Open conversations about diversity at conferences

It’s a tough one, and there are no right or wrong answers. There are questionable questions, and questionable answers. Sometimes we can respond with absolute brilliance, grace, respect and inclusion. At others times we can respond with ill thought, defensiveness, and lack of openness to feedback.

I see it fairly regularly these days at conferences. I last wrote about it 3 years ago and there’s not been much movement. Just have a look at the speaker line up at conferences and you’re more than likely to see a list of white people speaking. Some might be women. If you’re lucky, there may be the odd person of colour.

The best worst thing I’ve seen today is a well known consultancy holding a conference in a few weeks time, and their speaker list is pretty much exclusively their own consultants, and all are white.

In this day of 2016, how can we not take the idea of diversity more seriously? I am actually lost for words.

If you’re an organiser of events, then I’m kind of looking at you squarely in the eye. (Also, I am fully aware I’ve had some direct conversations about this in recent days, and this post isn’t directly about anything I’ve attended or have been commenting on.)

I’m writing this as if there’s an order of who has more importance in the list of diversity characters, and there really isn’t.

Is there gender diversity? That’s kind of the basics of what I’d expect to see. And I mean talking on the big stage, not in smaller breakout sessions. How many women do you have speaking to a large audience? Scared you won’t sell enough tickets with a woman headlining or being the keynote? Re-think your PR strategy, and, perhaps, your worth as a human.

Look at the diversity of ethnicity of the speakers. If you have a minority of your speakers from an ethnic minority, that’s just a cruel reflection of society. How can you make that better? Actively seek out people of colour who have an opinion on the topics you want to talk about. Can’t do that? NO EXCUSE, DO IT. Or are you making judgements that people of colour will only talk about things in angry voices and not add content of value? If not, what judgements are you making on having ethnically diverse speakers? And if you don’t have any/enough speaking at your conference, how can you objectively claim to be an inclusive conference?

Your audience may have diversity, that’s not the same as your speakers having diversity. When we attend events where people are speaking, we want to feel we have a connection with them. At a basic level, what we see is the connection we make. If I don’t see an ethnic minority person speaking, then how can I take that conference event seriously? If a woman in attendance doesn’t see a woman speaking, what social norms does that reinforce for her?

If your speakers are all white men, no matter how well they speak, and how great their content, how are you genuinely including people with difference into that event? Where is the inclusion? If you’re all patting each other on the back for such a great event, how are you challenging yourself to think better and actively seeking to include voices of difference?

We hear about privilege a lot when it comes to diversity and inclusion. That privilege comes from a place of blindness and ignorance. It comes from a place of not thinking and acting in the interests of sales. It comes from a place of justification and explaining why things haven’t happened.

It’s too hard a topic to articulate well in one blog post. It’s too hard a topic to debate well openly. It can easily (and often does) break down into abusive and offensive language.

If you’re a conference organiser, you have a moral obligation to improve this. Yes, there could be a business benefit, BUT THAT’S NOT WHY YOU SHOULD BE DOING THIS.

And here are some quick thoughts on what can be done to make things better:

  • Improve your PR and your marketing of your events so that more people are able to access the event
  • If you notice your speakers are either all white men, or white men and women, then you have work to do to make that better
  • If you notice that your speakers may not represent other important diversity factors such as disability or gender orientation, then you have to work to make that better too
  • There is nothing wrong in asking people of influence to share marketing with their networks so that you can make these things better.
  • If you’re holding an event and it’s in an area where a certain class/gender of people is likely to attend, then you’re automatically excluding others to attend
  • If your PR and marketing makes it sound like you have to be brought up in a certain environment or you’re making cultural references, or you need a certain type of education, then you need to think that through better
  • Actively analyse your audience makeup and speaker makeup to better understand how diverse they are and then decide on how you’re going to make it better

There are no right or wrong answers to any of this. There are questionable questions and questionable answers. Even in writing this, I am sure I have made exclusions and omitted important inclusions. I will get this wrong, and I will learn every single step of the way.

If you’re a conference organiser and you want to make this better, holding a conference isn’t the answer – acting on that gut feeling that this isn’t right is the answer and will make it better.

Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

10 thoughts on “Open conversations about diversity at conferences”

  1. Writing like this; things can change as a result Sukh.

    Your “quick thoughts” triggered (at least) one for me (ha ha it got long winded); rethink conferences and who they are for. The conference you’re talking about – maybe they’re targeting more people who look like them anyway? I’ve been asked to talk at conferences; I’m not too interested in performing TBH – I prefer listening and conversing. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of something that is dying and something new can emerge.

    1. Maybe things can change, Meg. I think we need to keep raising such things and talking about them openly so that more people can become aware and choose to (hopefully) act positively.

  2. Good morning Sukh. I am male, stale, and pale. I can do nothing about my gender, where I was born, and my age, except be aware of these things and the affect they have on other people. Those unspoken power dynamics, the privilege I ether take, or others give to me. I can then either act with these things in mind, or ignore and blunder on.

    Something I can do, when invited to speak, is inquire about the event and how it is being shaped. Am I contributing to or subtracting from, the overall sense of inclusion? Not just through gender, race, and age, I need to have something challenging and experimental to offer too. We all have a responsibility to ask questions, of ourselves, event organisers, and each other.

    Thanks for writing this blog post.

    1. Hi Doug, thanks for commenting. First, you’re not stale. I know what you were doing there.

      Those unspoken power dynamics are the ones that keep us all in check if we choose to let them. It’s a set of uncomfortable truths which most of us don’t want to address, and are happy accepting the status quo.

      Your openness to recognising that you have privilege and have an unspoken power is a powerful awareness. I like your challenge to be responsible in asking questions of such things.


  3. Excellent article Sukh. I’ve organised many conferences and always end up with 50%+ female speakers women and mostly more. The speakers at our UK HR Advisors Conference next month are mostly women as HR is 75% female!! I did include a couple of male presenters as also have something great to present on. I do find it’s harder to make sure we have good cultural diversity too as all the publicity and awards often feature a line up of white people – so finding people from other backgrounds who are doing great stuff does take more time. But I don’t want to listen to a non diverse group of people talk about changing workplaces. Hopefully we will see conference line ups change in the not too distant future….

    1. Thanks, Angela and for taking the time to comment. It’s encouraging to hear that many of your conferences have so many women speakers. Having had a quick look at your upcoming conference, it’s good to see this in place. With only one person of colour speaking, it is noticeable that the majority of your speakers are white and middle aged – especially the men.

      Clearly you’ve already set the agenda and this may be challenging to change at this late stage. Could I offer that it isn’t that hard to find diversity of speakers – if you’re committed to holding and organising an event like this, it also seems to me that you could spend the time to find that balance of speakers. There are many people with impressive networks whom you could contact and find a diverse group of speakers – perhaps something to consider for other future events?

  4. Thank you for this post, as it puts a general frame around a thought that has been really bugging me but that I’ve been hesitant to put out there. I don’t want to be seen as critical or confrontational, but I think we should also consider the implications of the metaphors we use to tell the story of what we are doing. Are these metaphors colonialist by nature (think safari, think conquistador)? If we are going to use these metaphors we need to use them in such a way that is conscious of their problematic history and actively work to pervert them, renew and rearrange them for use in the present. It is easy to say that words mean different things to different people, but that is too easy. Words and metaphors have histories and those histories create associations; they may even frame experiences. The associations are cultural, they make up the fabric of who we are. We cannot simply throw them off blithely, or maybe we can, if we are in positions of privilege. If a metaphor is laden with a history that is exploitative and colonialist, I believe we are obliged to explicitly recognize that and find ways to acknowledges how our privilege or position within those stories bind us into power structures and hierarchies. Diversity is so critical in the social age. It seems to me a central tenant of what we are trying to do to expand our conversations. So thank you for being open and encouraging this dialog.

    1. Hi Johanna and thanks very much for this comment.

      You make a great and valid point about metaphors, words and histories. So much of today is built on from experience of yesterday. We have to understand those contexts well so that we can better frame what the future looks like. If we don’t, we just endorse everything that happened previously – that is fine in some instances, and in others demands that we update our understanding and our insights. It’s that kind of progressive and better thinking that enables us to be more inclusive in our thinking, our language and the design of the work we set out to do.

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