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The tricky balancing act of ‘gathering planning’

By Dr Sarah Fitzgibbon - 25th Oct 2022


There are various considerations in organising conferences – some easy, others not so much.

They say that women are good multitaskers. They say that. They say it, we all believe it, and so it becomes true. 

Accepting the truth that women are, indeed, fantastic multitaskers, let me tell you about my cunning plan here. I am currently fierce busy organising a conference, AND I have a column to write for this here publication, so – lightbulb incoming! – I shall write about organising a conference. 

This is my fourth-and-a-bit conference (the “bit” being related to that, erm, pandemic thing which we can all just forget about now, can’t we?), so there are certainly some aspects of the preparations that are old hat for me. Picking a date and then booking a room in a large hotel that’s been hosting events for years; easy. Figuring out that everyone needs to be fed a reasonable amount of food and have access to chairs and bathrooms; also easy. Telling people that it’s on; relatively easy. 

What about choosing who is going to speak, or what they should speak about? This could be very straightforward, especially for people in a small-sized profession with a limited number of “leaders” – just ask all of them. The same ones that you saw at that other conference. The folks whose names you hear on the radio in the morning or on the serious programmes late at night. They’ll do grand. It takes a little bit more effort to think wider than that, to consider asking people who have never spoken in that kind of forum before, or people who may say things that make us uncomfortable. This can be a tricky balance, as you have to take the feelings of both the speakers and the listeners into consideration. But avoiding contentious topics to make life easier for the organiser doesn’t really help anyone to widen their viewpoints. 

Then there is the task of coming up with Hot Topics. There was a time when “cherry-picking” was a great buzzword in general practice, and it was very much “frowned upon” as it referred to the despicable practice of tailoring your career to meet the needs of your personal life. This has now been repackaged and revamped as “portfolio careers”, and is far more acceptable. (Curiously, the name change coincided with a gender shift in the people who choose this option). You can always fill a room if you have a talk entitled ‘How to avoid being sued’, or ‘Seven ways to finish work early’, or (my personal favourite) ‘The definitive guide to living forever and getting paid loads’. There are speakers who – literally – could give their presentation in their sleep, because they have delivered it so many times before. And there is a comfort for us as listeners, in hearing the same familiar words like “workforce planning” and “holistic approach” and “multidisciplinary”. These are soothing words, despite the gaping holes in their actual implementation. 

(Remember, if you are stuck at all for a theme for a conference session, you can always go for the classic “women’s health” option. Ask one of the three or four ladies that everyone always asks to speak about this mysterious entity, give them 40 minutes to cover the entire range of medical possibilities that might befall a woman, and sure job done! They’ll talk about cervixes and polyps and chocolate cysts to an audience that is 90 per cent female, and everyone will go home happy.) 

So what do people really want when they attend a conference? I can’t really speak for anyone else, but I would love to hear other people’s views. My top considerations are probably these: 

  1. Who will be there for me to hang out with and chat to? 
  2. Do I want to hear what the speakers have to say, or do I want to meet them because they do things that interest me? 
  3. Is it in the middle of Dublin in the middle of the week? [Hint to organisers: This is a massive no-no for anyone outside the Pale.] 
  4. Is the venue posh enough to have nice food, but not so posh that I will have to wear fancy clothes? 
  5. What are the chances of the tea and coffee being distinguishable by taste alone (never a guarantee in mass healthcare settings)? 

I am aware of the foolhardiness of me raising a discussion about the merits and demerits of conferences just a few days before I assume responsibility for hosting one. Once this has been published, the WiMIN conference will be in the past, and it will either have gone well or terribly. Whatever way it goes, I have this message for my future self: I hope you didn’t forget to give them free chocolate. At the end of the day, that’s really what swings it. 

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