2021 Event Trends

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New Research Finds that Event Speaker Panels Are Still Not Diverse

By Keneisha Williams Dylan Monorchio

While 2020 has seen a major shift in priorities, the issue of systemic racism is front and center. The event industry must do better, and speaker selection is an easy but essential first step. We looked at 150 events to determine how diverse our speaker panels really are.

The work of operating more diverse, inclusive, and properly representative events is not going to be easy. There are a number of structural issues that will take time to progress: the racial make-up of C-suites in organizations, the prevalence of Black businesses in areas like event technology, etc.

Speaker panels should be one of the easiest and most important things to diversify. One commonly cited obstacle is access to events, but even though virtual events have removed that barrier for all who have a reasonably fast internet connection, speaker panels are still not representative of their audiences.

Organizations have the duty to research diverse representation, but they continue to miss the mark, depriving audiences of the benefit of representation and the value of diverse perspectives.

 

To establish the issue and set a benchmark for progress, EventMB conducted research into the diversity in speaker line-ups at 150 events across the industry. Here’s what we found.

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Research Methodology

EventMB analyzed 150 events globally between 2019 and 2020 to determine the diversity of their speaker panels. Most events were in the US.

We gauged diversity across three categories: Black representation, BIPOC representation more generally, and female representation. Speaker panels that with at least one speaker in any given category would qualify as representative for that category. Naturally, the categories were not mutually exclusive. This means that a speaker panel with a Black woman would meet the criteria for Black, BIPOC, and female.

EVENTS BY SECTOR

Finance: 19% of the events

Medical: 17% of the events

Marketing: 29% of the events

Tech: 35% of the events

 

How Diverse Are Speaker Panels?

The short answer: not very.

In total, 35 to 40 percent of the events we looked at didn’t even have one Black speaker. If you raise the bar for diversity to having a percentage of your panel representation that actually reflects the percentage of any given diversity category in the general population, the number of diverse events is likely far fewer. A 20-speaker event with 19 white male speakers and one Black female speaker would still be included in the 67 percent of diverse events.

 

Has there been progress?

Looking year over year, some sectors did better than others.

The most straightforward catalyst for the improvement of diversity and diverse representation was the murder of George Floyd, which sparked worldwide protests and the call for actionable measures.

However, some sectors actually fell in some diversity categories.

Interestingly, both the medical and PR/marketing sectors significantly decreased in representation of Black and BIPOC speakers in 2020 compared to 2019, whereas there was a 15 percent increase of Black speakers in the finance industry and a 12 percent increase in tech.

This could be down to which events were counted in the analysis and how many in each sector occurred after March. With only 32 percent of event planners able to pivot to virtual, two thirds of events after the pandemic hit were cancelled or postponed. Many events that might have responded favourably to society’s broader social growth in late May would not have had the opportunity. Industries that fared better — tech and finance — are content-driven and were probably in a better position to pivot to virtual as soon as this became the going solution.

Medical, which relies on heavy trade show components and poster sessions, was at a particular disadvantage when it came to virtual events that may not initially have had the technical infrastructure to support them well. It’s therefore likely that most of those events surveyed occurred in the early days of the pandemic, and therefore before the surge in support for BLM.

Large corporations also ceased their participation in events starting with exhibitors pulling out of MWC, and followed by Microsoft and Facebook taking action as early as April to postpone all in person gatherings of more than 50 people until summer 2021. Most PR/marketing industry events come out of the corporate sector, so it’s likely the analyzed events in this category were also prior to May.

Notably, there is considerably higher representation of BIPOC speakers in all industries than Black speakers. It makes sense that BIPOC inclusion as a category would rank better than Black inclusion since any event with a Black speaker also has a BIPOC speaker by definition. Nevertheless, it is important to note because, while BIPOC representation is valuable in its own right, the broadness of the BIPOC category makes it much easier to meet as a criterion (essentially a speaker would need only be non-white), which makes it less significant as a marker of a deliberate effort to be diverse. Possible considerations for low representation of Black speakers in these industries may be caused by a lack of strategy from organizations to increase those percentages.

The research delivers a message — an important reminder of what we have long been made aware of. Diversity and inclusion is not up to par, especially when it comes to representation amongst Black and BIPOC speakers. Events have a long way to go, and more robust data will be needed to properly understand the nuances of diversity and inclusion in speaker panels.

One way to contribute to that data is to participate in this sector wide survey on racial diversity in the events industry currently being conducted by Event First Steps (EFS) and CIT.

 

What’s the Hold Up?

There is a lack of diversity at the top of many organizations, particularly when it comes to Black representation, and the volume of speaking engagements for eligible speakers is bound to get more demanding as the expectation for diverse panels increases — at least until the playing field levels and more influential BIPOC business owners emerge who can supply diverse voices.

But the availability of Black and BIPOC executives and experts for speaking engagements is not the real problem, says Andrew Roby of Andrew Roby Events. There is a deeper-seeded issue: The perception that BIPOC professionals are somehow less capable of providing valuable insights.

If we look at these numbers, we cannot possibly think this is because there is a lack of speakers in any of these industries that are BIPOC. If event organizers don't believe we have value to offer, they will never seek us out.

Andrew Roby
Corporate Event Planner, Andrew Roby Events

 

Moreover, Roby points out that executives are not the only people who can add value to a discussion:

“We don't tend to think about [professionals who support the top level executives] that are all part of the industry. What content we are missing out on? Are we all just going after those with clout, or are we really delving deeper into niche content that would be very educational and helpful for top level executives who attend these events?” 

- Andrew Roby, Corporate Event Planner, Andrew Roby Events

The fact is that the current numbers betray a lack of effort on the part of these events in reaching out to diverse speakers.

 

IN CONCLUSION

We are used to seeing percentages like 67 (the total events with Black representation) as a passing grade, but when 100 percent of events purport to cater to all audiences, a C+ in diversity is still a fail by a large margin.

For members of marginalized communities, diversity for its own sake has value. Seeing industry professionals in positions of power, authority, or respect who look and sound like you is essential for reinforcing the belief that people like you can participate and have a place at every strata of the business.

But it also has value to the industry as a whole. Diversity is not just about representation, it’s about allowing everyone to benefit from the richness in knowledge and experience that comes from different perspectives.

“The beauty of diversity is the chance to see the journey a Black woman takes to get to where she is that is far different from an Indian man or trans person. Those stories cannot be told by an all-white panel, or even by having one LatinX person as a speaker or a panelist.”

- Andrew Roby, Corporate Event Planner, Andrew Roby Events

about the author

Keneisha Williams
Keneisha Williams is an event planning professional with nearly 10 years of experience in both the corporate and not-for-profit events. Her repertoire includes conferences, roadshows, festivals, workshops, hack-a-thons, seminars, meetings, trade shows, town halls, pop-ups, fundraisers, fashion shows, and virtual meetings. Williams founded and managed SHESOFAB, a company that empowered women through events and online content from 2010 to 2015, and this year, she is working on a marketing events hub to socially strengthen through wellness and personal development initiatives.
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Dylan Monorchio
Dylan Monorchio is the Deputy Editor for Skift's events brand, EventMB.com. Beginning his writing career in an event tech firm, he now guides the production of EventMB's content. Dylan enjoys exploring the industry's nooks and crannies in pieces ranging from tech reviews and trend reports to market and business ethics analyses. Dylan splits his time between Toronto and Lisbon.
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