How to go from black tie to bathing suit? Gendered reflections on conference processes that shape our careers

By Luzan Koster & Thijs Willems | Reading time: 8 minutes

For many scholars, summer time means conference time. In winter we write an engaging abstract or paper to get accepted for a relevant conference. In summer we present our work to our scientific community who can challenge our line of thought. We hop from conference room to conference room to attend the presentations of others and engage in stimulating conversations during breaks and social events. Indeed, participating in conferences entails learning how to become a scholar and includes network activities that help sharpening our paper’s argument. The process therefore is a valuable and vital part of our work. But is this process as easy breezy as it sounds?

Smart debating does not only take place in the formal setting of conference buildings. Participants meet in various foreign countries, where one location is even more exotic than the other. In fact, so we argue in this blog, the informal events during conferences may potentially mark how our careers unfold. During such events, the boundaries between the formal/informal and professional/personal become blurred. This should urge us to be more aware of our role and that of others during conferences. We address this issue from one specific perspective: we show how our gender may shape how informal events at conferences are experienced.

Sunny setting

The following story takes place with the beautiful emerald blue Ionian Sea as its background. Here, at a yearly symposium, scholars gather to overthink theory and methods based on the theme ‘Process Philosophy’. The protagonists of the story are two PhD students, one male and the other female, who try to find subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways to blend in with ‘the professionals’. The convenor opens with: “This is not just a conference but a symposium, emphasizing the importance of good food, drinks, and company”. Work goals and holiday moods might seem contradictory, but scholars widely agree that the open and relaxed atmosphere is inspiring. Yet, it may be hard to follow work ethics when you are invited to after curriculum activities…

Conference evening of a woman: “Gender trouble”!

Tonight is the conference dinner, so I do my hair and put on a black springy gown. The long dress has a closed neckline and small see-through at the back, nothing too revealing. There normally are no strict dress codes, but most women do their best and bring their party clothes. When my Dutch colleagues and I arrive at the open-air venue, almost all tables covered with white linen at the seaside are already taken. The last table is held by only one man, so we ask if we can join him. We start talking and laughing, and when his group of friends arrives, we mingle. It turns out, the man is a renowned professor, but hierarchical positions do not matter now.

We move to a beach club to have more drinks. Everyone gets a big summery cocktail and sits down at the luxurious lounge. One of our new friends starts chartering everyone to go for a dive in the sea under the moonlight. While our group of the evening seems to have no problem to take their suits off, the rest of the conference participants raise their eyebrows. I feel somewhere in between, which presents a dilemma. On one hand, I do not want to be a spoiler and break the newly forged bond with an interesting group of scholars. On the other hand, I wonder how the image of my half naked body could harm my reputation in this scientific community! I hear a splash; the professor has dived in.

Conference evening of a man: Free your mind

Getting back to my room after an exhausting conference day, I take a cold shower to cool off. I unpack my suitcase to select the most fitting attire for tonight’s conference dinner. But what to wear? Stay on the safe side and wear something formal and too warm for the Mediterranean summer nights? “They won’t dislike me because of my choice of clothes”, I convince myself, “and besides, I’m a man and they would probably respect my laissez-fair attitude”. I hop on my comfortable short and airy t-shirt, and a few minutes later I am sipping a lovely local white wine with colleagues. Once seated, I notice that, while most women are dressed in a similar style as the luxurious setting of the restaurant, the other men wear their shorts, sandals, and half open shirts too.

At our table, theoretical approaches are casually merged in dinnertime stories. A heated discussion arises on Judith Butler’s ideas of ‘gender performativity’, referring to the fact that our gender is not given by nature, but very much socially constructed; the meaning of gender is created by humans as we act according to socially accepted and desired behavior. We leave the issue and move to the seaside bar where waves rhythmically hit the shore. When my mojito is almost finished, some part of our crew has raised the idea of a midnight swim. I waver for a second, hesitant to the idea of taking off my clothes in front of future colleagues. But the crowd clearly expects me to show some bravery, and shouts: “Come on man, don’t worry too much”. We jump in.

“Bodies that matter”: normative chains?

The work of Judith Butler (1990, 2011) shows that our gendered behavior is always to some extent prescribed by roles, gestures, clothing, and speech that are socially desired, depending on our male or female body. Our stories above indeed reflect how our body and gender influenced our thoughts, doubts, emotions, and choices for action. Whereas females usually ‘have to’ behave according to some undefined feminine standard, their scholarly male counterparts can break the rules as this portrays some undefined sense of ‘masculinity’. A woman may be frowned upon when dropping her dress, showing her body, to dive into the water, while a man may be applauded for having the guts to do so.

In no way, of course, we mean to say that women are determined to behave as women, and neither that there would only be one way that a man is expected to behave. The variations are endless and gender comes in many different shapes. However, what we want to address with this blog is that conferences are not some self-evident trips just for fun (in Dutch: ‘snoepreisjes’). When it comes to informal events at conferences, it matters ‘who we are’ and ‘how we are seen’. Especially so when we consider that there may be a difference, or tension even, between who we are as a scholar and who we are in private time. There are certain rules and expectations we should be aware of, which can play out differently for men and women.

In the process of becoming a scholar, PhD’s are often asked what kind of scholar we want to be. Seniors advise us to carefully think through our written work and to reflect on producing novel, exiting work as opposed to automatically following the main stream. However, what about informal factors? Who we meet at conferences affects our research perspectives and interests, opportunities for future projects and jobs. If conferences and informal networking are career changers, do we really have a choice to break conventions? What are the consequences if we do or don’t? How do these choices differ for men and women?

We hope this blog has inspired you to better reflect on your own role during informal events. For now: Happy conference season! 


Luzan Koster is a PhD candidate in the department of Organization Science. Her research focuses on ‘the interpretation of the new discourse by patients, professionals and informal caregivers and on the way this affects their identities‘.

Thijs Willems is a PhD candidate in the department of Organization Science. His research focuses on ‘The role of collaborative routines during disruptions in the Dutch railway system’. 

References

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2011). Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of “sex.” London: Routledge.

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