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.
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.