How to organise a conference/symposium

To begin our PGR season of events, Dr Stacy Gillis delivered a workshop aimed at PGRs and ECRs who are considering organising their own conferences or symposia.

After deciding what kind of event you’ll be organising (anything from a single seminar to a large conference), she presented three key questions to ask yourself throughout the organising process.

How should I organise this event?

Stacy pointed to several factors to consider when getting started with the practicalities of event organising.

The first is timescale: for a single seminar or panel event having a lead in of a month or so is sufficient, but for large conferences, getting started with room bookings and CFPs should be happening at least 18-months ahead of conference dates. Because of the scale of work involved in conference organising, you should also consider when this would manageable work for you to take on (e.g. the post-submission, pre-viva period). Your timescale should also factor in plenty of time for publicity.

With that said, you should also expect the unexpected. Conference programmes can be expected to be subject-to-change up to the last minute, and there will always be unplanned for events that will need to be navigated as they arise.

Budgeting should also be a key consideration. There can be some small pots of departmental/university funding for inviting guest speakers or organising a single panel event, however these won’t cover the costs of a multi-day conference. The costs for large conferences can run up to somewhere around £16-18k and this needs to be balanced through avenues such as external funding and charging attendance/speaker fees.

Accessibility should also be a central consideration. As Stacy pointed out, women and other marginalised scholars are underrepresented in conference spaces, so consider providing a creche, having options for hybrid/asynchronous/online sessions, and ensure your venue has more accessible architecture.

“The same skills and knowledge apply whether you’re organising an afternoon seminar or a multi-panel, 4-day conference. The only difference is scale.”

Extra tips:

  • While you can get funding from research institutes, publishers, etc. but before signing on check if they have any event requirements and how hands-on/off they’ll be in the organising process.
  • Learn to use Excel.
  • Make sure to schedule ample break and meal times into your conference schedule, and provide food and drink where able.
  • Take care of yourself and ask for help from colleagues.

Why am I organising this event?

When taking on demanding work like conference organising, you should make sure it aligns with your interests and development, Stacy advises. You should ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience, whether and how it will help build your CV, if it will help you develop networks, or be beneficial to your development as a scholar.

As an organiser, it is inadvisable for you to put yourself on the programme or plan to attend many speakers/panels, so organising may be less beneficial to you if your current focus is on extending the reach of your research or learning from others’.

Conferences can also be a good way to build an edited book or journal volume, however this will likely be another 18 months to 2 years after the event itself, so consider if and how this timescale fits into your career plans.

Finally, as women, marginalised, and junior scholars we should also be wary of taking on work for others. If you’ve been asked to do organising work for someone else, question why you’re being asked to do this labour and who will benefit from your work. Large event organising is time consuming, so make sure it benefits you and isn’t taking away from time that might be spent on your own project(s) and rest.

What is my role as an organiser?

As an organiser, your job at an event is to facilitate and be a point of contact for attendees. This can involve a wide range of things depending on the event and will be a busy job so be sure to take care of yourself and make sure you’re not taking on too much.

In the run up to an event, your role will be different depending on the scale of the event, funding requirements, and your team. While you can organise single seminars or panel discussions by yourself, for most organising work you’ll be with a team. As much as possible, make sure this team is comprised of people you trust (people who will do their work), and people who have a diverse skill set.

“[Organisers are] there to facilitate the dynamic phatic and and social environment of a conference…Feed people well!”

Finally, as an organiser your role is not to be a travel agent. While you can put together a local guide, organise activities, negotiate deals with local hotels and transport agencies, it is not your job to book accommodation, activities, and transportation for individual attendees.

With thanks again to Dr Stacy Gillis for delivering such an informative talk. Please see below for a recording of the event:

Dr Anne-Charlotte Husson: The Language and Inclusivity Project

Last week, NU Women hosted Dr Anne-Charlotte Husson to introduce us to her work developing Newcastle University’s Language and Inclusivity Guide.


The guide was developed using ten staff and student interviews, eighty-four survey responses, a literature review, and focus groups to test the guide before publication. From these data sources, the guide was built with several core considerations in mind, including ensuring gender is treated as intersectional, taking account of the various needs of students and (academic and PS staff), and fitting the guide into the University’s broader EDI agenda. It also recognises that the University is a multilingual, multicultural, and intergenerational environment, and is sensitive to how to open up conversations around gender and inclusive language across these contexts.

There are two types of language addressed in the guide: language that is always offensive (slurs), and language that is tied with changing cultural norms (e.g. pronouns, titles, and addressing mixed groups as ‘guys’). The guide is not intended to be a ‘cheat sheet’ outlining words to use or to avoid, rather it is intended to establish a basis for shared understanding around issues of gender inequality and form the foundations of conversations around gender across the University.

Since its publication in 2019, the guide has also been translated into several languages spoken across the University and will be translated into several more in the coming months.

How to use the guide

The guide is split into four sections. The introduction takes readers through why language matters to EDI, a brief primer on sociolinguistics, and addresses the complexities of (reclaimed) slurs.

The next section, Gender in so many words, introduces readers to ten key notions around gender and how they are used. These include broad ideas such as ‘gender’ and ‘intersectionality’ alongside more specific terms like ‘cisgender’ and ‘queer.’ This section concludes with I got it wrong. What do I do? Here, the guide outlines steps to take when making a socio-linguistic mistake, emphasising the importance of reflecting on mistakes and learning from them.

This work is continued into the next section, Gender-Inclusive Language, which guides readers through recognising and avoiding gendered biases and offensive language and provides a detailed view to addressing the many nuanced socio-linguistic issues tied up with gender.

Next steps

Following the publication of the guide the Language and Inclusivity Project is looking to extend its work into three key areas. First, they intend to develop staff training resources that are sensitive to meeting the specific training needs of different staff members and work areas. Similarly, they aim to extend their work into the teaching and learning environment, although this will look different for different schools. Core to this is a recognition that gender is always present in the classroom. Finally, the Project also aims to include students in this and are working to make sure every student is exposed to questions related to gender, inclusivity, and language.

If you’re interested in hearing more about or would like to get involved in the project, please email: anne-charlotte.husson@newcastle.ac.uk

A recording of the event is available below:

Writing groups: Who, what, where, and when?

Last week, a small group of NU Women members met to discuss writing groups, to share experience, best practice, and thoughts on continuing to develop NU Women’s writing groups and others across the institution. The discussion space was used for collaborative sharing around writing groups and was facilitated by Dr Stacy Gillis.

Who are writing groups for? Who participates?

Based on the diversity of experiences from those participating in the session, it could be said writing groups, in some form or another, are for everyone! Particularly, they benefit people who want to develop their writing techniques or practices, and for those who are feeling overwhelmed and need a space to catch up on research work without working during the weekends/holidays. This is particularly helpful to people with parenting and/or caring responsibilities, to whom other approaches such as writing retreats are inaccessible.

Writing groups represent an opportunity to learn from and with our peers, and functions best when participants hold each other accountable, and each take phatic responsibility for the success of the group. With this in mind, some people mentioned that they found interdisciplinary writing groups to be particularly helpful for fostering these attitudes, as interdisciplinary groups relieved feelings of pressure and competition.

In more practical terms, it was suggested that between five and eight participants seems to be the preferred size of a group. The benefits of women-only spaces were also discussed, as these can be a safer space for participants, particularly as the organisational and emotional labour of running writing groups often falls to women.

“What can I give to a group? What can I take?”

What are writing groups for? What needs to they address? What work is needed to create them?

Broadly, there are three types of writing groups: long-term and open-ended ones; they can be short-term and organised around meeting a specific deadline or delivering a certain output; or they can be project-based and orientated towards collaboratively achieving a certain goal. Each of these has their own kinetic energy and are preferable to different people depending on working styles and current career goals. They can also be particularly helpful for skill sharing and acquisition among colleagues when organised around things like proposal writing.

Writing groups also present an opportunity to check-in with each other, celebrate each other, and be honest with each other about the research process and struggle. Their value also carries beyond providing a space for writing, into being a space for solidarity, making friends, and networking (particularly in interdisciplinary groups). In this sense, writing groups also function as an act of feminist solidarity – guided by principles of mutual support, transparency, and flexibility. They are a protected space of care within the neoliberal institution.

In terms of organising work, there is some logistical planning needed to set up and run writing groups. This is variable depending on the levels of commitment from participants, whether they happen online or face-to-face, and whether there’s suggested reading or other tasks for participants to complete before each session. What is appropriate for your writing group depends on the needs and preferences of your group and the amount of time you can commit to organising.

Where do/should writing groups happen? Where are they needed?

Within the meeting there was broad agreement that the ‘where’ of writing groups should be flexible, not only to the circumstances of the pandemic but to other factors such as childcare commitments and workflow. Much of the discussion however was focused on the relative pros and cons to organising online versus offline writing group meetings. It was noted that, while both have their own distractions a significant benefit of online meetings is that they alleviate some of the organising pressures of room booking. However, online meetings do carry the problem of Zoom burnout and low engagement.

It was also identified that, because writing groups can be useful to staff and students across the institution, there is a need to share best practices. However, there is some resistance to the institutionalisation of writing groups to preserve their feminist, counter-neoliberal strengths.

When do/should writing groups happen? How do we identify when writing groups are needed?

In practical terms, writing groups tend to work best when their meetings are around two or three hours long, and when they’re not just drop-in sessions but require regular commitment from their members (while avoiding being to rigid to the detriment of mutual care within the group).

At times, writing groups arise organically out of other meetings or networks, or out of reading groups. Similarly, we can ask when the right time is for writing groups to happen. Should they always be ongoing, or should they happen around crunch seasons? As was found throughout the session, the answers to these questions are dependent on individual’s needs and outside commitments.

Blended working: a resource sharing discussion

Last week, NU Women and NU Parents co-hosted a discussion space to allow colleagues to share their experiences of the transition to blended working in their corners of the University institution over the last few months. Hosted as a two-hour drop-in session over lunchtime hours, the attendees raised a wide variety of talking points, airing issues, and sharing coping strategies. There was a lot shared among the attendees, and the below is an abridged summary of the many points raised. If you’re interested in hearing more about this transitional period, please get in touch with NU Women to receive the full session notes.

1. Main concerns and suggestions:

  • Overall, the attendees viewed blended working as a net positive to their experience of employment at the University. Everyone emphasised that they were committed to keeping blended working open as an option.
  • All attendees noted that a lot of their anxiety during this transition period stems from a lack of certainty around longer term plans from the University regarding the longevity of blended working.
  • The University should establish a set of guiding principles around blended working. This would prevent feelings that blended working arrangements are implemented at the whims of management and would help staff feel more secure in their own arrangements and empower them to advocate for themselves.
  • The University should invest in blended working. Many noted a clear difficulty in communicating across OC and WFH colleagues, particularly in meetings that take place simultaneously online and in-person. To make blended working more sustainable, the attendees suggested investing in coaching or training on different listening and communicative styles, and in technologies to bridge this gap.
  • Part of protecting staff members’ ability to flexibly WFH is recognising the benefits of blended working beyond the COVID pandemic. Every attendee noted ways that being able to WFH, even occasionally, has benefitted their personal and family lives.

2. Workplace culture

Attendees communicated a general sentiment that the University leadership’s framing and implementation of blended working has thus far been unjustified and uneven. Primarily, many people spoke on a feeling that they weren’t being trusted by their leadership to work from home effectively and that this was particularly disappointing given their efforts to keep the University running over the many months of mandated WFH time.

Ultimately, it felt to many attendees that their experience of blended working was very much dependent on the preferences and good will of their line managers. Some cited frustration at a lack of justification for individual managers’ emphasis on presenteeism, while others praised managers for taking extra steps to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their staff as they returned to the office. One attendee shared that she was grateful that her manager had taken the care to ensure that staff working on campus will be working with a wide variety of colleagues to combat the feelings of isolation among the team.

However, some were concerned with their managers’ emphasis on productivity over wellbeing, stating that they felt discouraged at the current blended working set up prioritising hours spent at work (in the office or at home) over the quality or quantity of their work itself. It was the experience among the group that this resulted in a poorer relationship with their work and often put undue stressors on their wellbeing in already challenging circumstances. Many were also struggling to keep their productivity high alongside the distractions of returning to busy office environments and they wanted to feel more supported in making this transition, particularly in recognition of the social benefits of returning to campus.

Attendees also commented on their very different experiences of blended working depending on their role at the University. While not all this difference was problematic (i.e. the expectation that estates and student-facing staff will be expected to be on campus more than ‘behind the scenes’ colleagues), others noted that their experience was very dependent on the locations they worked at and who they worked with. One attendee on a satellite campus greatly appreciated the relative quiet at her workplace and wasn’t sure if she would feel as safe on central campus. Other attendees commented on feelings of unease around colleagues and students refusing to follow mask-wearing and distancing guidelines.

3. Disabled staff and staff with parenting and/or caring responsibilities

Even before the current pandemic, blended working arrangements would have been helpful for disabled staff and staff with parenting and/or caring responsibilities. During the session, it was noted that, due to being able to work from home many had been able to take on more work hours and thus bridge some of the pay gaps experienced by these groups. Presenteeism is physically demanding and puts strains on care arrangements, and blended working arrangements have enabled staff to take better care of these areas of their personal lives while maintaining their workloads.

Further, the normalisation of this style of working was experienced as contributing to a more accessible workplace, particularly when also taking care of their own and their dependents’ wellbeing. However, this was coupled with concern that these arrangements would only be available during the pandemic, while abled and non-parenting/caring staff are in need of them, and attendees wanted to ensure that blended working would remain an option into the future.

NU Women Annual Lecture

For this year’s NU Women Annual Lecture, we were delighted to welcome guest speaker Mary Ann Sieghart, who discussed her book, The Authority Gap.

Mary Ann talked about how women are taken less seriously than men, and the effect this can have on a woman’s confidence. Drawing upon interviews and studies, Mary Ann worked through a plethora of evidence which shows that women are repeatedly deemed inferior to their male colleagues.

“Indeed, if women aren’t taken as seriously as men, they are going to be paid less, promoted less, and held back in their careers.”

As Mary Ann explained, these inbuilt, gendered assumptions mean that for every 100 men promoted to manager, a position of authority, only 85 women are promoted, and this is even worse for women of colour.

These sorts of authority gaps do not just happen in the workplace either: they are also found in everyday life, and they happen even to the most senior of women. Mary Ann spoke about authoritative women such as Amber Rudd and Michelle Bachelet, who gave their own personal examples of when they were underestimated, or “manderstimated”.

“Being ignored, having your expertise challenged, being underestimated and patronised, being interrupted and talked over – these are all manifestations of the authority gap.”

Mary Ann discussed where these issues start. Gender inequality can be found in the school playground, as girls are taught to be modest and self-deprecating, whereas boys tend to involve themselves in boastful competitiveness. Girls, because of old-fashioned stereotypes, are punished for displaying the same confident behaviour as boys, and this continues into adult life. Women, in short, are expected to show communality, such as kindness and concern for others, whereas men are expected to show agency through the forms of assertiveness and dominance.

As explained by Mary Ann, the only way that women can be assertive is by covering it up with warmth: smiling, joking, and being emotionally aware of the male egos around them.

“So there is a real double bind for women: if a woman isn’t confident or assertive enough, she’ll never get anywhere. People won’t take her seriously. But if a woman is confident and assertive, many of us will resist her and dislike her.”

Mary Ann warned of gender bias, and the way that women can also judge other women, but also discussed the intersection of biases, such as race, class, sexuality and disability.

Mary Ann ultimately gave some solutions (her book lists 140) as to how we can narrow the authority gap:

  • We can accept that, however liberal and intelligent – and even female – we are, we probably suffer from unconscious bias.
  • We can’t stop this unconscious bias or put a lid on it. We don’t need to feel ashamed of it. But we can recognise that it is based on incorrect assumptions and outdated stereotypes and then correct for it.
  • We can notice if, when walking up to a man and woman together, we address the man first.

These were just a few – to learn more – do read her book, available to purchase on her website: https://www.maryannsieghart.com/

Thank you to Mary Ann for giving such a wonderful talk – and as evident in the questions and feedback – it was well received by all attendees. For the recording, please see below.

Annual Report 2021-22

Each year, NU Women compiles data from our events and initiatives as well as the results from our Annual Survey to assess the impact of the Network over the past year and consider changes we could make in the year ahead.

Some key findings from the report this year include:

  • The ability to access recordings of our events has been highly valued over the past year. This is something we will look to preserve as we move into a blended approach in the future, particularly as some members have expressed a desire to see the return of in-person events.
  • From our Annual Survey responses, the bi-monthly newsletter was the most valued activity organised by NU Women over the past year. Currently, the newsletter has over 1100 subscribers, and following the redesign in January 2021 we’re very pleased to hear that it’s well received.
  • Following this, the blog was cited as the second most valuable resource organised by NU Women this year. Based on other survey responses and feedback through other channels, this is because it is used as an accessible archive for our events where we post summaries and recordings.
  • Several survey respondents requested more networking and/or career oriented events in the coming academic year. Specifically, we will look to host women talking about their career paths, mixer events, and career mentoring.
  • These responses also echo a more general desire to see some more interactive or workshop-style events hosted by NU Women, with the understanding that some of these types of events are covid dependent.
  • Other activities organised by NU Women this year include: weekly writing groups; a zine collecting creative responses to working conditions during the pandemic; a film on the topic of women’s work at the University; and a charity glasses collection drive where we were able to donate over 400 pairs of glasses for Vision Aid Overseas.

Thank you to all our members for participating in NU Women, particularly through the challenges of 2020-21, and for your thoughtful responses as we look to improve our work in the future.

The report can be accessed in full below:

NU Women Film Launch

Created by Alex Joyce, with thanks to all our participants.

This film collects the experiences of several NU Women members working and studying across Newcastle University. In these interviews, female staff and PGRs reflect on their career pathways, their role within the university, the advice they would give to future female staff, their successes and challenges, their development opportunities, support mechanisms, and the impact of Covid-19.

Ebb & Flow in Cullercoats: A seed from the NU Women Zine

By Lesley Wood (artist) and Elisa Lopez-Capel (lecturer at Newcastle University)

We are a group of six women sea swimmers who got together in 2020 and have given each other support, encouragement and plenty of laughs ever since. Like other women, we all juggle work and community volunteering with caring for our families through these difficult pandemic times.

Our friendship and the sea swimming have been crucial for our mental health and well-being.  When the world shut down around us we were still there for each other down on the beach, in nature, clutching hot drinks, sharing stories, cake and a whole lot of kindness.

Six women entering the sea at dusk wearing neon colours and safety lights
CLAVES – the group of six women sea swimmers.

We have a lot of fun together but particularly enjoyed making a collective artwork in response to the call from the NU Women Zine The Lockdown Shift. Using a nifty method (waterproof, paper-lined tubes containing chalk pastels, stuffed inside our cossies) we recorded the patterns of our movement in the water, then added words to describe our shared experience of swimming in the sea.  From which came the following ‘found poem’:

Brave, connected friendship.

Mother Sea kept me going.

Liberation in lockdown.

Our contribution to the NU Women zine sparked the idea of encouraging other creative people in Cullercoats to showcase their work. Thus Ebb & Flow was born, a community art celebration aiming at raising funds for our local RNLI station. A local venue was agreed, a call went out to local artists and other creative people, their submissions were reviewed, selected, and installed in the café space. After 3 months of hard work and enthusiastic support from pretty well everyone we talked to, two nights of community art were realised and an exhibition catalogue/zine was published (thanks to the Cullercoats Collective). 

A blue and white nautical logo reading "Ebb and Flow"

COVID restrictions were being lifted so, whilst still being careful, we welcomed around 80 people over the two nights.  A Grand Opening showcased the work of 12 local artists, featured some excellent sea shanty singing, and an RNLI representative (sweltering in his full kit).  On the following evening there was a wonderful performance night with local writers and musicians- the first time since lockdown for most people of either being part of, or performing to, an audience, laughing, singing and clapping together.

Ebb & Flow was a resounding success, coming at just the right time and blessed with glorious weather. As a bonus we raised £440 for our local heroes, the Cullercoats RNLI.  It was a fabulous opportunity to share community, creativity, love and respect for nature and our beautiful coastline, celebrating the gifts it gave us through lockdown and telling the stories, the ups and downs of the extraordinary time we have been through together. In these uncertain times, Ebb & Flow was a pleasure to work on (a break from work!), we made something really good happen, which was heart-warming and fun.  After such a long time of separation from each other, we experienced a powerful sense of connection and shared joy.

Launching: The Lockdown Shift

NU Women are delighted to announce the launch of our first zine: The Lockdown Shift!

Collected during Women’s History Month 2021, the personal essays, poetry, and art featured here respond to themes of home, work, family, coping, and care. These submissions capture and reflect the many ways that the past year of covid lockdowns has effected women working and studying at Newcastle University.

The decision to create a zine came out of an uncertainty of how NU Women should mark International Women’s History Month this year. During a time when we couldn’t meet as a community and were swamped with the extra practical and emotional labour that comes with being at home, trying to put together a big event was impractical at best. Instead, a zine felt like a fitting response to these restrictions and the atmosphere they brought.

A zine felt like a fitting response to these restrictions and to this atmosphere – as collaborative objects they create space for community across distance and as feminist objects they permit an outlet for the messy, emotive, and confessional. All of these are much needed responses to the events of the past eighteen months.

Over the past week, we’ve distributed copies of The Lockdown Shift to all central and science central campus buildings, so please do take a copy. But if you’re unable to make it to campus, the zine can also be viewed in full here:

https://issuu.com/nuwomen/docs/the_lockdown_shift

With thanks, as always, to our wonderful contributors.