What’s wrong with conference networking

This past ESA meeting Molly and I were asked to be the resident Millennials to speak about how ESA can attract and retain young entomologists.  We gathered info from our interviews as well as some off-the-record convos and general observations at meetings to come up with some general ideas.  The night before I was set to give the talk I was having ice cream and coffee with colleagues at one of the hotel restaurants and we started talking about issues that creep up as someone under 40 attending conferences and trying to network.  A dear friend then made an observation that the rest of us had never considered.  He said “networking at conferences happens at the bar which is not a welcoming environment”.

And it’s true.  Anyone reading this who has attended even a single conference or trade show knows that the real work happens after the talks are over.  People eat, they drink, and that’s where a lot of really great ideas are born.  Sometimes over beer, sometimes wine, very often hard liquor.  But when you conjure up this image in your head of the after-hours networking pool, who is there?  Probably men, probably white, and probably older.

Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart. NYE, 1957.
Bars are masculine environments.  They’re loud.  They’re crowded.  They’re sometimes sticky in unknown ways and almost everyone has some form of liquid courage in them.  From a woman’s perspective this is intimidating as hell.  You know what I think of when I think of bars?  Having parts of my body touched without my permission.  Being creepily stared at or bought drinks from some stranger.  Being awkwardly hit on.  Plenty of straight laced, professional guys turn into total creeps when they’re away from home and drinking whiskey.

From the perspective of an international student this can also be a horrible place to find yourself.  It’s hard enough to hear someone at a bar when you both speak the same native language.  What about person’s with disabilities – seen and unseen.  Crowded bars with slippery floors and unstable chairs doesn’t sound like a fun place for someone with a physical impairment.  Noisy environments where you have to yell over a table of people doesn’t sound like a great environment for anyone with a hearing, speaking, or mental disability.  Not to mention some people simply don’t drink or don’t enjoy drinking.

These environments directly deter the very people we crave in STEM.  How often do you hear people talk about diversity in STEM?  We need more women.  We need more minorities.  We need more people with different perspectives – that’s how great problems are solved and great ideas are created.  This is entirely true!  And at the same time, we entice people from these backgrounds to come to conferences to “network” only to have them meet possibly the most intimidating environment they could fathom.

Since we know that true networking happens outside of talks, this is a huge problem for anyone wanting to increase diversity in their lab, department, college, or institution.  We need more options to make people feel welcome if we ever want them to stick around and give their input.  Student mixers that don’t focus on booze consumption.  Conference centers with more options than just a pub.  Scheduled networking sessions with coffee or fro yo (as was suggested by another dear friend).

But it goes even beyond that.  The culture of science is deeply ingrained with the idea that everyone is a high-functioning alcoholic.  After I gave our talk at ESA, directly discouraging the use of alcohol as a networking tool, another speaker walked up to the podium and started their talk with “I will go quickly so everyone can get to the bar”.   This idea is outdated and directly inhibitory to the very things we promote as scientists.  It’s time to acknowledge the fact that STEM is not a good ol’ boys club anymore.

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