Asian Business man as a leaderAssociation programs, speakers, panelists and breakout facilitators still tend to be mostly white, even as the racial and ethnic diversity of attendees increases.
But that is changing rapidly.
Diversity and inclusion (DI) are no longer just the subject of association mission statements and speeches. Associations and their planners are ramping up efforts to increase DI in convention and conference programs.
Efforts to increase DI include workshops and task forces on the topic, speaker diversity goals, diverse marketing materials and researching membership demographics. The goal is to ensure that meeting programs reflect DI in areas such as race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion and age.
“Integrating diversity and inclusion throughout the conference experience ensures there are opportunities to learn from individuals who offer different perspectives.”
Associations and planners think increasing DI will help attract more attendees, build membership and improve engagement. Most of all, DI lets attendees know their presence, ideas, thoughts and participation are welcome.
That’s the view of Krista LeZotte, CMP, CSEP, associate director, meeting operations & special events, at ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership. “One of the main focuses of hosting a conference is ensuring your attendees’ experiences are considered from multiple perspectives,” LeZotte says. “Adopting that orientation demonstrates your interest in creating a genuinely welcoming environment that is baked into your planning process.”
LeZotte adds: “If attendees feel like they belong, they will attend, engage and want to return. Ensuring DI is implemented, helps to guarantee your members and conference attendees understand they are valued, included and needed.”
Mary Anne Dornbusch, manager of conventions and meetings at the American Psychological Association (APA) agrees.
“Offering a spectrum of topics, faces and voices allows attendees to see themselves in the conference, in what’s presented, in the range of speakers and diversity of the audience,” Dornbusch says. “When attendees genuinely feel welcome and valued, it makes the event experience more meaningful. Having diverse speakers, presenters and sessions also ensures that a variety of viewpoints are showcased.”
Demographic changes force action
Planners say that, due to demographic changes in the population and association memberships, it’s important for conference programs to be inclusive as well as diverse. However, it’s still not uncommon for conferences and meetings to be diverse but not inclusive.
For example: An association consisting mostly of male and female whites, blacks and Latinos has predominately white male speakers. The group increases the number of black and Latino male speakers over a period of years. Thus, the group is more diverse, but not more inclusive due to the lack of white, black and Latino female speakers.
Leslie Wilson, CGMP, program manager at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC), puts it this way: “It is important to be mindful of the optics of no inclusion,” Wilson says. “If you host a meeting on women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), should all of your panels be populated by men? No. But you would be surprised how often that happens. We should all be asking what overt and covert messaging this sends to attendees and our organizations. Speaker and facilitator compositions make a difference in how attendees experience the meeting. ”
However, associations are starting to make progress on the inclusion front.
“Organizations that may traditionally have been diverse but not inclusive are taking steps to improve,” Wilson says.
For example, the Parent Teachers Association (PTA) has long been dominated by females of various races and ethnicities. However, the PTA says it has been “increasing male presence and perspectives in PTA at all levels and in all activities.”
Many associations, with the help of planners, are adopting very specific practices and policies to ensure DI meeting programs.
The AAVMC is an example. “I work closely with our senior director for institutional research and diversity to ensure that our call for proposals clearly articulates our diversity and inclusion expectations,” Wilson says. “Session abstracts are reviewed both by our senior director, and other senior content experts, against rigorous criteria that includes diversity and inclusion components.”
Wilson describes the next steps after proposals are selected. “We look at session compositions and make decisions about session groupings and provide speakers guidance on how to make sure they stay consistent with our expectations,” Wilson says. “We encourage panelists to consider diversity in final speaker selection. We give thought to constructing schedules that allow for a variety of speakers to be visible throughout the meeting and not just on a single day or at a single plenary.”
Associations ensure event materials reflect DI
Once presenters are selected, AAVMC ensures that conference promotional materials represent the DI of speakers.
“We undergo a rigorous review to make sure the images reflect our reality and our aspirational goals around diversity and inclusion,” Wilson says. “We are not shy about sending drafts back to our graphic artists with specific instructions about what we would like to see.”
Another organization, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), also pursues specific practices to improve the DI of speakers.
“We have made it an organizational priority to ensure that DI is integrated in the content as well as speakers,” says Christina Tushman, AAMC director of leadership development, who helps plan and lead the organization’s national conferences and programs. “We are developing a workshop on organizational culture which will include a DI partner on the planning and facilitation team to ensure that this important topic is presented from an expert perspective.”
In addition, the AAMC constantly evaluates its speaker line-up to ensure the representation of women and underrepresented minorities. The organization is also introducing more content related to unconscious bias, microaggressions and bystander training (teaching onlookers to observe harassment) within its conferences.
The APA is also adopting a broad DI policy. “The organization is deeply committed to diversity and inclusion in its organizational structure, governance, staffing, advocacy, education and training, communications, and in our meetings and annual convention,” Dornbusch says.
Diversity and inclusion also cover the APA’s 54 divisions representing the many subfields in psychology. “These divisions create a significant portion of the convention program,” Dornbusch says. “Staff and governance members are involved in planning the annual convention and in training division program chairpersons to emphasize the importance of DI in their convention programming.”
Some associations in related fields are teaming up to improve DI.
The American Neurotology Society (ANS) and American Otological Society (AOS) have a joint “Resolution on Diversity of Meeting Presenters.” The policy states that “diversity of presenters allows for cross-pollination of knowledge, perspective and experiences enabling a stronger and more robust educational experience for our members.”
The policy also says, “The American Neurotology Society and American Otological Society will select speakers and panel members endeavoring to balance educational goals while promoting the diversity of our respective societies’ memberships and educational offerings.”
According to the diversity statement of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), it will “incorporate diversity and inclusion topics into conference sessions, training workshops, webinars and eLearning resources for members and staff.”
Several years ago, the APTA formed a diversity and inclusion council that helps shape the organization’s decisions regarding meeting locations, topics and presenters. The council meets several times a year to reinforce its commitment to DI issues. The APTA also tracks its committee roster demographics to keep the group as diverse as possible.
The American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) touts the following policy: “We have built DI into expectations for our members in the Association’s Code of Ethics, and multicultural infusion is expected, as appropriate, in all association programs, products and services.”
Event locations are important
Some associations also seek locations that appeal to diverse audiences. For example, The DI policy of the Society of American Foresters (SAF) says, “Members planning events should consider activity type, locations, dates, and times that appeal to wide variety of people.”
While improving DI in every area of associations is a team effort, planners play a key role. According to Norma Poll-Hunter, Ph.D., AAMC senior director of Human Capital Initiatives, Diversity and Inclusion, “Planners hold the vision of the meeting constant and play a significant role in the details of how a meeting is executed. Diversity and inclusion must be intentional. Meeting planners often help to connect the dots from planning to implementation to ensure DI integration and help navigate challenges along the way.”
A key role of planners is encouraging meeting stakeholders to pursue DI.
“Planners have a responsibility to remind and sometimes educate stakeholders on the importance of creating a truly diverse and inclusive program,” Dornbusch says. “Planners often have some input regarding proposed speakers and topics and can provide guidance to program stakeholders when there is a need for greater DI. It’s the planner’s role to create a welcoming environment at meetings and events.”
Lenay Gore, senior director, meetings and tradeshows at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), puts its succinctly: “APTA meeting planners collaborate with others on staff to take great measures to ensure all are represented in presentations and events.”
Planners dedicated to DI think it adds value to attendee experiences. Dornbusch says, “Conventions and conferences that demonstrate inclusivity and diversity in many forms (gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age and disability) produce a more authentic experience that increases the perceived value of attending the conference.”
Poll-Hunter agrees: “You add value to the meeting experience if you integrate diversity and inclusion as part of your overall meeting experience. Research shows that diverse groups arrive at more innovative solutions.”
DI helps attendees learn, encourages involvement
Diversity and inclusion also help planners achieve two of their most important goals — learning and engagement.
“Integrating diversity and inclusion throughout the conference experience ensures there are opportunities to learn from individuals who offer different perspectives,” Tushman says. “By including diversity and inclusion in your planning, you reinforce the importance of DI as well as learning. Conference participants also feel more engaged when they perceive that the content is inclusive of their experiences and exposes them to new ideas.”
LeZotte advises planners to think about how to incorporate DI into every aspect of events.
“Consider each element of the event from arrival to departure and how DI plays a role in that element,” LeZotte says. “Make sure there is a diverse make up of all components, from volunteers and speakers to hosting a call for proposals for learning sessions. Ensure event themes and elements aren’t boxing attendees into an assumption about their likes, culture or behaviors.”
Part of DI is avoiding assumptions about the behaviors of attendees by being aware of their diverse needs and proactively accommodating them.
LeZotte offers examples.
“During site visits, ensure restrooms can accommodate attendees no matter how they identify themselves in terms of gender,” LeZotte says. “A relatively easy but important example is using closed captioning on screens for keynotes and videos. It signals that you are willing to accommodate those who need it.”
Another example is ensuring reserved seating and interpreters for attendees who have indicated they are hearing impaired.
“Preparing for such examples allows attendees to navigate the conference without feeling like an outsider,” LeZotte adds.
The ASAE also undertakes DI efforts not directly related to race, ethnicity or gender.
According to LeZotte, “We introduced a lounge area called the HIVE for newbie attendees at our convention. The HIVE creates a space where people can engage with other new and seasoned attendees. It’s a welcoming environment that helps provide a sense of belonging and community. ASAE also offers a scholarship program for a set number of attendees to attend our annual meeting.”
Attendees may also feel more engaged when planners and stakeholders consider DI-related factors beyond meeting programs and presenters.
“These elements present an opportunity to demonstrate the organization’s commitment to DI,” Poll-Hunter says. “When planning all aspects of a meeting, we have to consider such things as differences in learning preferences, lifestyle, access to resources and accessibility to meeting locations to foster equitable access where all can have the opportunity to benefit from our meetings.”
Gore cites several DI-related factors that planners should consider, including site selection.
“While locations may meet the legal requirements of being accessible, we take it several steps beyond facilities just being legally compliant,” Gore says. “We do an extensive review of each property with a detailed checklist of items APTA requires. In addition to our DI council, we also have an access committee that assists with developing these guidelines.”
The APTA’s DI council also monitors the political climate of potential meeting destinations and notifies staff if any news or relevant legislation is passed or is pending that may impact certain people attending an event or prevent them from doing so.
The ASAE also views site and destination selection as a part of DI.
According to LeZotte, “Selecting the right city and right venue should also play a part when making your meetings DI. When narrowing down your locations, consider the venue and the city. How accessible is it? How diverse is it? Will your attendees feel welcomed in a neighborhood where you are hosting the event?”
LeZotte also thinks planners should be able to accommodate a range of needs as part of DI.
For example, LeZotte says, planners should consider ways to make all attendees feel welcome if conflicting dates and times are unavoidable. “When thinking about date selection, it is important to consider school calendars, federal holidays, religious holidays and travel costs for locations based upon time of year,” LeZotte says.
She suggests that planners be able to answer questions such as the following: “Can you adjust meal choices to accommodate someone attending over a religious holiday that requires modified diets during the meeting dates? Can you host rooms for nursing mothers, so they have somewhere to retreat and carry out any necessary practices so that attendees requiring these adjustments don’t feel singled out and know their needs were considered in your planning?”
When planning, consider DI early in the process
Planners and experts offer the following advice for increasing the DI of speakers and presenters:
Launch DI efforts early in the planning process as part of conference planning committees.
Beware of repeatedly choosing the same speakers and presenters or those with whom the association is familiar. Such an approach requires less work and isn’t conducive to DI.
Make the speaker selection process transparent.
“The process for the community to submit content for programs needs to be transparent to all,” LeZotte says. “When proposals are being reviewed and final decisions are being made, speakers need to represent different perspectives, ages, types of organizations, gender and ethnicities. This helps to guard against any form of bias or favoritism and ensure all submissions are rated equally and impartially.”
Set goals for increasing DI among speakers and presenters.
Expand the speaker selection pool and commit to improving it. Also expand the call for presentations beyond those who have presented in the past. Ask speakers to recommend diverse experts.
Planners who help create meetings that welcome diversity and inclusion can enhance the public image of a conference and prevent negative publicity about a conference. Attendees of some association meetings have commented about the lack of diversity on Twitter and other online forums.
Some planners have taken notice of the online criticism. According to the APTA’s Gore, “Unlike organizations who have made the news lately by not having a variety of presentations that reflect all members of the organization, we strive to include as diverse a group as we can when putting together events. Our industry is comprised of a diverse population, so we need to be sure our presentations reflect the diversity of our members.”
As the ASAE website puts it, “The demographic shifts affecting almost every sphere of American life are likewise creating significant implications and opportunities for associations, touching everything from membership and leadership to product development and talent management.”
Groups that don’t follow the DI trend could be at a disadvantage. “Associations that intend to remain relevant today and long into the future recognize the strategic importance of diversity and inclusion as an association management discipline,” according to the ASAE.