When Speaker of the House Paul Ryan shared a selfie on Instagram of him and a group of Capitol Hill interns, the last thing he expected was an online backlash. But that’s exactly what he got.
A photo posted by Speaker Paul Ryan (@speakerryan) on
A number of people critiqued the photo for its lack of diversity. Their argument? If the United States is a diverse, multi-cultural nation, then shouldn’t the interns working for the individuals who represent the country be diverse as well? This instance illustrates a larger movement towards diversity both inside and outside of events.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Diversity
Diversity is about more than just societal expectations. A diverse group of individuals from different background brings a diverse array of insights. For those in the events spaces, it also means bringing in more attendees. “You don’t want to walk into a room and of 300 people there are two women or two African-Americans,” says Audra Bohannon, senior partner for workforce performance, inclusion and diversity at Korn Ferry, Boston. “That sends a message...it seems like the organization is not interested in people like me.”
Of course, diversity is much more than just race and ethnicity. It includes people of different ages, physical abilities, genders, education levels, and more. Fortunately, at every step of the event organization process, there are more opportunities than ever for event organizers to promote diversity.
Before we jump into the six examples of how, let me take a second to acknowledge that I am a white male writer. Surely if a member of a minority group were to write this article, the tone and advice could be different. In order to move towards a diverse future, we need a diverse chorus of voices to join in on the conversation. Please let me know where you agree and disagree with me, in addition to any other suggestions you may have, in the comments below.
1. Provide Event Scholarships
Before an event even starts, more organizations are doing a better job of lowering the barriers of entry. Not all attendees are going to have the $2k+ it takes to register for, travel to, and stay near an event. Event organizers should consider offering diversity scholarships to tap into groups that otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend. In 2016, Apple offered 350 Scholarships to students and STEM organization members for its Worldwide Developers Conference. Out of those 350 recipients, 125 received assistance for their travel needs, as well.
2. Cast A Wider Net For Attendees
When it comes to getting attendees to your event, it’s important to look beyond your backyard. Prior attendees will definitely remain valuable when promoting future events, but aside from them who else can you reach out to? For Re/Code’s third annual Code Conference, event organizers dedicated a staffer to researching diverse talent with the help of a specialty communications firm. As opposed to resting on their laurels of previous attendees with known big names, Re/Code organizers went out of their way to cast a wider net.
3. Offer Flexible Event Registration Options
At the event registration screen, there are a number of opportunities to make sure that all of your attendees feel included. One trend that we have added to Bizzabo’s event registration software is the option of a gender neutral prefix (Mx.), in addition to the standard options of Mr., Mrs. or Ms.
The addition of a checkbox is by no means a final point. "’Mx.’ as a prefix that is gender ‘inclusive,’” cautions Dr. Michelle Robison of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “primarily reminds us of the centrality of ‘being known’ in terms of taxonomies related to gender, sexuality and so on.” Instead of eradicating labels that exclude, the addition of an option like “Mx.” fine-tunes them. “What a dream to be identified other than by checking a box!”
4. Incorporate Sessions On Diversity
One of the best ways to make diversity front and center at your event is to dedicate a session or panel to it. Over the past several years, diversity panels and sessions have become increasingly popular. When holding them, there are several things to keep in mind
- Make sure that the speakers who compose your diversity panel are actually diverse.
- Make sure that your panel speakers are involved with other programming, as well. Your speakers and attendees will be able to smell it if you’re subscribing to Rent-a-Minority lip service.
- Be deliberate with your diversity programming. Asking why diversity is important is just the beginning. How can you dive into a novel, deeper conversation?
- Above all, think of how you can extend the conversation outside of your event and to the future. The conversations can’t just stop once the session does. Try making room for additional conversation in vibrant online and offline event communities.
5. Feature Diverse Speakers
Today, an all-male panel can be the kiss of death for an event. In fact, there’s now a Tumblr account dedicated to documenting “all male panels, seminars, events, and various other things featuring all male experts.” The account features event images stamped with a picture of David Hasselhoff giving a thumbs up.
Most event organizers probably have bigger fears than finding their event on a satirical Tumblr profile, but these Hasselhoff stamps further illustrate the need for diversity on panels. In fact, a number of pieces have been recently published asking male speakers to boycott speaking on all-male panels. Owen Barder, Director of the Center for Global Development Europe, has even created a public online form for individuals to pledge not to be a part of all-male panels. It currently has racked up over 1,000 names.
Again, having diversity on panels isn’t about appearances. It’s about bringing a diverse array of content to your conference and making more of your attendees feel welcome.
6. Own Up to Mistakes
As the events industry hurdles towards a more diverse future, it’s inevitable that individuals and organizations will have room for improvement. When this happens, it’s important to own up to it.
In 2014, Bizzabo launched an impartial list of the 100 most-wanted speakers at tech conferences. We issued a notice that the lack of diversity in our list was indicative of the lack of diversity in tech at the time. But we weren’t just going to settle with that observation. We set out to create a new, more diverse list of 100 speakers who should be seen more at tech conferences.
Oversights are inevitable,what’s important is recognizing when improvements can be made, and implementing them as soon as possible.
Wrapping Up: What Else Can Be Done?
There’s a lot more to be done towards making events diverse and inclusive. As those in the events space continue to work towards inclusion we must be extremely mindful of our intentions behind it. “Inclusion,” says Dr. Robinson, “has always the habit of promising, like Kafka's gatekeeper, ‘It is possible, but not now’...Open the gate, certainly, but destroy the fortress.”