Racy Presentation Photos Force Scientific Society to Write New Code of Conduct

Author: David McMillin       

Attendees at a recent conference were not pleased when the accompanying slide deck for an awards acceptance speech included sexist images. Here’s how the organizers took action.

An annual meeting of ichthyologists and herpetologists seems like an unlikely site for a scandal over risqué photographs. After all, the study of fish (ichthyology), and amphibians and reptiles (herpetology) doesn’t seem to lend itself to racy content. However, Dick Vogt, the recipient of the Distinguished Herpetologist award at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in Rochester, New York in mid-July, caused an uproar by including images of scantily clad female students conducting field research in his presentation.

Organizers recognized that Vogt’s presentation materials might offended members of the audience before he appeared on stage. According to an article from Justin Murphy at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, they had added blue boxes to censor portions of the women’s bodies. “We saw some slides we thought might have been offensive,” Henry Mushinsky, the conference committee chairman, told Murphy. “Some of the photos people thought were a little too revealing, so we decided to sort of block them out a bit. The whole idea was to try to minimize anyone feeling uncomfortable.”

Apparently, those boxes didn’t do enough. After a wave of criticism from attendees, all parties involved scrambled to limit fallout from the presentation. Dr. David Sever, the president of the Herpetologists League — the organization responsible for selecting the award — resigned last week, citing health reasons. Dr. Willem M. Roosenburg, the organization’s new president, apologized on behalf of the league’s Board of Trustees and outlined plans for a new process to improve “inclusivity and the feelings of welcome for people of all backgrounds to create a diverse and vibrant scientific society whose primary focus is academic excellence.”

The American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH), another organization involved in planning the event, announced bigger plans to scrutinize the conference’s approach to establish that welcoming environment. The measures include:

  • A new Code of Conduct for behavior at annual meetings
  • Discussions to hire a trained professional that JMIH attendees who experience harassment, discrimination of other violations of the Code of Conduct can contact
  • Funding for a new symposium at next year’s meeting to highlight the work of women herpetologists

Diversity Initiatives Don’t Always Get the Job Done

It’s important to note that this kind of issue should never happened in the first place — not just because it’s clearly wrong to show slides that objectify women, but also because the ASIH has already invested resources in initiatives designed to make sure that every member of the community feels respected. A Diversity Committee has been in place, although there are now plans to make it a standing committee rather than an ad-hoc committee, and the organization sends out an annual Diversity Survey.

Organizers rescinded the award from Vogt, and Roosenburg requested help from the scientific community to move forward. “I encourage members of all societies that participate in future iterations of the JMIH to continue the discussions that have been precipitated by these events,” he wrote, “and to share your thoughts and ideas on how we can make HL and our joint meetings the best possible forum for advancing our science in a positive, forward-looking environment that is respectful to all.”

Have you faced any similar issues with questionable presentation materials at your conference? Or have you ever been forced to tell a speaker that he or she has inappropriate slides? Go to Catalyst to share your thoughts.