Events can be agenda-setting: conferences are not just a snapshot of what is happening in industries now, they also give us a good idea of what is likely to come next. Too often, however, they are skewed. All-male panels and male keynote speakers continue to be the norm, and in more absurd cases have even discussed among themselves the subjects of women in business and women in academi.
Correcting this norm will kickstart a virtuous circle: putting more women and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people on panels makes it easier for others to see themselves in those positions. And the best, liveliest panel discussions showcase eclectic perspectives, so the events industry can only benefit from hearing from a comprehensive range of voices.
Recent global research from Radisson Meetings finds that the vast majority of event planners agree on the importance of diversity and inclusion, with 80% saying that demonstrating a policy of inclusivity is an important consideration when selecting a venue.
“I think any smart event planner and business wants to be aware of the emerging voice, and how we can make ourselves better by hearing it, including it, and promoting it,” says David Fiss of Sustainable Brands, a global community of companies that are aiming to drive their brands’ innovation and impact through sustainability.
Barriers behind the scenes
All-white, all-male panels are high profile and damaging, and events stakeholders should encourage more eclecticism – some might even choose to mandate it. But just because ‘manels’ are getting the headlines, the Tumblr accounts, does not mean that fixing them will make the diversity problem go away. Improving diversity and inclusion goes far beyond speaker line-ups.
Take food, for example. A venue that cannot offer halal and kosher options, for instance, or does not offer them unprompted, is falling short, and planners should work with it to raise awareness. Or consider accessibility. Regulations have forced venues to consider whether they are set up for people with disabilities, but ramps and elevators are just one aspect: are planners considering the use of signers and subtitles? What about the space around tables – is it sufficient for a wheelchair user to move freely around the room?
Our own pervasive biases, based on our backgrounds, abilities, and social circles, mean we all have blind spots and might not think to ask these questions. That is why the industry needs a deliberate, intentional strategy for overcoming those biases. “We're expected to be thoughtful,” says David Fiss.
So the approach has to be deliberate and holistic. Barriers to inclusion appear throughout the supply chain and in some surprising places, and they demand an intentional strategy that addresses them one by one.
Open up: How to increase diversity in events
Fight your unconscious bias
Every time you make a decision about your event, consider the individual needs of people from a range of ages, religions, disabilities, and ethnicities. This goes to the heart of forming an effective diversity and inclusion policy.
Planners should work with venues to overcome established norms and ensure that restricted diets, for example, are catered for automatically, and non-alcoholic drinks options are not an afterthought. Consider the room layout from the perspective of a wheelchair user, and presentations and panel discussions from the perspective of hearing-impaired delegates.
Think about hiring practices
It is much easier for a diverse workforce to identify these norms and unconscious biases and to tackle them. Your people’s perspectives will help to identify blind spots and shortfalls. If your workforce comes from a narrow field, it will have a limited outlook and be less capable of spotting and eliminating groupthink.
Look at the whole supply chain
Are the venues and suppliers you work with taking diversity and inclusion as seriously as you are? Turn a critical eye to every part of the process.
“How do we make sure this event is inclusive, and diverse, and how is the meeting location doing the same through their policies and through their practices?” asks Inge Huijbrechts, Radisson Hotel Group’s Global Senior Vice President for Responsible Business and Safety. “One of our long-term goals is addressing our supplier diversity. We are looking at how we can include more local and diverse suppliers, and are already extending our own D&I policies to the supply chain through our Supplier Code of Conduct.”
Broaden your delegate profile by making it easy for certain groups to attend. “If you want to really change things, then we need to think about the next generation,” says Huijbrechts. “Give some access at a reduced fee, or free, to local youth or local colleges, or other groups of young people.” And think about safety and security: is your event taking place in a location that might worry women and BAME delegates?
Spend longer on panel selection
As we have seen, the industry has a ‘manel’ problem. So, as you compile your speaker wish list, stay alert to your unconscious biases. For keynote speakers, consider a ‘blind’ selection process, whereby speaker proposals are evaluated without any identifying information attached. The International Leadership Association is just one organization that uses this system.
Measure your work
Tackling diversity takes work, so don’t be afraid to shout about your successes. But you also need to know where you are going wrong. Neither of these are possible without effective metrics that tell you what is working, and what is not.
Measure the impact of your diversity actions so you can be transparent about what you are doing and establish best practice for future events. “When it comes to sustainability, social impact, diversity, equity, and inclusion,” says David Fiss, “If there is no measurement and benchmarking, we really can't progress.”