Conference Professionals As Social Justice Warriors: Is This a Good Thing? (Part 1 of 2 Posts)

justice league

On a recent flight back to Austin from Philadelphia, I happened across an article in the October 2017 issue of CONVENE, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), entitled, “Other/Wise: You Might be Making Some People Feel Like They Don’t Belong at Your Meeting – Without Even Realizing It.

convene cover

The piece, penned by contributing editor Sarah Beauchamp from what seems to be a not-so-hidden perspective, points a finger at conference professionals for conference attendees who feel “otherized” (the author’s term). It falls on conference professionals, therefore, when the speaker/presenter/panelist lineup fails to include a particular demographic, when marketing collateral uses politically incorrect pronouns (and speakers do the same in their PowerPoint presentations), or when the choice of venue city doesn’t consider whether attendees will feel welcome and safe there.

It’s All YOUR Fault!

According to Beauchamp and those quoted in the article:

  • It’s possible that it’s YOUR fault presenters/panelists are too white and too male for some sessions, even though you may not have received any proposals from non-white, non-male individuals. (Some industries, such as microprocessor design and manufacturing, are dominated by males. From that population, a certain percentage of submitted conference proposals is accepted, and it’s likely those selected for presentation will be from males.)
  • It’s possible that it’s YOUR fault your marketing collateral uses the universal “he” a little too often.
  • It’s possible that it’s YOUR fault that conference chairs are too wide/narrow or have/don’t have side arms to accommodate different body types.
  • It’s possible that it’s YOUR fault the venue city was selected not because it had enough hotel rooms to accommodate registered attendees, a sufficiently large convention center, easy airport access, or lots of great nearby restaurants and attractions – yes, it’s YOUR fault you didn’t select another venue city where some attendees would feel welcome or safe there.
  • Even though YOUR conference registration process includes special needs requests (interpreter for hearing-impaired attendees; ramps for those who are wheelchair bound; special religious/other dietary restrictions; etc.), it’s possible that it’s YOUR fault if some black swan situation arises with someone because you didn’t anticipate the 100-year corner case.

The irony strikes early in the article as the lead-in paragraph ends with “Here’s how to open your program to your entire community” but in truth, the advice peppered throughout creates obstacles to that end.

Does Checking the “Right” Boxes Now Serve as a Filter for Presenter Selection?

Here’s my concern: Beauchamp’s piece proposes more “check the box” diversity and social justice considerations for speakers, panelists, exhibitors, and others participating in conference events. Does this suggest that the top 3 reasons people attend conferences be relegated to a secondary consideration? Attendees want to learn best practices, network with others in their industry or profession, and continue their education in breakout sessions and seminars (source: 2017 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report).

As a keynote speaker and seminar leader who works with associations, I know they want to see and hear the very best ideas from the best available presenters who can add value to the conference and to membership in an association. For most attendees, that consideration is likely the most important – regardless of the obvious or self-identity characteristics of the presenter.

Who or what is served by requiring presenters and panelists to self-identify their gender, race, or sexual identity? Social justice criteria would seem to serve as additional filters, potentially removing from consideration an expert speaker with a trending topic or expertise that would be of interest to attendees because: (1) the speaker is male; (2) the speaker is white; (3) the speaker is something else on the “least favored” list. What we don’t want to hear is something like, “Sorry….we did not select Tony Robbins as a speaker because we already have too many white males presenting on the main stage…”

If conferences pursue that direction, do ROI, Return on Event (ROE), and other success measures become consigned to lesser importance in favor of check-box analytics? I wholeheartedly agree that ROI and ROE are “directly affected by a diverse and welcoming event,” but will social/self-identity filters end up promoting segregation rather than integration? How do you assign ROI to a check-box self-identity options?

Diversity has many different definitions based on who you ask but one thing underlies all perspectives: diversity does not automatically imply an integrated community – in the workplace, in the conference hall or breakout room, or even in large cities. Brown University’s “American Communities” Project shows that the most diverse cities in fact have the most segregated neighborhoods. Most American cities fail in balancing diversity with integration.

“…To open your program to your entire community” as stated in the lead-in paragraph means everyone enters through the same portal. But Beauchamp’s position seems to paint a different picture: one of separate and preferred lanes (filters or check boxes) set up to funnel people into the community ahead of/ or in place of others.

The Failure of Mandated Diversity Programs is Well Documented

The July-August 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review was dedicated to the topic of diversity and why most workplace diversity programs don’t work. The primary reason for failure: Force-fitting people into compliance and categories actually activates bias rather than diminishes it. Bias is part of the human being operating system; you can’t avoid it. Box checking is a type of control tactic; interestingly, the diversity approaches that were successful in the article were those not deemed “diversity initiatives.” Instead, mentoring, self-managed teams, targeted recruiting of women and minorities, and cross-training naturally and without mandated compliance brought diverse individuals together for common goals and better results. This topic is just too large to fully address in this short article but it’s clear most diversity training labeled as such doesn’t work. Harvard Kennedy School professor of public policy Iris Bohnet talks about what is working—and what is not—when it comes to building a more equitable workplace. Harvard Kennedy School professor of public policy Iris Bohnet talks about what is working—and what is not—when it comes to building a more equitable workplace in this brief video.

The successful approaches mentioned previously removed the box-checking control tactics because they used bridging social capital (across different groups), which is associated with both diversity and higher levels of innovation, whereas bonding social capital (within a homogeneous group) leads to self-segregation, and is negatively associated with diversity and innovation. Calling for “Diversity and Inclusion” criteria on presenter proposal forms (such as, “all fields must be completed” = mandatory compliance) may have the opposite effect, as has been demonstrated countless times and referenced in the HBR issue.

Leave the community portal open so that knowledge, wisdom, and experience can be made available to everyone by anyone with value to add. No labels. No mandates. No self-identity filters. Just everyone working together with bridging social capital for the benefit of all conference attendees and the organization.

(Be sure to read the followup post: Conference Professionals as Social Justice Warriors: THE FINAL CHAPTER)

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Donn LeVie Jr., CFE, is a keynote speaker, seminar presenter, and career/business positioning strategist who shows audiences how to engage, position, influence, and convert decision makers into clients and customers. Donn is the author of Confessions of a Hiring Manager Rev. 2.0 (Second Edition), which was the WINNER of the 2012 International Book Award and the GOLD MEDAL WINNER of the 2012 Global eBook Award for Careers. He also wrote Strategic Career Engagement: The Definitive Guide for Getting Hired and Promoted, which was the RUNNER-UP of the 2016 International Book Award (Careers) and the SILVER MEDAL WINNER of the 2016 Global eBook Award.

Donn is a member of the National Speakers Association, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, and the American Society of Association Executives.  www.donnleviejrstrategies.com; donnleviejr@gmail.com.

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For a good concise history of diversity initiatives, see The Houston Lawyer.

5 Reasons Diversity and Inclusion Fails (Forbes article).

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