Time’s Up – The Sexualisation of Academic Conferences

“Academia is just second to the military in rates of sexual harassment” – this was just one of the shocking statistics Professor Pat Hawley shared during her plenary talk at the Human Behavioural and Evolutionary Sciences (HBES) conference this year. At the end of her inspirational talk, Prof. Hawley received a standing ovation, for not only the content and delivery of the talk, but also for having the strength to stand up and approach the topic, especially at a conference. Prof. Hawley is a developmental psychologist at Texas Tech University, USA. Her research areas include power, aggression, gender, and fantasy, for more information click here. Well established, Hawley also has a TEDx talk and two co-edited books: Aggression and Adaptation: The Bright Side to Bad Behaviour and The Evolution of Personality and Individual Differences. Some of her research focusing on gender and power has focused around the issue of the “leaky pipeline” and women’s success within academia. The “leaky pipeline” phenomenon is that women seem much less successful or keen to pursue higher career paths from postgraduate level onwards, read more about it here.

Hawley’s empowering talk started with her personal story of sexual harassment within academia, setting the tone for the seriousness that is needed with such topics. Following on from this, Hawley outlined empirical findings to explore sexual harassment in academia.  One piece of research had investigated the effects of gender representation within conferences [2]. The team of researchers surveyed over 300 academic participants (63% women) from three conferences (different women-to-men attendance ratios) about conference perceptions, coping tactics, and their intentions to leave the conference and/or academia. Findings showed that the higher the women-to-men ratio the less likely women were to perceive sexism. Additionally, women and men who perceived sexism at the conference had higher intentions to exit both the conference and academia as a career. The authors emphasised the importance of these findings as conferences signal the norms within academia. Unfortunately, in some cases, the sexism starts before you even get to a conference. For example, one conference (that will remain nameless) advertised a conference event with a sexualized image of a woman’s lips. Empirically, Biernat and Hawley [1] investigated the effects of such conference advertisements and found that participants exposed to a flyer with an eroticized image expected a sexualized atmosphere (compared to a control image). Importantly, women in this condition anticipated feeling less competent which was mediated by objectification and discomfort.

This clear intention to leave academia after experiencing sexism at conferences alone (as well as workplace harassment and the gender pay gap!) may be contributing to the “leaky pipeline” epidemic for female academics. It must be noted that the talk was not received well by all conference attendees, with some offering harsh criticisms. Regardless of how it was received, her talk encouraged a conversation between conference attendees and on social media, which was still being discussed throughout the conference and continuing now! I am privileged to have had the opportunity to watch Prof. Hawley’s talk, and grateful for all female academics who are paving the way for equality in academia.


[1] Biernat, M., & Hawley, P. H. (2017). Sexualized images in professional contexts: Effects on anticipated experiences and perceived climate for women and men. Journal of Applied Social Psychology47(10), 568-583.

[2] Biggs, J., Hawley, P. H., & Biernat, M. (2018). The academic conference as a chilly climate for women: Effects of gender representation on experiences of sexism, coping responses, and career intentions. Sex Roles78(5-6), 394-408.

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