Improving Event Diversity and Inclusivity
21 Suggestions For Event Organisers
Event diversity and inclusivity is a big topic at the moment as there is more widespread recognition than ever before of the privileges some people have that others do not. There is now even a Diversity Charter that event organisers, speakers, individuals, employers, sponsors and venues can sign to show that they are committed to making things better for everyone.
As events come to learn that it is important to attract both speakers and attendees regardless of gender, social background, beliefs, or disability they should be aiming to create spaces where everyone feels safe and welcomed.
The suggestions that follow can go some way to achieving that. These ideas could affect the decision of anyone considering attending an event — this isn’t just about making your event accessible and inclusive for particular underrepresented groups. Knowing that an event has made efforts to improve diversity and inclusivity can be an incentive for everyone.
1. Have a Code of Conduct
The first important step towards making an event a safe space is having a code of conduct (CoC). Harassment at events has been all too common an occurrence, and this prevents some underrepresented groups from even considering attending anywhere this isn’t addressed. Very simply put :
“A code of conduct is important because it […] acts as a guideline for ethical decision making, enhances the reputation of an organization, prevents negative legal effects, encourages positive relationships, acts as a reference for solving ethical dilemmas and prevents discrimination or harassment. A code of ethics highlights the values which members of an organization or group must uphold.”
If you don’t know where to start when writing a CoC for your event, try confcodeofconduct.com which has a pre-written CoC already translated into several languages.
2. Include trans people in your CoC
Gender identity and gender expression are complicated issues that I won’t go into in depth, but it’s important to show that you have an awareness of gender diversity being about more than including women. There are many more kinds of gender identity and expression than just the simple man/woman binary that we’re used to and it’s important to make everyone feel that their comfort and safety has been considered.
Fortunately, the CoC at confcodeofconduct.com does use inclusive language regarding gender identity and expression, but if you’re going to write your own, this is something that can be easily overlooked.
The use of inclusive language itself is something that the CoC doesn’t explicitly address (although you could include a clause), but it is definitely something that organisers should encourage. If you address an audience, or recipients of a mail shot with “Hi, guys!”, you’re using language which excludes anyone who doesn’t identify as male — there are many alternatives which are more inclusive: “Hi, folks!”, “Hi, all!”, “Hi, everybody!” — “Hi, Doctor Nick!” — The Simpsons have had a character using inclusive language since 1989!
3. Venue staff must also abide by the CoC
I’ve been at events where the venue staff (e.g. catering and security), whom the attendees were in repeated contact with, had no idea there was a code of conduct — let alone that it should apply to them as well. If the venue staff aren’t abiding by the same rules as everyone else, this can shatter your carefully constructed safe space. As a simple example — if someone wants to wear a fitted t-shirt they shouldn’t be admonished by the venue employee running the table because “those are for women!” (this actually happened to me).
Regarding the labelling of t-shirts themselves and why I choose to call them “fitted t-shirts” rather than “women’s t-shirts”, Terence Eden has written a good blog post on “The Gender Politics of Conference T-Shirts”.
4. Have a visible point of contact for CoC violations
When I say visible, I don’t just mean an email address on the event web site or tucked away at the bottom of the program. This person (or group of people) should make themselves known at the start of the event. They should be recognisable, approachable and available to discuss any concerns that attendees have at any time. Ideally they should also have some training in conflict resolution and sensitivity awareness.
5. Members of underrepresented groups on the organising team
What better way to be able to tell if you’re being sensitive to the needs of any particular underrepresented group than by having a member of that group helping organise the event itself? It’s also proven to show that you’re more likely to get diverse applications to your call for papers. Of course this may not always be possible, so in those cases :
6. Reach out to and discuss with underrepresented groups
This is essentially a user-focused approach. The people who you want to benefit from the ideas you have for promoting diversity and inclusivity should be the ones to inform you whether they’re enough, and if they’ll even work. They should also be the ones you listen to for other ideas about what you can do. Get involved with social media, reach out to communities and ask for their advice and, most importantly, listen.
7. Special rates for underrepresented groups
Some events have been offering free tickets, scholarship style programs and even setting aside a proportion of regular tickets only for underrepresented groups. It’s a clear sign that you’re serious about getting those groups involved and that they are not just welcome, but needed at your event. This is a good way to prevent your event suffering from accusations of homogeneity by explicitly creating the diversity of experience and expertise which is necessary for the generation of new ideas.
8. Host an underrepresented group sub-conference
If you’re running a large event like a conference, you might consider hosting other smaller events with underrepresented group themes and attendees. This is something that the folks from Trans*Code have done before at PyConUK with great success.
By welcoming a themed hack day or similar kind of event to be part of your conference and offering the attendees of that free event access to the rest of the conference, you build good sentiment among those attendees. You also offer exposure to a topic they might not otherwise have considered.
9. Name Badges — Titles and Pronouns
Let attendees self-identify. There are many different titles that people prefer to be known by and not everyone is comfortable with an implicit assumption that they should be referred to with binary she/her or his/him pronouns.
Personally, I along with many other non-binary people, prefer the pronouns they/them. The obvious place to make that apparent to other attendees is on the name badges. If you’re going to pre-print badges for everyone allow them to enter whatever they want to be known by in the sign-up process, bearing in mind that the design of an inclusive input form is not trivial. More simply, you can just allow people to write their own name badges.
10. Gender Neutral Toilets
This is a simple thing that I’ve seen some events implement with great success. Trans and non-binary people can suffer great distress when faced with having to choose between gendered toilets, making them gender neutral eliminates the problem.
This is a ridiculously simple idea — tampons at work for people who need them. Working spaces are legally bound to provide toilet facilities. Culturally, we tend to think it obvious that they should come with the provision of toilet paper, soap, running water and means to dry your hands after washing. Why should the provision of sanitary products for those who require them be considered differently? Not everyone drinks coffee, tea, or beer, or wants to eat carbohydrate laden meals, and yet many events spend money on these creature comforts anyway. Not everyone uses tampons, but those who do need them.
12. Flexible subject matter
If you’re running an event about a very specific topic, you might consider making your event more accessible to people who only know a little about it. 300 Seconds found that the more subject specific the event, the harder it was to recruit first time speakers. In a room full of specialists, it can be particularly hard to stand up and identify as a newbie.
This can be remedied by arranging talks or workshops which will be understood by anyone without an in depth background, making it clear that your event is intended for anyone with an interest in the subject. The novice attendees that you educate and inform may be the experienced attendees of the future, and come, in time, to contribute to the community your event serves.
13. Audio loops for people with hearing loss
According to the UK-based charity Action on Hearing Loss, there are more than 11 million people in the UK with some form of hearing loss — that’s one in every six people! Some venues can offer the use of a pre-installed induction loop system to help people who use hearing aids. If so, you should definitely take advantage of the extra accessibility they provide. For those venues where there is no induction loop, it’s still possible to use portable loops which can often be straightforwardly integrated with any public address system and don’t necessarily require the user to already have a hearing aid.
14. Sign language interpreters
Not many events provide this support. It’s estimated that in the UK alone, there are 900,000 people who are severely or profoundly deaf and that around 24,000 people use sign-language as their main language (although this is considered likely to be an underestimate). This doesn’t mean that it is a service you have to provide, but that it is a service you should consider knowing how to provide. You can offer to assist attendees with hiring interpreters and this would only become necessary if the service is requested. You could also put out a request for volunteer interpreters from the community you serve, compensating them with free passes to the event.
15. Transcriptions & Captioning
Many events now record speaker presentations. There are many, many tools on the web that will transcribe audio for you, so there should be few excuses for not providing a basic transcription of any recordings that you make available after the event.
Transcriptions can be useful for all attendees who want to go back and review a session more quickly than by re-watching it. It also makes the presentations searchable and more accessible for both people with hearing loss and people for whom the session was not in their native language.
16. Use an accessible venue (and make sure spaces remain accessible)
Ramps and doors wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs may have occurred to you, but would you also have thought to make sure there is enough room for someone in a wheelchair to make a smooth u-turn? How about including tables or counters that are a variety of heights to accommodate standing, sitting, and a range of different tasks?
Flooring can also be a problem — carpets may be a drag on wheels, while surfaces that are too smooth can be a slip hazard and uneven surfaces can be dangerous too (is the entrance to your venue on a cobbled street?). When laying out seating, arranging cables and even when setting up sponsor displays, remember not to block access or create trip-hazards for anyone!
17. Reserved seating for people with mobility issues
It may be a no-brainer to make sure there are enough seats for the number of people you hope will attend, but you should also make sure that there are clearly reserved and easily accessible seats in every room and common space for those with mobility issues. Not all disabilities or mobility issues are obvious or visible; in particular those who suffer long term illness may require regular rest points and comfortable seating but may not habitually carry or even require an external aid such as a stick or wheelchair.
Reserved seating should also include gaps for anyone using a wheelchair. Many larger venues may have already defined, accessible seating due to legal requirements but when planning for smaller venues where you may have to organise the seating yourself, this is something that can be overlooked.
18. Out of session seating for all attendees
As fascinating as you may strive to make your event, if it lasts for more than a few hours you can almost guarantee that there will be some periods where not everyone wants to or is able to attend a session. For those moments where attendees are outside session rooms and in common spaces, networking, remote working or just taking a break, you should make sure that there is plenty of seating and space for them to do this comfortably.
I’ve been to events where the only common spaces between sessions had sparse (or non-existent) seating — leading to a predominantly standing-only crowd. For those with back problems or any kind of mobility problem this can be a very difficult situation to feel comfortable in (consider that those who use wheelchairs may find that the simple height difference hinders conversation making it socially uncomfortable).
19. Signpost and highlight accessible features
Having accessible features such as ramps, audio loops, disabled toilets and even gender neutral toilets is important, but these should be signposted clearly for attendees.
If someone requires a particular feature, they shouldn’t be left wondering where to find it — or if it even exists. Ideally the existence and non-existence of any accessibility features would be highlighted on the event web site, so that the people who require them can make an informed choice over whether or not they are able to attend.
20. Help or encourage speakers to give accessible presentations
While it may not be practical to insist that speakers modify their presentations to be fully accessible, you can encourage them to use large, readable fonts in slides, to use inclusive and understandable language and, of course, to remind them that they are also bound by the code of conduct!
Offering to review presentations, and suggesting modifications to make them more accessible, can also help to ensure everyone can equally enjoy the content your event offers to the community it serves.
21. Childcare (Consideration for Parents)
The items on this list are mostly in no particular order, except that I placed the code of conduct and related suggestions first because they’re relatively simple to implement and go a long way to showing awareness and desire to create a safe and welcoming space.
The provision of childcare is something that, through my own privilege of not being a parent, I initially forgot to include. I add it here at the end not because it is least important.
Some people in the community your event serves will have children and a lack of consideration for those parents may prevent them from being able to attend. Ideally this consideration should go beyond childcare (which may be legally and financially problematic for smaller events). Those parents who do attend may not be able to get as much out of your event if, for example, your networking sessions are all after hours when they may have other responsibilities.
This list is most definitely not intended to be exhaustive so I very much encourage people to add to it in the comments.