The Event Industry’s Problem With Speaker Diversity

White male seems to be the trend when it comes to speaker line ups at events. Are you brave enough to change that?

EMB image The Event Industry Problem With Speaker Diversity

A couple of weeks ago the event industry earned its first internet meme, courtesy of Congrats, you have an all male panel! Tumblr.

The clever site asks readers to submit event websites or guides with all male panels and adds a Hasselhoff Thumbs Up sticker, renamed Hoffsome.

See one here:

http://allmalepanels.tumblr.com/post/120574842465/portugals-avant-garde-museum-made-it-happen-with

Can’t see? Click here.

This was my reaction:

– first I laughed.
– then I admired the idea of putting together the site.
– I started to feel bad.

My Problem With Diversity

Before I start casting judgements on event professionals (after all, low quality articles will always tell you what to do and why you are not perfect), let me come clean.

As much as I’ve written on diversity and the role of women in the event industry, I haven’t practiced what I preached, on at least two occasions.

– Recently I was in charge of selecting the jury for a startup competition we organised. My choices for the judges were all white males.

I did not think for one minute about choosing a more balanced judging panel. I made a safe bet. I was actually very lazy in making easy selections and not thinking about the wider implications of my choices.

When it comes to event technology it is easy to make mistakes. Tech in general has a problem with women quota. But what about event technology?

Actually, some of the brightest minds in event tech are women and they beat the hell out of me when it gets to explaining event tech to event professionals. Have a read of the latest 10 articles on EventMB and you will notice it is mostly women sharing amazing advice on tech and social.

Silly Julius. There is not much I can do about changing the past, but rest assured there is something I can do about it in the very near future. Tune in soon.

– I realised I mostly sit on panels with all white males. It has happened to me at several events in the last few years. I didn’t do anything about changing that.

I didn’t even notice I was on all-male panels.

Now what I have done about it is updating my standard speaking contract with the following clause:

Gender Diversity in Panels
Speaker will not speak on all-male panels.

No more all men panels for me.

The Industry Problem with Diversity

The event industry problem with picking diverse speakers is very similar to my problem:

Risk Perception. Being event professionals by definition coincides with being risk averse. Our job revolves about minimising the risks associated with an event, from security to food choices.

You can’t risk it when it gets to speaker selection, right? All men is safe, right?

Not really. Most of the time you are not representing your audience. On top of that, you are definitely being standardised and commoditised. You are failing your attendees in their core need of serendipity and inspiration.

Laziness. Why should we change things if they work so well as they are? You are correct, change is not easy. It disrupts. It makes you feel uncomfortable. It adds more work to a quite full plate.

Let me break it down to you, dear reader, this is what you signed up for when you decided to become an event professional. The quest for delighting your attendees does not revolve around making easy choices or working less. The natural energy you have as an event pro should be dedicated to solving this issue.

So What Should You Do?

Start with a question: are you doing everything in your powers to solve this BIG issue?

If the answer is no, well we have work to do.

Continue with this tool -> Conference Diversity Distribution Calculator. Are you representing your audience correctly?

Go beyond representation. Just representation is not enough. Try to be bold, to innovate, to be equal. Change your policy. Do not allow all male panels, put it in writing.

Go beyond speaker selection. Diversity means catering for different gender, choices, religions. Are you marketing your event for all attendees? Are you providing food choices for all attendees? Is your programme/agenda respecting all backgrounds?

Go beyond safety. If you read EventMB, it means you innovate. You won’t find self complacent articles on this website. We are the voice of an army of strong, intelligent event professionals who do not accept things as they are. We expect you to embrace change and make it count!

The real risk is not changing.

In Conclusion

Diversity in the event industry is still a major issue. There are things we can do to change how we select speakers and avoid getting Hoffsome badges on our next programs.

I admit I am far from perfect in this sense but I want to begin this overdue change. Are you ready to start?

About The Author
Julius Solaris
Julius Solaris is the editor of EventManagerBlog.com, he is an international speaker, author and consultant.
Comment Policy Comments
  • Christopher Perrins

    Not all diversity is visual.

    It’s easy to judge some speaker head-shots and assume they all share the same sexuality, nationality, religion, language and culture, or they share the same physical/mental health, let alone attitudes, experiences, feelings and thoughts.

    Diversity is about more than sex and skin-color.

    • Of course it is – and this is what I mentioned in the post “Diversity means catering for different gender, choices, religions”

  • “Not all diversity is visual”. Sure. That is a correct statement. But perhaps we could at least start there? It’s very discouraging to see a full panel of men discussing women’s issues (yes, this happened) or, as a woman, constantly attending events with all male panels or going to a conference with 1 speaker who’s a visual minority – especially when there are plenty of very qualified candidates being overlooked. The industry needs to be aware of this issue and make a concerted effort to resolve it.

    Thank you for addressing this, Julius.

  • Carolina

    Hi Julius. We are getting more and more speakers and delegates requesting greater diversity of gender and opinion. While I agree with you that sometimes it can be safe and easy to invite the male speakers you already know, I have also noticed that the problem goes way beyond selection. I feel many women who are highly qualified, lack the confidence to get in front of an audience, and will often recommend a male to participate instead … I would love to see more discussions on how can we encourage woman to put themselves forward, make time to prepare and attend and actively participate at events?

  • Great point you have here Julius. Although it may sound right that not all diversity is on visual but perhaps this what it looks on general. I think most people look on what they see especially if we are talking about in general per se.

  • Without being to promotional here, I help coordinate Madison+ UX and Madison+ Ruby, two tech conferences held in Madison, WI. Since it’s inception five years ago our company has worked to create diversity. Now in their last year we have created and held the benchmark for diversity. As Christopher commented it’s not just sex or skin color. We have a great standing with the LGBTQ community, so good in fact it was unanimously decided to accept a talk from a conference goer who came out as transgender a few years ago at one of the conferences. I believe you just have to start somewhere and work to cultivate the environment you want. The grassroots movement of our conference has now led to a 50% attendance rate of women.

    • Very true and not what I said in my post – not sure why the conversation is gravitating this way instead of reinforcing the need for change.

      • I believe I am reinforcing the need for change, “you just have to start somewhere and work to cultivate the environment you want.”

        • Of course. I feel that the we have to start with something and addressing visible issues is a good start but by no means exhaustive.

          On another note, you’d be amazed by how few males (who usually share our posts) actually shared this post.

          I am almost in shock.

  • Kevin White

    I can’t remember the last time, if at all, I sat on an event panel with all men. Being a scientifically minded person, is there data behind the assertion? I understand looking at ironic situations of male panels on female-dominated topics. I laugh at “old white men” taking the lead role on female health laws. But there are thousands and thousands of panels that happen a year. Is the percentage of those skewed towards all male dominance? Or are we cherry picking? I don’t know the answer, but I’d be curious to know some numbers before saying I agree or not with “its a problem.” I think its also wise to look at process in this too. How do panels get selected? The two largest shows in the US have people submit topics to talk on, including panel format. They self create and an advisory committee selects based on topic, not headshot.

    Again, good data posted would help the conversation along.

    • Kevin,

      very tough as numbers are fragmented and often dependent on the industry of the conference.

      Above all this article from HBR talks about the World Economic Forum https://hbr.org/2014/01/theres-no-excuse-for-all-white-male-panels/

      This is a common issue for the digital and tech industry as well http://mirandabishop.com/2015/05/oi-conf-and-that-question/?

      The very fact you have conferences about diversity in pretty much every industry should signal what is to most an evident problem.

      In essence, is there research that gives precise numbers? No, but there will probably be soon.

      A simple search will give you an incredible amount of reports, articles, conferences on the problem and witness accounts by participants that experienced all white man panels.

      • Kevin White

        I am sure many sectors have the all male panel problem. And I agree with creating diverse opinion on stage. I’m just not sure its evident in the event industry specifically (your title). But I am for sure going to keep my eyes open now when I look or attend and find out. InfoComm – the US A.V. industry conference – is happening right now. I’ll go scan their speaker listings.

  • Kevin/Julius, we actually published our 2014 data a few months ago. We analyzed closed to 200,000 speakers as part of a very wide list of events in Europe, North America and Australia. Over 70% were male! This definitely is a problem in many industries. Speakers are seen as thought leaders and mentors which makes the need for diversity for professional speakers even more critical.
    reference: http://www.eventmobi.com/about/company/2014/

Julius Solaris
Editor, Julius Solaris

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