Diversity in the Meeting and Events Industry: 7 Strategies to Eliminate Bias

Diversity is relevant to the meeting and events industry for a number of reasons and should be reflected when creating effective event strategies. Given the fact that society and event audiences are becoming increasingly diverse, ethnic, and gender diversity in the speaker lineup should be a given. It isn’t. When one looks at event brochures, keynote speakers, panelists, and breakout facilitators still tend to be overwhelmingly White and male. It’s a symptom of a larger issue.

Many associations are experiencing dwindling memberships and struggling to attract conference participants. As many emerging professionals are from visible minority groups, a strategic approach to promoting diversity is needed. For example, when speakers do not reflect the audience, this presents a number of challenges for marketing and connecting with potential participants:

  • The event may be dismissed as irrelevant.
  • The examples the speakers use may not resonate with the realities the audience faces.

Where Diversity is Missing In the Events Industry

Just like the engine light in automobiles, here are some indicators that it’s time to take action. If the industry is willing to take a hard look at these realities, there can be improvements.

  • Conference Planning Committees: The problem begins long before the speakers stand at the podium. Planning committees that are not diverse will have blind spots. Without input from a more diverse audience, there are likely to be gaps in content and programming.
  • Conference Programs: While society at large is becoming increasingly diverse, keynote speakers at event industry conferences are still predominantly white, male, and over 40. This dynamic is at play in what is still a female dominated industry. It’s the same story with panels.
  • Influential Event Professionals and Event Blogger Lists: In lists of thought leaders and influential event professionals, members of visibility groups are largely absent. Scrutiny of some lists reveals that some of the African American, Asian, and Hispanic professionals who are not included have a stronger track record of achievement than some who are listed.

For this reason, highly qualified and competent individuals may not be at top of mind awareness when it’s time to select speakers.

  • Senior Management Positions: Professionals who are from visible minority groups are underrepresented in senior management and board positions across the event and meetings industry.


7 Event Strategies for Increasing Diversity

  1. Avoid the (in)visible minority effect.

Whether you’re compiling a list of influential event professionals or bloggers or identifying potential speakers, if there are no or few members of visible minority groups represented, it’s time to hit the pause button.

  1. Steer clear of the “who you know trap.”

Going with people you know is the easy way out. It’s easy to go with “safe” choices based on who you know. Unfortunately, this approach will inevitably will lead to a narrow selection pool.

With the information available on the Internet, there is no excuse for not doing more legwork. Broaden your scope and your search. You will likely discover some splendid additions for your list of thought leaders or your speaker lineup.

  1. Pay attention to event professionals who you are overlooking.

One of the pervasive biases in job interviews is the “similar to me” effect. This also applies to other situations that involve selection (i.e. thought leader and speaker selection). When it comes into play, there is a tendency to rate individuals with whom one has a lot in common more highly and underrate individuals who one perceives as different.

  1. Broaden your selection pool.

If your usual event strategies are not uncovering a diverse enough pool of speakers, panelists, and facilitators, broaden the scope when sending out calls for speakers.

Tap into multicultural networks through organizations like the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association, the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners, Best in Black Awards, The Most Influential African-Americans In The Meetings/Tourism Industry, the International Association of Hispanic Meeting Professionals, and, on Facebook, the Black Meeting & Event Professionals group.

  1. Set objective criteria and evaluate candidates blindly.

This is easy to do and it doesn’t take a lot of work. It’s not a new strategy either. IPI Conference & Expo, the International Leadership Association, and the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association use a blind peer review process to evaluate speaker proposals.

Whether you’re hiring, evaluating professionals for a list, or selecting speakers, compile a short questionnaire to gather information about the objective criteria that will be used for selection. Ask applicants to prepare two versions of the form, one with identifying information, and the other without.

When the submissions arrive, have a clerk who is not involved in decision making log and label them. Give the selection committee the version of the profile without the identifying information. Identify the most qualified professionals objectively.

  1. Use a behavior-based approach to interviewing to help avoid subjective biases in candidate assessment.

Common biases like the “halo effect,” “horns effect,” and “similarity effect” can cause interviewers to inadvertently screen out highly qualified and suitable candidates.

  1. When making selection decisions, watch out for the “too” and “over” effects.

When evaluating candidates from visible minority groups, terms like “(over)confident” and “(too) polished” are a dead giveaway. The terms “confident” and “polished” are positive traits. If a candidate from a visible minority groups appears to be “too” confident that is because their behavior and attitude are being evaluated through a prism of stereotypes. Watch out for the word “arrogant” too.

There are no quick fixes but these seven event strategies can lead to improvement over time. More diversity from the podium, in senior positions, and on lists of industry thought leaders will position the industry for growth in a multiracial and multicultural society.

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