Lack of diversity at events? Why I take it personally and you should too

Lack of diversity at events? I take it personally & you should too

My recent post on LinkedIn went viral. It pointed out the massive fail in the Australian Financial Review Business Summit speaker line-up curation. Let’s have a look at the numbers:

  • 8 out of the 32 speakers were women. None were women of colour
  • 2 out of 32 were culturally and linguistically diverse
  • 0 out of 32 were represented by Indigenous Australians

A couple of days later, I was alerted to another event, this time in the tech space. An all male line-up from big brands talking tech stuff, all day. Women find it challenging enough in this space to gain visibility, and to have a line-up like this is just wrong. 


When you look at the event sponsors for both events, some of them have been on  “best for diversity” lists. There’s a huge industry for diversity awards. It allows companies to hold themselves up as being good for underrepresented people (especially times when an employee sent that infamous ‘memo’ about diversity). 

A lot of the times, these are ‘pay to win’. The people usually benefiting from this are the PR firms they pay instead of using the money to improve underrepresented employees’ experiences. 

I take this personally and so should all of us

I don’t call out things like this just for sheer enjoyment. I would rather watch re-runs of Gilmore Girls on Netflix. But I cannot and simply won’t let this go. It’s personal because if we want to tackle world issues – which this summit promises to do – we need to consider diverse voices reflective of the communities we serve.

Instead, we’re seeing the ‘usual suspects’ in the speaker line-ups far too often.

A study found 69% of professional speakers globally are male. It’s such a sore sight that there’s even a Tumblr devoted to calling out all-male panels. But attention needs to be shifted on diversity more broadly – not just on gender.

We know diversity in teams unlocks innovation and makes us smarter, so by offering a variety of perspectives, you’ll make your events informative, inclusive and inspiring.

Traditionally, the onus has been on event organisers to prioritise this. While it’s true they do play a huge role in the overall event organisation and execution – I think it’s up to all of us to, regardless of your role, event or industry. Everyone has a role to play in making events inclusive.

Let’s dissect this post a little further to see why there is no much work to be done for quality and to balance the ratio:

There is a skewed definition on what constitutes as leadership

All the speakers in the line-up have high-profiles and I am by no means downplaying their achievements. But leadership is not a rank and has nothing to do with a position in the organisation.

When we default to the ‘best’ in a category, some default to white men, a reality reinforced by long-held power dynamics in our society. Sourcing speakers outside traditional networks means looking for differences in experiences and points of view.

Take a look at someone like Greta Thunberg who hasn’t even left school, yet already taking the world stage. During her address at the UN, she blasted politicians for relying on young people for answers to climate change.

“How dare you,” she said. “I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean, yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you?”

Fair enough if this AFR event was only open to people over 18, but the line-up confirms that unless you have the rank or title, you don’t earn a seat at the table.

Leadership is an action, behaviour and a choice. And most of all, leadership is taking accountability.

Event sponsors and partners

Where we spend our money is a reflection of our values. When partnering up with an event, you’re publicly showing the world what you support and endorse.

If you’re in the position of being able to sponsor an event, use this privilege and refuse to do so if there isn’t a diverse line-up of speakers. Organisations who take this seriously will specifically state that the sponsorship dollar will be used to create a diverse and inclusive environment.

When you vote with your dollars, conference organisers are likely to take action.

Speakers need to speak-up too

As someone who has organised conferences and events, sometimes the whole line-up of speakers is not announced at the time of engaging a speaker. With this in mind, I will give some of the speakers the benefit of the doubt.

However, if speakers are aware of the whole agenda and line-up, it simply states they have made a conscious decision to participate.

If you get frequently asked to speak, pay it forward by recommending a speaker from someone who is often underrepresented. Understand that when underrepresented communities don’t see role models who look like them on stage, they’re less likely to nominate themselves for opportunities because it feels inaccessible.

Event organisers, we’re counting on you

People are biased. Its human nature. We are naturally drawn to people like us, so it’s no surprise when a  homogenous conference organising committees draw from largely Anglo-Saxon speaker networks.

As a rule of thumb, ask for recommendations from a diverse group and look beyond your own network. Explicitly state that you’re focused on cultivating speaker diversity and would value recommendations of ‘non-traditional speakers’.

We also need to shake off the notion that the best speakers in the world are actually not polished. This is a long-held belief we need to challenge if we are going to truly diversify conferences.

We need to fundamentally understand and accept how different perspectives and life experiences among speakers will bring a richer conversation to any conference, and as a result, encourage greater attendee participation from diverse and underrepresented communities.

“Just don’t go to the conference then” – well that’s not helpful

As attendees, we have the power not to attend. But it doesn’t stop there. Big events like this need to be called out because it will benefit society overall.

We’ve just witnessed our nation burning and some of the speakers in this AFR Business Summit are climate-change deniers. If we are going to shift the dial, we need to hold big organisations who sponsor such events to account and use their influence for the better – and not to feed the status quo.

Going back to the viral LinkedIn post; as I write this article, its clocked to almost 400 comments and 50k views in less than a week. While there hasn’t been any change in the speaker line-up or sponsors yet, we must realise that its a collective effort to move the needle.

It will take all of us acting intentionally — speakers, organisers, sponsors, and attendees alike to drive the speaker diversity that we want to see, and ultimately, be the change we wish to see.

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