The academic conference is a key part of many academics’ working lives and careers. The goal of this Protocol is to provide support for building inclusivity into academic conferences across all disciplines, aiming to take into account a range of possible factors that might reduce inclusion. This Protocol was drafted by a group of staff at Oxford Brookes University, drawn from a range of academic disciplines and areas of student support. It considers not only issues where UK universities are under a legal obligation to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, but also to other issues impacting on inclusion, such as class.
Inevitably, building inclusivity in needs to be implemented in the particular context of your conference - a colloquium where all ten participants in a very narrow field are giving papers is very different from a multi-day, multi-stream, international conference where only a selection of offered papers are accepted. The Protocol is intended to be useful whatever the conference being organised, but when using it, you should be aware that particular suggestions may be most relevant to particular scales or audiences. The Protocol is a way of helping you think through issues around inclusion in your conference, not a checklist.
This Protocol is a living document. We have sought to draw on insights, and examples of good practice, from academic literature, learned societies, and initiatives aimed to improve inclusion within a particular discipline, or in relation to a particular group. Understanding of the complex issues around inclusion and the academic conference has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. The Protocol will be reviewed annually. If you have suggestions for changes, please contact email@example.com. If your university, learned society, or other group, has adopted the Protocol, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inclusion and diversity as concepts are difficult to define and conceptualise with both terms being highly disputed. For the purposes of this document, the focus is on trying to take an approach which recognises that attendees may have different needs, all of which need to be respected. In terms of conferences, the organisers need to consider the likely differing requirements of those attending and to take them into account. This is unlikely to mean that everyone’s specific need can be accommodated. However, the organisation needs to consider those differences and where possible provide arrangements to meet them. As part of the planning process, this document aims to encourage organisers to consider a wide-range of needs when planning rather than make assumptions. This could include considering in advance the potential audience and perhaps consulting with appropriate groups, where they exist.
Particular disciplines, fields and institutions may have particular characteristics which need to be taken into account when planning an inclusive conference - for instance particular fields may have a low proportion of women working in them, while particular institutions may have an unusually small number of working class academics working in them. Particular events will also have a specific purpose which may be important in your planning - for instance a workshop aimed at encouraging PhD/ECR participation will need to give extra thought to inclusion in that context.
In the spirit of inclusion, where possible, a range of people should be called to help arrange a conference. If there is a particular focus for the conference, then members of those groups need to be included. The team should include a range of people from different backgrounds as this will identify issues which could be overlooked for those who wish to attend.
As noted above, your planning team should normally involve a range of people. You may also want to consider having additional input into the planning from prospective participants with experience in relation to a particular set of issues, or Equality and Diversity colleagues within the host institution.
One of your early considerations is likely to be the location and venue of your event. Will the event take place at your own institution or in external hired premises? Will this be a specialist conference venue or within community, commercial, or other partner premises connected to the conference theme. Location can send an important message about how you view the openness and accessibility of your conference and the reach of the intended audience and the type of venue will also influence the feel and atmosphere of the overall event. Access to public transport and availability of car parking will also be relevant to these initial decisions.
Consider how easy your signage will be for people with sight or processing difficulties to interpret. Some people will benefit from the use of symbols to help them interpret written language. Many people will benefit from large signage, and repeated signs for important notices or along long routes to, for instance, breakout rooms.
Flickering lighting can be particularly problematic for participants with some medical conditions. This can be considered in the short-term by checking the lighting used in a particular venue; and in the longer term by feeding into infrastructure planning for the venue.
Are these easily and matter-of-factly signed? (see also 3.b.ii.) Is there more than one readily available? It can be useful if the gender-neutral bathrooms are easily accessible and not on a different level within the venue or in a different location. Consider temporary redesignation of toilet and/or changing facilities within the conference venue(s) to ensure nearby gender-neutral provision if necessary.
Many attendees will need access to a prayer space throughout the day. Inquire about their requirements and ensure that you know how to equip them (e.g. marking the direction of prayer, providing prayer mats). Prayer facilities should be near an available wash room - if possible, separate from toilet facilities. Many venues will already have a prayer room that is appropriately equipped.
Free guest wifi throughout the venue(s) can be important, both for connectivity within your event and for participants to keep in touch externally. It may also be essential for the use of some assistive technology.
Many participants will need to take breaks from the stimulation of a conference environment. A small room equipped with low lighting (e.g. table lamps) and good seating should be available. It should be made clear this is not social space.
Consider if and how you can support participants with caring responsibilities. This may relate to weekday v. weekend scheduling and whether attendance requires overnight stay. Will you be able to offer any on-site or nearby childcare facilities? Will older children be welcome in main sessions? Will the conference be attractive and accessible to those who may be on maternity or other family leave as part of preparation for returning to work? How will breastfeeding or other maternity-related needs be accommodated?
Consider likely practicalities around travel for participants on a tight budget, avoiding if possible premium travel fares; and for participants with disabilities, particular for the final stage of a typical journey to the venue (e.g. from town’s railway station, nearest airport etc.).
Consider if the conference falls on a day of religious observance or major religious festival. Inquire about dietary requirements and accommodation requests.
High intensity schedules can work poorly for some participants, who would benefit from frequent, substantial, break times. Other participants may only be able to accommodate attendance and caring responsibilities within the formal schedule - they may benefit from breaks during the day which allow networking with other participants. Both groups may find networking time available only at the end of a potentially exhausting day to be unhelpful.
Where possible, divide the conference into discrete themes so that participation on one day is not disadvantageous. Offer slides from other days if possible. Consider whether parallel strands present a challenge or an opportunity in this regard. It may be useful to consider what start and finish times are most inclusive for your likely participants, and the impact any mandatory overnight accommodation requirement may have on people with caring responsibilities. Ensuring that participants can join a multiday conference for a single day, with a matching reduction in their conference fee, can help here.
Would-be participants may be unable to attend the event for a very wide range of reasons. A substantial way to include these participants is to build off-site, virtual participations, into the workshop. There are a number of ways to do this, depending on the details of your event. For instance: (i) A small seminar with a single set of sessions may be able to accommodate a small number of virtual audience members through teleconferencing solutions; (ii) Speakers will frequently be able to give their papers, and engage in the QA immediately associated with it, through teleconferencing; (iii) A larger conference may consider a virtual stream for papers - either delivered through teleconferencing, or by posting papers to a chat room for asynchronous discussion. Virtual participation is also a way to add value after the event has finished, particularly for participants who may find it difficult to participate in discussion at the event. For instance, collating unasked questions with email addresses and forwarding them on to the speaker may be a way to facilitate these discussion; while an event site which hosts forums to discuss ideas raised by the event may secure the same benefits for a broader community.
It is suggested above that a range of people be involved in planning the conference (see 2.b; 3.a.), and designing and delivering inclusion may involve additional resources. It is worth identifying what support - in terms of staff time, specialist resources, or funding - is available from the host institution and the funding organisation. Some conference funding organisations include a commitment to diversity as a criteria for supporting conferences: even if they do not, it may be worth exploring their attitude towards extra measures intended to improve inclusion in their event.
Consider if a cheaper venue can meet the needs of all participants. Where possible, identify a location that is nearer to the majority of participants. Provide details of local affordable accommodation where appropriate.
Your event will have financial constraints, but it may be possible to plan for a modest amount of targeted financial support when you are securing funding for the event and setting the budget. For instance, an external charity may be willing to provide some financial support for some participants; or a research grant with an element of capacity building may cost in travel bursaries. Provision of support by waiver of fees, contribution to travelling expenses, or childcare expenses may make attendance possible. If you do provide this sort of support, it should be clear to would-be participants who is eligible, and how the support is allocated.
Consider different rates for students/junior/senior staff and whether there should be institutional vs. individual rates. Consideration of a participants host institution can also be relevant, such as corporate, non-for-profit etc.
For particular conferences, targeted financial support for some international contributions can contribute to the diversity of your participants. More narrowly, international contributors may benefit from guidance on border control rules for the country the event is taking place. Specialists in the host institution should be in a position to advise participants coming to the host institutions country, but this may need negotiation while you are planning your event.
When preparing marketing material consider if the images you use of people have consent for you to do so. It is quite common to ask for such permission from participants attending previous conferences. When selecting images to use to advertise the conference, ensure that there is a range of people from a variety of backgrounds - age, gender, ethnicity. For conferences aimed at those with specific needs, make sure that any special arrangements are highlighted. Try to get a range of people to preview your materials and take their suggestions into account. If you have access to an organisational marketing department, seek their advice on best practice.
Your choice of keynote or other special contributors may well be one of the main influences on the tone of your conference. This may be your opportunity to bring different voices and perspectives into dialogue with an established audience and broaden the focus of the conversation. Co-chairing and use of panels can facilitate diversity in representation.
A commitment to gender balance and ethnic diversity on panels, presentations and session leadership provides a clear focus to examine and question how authority, expertise and experience are understood, recognised and valued in your field. This may suggest reframing the format of some elements to enable deliberate inclusion of wider perspectives and create opportunities to connect with other networks within and beyond your organisation.
A Call for Papers may have differing appeal to different demographics of potential participants, for instance different language groups, different career stages, and different direct experience of a topic. Involving a wide range of people in drafting the Call for Papers may help to ensure that valuable participants are not deterred at this early stage (see 3.a.). A Call for Papers which requires papers to be presented by contributors as part of a broader panel may make it more difficult for new researchers to contribute.
For events where you anticipate only being able to accommodate a selection of papers offered, consider a selection process based on anonymous abstracts, analogous to anonymous peer review of articles submitted to journals.
Marketing materials need to encourage a range of participants (see 3.f.). The language used in the materials needs to be checked for understanding by a range of possible attendees. Similarly, any abbreviations and acronyms would benefit from an internet search to check for appropriateness. Cartoons and the use of humour needs to be considered carefully. Including preferred pronouns in the signature of emails from organisers may emphasise the inclusive approach of the team.
It is not sufficient to simply hope that under-represented groups will attend. Efforts should be made to disseminate information about the event as widely as possible, using all networks and contacts available. Proactive measures should be taken to seek out under-represented groups. It is worthwhile contacting groups that may be likely to interact with under-represented groups, perhaps even having a named contact or putting in an additional paragraph in the publicity material similar to that included in recruitment adverts.
Although it is important to consider a range of potential attendees and their needs, a contact number and range of contact options needs to be included in the marketing material from an early point in the planning. Part of the planning needs to consider flexibility in the arrangements prior to opening of bookings. Any conference website should include codes of conduct, anti-harassment procedures, and access policies.
Materials should be assembled bearing in mind the need for clear English as well as accessibility using assistive technology. Make it clear where to go to access alternative formats. Consider whether it is worth including on the delegate application form an indication that alternative materials will be required, and of what kind. Ensure that conference materials are explicit in terms of facilities surrounding public transport/parking/access.
It may be most effective to use broad terms such as: Respect for all individuals; Avoid personalising issues/comments; Ask questions rather than make comments; Remain open-minded.
Facilitating proper interaction by (e.g.) visually impaired participants, wheelchair users. Speak directly to those who have shared information about a disability in advance and ask for their input on how their full participation can best be facilitated. Encourage participants to discuss their requirements/preferences in advance.
Existing policies within the organisation are the best basis. Ensure that the organisers are familiar with these. A reference to them in documentation and links to them may clarify what the course of action could be. In the first instance, anyone who feels harassed should be encouraged to contact a named person/role at the conference. There should be clear routes for would-be participants to raise concerns around safety in advance of the conference, as well as during the conference itself.
Larger conferences may benefit from a formal code of conduct which is available to all participants, and makes clear not only the conference expectations of how they should conduct themselves, but also what is expected of others. Such a Code of Conduct should include a clear procedure for implementing it.
How will you brief your speakers on the scope of their contribution and is it feasible to make your commitment to diversity and inclusion explicit in this? It may be helpful to develop some guidance to cover an expectation of awareness of eg. the limitations of previous research, recognition of international context and specifically of BAME authors/researchers working in the field, understanding of the potential for biases in the existing range of citations and references being used. How are community and practitioner collaborations encouraged and engagement facilitated? It will also be helpful to highlight the importance of non-binary gender terminology and use of gender-neutral language wherever possible.
How will you brief your speakers on their choice of images, quotes, and examples in their presentations? Encouraging reflection on stereotypes may assist speakers.
Ask speakers to ensure that slides are accessible to all by considering use of a recommended accessible font, typically not below 18 point, avoiding glaring white backgrounds and limiting the amount of text on a slide. Ask speakers to bear in mind that some people will connect more viscerally with images than with words; while others will not be able to make use of visual images at all, or may be unable to hear a soundtrack on a video clip. It is also worth stressing to speakers keen to include as much of their content as possible within a narrow timeframe, that speaking too quickly may be a difficulty for some of the audience.
Whilst some participants will enjoy sitting back and listening to a presentation, others learn better when they are directly engaged. Consider how you can vary your presentation and delivery within the time you have available, or if you can discuss with other presenters how they will deliver their session and create variety between yourselves across the event.
There may be some circumstances where the fact that speakers and participants are not communicating in their first language may create a barrier. It is beneficial to everyone for questions and participant contributions to be made in clear and plain English as far as possible, avoiding over-length and complexity. If there is a specific need for interpretation or translation support then this needs to be considered at an early stage to explore possible solutions.
Speakers in a session may have particular needs to ensure that they are properly included in the session - for instance wheelchair access to the front of the room or podium. The chair should work with the conference organisers to ensure any requirements are properly addressed.
Everyone’s time is precious, however for some participants the pressure of external commitments brings strict and costly time constraints surrounding their attendance. It is important that chairs, speakers and organisers respect and adhere to the conference schedule and that any changes to timings and running order are communicated ahead to all participants. The timing of breaks and scheduling of specific sessions should also be part of wider considerations about the particular circumstances and needs of groups within your target audience.
Consider the diversity of the room when you select people to answer questions, e.g. if women or BAME attendees are in the minority it would be good to ensure their voices are heard. Software such as Slido or Mentimeter is useful to facilitate questions in a way that doesn’t require participants to speak in front of the room, and mitigates unconscious bias on who is selected to speak as well as ensuring that those whose diversities are not visible are afforded equal participation opportunities. Similarly, many participants will prefer to contact the speakers outside of the main presentation and the chair should ensure that the audience knows how to reach the speakers.
Advance access to these materials can be especially important for sign-language etc translation, but others will benefit, for instance those who require additional processing time, or make use of assistive technology or support workers. Against this, provision of such materials may constitute a barrier for participants who do not feel well established in the field, are new to academic conferences, or are conscious of taking a risk with a particular presentation. Balancing these competing needs will be need to take account the nature of your conference and prospective participants.
Some participants may have their own support workers to facilitate their participation in the conference. You should ensure that provision is made to enable their attendance (for instance providing extra seating at venues, allowing booking of extra overnight accommodation). You should think carefully before adding any conference charge for such workers, as it will effectively add a cost to the participant who requires the attendance of the support staff.
Consider reserving spaces at the front for people who use lip readers or British Sign Language/Sign Supported English interpreters; and ensuring that participants are aware of the importance of clear lines of sight throughout the session. Ensure that any materials required in Braille are available in good time (select a suitable Braille producer in advance and check lead-in times).
On arrival, orientation tours for all participants might be arranged, showing the location of all meeting rooms, break-out rooms, dining area, toilet facilities, fire escape routes etc. This sort of orientation can be especially valuable for visually impaired, socially anxious, or neurodivergent attendees.
Some participants may find it difficult to contribute fully in the event either because they find social interactions with groups of relative strangers especially challenging, or because they are new to the field and lack existing contacts. One possible solution is to enable participants to pair up with another, more established, participant, particularly during relatively unstructured moments in the conference. The organisers, and participants who know many of those working in the field, should consider acting as this sort of conference buddy if needed.
Ask in advance if mentoring might be welcome. Ask what skills new participants feel they would like to gain from taking part in the conference and how they see them being transferred to other activities. If there is sufficient demand, offer a pre-conference workshop for new participants to learn the fundamentals and network with each other. Offer to provide moral support on the day, which might include being present for the paper and offering reflective feedback afterwards as well as providing preparation help.
Some participants may be unwilling to give a formal paper, but may benefit from the opportunity to give a low-pressure, informal, contribution, perhaps to a smaller group of participants in the same position. A “First Thoughts” session, clearly flagged as even more work in progress than a normal conference paper, may be a good first step in building confidence in presenting to a particular group.
Consider the need for sharing this information and the purpose in doing so. Does it disadvantage those without institutional affiliation or certain professional titles?
Microphone use even in a small room can be essential for some participants. If microphones, ideally wireless ones, are available in a room they should be used by speakers as a matter of course. If they will not be used for a particular session, this should be noted in the conference programme. Organisers should be aware of any special challenges rooms may pose for listeners due to the acoustics of the room.
Make sure participants are aware of how long they will be seated in each area to allow them to gauge if another chair is required, or they may bring a supportive cushion. They may wish to see a picture of the chair in advance to decide if it is compatible with any supports they may bring with them. Ensure there is adequate space for a wheelchair and if a participant will stay in it or transfer to a venue static chair. Some participants may require moveable seating to allow them to change the spacing or orientation from their neighbour. If the venue does not allow any flexibility in seating, this should be noted in the conference programme.
Overcrowded rooms can be a challenging environment for a range of participants, particularly those with anxiety or social communication needs. This can be exacerbated if the space is too warm and poorly ventilated. This may be particularly important for conferences planed in hot weather. Room changes between popular and less popular sessions is one way of helping to address this
Is there access to any funding to meet the costs of additional childcare or other caring arrangements where this presents a barrier to attendance? Some participants may also have access to support from their own organisations, but many may not. Not considering how the conference fits with caring responsibilities will impact disproportionately on women. This is especially relevant where the event extends into the evening, or requires overnight stay. If there are nursery or creche facilities linked to your own institution, is it feasible for any places to be made available for conference delegates? Would older children be welcome to attend the event? Can any prior consultation establish how caring needs can best be accommodated?
A local member of the planning team can probably source this easily. It does not need to be extensive but you may wish to include: places to eat outside the venue (especially those designed for specialist diets), LGBTQ+ friendly bars / clubs, places of worship and local points of interest (e.g. museums) for time away from the conference.
If you are including accommodation in the conference package, ensure that there will be accessible rooms on request including, for instance, space for wheelchair transfer and accessible washing facilities, alarm alerts for people with hearing loss.
Ensure that participants are made aware of this provision in a non-intrusive manner, perhaps by including details on the website and in the conference pack. Anonymity might be a concern within the relatively closed environs of an academic conference, so if your conference is convening in a larger town or city, consider offering details of a number of pre-existing support groups in case participants would rather seek support outside the confines of the conference.
You may wish to have listening volunteers on the conference organising team, or simply to provide relevant helplines. It is easy to procure business cards from the Samaritans which could be added to delegate packs.
If your conference has a formal Code of Conduct, you will need to ensure that those with special responsibility under the Code are properly prepared. For any conference, participants will need to know there is someone they can contact during the conference if an issue arises. This may involve careful planning to ensure that there is no point when everyone involved in organising the conference is busy chairing, presenting etc.
You will wish to ask participants about dietary requirements in advance if you are catering or there is catering to purchase on site. Careful liaison with local catering services is needed well in advance to ensure these needs are met (e.g. does the kitchen guarantee that its meals are nut free or may there be contamination?). You may also with to consider how to separately accommodate those who find it very difficult to eat in company, for instance some people with anxiety difficulties or an eating disorder.
When planning socialising, networking and other informal events ensure that not all events are held in alcohol service areas, which could cause difficulties for participants for reasons of religion or addiction. Parallel events may be called for but as far as possible should be given equal weighting so that an event with alcohol is not billed as the ‘main’ or ‘better’ option.
Registration documentation should provide people with the opportunity as to how they wish to be identified. The use of open options rather than drop-down boxes may be the best route.
Use ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’ as gender neutral pronouns. Use gender neutral language more generally. Consider adding a space on name badges for people to indicate their preferred pronouns. (FJ/SF)
To some extent this will be dictated by the conference and likely attendees. Reference to specific interest groups, what has been done at previous conferences, including any feedback on these issues, may help to inform best practice. This should also take account of your decision about titles and affiliations for the schedule (see 5.g.).
Informal discussion around conference events can be challenging for some participants, and you may consider information on the badge (typically either a colour coded or shaped sticker) to indicate interaction preferences such as do not initiate interaction, or please initiate interaction. You should consider that visually impaired participants may not be able to make use of this, and ensure participants are willing to explain their badge status if necessary.
Familiarity with the layout and flow of the conference venue and facilities will be key to ensuring the smooth running of the event for everyone (see 3.b.ii; 5.a.i.). Allowing time between sessions for participants to comfortably get around will be especially important for those with limited mobility or other specific access needs. Where it is not possible for the event to take place on one level, then think carefully through the need for repeated use of lifts and stairs. Visual directions may be particularly useful for some participants.
Provision of map/plan, showing the location of meeting rooms, dining area, toilet facilities, fire escape routes, accessible routes.
Where off-site participation is arranged for those who cannot travel, this option should be available to both audience and participants. All technology should be tested between sessions and there should be support on hand to resolve any issues quickly with limited disruption for off-site participants. Off-site participants must have equal access to be able to ask questions of the speakers as those who are present. Software such as Slido can facilitate this (see 5.b.ii.).
One approach is for participants who require this should be able to reserve seats in particular places for particular sessions (see 5.h.ii.), and the chair of the session or another person responsible for supporting the session should take responsibility for ensuring the seat is marked as reserved, and resolving any dispute that may arise. Another approach, which requires less pre-planning but is less reliable and accommodating of different needs, is identifying particular seats as “accessible”, and to be left for those who need them. The chair or another person responsible for the session needs to take responsibility for resolving any dispute that may arise. In either case, your approach needs to recognise that as well as mobility issues, some participants with hidden disabilities (such as Crohn’s disease or anxiety) may need to know they can leave the session quickly and easily if necessary, and so may benefit from aisle seating.
Taking notes in a session may be useful for participants to reflect on later, and conference organisers may wish to plan to take notes, and share them, for each session. If so, ask the Chair if they would like to take their own notes or if they require someone else to do this. Could the session be recorded and notes written up afterwards and shared on the conference website or a more enclosed virtual space?.
Getting feedback on obstacles to inclusion, and the experience of participants, is key to improving future events. A brief anonymous online form, such as a google form, is a cost effective way of getting feedback immediately after the event to supplement any informal feedback during the event.
The tension between accessibility and exposure in making materials available outside of the presentation session has already been touched upon (see 5.d.i). The same issue arises in relation to making materials available after the conference. This can be a significant benefit to a range of participants, but may be an obstacle to participation for some participants. If you do plan to share materials after the conference, ensure that your policy is clear, and communicated to all speakers before the event.
Participants who felt unable to fully participate at the time, or who require time to process the event and formulate their contribution, may particularly benefit from mechanisms which allow discussion to continue past the end of the event. One possibility is for the chair of each session to collate “unasked questions”, put them to the relevant speaker by email, and then make responses available to all participants. Another would be to create online forums for each session through which participants can carry on discussions with the speakers and one another for a limited period after the event (perhaps two weeks).
This Protocol was drafted in 2018-2019 by an Oxford Brookes Working Group. This Group consisted of Craig Allen, Jane Butcher, Carmel Capewell, Peter Edge, Sarah Franklin, Kate Harford, Frances Jenkins and Christopher Tuck. We benefited from comments on earlier drafts by the Oxford Brookes Research Leads of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, EDI Champions, Staff Diversity Networks, and the Teaching and Learning Conference 2019. We are particularly grateful for detailed, individual, comments on earlier drafts from Claire Hann, Daniel Holloway, Farah Mendlesohn, and Lucy Vickers.
 See also 3.b.ii.
 2.b; 3.a.
 3.b.ii; 5.a.i.