revealed.

Out of 195 biology conferences, nearly 76 percent failed to mention codes of conduct for their participants. The remaining 24 percent of biology conferences either mentioned codes of conduct on identity-based discrimination or sexual misconduct, or listed ways to report a violation and consequences for violators.

“Conferences tend to be a strange hot spot of misconduct because attendees are away from their home institutions in an informal setting,” Alicia Foxx, a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University and a co-author of the study, said. “Codes of conduct are really important for guiding behaviors. It sets a standard for how everyone should act in certain situations.”

The study also found that mistreatment at conferences, which commonly involves a mixture of power dynamics, social events and alcohol consumption, often leads women and people of color to stop attending conferences or to leave academia completely.

“Someone might not want to go back to a conference because they had a horrific experience that makes them uncomfortable,” Taran Lichtenberger, a master’s student at Northwestern and co-author of the paper, said. “Then that hurts their career because they miss out on networking and presenting their work.”

The study emphasized changing conference culture and having a robust system of reporting in place in the future to enforce these codes.

The authors also recommended making codes apparent and easily accessible online or on-site; establishing a team of diverse and impartial individuals to review reports of misconduct; improving conferences using reports and post-conference surveys; and refocusing on the needs of historically marginalized groups.

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