Over the last six months, conferences, roundtables, forums, and other business events have gone virtual with varying degrees of success. And now, with the new norm taking shape, this is an opportune time to look at how the conference format can be improved: made more inclusive, more equitable, more representative of the diversity in the workplace.
People Matters asked Meredith Graham, SVP of People and Culture at Ensono, for her take on how the advent of virtual conferences might give a boost to these aspirations. Ensono had earlier in August released its "Speak Up 2020: Redesigning Tech Conferences with Women in Mind" research report, covering the way women tend to be under-represented at tech conferences, and based on the report's findings, Graham suggested several ways in which conferences can be made more welcoming to women.
What organizers can do
1. Remove physical barriers
61 percent of women say conferences, specifically tech conferences, are not designed with them in mind, according to the report: from furniture, to AV equipment, to facilities, and even the temperature inside rooms. "[Conferences'] physical features are set up to accommodate male attendees and speakers," Graham said. "Take something as simple as a microphone – it’s made to strap on nicely to men’s lapels but less suitable for women’s blouses and dresses. Bar stools on stage also make it difficult for women wearing dresses or skirts. These may seem like small inconveniences individually, but they all point to the fact that the speaker is presumed to be a man."
At the moment, virtual conferences handily eliminate these obstacles, because women now have the option of attending from a space that is comfortable for them, with access to the facilities they need – from restrooms to nursing rooms to better options for dealing with childcare.
2. Set requirements that promote diversity and inclusivity
"Organizers are ultimately the ones setting the agenda and event accommodations," Graham pointed out. "They can set requirements around the ratio of female to male panelists, or require a certain percent of women of color speakers. Take Shoptalk, one of the largest retail events, for example – they made their entire 2020 lineup consist of women-only speakers."
By requiring women, especially those from minority groups, to be represented on stage, organizers are actually doing themselves a favor: they are increasing the likelihood that women will engage with the content and therefore the likelihood that those women will come back to subsequent editions of the conference. And virtual conferences, which have greatly opened up the accessibility and attendance of events, may even have an amplifying effect here.
3. Protect women against harassment and discrimination
Perhaps because standards of professional behavior are taken for granted, not all events place great emphasis on setting or enforcing codes of conduct – and one disturbing side-effect, at least in the tech industry, is an ongoing prevalence of sexual harassment and discrimination. Graham shared that according to Ensono’s research, nearly a third of women attending tech conferences have been sexually harassed, and nearly half have experienced gender discrimination.
This issue, she pointed out, can carry over to virtual conferences all too easily: “In fact, people tend to be more aggressive online – we’ve all heard of cyberbullying. Companies need to create codes of conduct specific for virtual events that establish appropriate behavior and outline clear steps for reporting discrimination or sexual harassment.”
One gap that particularly needs addressing, she added, is the need for better reporting mechanisms for both physical and virtual events. Many harassment cases fly under the radar simply because the victims are unclear about how to report them.
What employers can do
1. Set expectations for organizers
It takes two hands to clap, and while organizers may set the agenda and choose the accommodations, companies can also have their say about what they expect to see at conferences. This might range from more women-friendly physical amenities and facilities, to better codes of conduct and guidelines for representation. Such expectations can be communicated at any time, including during and after the conference in the form of feedback.
2. Make a conscious effort to send more women to conferences
Just as organizers can encourage diversity by setting requirements for more women on stage, companies also need to play their part by adjusting their policies around who they send to conferences, whether as attendees or as speakers.
"The lack of female representation on panels and as keynote speakers at industry events as a whole...can easily carry over to virtual conferences," Graham warned. "Companies need to make a conscious effort to send female representatives to conferences and offer them as spokespeople rather than the go-to male employees."
The virtual format actually makes it easier for women to attend more events, she pointed out, because it removes the travel requirement and makes childcare less of a barrier. And employers ought to be mindful of this equalization. "At the end of the day, it’s the employer’s call who attends and speaks on behalf of their company, even virtual ones, so it’s on company leaders to ensure this gap is tightened," she adds.
3. Train women to speak out, and men to support them
It’s an unfortunate reality that even today, women’s voices are still brushed aside or drowned out by men in the workplace. At conferences, this becomes a major disadvantage especially during informal interactions such as networking sessions. And in the virtual format, this disadvantage may be amplified.
“Women are commonly talked over by men in meetings, and it can be even harder to get a word in when it’s virtual,” Graham said. The solution, she suggested, is training that helps women get their voices heard in a virtual setting. Already, many companies are developing training programs for their staff to interact more effectively online; this would be an extension. “This training should extend to male employees as well, as male colleagues can support minority voices by amplifying them – when one woman makes a good point, a male colleague can ‘amplify’ it by giving credit to her, the original speaker,” Graham added.
Shifting conference culture, one speaker at a time
Ultimately, making conferences more inclusive benefits everyone, Graham pointed out. Professionals themselves have a better experience. Organizers are able to promote and recruit outside of their typical boundaries, which lets them expand their audience to more diverse professionals. Companies are able to provide more of their employees with opportunities to gain industry knowledge, connections, and professional advancement. And the entire industry benefits by becoming more open to a wider range of talent.
For her own industry, the tech industry, Graham is optimistic that virtual conferences, if done right, could be “exactly what the tech industry needs to help close the gender gap”.
“In a virtual setting, we’re getting closer to parity among participants and speakers,” she explained. “With increased accessibility to virtual events, if companies and organizers buckle down to add more women and people of color to the speaker lineup, we’ll see a visible shift in conference culture. Minority attendees who look at their screens and see speakers they can relate to in their respective fields sharing their expertise and knowledge will be more empowered. By placing more diverse faces in front of young professionals entering the workforce, we create a culture of inclusivity for younger females looking to break into the tech industry.”