Make Your Conference More Inclusive

Make Your Conference More Inclusive Associations Now September/October 2015 By: Mark Athitakis

What does your conference say about who is welcome in your community? Maybe not what you want it to say, if your speakers and attendees all look and sound the same. Associations that intend to remain relevant are making changes and pursuing strategies to design more inclusive meeting experiences.

The mission of the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education is to promote the outdoors to a wide swath of the public. So it was a tough moment when AORE members were told the organization had fallen short—by the keynote speaker at its biggest meeting, no less.

At its annual conference in November 2014, Sierra Club Outdoors Director Stacy Bare asked the audience to stop and take a look at itself. He wanted attendees to recognize how much they reflected the "bro" culture of the outdoors—and how many other communities were left out.

"He raised the awareness, and also made attendees feel uncomfortable," says AORE Executive Director Jeannette Stawski. "He called out the attendees in the sense of, 'Look around you. We've got some work to do to diversify this audience and get more people outside.' "

So AORE got to work. It launched a diversity and inclusion task force, which rapidly produced a D&I statement, set up training for its board of directors, and scheduled a workshop on the subject at its next conference. It's also dedicating more time to understanding its current membership demographics, and it established a D&I goal to explore offering funding for underrepresented groups to attend future conferences.

Even so, Stawski sees a long road of research and discussion ahead. "If we just sit here and say, 'We need to have a more diverse conference next year,' we would not only be selling ourselves short, we'd also be feeling really frustrated."

Just as issues of diversity and inclusion become more prominent in the broader culture, associations have been challenged to make their meetings more inclusive—after all, conferences and other events are often the most public reflection of an association's work. Each organization will tackle the issue differently, but failure to address diversity at meetings is not an option; indeed, dodging it can put the success of your events at risk.

Process Shift

Today, an all-white or all-male panel at a conference is likely to draw harsh criticism from members—and, should the lineup catch attention on social media, from the wider public as well. Last year's World Economic Forum in Davos, for instance, was called out for its poor representation of women on its program: Less than 20 percent of its speakers were female. A 2014 technology event sponsored by The Wall Street Journal absorbed online brickbats for its all-male speaker lineup.

What Did You Say?

Association meeting planners can do plenty of advance work to make sure their events are welcoming and inclusive. But there's still a chance that a panelist or attendee will say or do something that makes a meeting uncomfortable or even offensive. How to respond?

Dr. Kathy Obear, former director of equity and inclusion at ACPA—College Student Educators International, emphasizes the importance of training presenters to address a troubling comment in the moment instead of letting it sail by. "I might just say something like, 'Well, that's an interesting phrase. I'm wondering what you meant when you used that phrase,'" she says. "Give people the benefit of the doubt to save face and to rephrase something."

Or the presenter may want to do the rephrasing himself or herself. But in a short conference session, the goal is to address the statement without turning it into a topic unto itself. "In a longer retreat or workshop, we might talk about it in depth," she says. "But in a 50-minute or hour-long workshop, I would think the facilitator would just intervene, redirect, acknowledge, and move on."

One reason for the problem is a lack of deliberate thought about the makeup of an organization's slate of conference speakers, says Aaron Wolowiec, CAE, founder and president of Event Garde, which consults with associations (including AORE) on D&I at meetings.

"A lot of our associations continue to use a traditional call-for- presentations approach, which means they're sending out a request to a group of people they know and have been familiar with in the past," he says. "Getting a new and diverse group of people is probably not going to happen unless you're intentionally seeking it out."

About five years ago, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, which represents teachers and students at creative writing programs, made identifying new and diverse voices a central goal of its panel selection process. AWP judges submissions on four criteria, one of which is "whether the panel will offer artistic, intellectual, regional, political, ethnic, and cultural diversity to the conference." The association also shifted responsibility for the selection process from the board of directors and staff to a 17-member committee that changes annually. According to Christian Teresi, AWP's director of conferences, that's helped broaden the types of panels selected each year and the diversity of the people who participate in them.

"The proposals that most often rank highest are those that involve diverse panelists," he says. "That's something we talk about with the subcommittee members. They understand that's what the conference attendees are looking for—interscholastic play, intergenerational collaboration, and presenters from a broad range of experiences and backgrounds."

Defining a Vision

Cindi Love, executive director of ACPA–College Student Educators International, has been attentive to D&I issues at conferences since taking the leadership reins at the association last year. To address D&I questions, ACPA has established what it calls an equity and inclusion team to look at its practices.

As part of that work, in 2013 the team produced a document titled "10 Steps for Designing and Facilitating Inclusive Presentations at Conventions/Conferences." Considerations include

  • the demographics and knowledge of the audience
  • who is represented in presentation imagery
  • different learning styles
  • how to respond to "microaggressions or uninclusive behaviors." (See sidebar.)

Associations that are new to this process may find it daunting— conversations around D&I can become fraught with anxiety. (Even an organization like ACPA, which has made D&I a top issue, has faced challenges: For instance, some members were upset when actress Laverne Cox canceled her scheduled closing keynote speech this year and was not replaced with another transgender speaker.)

Love recommends that an association first come to a working D&I definition for itself, which, in turn, can help shape how it plans and executes meetings and events.

"First, [associations] have to have an articulated diversity and inclusion vision for the meetings. A strategy, a business case, goals, policies, principles, desired behaviors," she says. "If that's not articulated, they will never get there."

Gathering demographic data about members and attendees is useful as part of this process. But paying attention to how an event looks through various members' eyes is important as well, say Love and Wolowiec. Love, for instance, was recently in a wheelchair after surgery and used the experience as an opportunity to visit a conference location to assess its accessibility.

"I couldn't even get around in half the facility," she says, noting that creating a truly inclusive meeting experience requires a "willingness to not assume you've got it covered because there's a sign on the door that says [the conference facility] is wheelchair accessible."

Similarly, Wolowiec recommends taking a close look not just at who's showing up at sessions, but also at who isn't. "That signals, at least to some extent, that some of the people [in attendance] aren't finding the conversations or topics that they need to or want to have in the educational content in the sessions themselves," he says.

Stawski says she hopes that improving diversity at AORE meetings will resonate beyond the conference center: If it's done right, members will establish more inclusive practices back at the office, which will in turn broaden the diversity of students involved in outdoor recreation. From there, bro culture becomes less of a concern.

"When [diverse] students ... participate, they find out about the association and profession, and ultimately they will start to come to the conference," she says.

Learn More

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Everyone's Invited."]

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.