Conference Organizers Can (and Should) Help Move the Needle on Diversity

Business conferences and events can be a very harsh reminder that there is still a long way to go before diversity in the workplace is no longer an issue. As a physical incantation of an industry or a community, imagine for a minute being one of just a few women, black or Latino attendees…would you feel comfortable being there?

Conference organizers have the ability to shape a positive experience for all of their attendees, and this capability can and should be used in my opinion, to not only make conferences a more inclusive setting for underrepresented groups, but to make conferences more diverse as well. For the purposes of this blog, I will focus on the need to increase the number of women at conferences, though this extends to all underrepresented groups and minorities.

If you want more women to attend your events, a good place to start is to have more women speak at your events. Many conference organizers want this, but then when they don’t get a lot of women submit to speak, they stop there. Put yourself in the position of a woman considering whether to speak at an event. Are you more likely to submit to speak at an event that is known for having a lot of women speakers, or one that isn’t? Would you submit to speak at an event that is known for providing a lot of resources to make women feel more welcome at an event, or one that does not? That answer is of course obvious and for some organizers can present a chicken and an egg problem. ‘If we historically haven’t had a lot of women speak but we want more women to speak, how do we get more women to speak?’ The answer is outreach, and is does have a far reaching effect. To get started, organizers do indeed need to do a lot of outreach, and ask women to speak at their events. Over time, as more women are speaking, more women will feel confident submitting to speak, and the amount of outreach that is needed over time will go down.

Organizers should also set guidelines for themselves when it comes to speakers at an event. For example, we have policies about having no all-male panels, no all-male keynote line-ups, and no all-male speaker line-ups for events. We also set goals for ourselves for each event as to how many women we’d like to see both speak, and attend, and then we put in the effort to make that happen. This has had a very real effect over time…the number of women that submit, speak and attend at our events, continues to rise year over year.

If you’re going to increase diversity at your events, you also need to make sure that your event is inclusive and welcoming to these attendees. There are numerous ways to do that, and below I’ve listed some of the things we do for our conferences:

  • Establish a strict code of conduct for your events — make it very clear what behaviors, speech and activities will and will not be tolerated in your code of conduct. Display it on your website, on your registration form, and at your events. Require speakers to sign off on it. And, back of your code of conduct with very clear actions for those that are in violation of it.
  • Offer conference shirts in both women’s and men’s sizes.
  • Create a diversity scholarship program, and make it easier for underrepresented people to attend your events.
  • Host a women or diversity lunch — this offers your underrepresented attendees to gather together and create bonds/network with those that are also in a similar position which creates a sense of belonging and safety.
  • Offer communication stickers — a simple red, green or yellow sticker that attendees can attach to their badge that allows others to know if they are open to talking to all attendees (green), would like to only speak to those they know (yellow) or would prefer to not be approached (red).
  • Offer gender-neutral/non-binary restrooms ensuring transgender and nonbinary inclusion.
  • Provide quiet rooms (no talking, no electronic devices) to give attendees who may need a break from the noise and commotion of large gatherings a place to take a break.
  • Offer child care (free if possible) to be inclusive of all working parents.
  • Make nursing rooms available.
  • Ensure all conference venues are wheelchair accessible and provide details on medical equipment rental on event websites. Provide interpreters for the hearing impaired upon request.

As you can see, there are numerous ways to make sure you are offering an inclusive conference experience for all attendees. We offer all of the above at our events, and are always looking for more ways to continuously improve the experience as well. Our commitment comes from our belief that diverse and inclusive communities are healthier and more productive which extends to all communities, not just our own. I encourage all conference organizers to use the opportunity they have to help move the needle on diversity by creating more diverse and inclusive conferences in all communities.