Why it is icky to offer free conference registration for student volunteers


Some academic societies do this thing where they offer free conference registration to a limited number of students, and in turn, those students earn their keep by donating their labor for to help run the conference (at registration tables, projection tech support, etc).

I think this is problematic.

You might think that this increases accessibility and allows students who otherwise couldn’t afford to attend the conference to attend. And I think you’re right about that. But just because a practice provides access, this doesn’t make it equitable or just. This practice brings students who are already at a structural disadvantage and then literally treats them like the hired help. Because these students are replacing workers who otherwise would have to be hired by the organizers.

The students who come from well-funded labs or who have the means to pay out of pocket aren’t going to be volunteering. They’re going to be there to fully enjoy the meeting, and they get to choose how to use their time.

The student volunteers are the hired help. Only they’re not hired. They’re the poors who have their labor extracted for free so that the Society can balance the budget.

I get that balancing the budget is important, and also that it’s hard. And I really get that it’s difficult and under appreciated work to do all the work in organizing the conference. Hats off to you. Thank you, in full sincerity. But also, please listen carefully when I’m saying here that there’s else something to change up to make the meeting more equitable and to stop othering the students who have fewer resources.

You might argue that volunteering gives students an opportunity to do networking and be exposed to science that they otherwise might choose not see. There is a bit of truth to that but if it’s such an opportunity, then shouldn’t the conference be charging students who want this networking opportunity extra for the privilege? Or at least let students volunteer at no extra charge? But you know that won’t fly. Because you know and I know that volunteering for free registration is metaphorically sitting in the back of the bus.

The bottom line is that these volunteer positions exist because organizers are trying to make the conference accessible in two ways: lowering the cost for everybody by reducing registration fees, and allowing some students who need the support to attend without having to pay for registration. Those are really good priorities. But operationalizing them by making poorer students volunteer to be able to have a seat at the table is Diversity 1.0. IWe can do better than that. We should expect better than that from our academic societies.

But what can societies do to make sure that students who can’t afford registration can still attend the meeting? I think there are a variety of more accessible ways to approach this.

You could increase registration fees to actually hire people to do the work, and then offer registration waivers for applicants who can’t afford it.

You could require full professors to volunteer.

You could require that every person who has attended the conference four previous times, on their fifth meeting they need to volunteer.

You could sweeten the pot for those who pay for registration but still volunteer. For example, many conferences only allow a maximum of one presentation per person. You could allow those who register to give two presentations. Or you could promise a better talk time slot for those who volunteer.And you can come up with a fancy ribbon or sticker or something for volunteers to make them feel good. (Which indeed would indicate more something tangible about being an “ally,” because that ribbon would indicate actual work.)

To be clear: You don’t need to ask the students in the society who are already already marginalized on the basis of their financial status to further marginalize themselves by having to work for free. You can find other ways to be creative and save money. As our current president (of the country, that is) has said: “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget—and I’ll tell you what you value.”

And I’m telling you that making your poorest students have to provide free labor to have their seats at our table doesn’t indicate good values. You know this. Institutional change is hard, slow, and requires consistent effort. Maybe you could make this your next target to make your academic society more equitable?

Anyhow, I wrote about this a few years ago, but I thought I’d bring it up again as I noticed that one of my societies (the Ecological Society of America, of which I’m a life member, but not as a matter of honor but simply because I paid a bunch of money) is still exercising this practice.

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