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Changing the Faces We See at Conferences Starts With Organizers. Here Are 5 Tips to Change the Status Quo.

Start with diversity and inclusion in mind.
Changing the Faces We See at Conferences Starts With Organizers. Here Are 5 Tips to Change the Status Quo.
Image credit: Klaus Vedfelt | Getty Images
Entrepreneur Staff
Staff Writer. Covers leadership, media, technology and culture.
5 min read

Ever find yourself in this position? You’re at a conference and look at the list of panels and find the photos of the speakers look remarkably similar. A recent study found that over the past five years, two thirds of conference speakers were all male. So what can you do to change that statistic?

If you are a thought leader in your industry, you can effect change by refusing to participate in panels that aren't diverse. You can then amplify and support the conferences and events that make diversity a priority.

But the biggest changes start at the top. If you are regularly organizing conferences, there are several ways to make sure that a commitment to diversity and inclusion isn’t just lip service.

Entrepreneur spoke with Emily Miethner, the co-founder of millennial networking organization FindSpark, which frequently holds conferences and events, and Vanessa Valenti, the co-founder of Fresh Speakers, a speakers bureau focused on diversifying public speaking, about their most effective strategies to organize events that can affect real change.

1. Be the first through the door.

“Give opportunities to people," Miethner said. "Being that person's first speaking engagement can help launch them into being a requested speaker.”

Miethner noted that if you're booking people to do a solo or keynote talk, you may want to get somebody who has more experience, but oftentimes on a panel, someone who is new to public speaking can share some of the most compelling insights.

“These are the spaces where policy gets shaped, where ideas are shared that convince stakeholders of where they should be directing their energy and resources,” Valenti said. “Part of our complaints about conferences was that people were having the same conversation over and over because the same people are being invited to the same conference over and over. Creating more inclusion in conferences makes for a more interesting conversation, brings in more diverse perspectives and ends up being just a better conference overall.”

Related: True Diversity Means More Than Just Putting Women in the Boardroom

2. Be intentional about your language.

To avoid unintentionally offending anyone, Miethner recommended that requests for underrepresented talent should be as specific as possible. “Being explicit goes a really long way,” Miethner said. “If you feel uncomfortable about it and you want to write a sample post, ask a few friends to look at the request to make sure you're not accidentally coming across in the wrong way.”

That specificity of language needs to continue once the conference arrives. “We’re always thinking about how can we create a more welcoming and inclusive experience,” Valenti said. “For example, for someone who's gender nonconforming, making sure that you're using the correct pronoun, making sure that you're being respectful of their needs.”

3. Pay and treat people like equals.

Valenti said the last straw before launching Fresh Speakers was hearing that two people her co-founders suggested to a conference organizer, one a white male entrepreneur from New York and a black female environmental activist from Detroit, had wildly different experiences.

“We found out that the white male speaker got paid $10,000 and had a first class flight, while the woman speaker had to convince them to pay for economy class flight and then she didn't get paid anything,” Valenti recalled. She said it's incumbent on organizers to make sure that every person is appropriately compensated for their time, travel and expertise.

Related: 4 Ways to Embrace Diversity for Workplace Success

4. Put a specific person in charge.

Valenti said that you can’t just expect inclusion to happen without putting in the work. You can start by creating a diversity and inclusion task force or even just putting one person in charge of keeping track of diversity across the conference.

“Another thing that we see at conferences is trying to avoid tokenization, the all-white-male panel with the one token woman,” Valenti said. “Often that person still ends up feeling like an outsider because of the questions that they're asked. For example, a woman scientist isn't asked about her expertise but asked about work-life balance."

5. Think beyond your immediate network.

Miethner said if you are struggling to come up with people, you’re ignoring a real resource that's right at your fingertips.

“Post on your social media channels. Ask people in your network to post and give them a sample post that says, 'call for speakers, we're looking for speakers to speak on X Y Z topics,” Miethner said. “Say, ‘we're especially interested in folks from underrepresented backgrounds.’ Put that in your posts and or in your email. People love recommending people to be speakers.”

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