Maeve McKeown is a Junior Research Fellow in Political Theory at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She is a former co-editor at New Left Project and convener of the St Hilda’s Feminist Salon. Hers is the fourth post in a series on:

Ethics in Academic Events

As theorists of justice and professional ethicists we are used to scrutinizing the practices of others. Is it not about time that we turned our analytical skills and discerning moral sensitivities on ourselves? Inspired by discussions at the closing of the workshop ‘Global Justice and Global Health Ethics Exploring the Influence of Iris Marion Young’, this series of posts seeks to examine our own actions and practices and explore the moral dilemmas of the academy.


As political theorists we often critique inequality in society, but we rarely critique inequality in our own profession. We know that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few tenured professors, with junior faculty struggling in short-term, poorly-paid, precarious contracts, often moving cities or countries on a yearly basis (with all the hidden costs that incurs). We know that there are few women and people of colour in permanent, senior positions. So what are we doing about this? And how does it apply to conference organising?

One of the ways academics disseminate their research and are spotted for jobs is through presenting at conferences. But conference fees and travel expenses are often too expensive for junior faculty, with their just-about-living wages (or sometimes not living wages). Short-term contracts usually do not come with research expenses, or at least not sufficient expenses to participate in overseas or even local conferences.

However, it is professors who get fees and expenses paid to attend conferences, not early career researchers. It is the people with no money, and no access to money, who are expected to cover the costs themselves. This is backwards. The professors are the ones with access to large research budgets. It is junior faculty who need to have their expenses covered. Conference organisers should cover the costs of early career researchers and professors should pay their own expenses.

Of course, conference organisers want to invite the “big name” in their sub-field, because that is how they attract other participants to the conference. “We can’t do that!” they will protest, “the famous professors won’t come and then no-one will come to our conference!” So, I suggest, it is the professors themselves who need to relinquish this privilege. Professors need to say: “I will cover my expenses, please use the funding to bring early career researchers to the conference.” Professors probably won’t like this suggestion. But I say to them: if you are serious about equality in your political philosophy, you should be serious about it in the practice of working in the academy too. This also applies to junior faculty who do have access to research funds; if you are offered funding when you can cover the costs yourself, suggest that it be redirected to someone who cannot.

There is an obvious knock-on effect of this reorganization of conference funding. Conference organisers often complain “we can’t find a woman,” “we can’t find a person of colour.” That is partly because you are not trying hard enough. But it is also because there are very few women and people of colour, and people from other marginalized groups, in senior academic positions. Only 19% of philosophy professors in the UK are women. There are only 5 black philosophers working in the UK, none of whom are professors. There is no data on how many disabled philosophers there are in the UK, but only 3.7% of members of the American Philosophical Association identify as disabled.

Women and people of colour (and potentially people with disabilities, but in the UK we don’t know) are more highly represented at the early career stage; but, as I have argued, early career researchers often cannot access funding that allows them to participate in conferences. If the conference budget is redirected to early career researchers, rather than established professors, then you are one step closer to having a more diverse conference.

This is not about tokenism, however, but changing the profession over the long-term. Giving early career researchers the opportunity to present at your conference gives them the opportunity to disseminate their research and be spotted by potential employers.

What we have now is famous white, male professors (and increasingly white, female professors) commanding high fees or having their expenses paid to attend conferences, at the expense of younger researchers, who are more likely to be women and people of colour. These conferences reinforce race, gender and class hierarchies and perpetuate the pale, male dominance of the discipline. By redistributing funds to early career researchers, you not only increase the visibility of women and people of colour, but you provide opportunities for these people to go on to have careers and change the make-up of our profession in the long-run.

Rethinking your conference budget is one small step towards challenging economic and status inequality in political theory and philosophy. This is a simple and effective change we make with few costs and many benefits. It begs the question: why are we not doing this already?


For details of the conference for the workshop “Global Justice and Global Health Ethics: Exploring the Influence of Iris Marion Young”, go to: