The recent, tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other black lives taken by police brutality have put the spotlight on systemic racism. But the implications of these horrors don’t stop there- not by a long shot. For many in society, these deaths were a catalyst to collectively evaluate how diverse America really is- and the ways in which “subtle” prejudice affects how we see and behave toward ourselves and others.
In particular, the issue of representation has been coming up often. It’s not just the question of whether children see culturally relatable characters who look like them on Disney and other movies and TV programs. It’s also about the lack of diversity that exists within the infrastructure of employment and the job market in the U.S. In recent years, the event industry has been both praised and criticized for its inclusivity and diversity hiring. But how diverse is the industry really?
What is Diversity Hiring, Really?
When people think “diversity hiring”, they sometimes think of bias in favor of minorities. There is a lot of fear that “now people are being given unfair advantages just because of the color of their skin, which is just as bad as racism against minorities.” But this is a misconception and, in many cases, a knee-jerk reaction to change that prioritizes diversity. Diversity hiring is defined as hiring based on merit without biases related to a candidate’s race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, and other personal characteristics that are not related to their job performance.
Event Manager Blog recently published a study that analyzed 150 events globally between 2019 and 2020. This new study was designed to determine the diversity of their speaker panels, and most events were located in the U.S. According to Event MB, diversity was measured in three categories: Black representation, BIPOC representation, and female representation. In order to qualify as representing a category, speaker panels had to have at least one speaker in that category.
The results? A whopping 35 to 40 percent of the events did not have any black speakers. Remember that this study defined representation of a category as having even just one speaker who fits that category. For example, a 10-speaker event with 9 white male speakers and one black female speaker would still count as representative of all three categories: Black, BIPOC, and female. But events in which the majority of speakers are white or white males still show a marked lack of representation of black, BIPOC, and possibly female persons.
The EventMB measured the percentage of representation across three categories and four sectors of events. The sectors included finance, medical, tech, and PR/marketing events. EventMB collected data over a year to see whether progress was made on the diversity front. The short answer: Yes and no. In the finance sector, the numbers of representation for each of the three categories improved. In medical and PR/marketing, representation went down significantly.
Of course, the pandemic had to be taken into account. Only 32 percent of event planners were able to switch to virtual events, so there were many lost opportunities. The issue of racism came to the forefront of society in late May, which may have considerably diversified many events if they had not been cancelled by COVID-19. Still, the general lack of representation shown by this study indicates that we still have a long way to go.
Another new study took a closer look at gender diversity. The Bizzabo Gender Diversity and Inclusion Report analyzed data from thousands of events over the past five years, and found that nearly 70 percent of all event speakers are male.
Both Canada and the United Kingdom ranked even lower than the U.S. when it comes to gender diversity. In Canada, 32 percent of all speakers were female while 68 percent were male. In the U.K., only 25 percent of speakers were female while 75 percent were male. Only Kenya and Mexico fared better than the United States: In Kenya, 58 percent of speakers were male versus 42 percent female; in Mexico, 39 percent of speakers were female- a slightly higher percentage than found in the U.S.
What did the study show about gender diversity across industries? Technology and IT events overwhelmingly featured male speakers. Speakers at Internet-centered events were 79 percent male and 21 percent female; computer software event speakers were 75 percent male and 25 percent female. IT speakers were 80 percent male and just 20 percent female. Seeing a pattern?
The massive transition to virtual events was trending before the pandemic, but it now marks a critical turning point in the industry. Technology events are at the forefront of this change and tech companies are becoming industry leaders. According to data from Accenture, we currently have more jobs in computer science than graduates eligible to fill those positions. Unless the industry takes action right now to recruit more women, this country’s computing workforce will shrink in the next decade.
Gender Inclusivity Means Trans-Inclusivity- No Buts
The above statistics are not taking into consideration transgender speakers who identify as male, female, or non-binary. Fostering more trans-inclusive events across the industry means much more than talking about restrooms and pronouns. Yes, being trans-inclusive means having gender-neutral restrooms at venues and event badging that asks attendees how they wish to be addressed. But of course that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
But just like reaching women means hiring more female speakers, reaching the transgender community means hiring more transgender speakers. Events need to engage with the LGBTQ+ community. They have to prioritize being a resource for information and destinations that have worked with and supported this community. Sometimes just hiring LGBTQ or LGBTQ+-friendly speakers and suppliers helps create networking opportunities for them to grow.
When there is representation for any group, that group naturally is more comfortable being themselves. We often hear, “But being black/LGBTQ+/female/disabled is not all people are; it’s not the whole of their identity!” This could not be more true, and the objective is not to pander for the sole purpose of business growth. Obviously, this involves very little real understanding of diverse experiences, and does little to foster a real sense of community. That’s one of the many reasons why it’s not enough to hire one speaker from a marginalized community and call your event diverse- no! Fostering real diversity is an ongoing, multi-faceted effort that happens over time.
The goal should not be to say, “Look, we’ve hired X amount of speakers who identify as transgender”. The bigger focus should be on identifying people how they self-identify, and not discriminating based on gender identity. Outreach to and advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community also goes a long way toward making the industry more diverse.
Why is Diversity So Important?
You may be thinking, “Why is it so important for all sectors of the event workforce to be so diverse?” Let’s answer that question. For one thing, events are influential. Because they attract large groups and niche audiences, they set agendas and predict trends for what is happening across industries. Events are designed with purposes in mind; they’re meant to educate, entertain, generate sales and leads, and facilitate professional development. Society is shaped by the content that people consume. A culture is characterized by the way its inhabitants think and feel, what they buy, and the work they do.
The event industry is a highly experiential market. Events are becoming more and more personalized, which require event profs to get to know their attendees: Who are they and what is personally important to them? What exactly do they want and need from events? What are their values, interests, and passions? The list of questions an event creator has to answer to compete in a competitive market goes on and on. But the important thing to know is that today’s event market needs to make their attendees feel something. Generally speaking, many people care more about having valuable experiences than possessions- especially millennials. Many of today’s attendees won’t care if your event is expensive and star-studded if it doesn’t have personal meaning for them.
It is impossible to reach a diverse society if event creators themselves lack diversity. The Internet has been bursting with jokes about “manels” gathering to discuss women in business, education, or- absurdly- even abortion! (In case you couldn’t guess, “manels” sarcastically refer to all male panels). This is not to say that you necessarily have to be a woman to create an event that appeals to women or fulfills their needs. You don’t have to be the same race as any amount of your attendees to create an event that satisfies a diverse group. But the more diversity goes into event creation- including speakers, who engage directly with attendees- the more well-rounded your event will be.
The Good News
Here’s some good news for you: Research from Radisson Meetings, a Radisson Hotel Group brand, recently found that the majority of event planners agree on the importance of inclusion and diversity: 80% said that an inclusive policy is an important consideration when selecting a venue.
So Why Aren’t Events More Diverse?
It seems like everywhere we turn, we hear about progress. Progressive social movements have been protesting loudly against racism and sexism, giving rise to a new wave of events (both virtual and in-person) that demonstrate inclusivity. It’s true that events have been largely put on hold due to the coronavirus, devastating the industry as a whole- and preventing vast opportunities for events that attract more diversity.
But a lot of it comes down to our own deeply held beliefs and internalized biases (we all have them). Sometimes it’s a case of event profs believing that “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”. For example, it’s a popular belief that the most extroverted speakers are the best. While it’s true that extroversion is engaging and thus a great quality in a speaker, audiences are filled with unique, multi-layered personality types. They are also filled with people who have different cultural backgrounds, life experiences, and perspectives. The reach of events becomes limited if only one kind of speaker is featured over time. So yes, you may have come to rely on a few excellent panels who seem to hit the mark every time. But to truly foster growth, you need to feature speakers who represent more than one demographic.
It’s not enough to feature as many women as men if they’re not racially diverse. Similarly, it’s not enough to feature a culturally and racially diverse panel that is all male, because we need more women in this workforce- especially in the tech world. The current pattern seems to be that events meet diversity standards by hiring just one speaker who is considered BIPOC, female, disabled, ect. This simply isn’t enough.
Generally speaking, when people see themselves represented across industries, they’re more likely to go out and work in those industries. It can be daunting to enter a profession in which one anticipates having to routinely fight against discrimination and obstacles related to one’s gender, race, culture, or ability. Thus, the more diverse role models we put in positions of power and influence, the more comfortable and inspired other diverse individuals will be to work in those industries.
Yes, we are all diverse; we are all different from one another. The difference is that some of us have adequate representation, and a whole lot of the rest of us don’t. It’s as simple as that.
Does Your Event Design Welcome Diversity?
We also have to rethink the infrastructure of events. For example, if catering does not have kosher, halal, or vegan options, it may be limiting the experience of some attendees. Consider the fact that vegan or vegetarian items are far more popular on menus than kosher or halal at most events. That tells you that events are catering to a perceived majority. Sometimes what seems like a majority is actually just a group that is propagated as superior. Are there really more vegans than people who consume kosher or halal foods? It depends where you look. And if you really want diverse growth, you have to do your best to cater to diversity.
When you think of allergens, you probably think of nuts, dairy, shellfish, and the like. But some people are also sensitive or allergic to gluten, and others can only safely consume sugar-free foods. Cross-contamination is hard to avoid, but avoid it when you can, and be sure to label all food offerings. Encourage your staff to be diligent about checking for food cross contaminations and food allergens. Including a section for allergies during registration gives you the opportunity to ask caterers to prepare separate offerings in advance. As with everything event planning, communication is key.
Talk about speakers with disabilities- representative of that experience lot of events think of themselves as accessible for people with disabilities because they have elevators and ramps. But when attendees register for events, they also need to be asked further questions. Do they need:
Wheelchair access? (Consider your event design and make sure access is available throughout; make navigation as easy as possible for people in wheelchairs or those who have limited movement)
Large print, brail, subtitles, or copies of slides for presentations? (Consider providing audible broadcasting for those whose vision is blind or compromised)
Assistive listening device?
Front row seating?
Benefits of Diversity
We’ve already discussed- and backed up with statistics- many overwhelming benefits of diverse events. According to Forbes, high-gender diversity companies deliver better returns and have outperformed less diverse companies over the last five years. Boston Consulting Group and the Technical University of Munich did a study to better understand the relationship between management and diversity. The results? Companies in which 8 out of every 20 managers were female generated approximately 34% of revenues from innovative products and services in the last three-year period.
Generally speaking, women and men have different perspectives and experiences to bring to the table. Working and communicating to understand one another promotes critical thinking and leads to better problem solving. It also inspires the kind of teamwork and communication necessary to create experiences that represent diversity.
Remember: Cultivating diverse events is a process, but one that is well worth it when you look at the benefits. It doesn’t happen overnight, so take it step by step. The important thing is to continuously set diversity goals, work toward them, and measure your progress over time. If even just 25% of event companies did that this year, imagine the progress we could make by next year. A more diverse industry is far from impossible if we act on it.