How to Lead on Conference Diversity

Including a variety of people at your events is great. But a broader discussion of diversity involves closely understanding the sensitivities of the members in the room---and of the ones who decided not to show up.

There’s no better proof of how well you’re handling diversity than when your members come together in person.

In the latest issue of Associations Now, I wrote about how a handful of associations have worked to address conference diversity. At a time when sensitivity to gender and racial inequality is particularly acute, token gestures toward inclusion aren’t enough. And Aaron Wolowiec, CAE, founder and president of the meetings consultancy Event Garde, says associations have a long way to go on that front.

“I just don’t know that we’re doing a great job in general,” he says. “I don’t think our organizations understand their own membership demographics very well or their own industry demographics very well… I think that the answer is understanding the demographics of the membership and the industry first, and ensuring that attendees and speakers reflect that, versus reflecting just a general checklist of what diversity means.”

“I just don’t know that we’re doing a great job in general.”

That’s a critical message for leaders thinking about diversity within the meetings space: It needs to be relevant to your organization’s membership and industry. The associations I spoke with all prioritized that understanding. At the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, for instance, those conversations are top of mind for an organization of creative-writing teachers and students at colleges. The lack of diversity in published authors is a topic of constant discussion in that arena—one nonprofit diligently researches gender and racial breakdowns of the contributors to prominent magazines and literary reviews, and women and people of color are often underrepresented. AWP has responded by making diversity a major consideration in its selection of speakers for its annual conference. (Its proposal guidebook [PDF] makes diversity one of the four selection criteria for panels.)

“We’re hopeful that the umbrella of the conference is large enough to encapsulate it all,” says Christian Teresi, AWP’s director of conferences. “That’s very idealistic. I don’t think we ever quite get there, but that is the goal. We want everybody to come and we want all the opposing viewpoints about what is important in contemporary literature to be involved.”

But acknowledging the issue and addressing it doesn’t mean you can stop being mindful of potential problems. That’s been particularly true for AWP, which, while it’s made diversity discussions a part of its conference, has fielded criticism for shortcomings in the past few months. One member of its conference selection panel was condemned by many for provocatively tweeting out the text of Gone With the Wind, prompting her removal from the panel; another member received similar scorn for being dismissive of concerns that AWP wasn’t responding to disability issues. Another member who was interested in diversity information about AWP panels received what she called a “condescending, bullying” email from executive director David Fenza, prompting a public apology from him.

The lesson from AWP’s tough summer—for AWP but also associations in general—is that diversity efforts, in meetings and elsewhere, are ground-up, not top-down. They’re most effective when they’re the product of listening to the concerns of rank-and-file members, particularly those that feel most excluded, and conveying those concerns to the association’s decision makers.

It helps to look around the room to see who’s there to gauge that. But it’s just as important, Wolowiec told me, to think about the people who aren’t showing up, and find out what drives that absence: If the call for presentations only goes out to the engaged members and not the ones who feel alienated from the process, you haven’t made as much of a dent in the diversity problem as you may think you have. “I think that’s one of the challenges,” he says. “Even if an organization does understand its membership, does understand the industry, and the demographics of both, if they’re not then intentionally seeking diverse speakers, I think they fail.”

What does your association do to encourage diversity in your conference speakers, and to identify the gaps among your attendees? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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