How to Start Addressing Diversity and Inclusion Issues at Your Events

Author: David McMillin       

As Frances McDormand’s inspiring Academy Awards acceptance speech continues to echo across the Internet, more event organizers are focusing on how to create inclusive environments for their attendees and exhibitors. However, some efforts to be more inclusive can backfire. “I’ve been to many events with all the right intentions to make me feel included,” Mazda T. Miles, CMM, chief event strategist at Perfection Events and president of the National Association of Women Business Owners Greater Philadelphia Chapter, said in a recent webinar on inclusivity at events hosted by Destinations International. “But what was really meant to be thoughtful turned out to be offensive to me.”

After the webinar, I caught up with Miles to learn more about how even the best intentions can fail. “It’s often about grouping people together and assuming that they all use the same phrases, eat the same foods, or like the same music,” Miles told me. “Just because I am an urban Black woman who lives in Philadelphia, that doesn’t mean that I am interested in certain things. Don’t put me in a box.”

Inclusivity errors can be much bigger than making incorrect assumptions, though. Consider a gala event that Miles attended where the organizers had chosen a very broad theme: Africa. “I’m sure they were trying to be more inclusive and thoughtful about culture,” Miles said. “But Africa is a continent, not a country. If you were hosting an event about France, it would probably drill down specifically to a Parisian theme. You can’t lump an entire continent together with safaris, jungles, and tribal themes. Though they aimed to be considerate, it did not come across that way.”

Miles believes that avoiding these mistakes relies on inviting a cast of minds from different backgrounds to contribute their ideas about what might work and what would offend them. “Sometimes, we are not aware of our own biases,” Miles said in the webinar. “It’s important to bring the right people to the table and ask for their thoughts on ways to expand the diversity of your meeting.”

Diversity Is About More Than the Speakers on the Stage

If you’re thinking about bringing those people together, the first item on the agenda may be aiming for a diverse cast of speakers. It’s an understandable goal — particularly as plenty of high-profile conferences have been publicly shamed for all-male keynote casts. However, Miles pointed out that the faces on stage are only one piece of the puzzle. “Think about every single way that your attendees will interact with you and with each other,” Miles said. “With every single touchpoint, we want to think about how to make them feel welcomed and wanted.”

Establishing that feeling of welcomeness starts long before attendees arrive on site. For example, Miles told webinar participants to consider how they ask about gender in their online registration processes. “Instead of asking ‘what are you?’, we ask ‘how do you identify yourself?’” Miles told me in our conversation after the webinar.

Miles said that she works with organizations to determine how comfortable they are with embracing more progressive efforts around gender identification. “I’ve had clients used an open-ended box that says ‘I describe myself as,’” Miles said. “And then, it’s important to flow that inclusivity through to the on-site experience.”

For an example of inclusivity in action, Miles pointed to the restroom signage at the Friends Center in Philadelphia. “All are welcome to use the restroom that best matches their identity, or that feels safest and most comfortable to them,” the venue’s restroom policy reads. “Please help hold a safe space for everyone by not challenging or questioning others’ restroom choices.”

Examine Everything 

Miles recommends that organizers look at their planning teams to see how well the staff represents a range of ethnicities, religions, genders, sexual preferences, ages, and disabilities. In addition to the people who are planning the event, she highlighted the importance of looking at the hired vendors, the volunteers, and the organizations paying to support the event. “No one thinks about sponsorship organizations,” Miles said. “We just want their money. But it’s important to make sure they are in line with your diversity efforts, too.”

Interested in more insights on how you can create a program that resonates with every member of your community? Check out Convene’s “How Inclusive Are Your Meetings?”

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