How Inclusive Are Your Meetings?

Author: Sarah Beauchamp       


Speaker lineups, marketing collateral, or something else might be making come people feel like they don’t belong at your meeting. (Illustration by Ping Zhu)

As Stacy Bare paced the stage at the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education’s (AORE) 2014 Annual Conference, he observed the crowd. “Take a look around the room,” Bare, the director of Sierra Club Outdoors, told the audience. “What you’ll see is a page out of a Patagonia magazine.”

He was referring to the overwhelmingly white, male audience. “It was an eye-opening moment,” Aaron Wolowiec, AORE’s event manager and founder and president of Event Garde, a Michigan-based professional-development consulting firm, said in an interview with Convene. “It was a moment of awareness not just for the association, but for the industry at large.”

Bare’s ad-libbed comment spurred AORE to take a long, hard look at the outdoor-recreation industry, which can be seen, Wolowiec said, “as one of privilege — meaning there’s a lot of homogenous people benefitting from these activities that happen largely on university and college campuses.” AORE’s Annual Conference reflected the industry’s homogeneity. “Coming out of that 2014 conference,” Wolowiec said, “we said, ‘There needs to be a change.’”

At the following year’s conference, AORE began “ensuring there were educational opportunities that addressed diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Wolowiec said. “We also provided training to our presenters on how to be more sensitive and mindful of the images they use in slides and the pronouns they use.” And AORE made sure no one was planning excursions that would exclude someone with a disability. “We wanted to be inclusive to a number of perspectives, not just race or gender.”

For the 2017 Annual Conference in Roanoke, Virginia, next month, AORE asked presenters to self-identify in a number of categories, including race, gender, and sexual orientation, in order to bring in a more inclusive speaker lineup. “Our presenters this year are more diverse than we’ve ever had,” Wolowiec said. AORE is also making sure the audience is as diverse as the speakers, working with the host team from Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge to identify places of underrepresentation within the Roanoke community, and recruiting residents to attend and participate in the conference. “We’re not leaving to chance that we have a diverse audience,” Wolowiec said.

AORE also now offers lower registration rates for attendees for whom money is an issue, Wolowiec said, and is “securing funding in the region to pay for some attendees’ registration, should they still not be able to participate.” But this is only the beginning. “The next evolution is bridging this gap between theory and practice,” Wolowiec said. While AORE holds breakout sessions addressing social-equality and social- justice issues, Wolowiec wants to help attendees create real action plans. “Right now,” he said, “we’re working with a focus group to figure out how to help our members bridge theory with practice and go back to their communities and implement change.”

AORE’s Annual Conference today looks much different from just three years earlier, with more to its community than just “man buns and beards,” Wolowiec said. As he looks back, he’s amazed at how “one off-hand comment has had a rippling effect on not just the association, but the industry overall.”

‘Manel’ Discussions

Dorie Clark: ‘Organizers [choose] speakers from, or recommended by, one’s often-homogenous social network.’

It’s the rare organization that sets out to discriminate against any of its attendees, but as AORE’s Annual Conference demonstrates, when it comes to creating an inclusive, welcoming live experience, intent and outcome are two different things. You might not harbor conscious biases against any particular group of people, yet still wind up making them feel excluded — because of panels that skew all-white and all-male, or a registration platform that assumes everyone is perfectly abled and unbound by religious dietary restrictions, or marketing collateral that associates professional success with a particular age and background.

As a result, some of the people who come to your meetings are “otherized.” They feel like they don’t fit within the mainstream as you’ve identified it. Like they belong somewhere else. Like they’re someone other than a “normal” attendee.

Even in 2017, when words like “diversity” and “inclusion” are part of every organization’s values statement, and 44.2 percent of Millennials identify as something other than “white” and 20 percent as something other than “straight” — this can be a common experience. All-male panels are so predominant in fields like science, technology, and medicine that they’re called “manels.” “But 99 times out of 100, I suspect that’s an unintentional blind spot,” said Dorie Clark, a marketing consultant and speaker, “due to organizers choosing speakers from, or recommended by, one’s often-homogenous social network.”

Tamela Blalock, CMP, DES, agrees — to a point. “It speaks to the culture of the organization,” said Blalock, executive director of the Section of Women’s Health of the American Physical Therapy Association, and a member of ASAE’s 2016–2018 class of DELP (Diversity Executive Leadership Program) scholars. But she thinks there’s no excuse for not having more-diverse speaker rosters. “People say, ‘It’s difficult to find XYZ,’ but it’s just not the reality,” Blalock said. “We’re not unicorns. When I hear people tell me [that diverse speakers are] not readily found, they mean in their network. As you’re looking for more diversity in any field, start by talking to people who most likely have diverse circles.”

It’s a pretty direct correlation: As the number of women in leadership roles rises, so does the number of women who are speakers. “Put at least one woman on the team that organizes a scientific symposium, and that team will be much more likely to invite female speakers,” said Arturo Casadevall, M.D., chair of microbiology and immunology at Yeshiva University and co-author of a Yale University study on the topic.

But while it’s good to see more female panelists, another key element of being truly inclusive is what scholars call “intersectionality,” meaning the connectivity of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender. “As a woman of color, it gets really frustrating when the intersection of identity isn’t acknowledged,” Blalock said. “I have seen an increase of women being onstage, but there’s still a lack of women of color onstage. More women are represented in leadership, but if they’re almost always white, it’s two steps forward, three steps back. Women are a very broad category in a lot of ways and have a lot of intersectionality.”

It’s important also to consider the cultural climate at the time of your event. Different venues or cities might make certain attendees uncomfortable. Blalock recalled a meeting that a friend of hers held in Minneapolis in 2016, soon after Philando Castile, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot by police during a routine traffic stop outside St. Paul. “Several members, domestically and internationally, called and expressed concern about their safety as brown people in that city,” Blalock said. “They asked themselves, ‘Is this a destination where I will be welcomed? Is this a destination where I will be safe? Will the organization ensure that we feel and are safe in this destination?’”

‘It’s Important to Be Proactive’

Organizations don’t often think in these terms, Blalock said. She believes that a lot of leadership, both boards of directors and C-suite executives, are “blind to the effect of” such shootings, or “have been minimizing it,” she said. “They need to learn at least how to have the conversation, how to engage the visitors bureau, and help your members. As an industry, it’s important to be proactive about all social injustice.”

The meetings industry regularly vocalizes support for LGBTQ people in the face of state legislation that would allow private businesses to deny service to gay people, Blalock said, but it remains silent on the issue of social injustice based on race and ethnicity. “That’s when I feel otherized,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to be discriminated against. I want our industry to be vocal in its support for everyone. I want it to be both a mission and vision, and it’s disconcerting when a whole state has told any brown person in America that you’re not welcome.”

Tamela Blalock: ‘I don’t want there to be separate factions. We’re stronger together when we have a unified coalition.’

Visiting Minneapolis so soon after Castile’s death was jarring for many people of color. For Blalock, the shooting amounted to the state saying, “I can really violate your essential civil rights of personhood because you dare walk out of a hotel without your conference badge.” She added: “I understand race is tricky, but we can’t ignore it. Because more of us are in leadership positions and we’re making decisions about where we’re taking our meetings, where we are spending our sponsorship budgets, and where we are investing our time as volunteer leaders.”

Blalock has even witnessed a trend of people leaving professional organizations because they’re “tired of being ignored,” she said. “I don’t want there to be separate factions, different ethnicities, sectors of identities having their own groups. We’re stronger together when we have a unified coalition. I sincerely hope our major organizations embrace this opportunity of leading that collation.”

As a gay woman, Clark doesn’t feel excluded at events, but she notes that “you’re often protected from such experiences as a speaker.” However, this doesn’t mean that she’s free from being otherized. Due to her more traditionally masculine style — she often wears suits to conferences — she’s sometimes mistaken for a man. Clark sees this as “an honest mistake because of their cultural training or assumptions.”

Holly Strout, director of diversity and inclusion at PTE Productions, an Orlando-based event-services company, works with organizations to break down these kinds of assumptions. “It’s hard when we have an unconscious bias,” Strout said. She works with clients and employees to help them be more inclusive — whether that means being sensitive to gender pronouns, or accommodating different cultures and abilities.

Holly Strout: ‘ROI is directly connected by a more diverse and welcoming event.’

Strout thinks many organizations are less inclusive than they could be because they’re too focused on the bottom line. They think about what providing an interpreter for networking events will cost, for instance. But Strout has found that inclusive and diverse events actually deliver a higher return on investment. “ROI,” she said, “is directly affected by a more diverse and welcoming event.” When measuring this, Strout asks herself: “Are we growing as a company? Are the organizations and clients we support with our services also growing? The answer, of course, is yes, we are all growing.”

Differently Abled

As someone who has dedicated his career to inclusive networking, Robbie Samuels has plenty of ideas about how to make your event more welcoming to a diverse audience. Samuels, a transgender man, has adopted an all-hands-on-deck approach, by ensuring attendees are active participants in the process. The title of his book, Croissants vs. Bagels: Strategic, Effective, and Inclusive Networking at Conferences, refers to the phenomenon of people huddling together in circles at events. “That’s the bagel,” he said, but when “one person opens up, that’s the croissant.” You want more croissants at your event, he said.

Samuels teaches skills like what not to say when first meeting someone, and how to frame open-ended questions to encourage people to share more. In addition to accommodating different genders, races, and sexualities, a lot of Samuels’ advice is geared toward attendees with disabilities. “If someone says they have trouble hearing, move the conversation to a quieter space,” he said. “Don’t assume you can see a disability.”

Robbie Samuels: ‘Don’t assume you can see a disability.’

One of the best ways to ensure your event is welcoming to people with disabilities is by experiencing the venue as a disabled person. That’s why Joan Eisenstodt, chief strategist for Eisenstodt Associates, who’s been in the meetings industry for more than 40 years, conducts experiential tours with event organizers. She has them adopt the point of view of an attendee with a disability by wearing eye patches and ear plugs, and riding in wheelchairs or power scooters. “They are absolutely stunned that in today’s world we are not prepared to help people with disabilities,” said Eisenstodt, who gets around via power scooter.

But it’s not just about physical comfort for disabled attendees. “It’s both the literal access, and it’s also how people treat you,” Eisenstodt said, recalling a time when a hostess asked her husband about her disability, rather than directly addressing her. “[My husband] Joel just stood there and I answered. The experience was so awful. But it’s that way for so many different people who simply cannot get the help they need or the communication they need, or are not trained to get that communication.”

The problem often is one of omission rather than deliberate commission. If you don’t think to provide interpreters for hearing-impaired attendees, for example, that can seriously detract from their conference experience. “Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals are continually met with both unintentional and intentional challenges,” said Julie Greenfield, who has managed conferences in the corporate and association sectors more than 10 years. She’s also served on the board of directors for the Northern Virginia Resource Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (NVRC), whose mission is to “empower deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals and their families through education, advocacy, and community involvement.”

Providing materials post-event can be helpful, Greenfield said, but it doesn’t “allow for equal participation in the learning process.” Even having interpreters on site doesn’t guarantee anything. Hard-of-hearing and deaf attendees sometimes encounter people who communicate with their interpreter rather than with them. And anyway, many event organizers will say their budget only allows for interpreters at educational sessions but not networking events, which for many conference attendees provide the most value. “That makes for a significant void in the ability to make worthy contributions to the industry,” Greenfield said, “on a personal and professional level.”

It’s not just disabled people who have a hard time physically navigating events. With more than 35 percent of adult Americans classified as obese, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, it’s important to consider all shapes and sizes when planning your meeting. In Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, author Roxane Gay talks about the anxiety of attending and speaking at conferences as a larger person. “It’s very stressful, because you just never know if a space is going to accommodate me,” Gay told the Australian website Mamamia. “Are there going to be sturdy chairs? Are the chairs going to have arms? How wide are the arms? How low is the chair? It’s just a constant series of questions that you are asking yourself every single day before you go into any space, and it’s exhausting because people don’t think, they just assume that everyone fits in the world like they do.”

‘Acknowledgement and Action’

It’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure a conference is inclusive, accommodating, and welcoming, but as AORE learned from its eye-opening speaker three year ago, it starts with the example your organization sets. A good way to begin is by taking the time to truly understand your audience. “Every organization should start by getting data,” Blalock said. “Know the demographics of your members, customers, stakeholders. Know their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality — all of it.”

Strout suggests gaining outside perspectives through “real community outreach,” and by working with local organizations to step outside your normal network. For instance, when working with MBA Orlando, Central Florida’s LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Strout noticed that “the transgender community is not reached out to as much as we feel that they should have been,” she said. “By reaching out to transgender groups in the area, we were able to bring in so many people through social media and in person. And reaching out to someone personally makes a big difference.”

This is important work, but understanding that you have a diversity issue is just the beginning. “Acknowledgement and action,” Blalock said, “need to happen at the same time.”

  • MARKETING: Take what you learn about existing and potential attendees alike, and make sure it’s reflected in your marketing materials. They should be as varied as the audience you serve. “Those images aren’t very diverse,” Blalock said. “It’s mostly different types of white people, of all ages, both binary male and female gender. Even if LGBTQ people are represented, they’re usually always white, too. It’s a matter of not seeing yourself represented. There’s an indifferent feeling to it, or maybe proactively not welcoming you. Even the indifference is hurtful.”
  • REGISTRATION: You can start to make attendees feel more welcome beginning with the registration process, by offering them the opportunity to provide as much information about themselves as possible. TED conferences, for example, allow attendees to self-identify in a number of categories, including race, sexuality, and religion. “It’s a nice way,” Clark said, “to allow people with mutual interests, whether identity-based or not, to connect with one another.”
  • LANGUAGE: Hold your speakers to a high standard — letting them know you expect them to speak to your entire community in their presentations. “I try to make a point of using gendered words carefully in my speeches, alternating between male and female examples, and not making assumptions with my language,” Clark said. “For instance, I might say, ‘Your boss’ inner circle might contain a number of influencers, from his chief of staff to his sales VP to his favorite blogger to his husband or wife.’ After a recent talk, a gay man actually came up to me and thanked me, because he said it was so rare for him to feel that his identity was recognized from the stage.”
  • MINDSET: This is the most important thing to keep in mind: Not everyone is like you. They don’t look or feel like you, and they don’t move through the world like you do. Some people aren’t comfortable acknowledging that. “It’s important to get uncomfortable for the sake of others’ safety,” said Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst, which works to empower “diverse, inclusive, and sustainable tech innovation through education, mentorship, and funding,” according to the company’s website.

Joan Eisenstodt:‘They are absolutely stunned that in today’s world we are not prepared to help people with disabilities.’

As part of that, Change Catalyst provides toolkits that help meeting planners make their events more inclusive. At the company’s annual Tech Inclusion events — held in 14 different cities all over the United States, with the goal of improving diversity in the tech industry by discussing education, policy, and more — they have a code of conduct for attendees that they “reiterate over and over again,” Epler said. “One of the first things we do is talk about all the things that are available to people. Gender-neutral restrooms are a big culture shift for people, so I explain why we have them.”

In addition to gender-neutral restrooms, Tech Inclusion events have ASL interpreters on site, and vegan and gluten-free food options. “I don’t see it as a nice-to-have, I see it as a must-have,” Epler said. “One of the things that we ask of all our speakers is to be real, because we don’t want to gloss over the issues — that’s not what people are looking for right now. I think that’s a big part of it, having those hard conversations.” One session at Tech Inclusion in Nashville this past August, for example, was called “Mountains, Unicorns, Stereotypes, Oh My: Dispelling the Myths of Black People in Tech.”

Indeed, a recent study by David Broockman at Stanford University and Joshua Kalla at the University of California, Berkeley concludes that the most effective way to reduce another person’s bigotry and dispel any cultural bias is through direct, non-confrontational discourse. The researchers had people — some of them transgender, others cisgender — canvas more than 500 homes in South Florida, asking the residents to put themselves in the shoes of trans people. Not only did anti-trans views among those residents decline, but they remained low for at least three months after the study. And more of those who were canvassed supported laws protecting trans people after they participated.

This entire process — recognizing how you might be otherizing your attendees, and doing something about it — will take a lot of time and effort, and even more empathy. And it’s important, according to Epler, that an organization doesn’t put the onus completely on employees or attendees “instead of fixing the systemic issues,” she said, “that are really the biggest barriers.”

Diversity and inclusion don’t just mean seeing different kinds of people — sizes, colors, religions, genders — in an event’s marketing materials and onstage, although that should be the goal. It goes beyond simply meeting a quota. It means affecting the emotional and physical wellbeing of your attendees and engaging them more fully. All of them.

“We exist, we’re already here,” Blalock said. “We’re leaders, we’re volunteers, we’re customers, we’re buyers, we’re decision makers. Including us in creating our strategic plans to be more inclusive and activating our tactical plan is a choice that’s not yet happened. I don’t want to hear anyone talk about diversity anymore. I want to see your action plan.”

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