I mentioned in my post on harassment that I abandoned going to TRB (Transportation Research Board) because for me, it felt like open season on harassment. I neglected to point out when I did so. I got a Twitter response from a woman I do not know saying that wasn’t her experience at TRB, but she didn’t respond when I said I was glad she was made to feel more welcome. I wasn’t crazy about the tone of the original response; women shouldn’t have to deal with other people basically hinting that they are wrong/oversensitive/dishonest in discussing their experiences because the questioning person hasn’t had the same experiences in the same spaces. They may have, simply, been fortunate. But with Twitter, who knows if that was what she meant at all, so whatevs.
In any case, a few hours later, I got a very nice email from a member of TRB’s current leadership asking about my experiences and what they might do. It was a really positive and effective thing to do, and it makes me very hopeful. It drew my attention to a problem in my original post–a problem of accuracy on my part, but still a problem for TRB, too, nonetheless.
I didn’t point out in the original post that I gave up on TRB in 2000–nearly 20 years ago. I am sure that much about the conference is different now, but I am still pretty sure that there is still harassment because when I say harassment happens everywhere, I mean, it happens everywhere. But still; back when I first started attending TRB (1993), there were some years where there were only about 7 to 10 women on the entire conference program for the policy groups in TRB. It was manel after manel of depressing grey and navy suits and polyester ties. There was so much condescension towards women, it was often palpable, and I was a PYT back then. Don’t get me wrong: women of all ages, sizes, and appearances face this crap all the time, but youth is a marker of potential vulnerability, and harassment is about power and domination.
And even with the wonderful leadership that TRB reps showed towards the issue with me this week, and even though transportation has changed as a profession, a lot (and thank heaven), TRB’s losing me at a young age is a genuine and unrecoverable loss. There’s not much TRB can do about it now. By failing to look after me as a young professional, the dudes back then squandered an opportunity to capture a potential lifelong contributor: I now have a much bigger voice and platform, and I still never think to direct young people there, and I have little reason to attend myself at this point in my career.
I’ve heard again and again among transportations scholars that TRB is an important conference, that I should want to be on the various committees, and so forth. I’m sure they are right. I can’t know for sure what my career or research would have been had I stayed engaged. I do know that a) lots and lots of people want my time and human capital now, b) TRB isn’t getting any of it*, and c) I haven’t missed going one bit. The thing is: when you stop going to conferences, it can be very easy to discover that you don’t really benefit from them all that much, especially if you, like me, tend to be a relatively introverted scholar anyway. I have wonderful relationships with scholars I have only met through their books, and sometimes, it’s good to maintain the mystery.
The idea that conferences are all just fabulouso-networking-jams might be true for people capable of myriad social interactions, but it is not the case, no matter what, for those of who us die tiny deaths during small talk and thus hide in our friend’s Georgetown home binge-reading Harry Potter, which is what I did after I walked out of TRB the last time in 2000, on the first day of the conference, having been called “cute” by a senior male scholar, now dead. (That was my first Harry Potter book; it was a wonderful experience, and I left the house the next day to get the next two books and pie, at Kramer Books, four blocks from the the Hilton where TRB was, which I rode by on the bus feeling not one twinge of obligation to go back.)
That isn’t the outcome that these organizations want. And that’s what I mean when I urge leaders to do what TRB leadership attempted this week: listen, work for change, and cultivate young people and difference in an environment of genuine goodwill, free exchange, and safety for vulnerable members. Young people will be the ones paying conference fees and contributing human capital (or not) long after the old guard fade away.
*Whatever marginal contribution I might have made to TRB, eh, there are plenty of great scholars and practitioners who do go. But still: too many youngsters dropping out the way I did is not good.