3 things to improve diversity at your events

I listen to my audience. They tell me which talks they enjoyed and which they didn’t. They tell me what themes they like and what they don’t like. Women send me their views on speakers; how inspiring they were but also how challenging. I know we can’t please all of the people all of the time, and one person’s favourite speaker will be someone else’s worst.  (artist: Jill Carpin)

A good events organiser or curator will have a clear strategy in place for their event. What do they want their audiences to feel when the event finishes? I want the women who come to my events to leave feeling full, replenished, excited and maybe inspired to do their own events or talks. 

It’s clear that most people aren’t aware of the lack of diversity at their events. They don’t notice if there are mostly men in the room. People tend to only notice if they are in a minority, or the ‘odd one out’. So recently I went to an event where someone couldn’t believe he was “the only man” in the conference room. Though he was in no way singled out, he felt so uncomfortable that he quietly left halfway through. I noticed that there were no people of colour speaking and few in the audience. No-one had asked us to speak, to give our voice to the theme of the day: diversity and inclusion.

At SheSays Brighton and Spring Forward events, the speakers and organisers are women, often LGBTQ. Obviously I don’t ask speakers their orientation; in a progressive town like Brighton there are enough great queer speakers that you’ll book them without intent. 

Once I was told after an event, ‘It’s great to see so many inspiring women but I would’ve loved to hear from older women too.’ I pointed out that at least two of us on the stage were in well into our 40s. I usually get a good range of experienced and novice speakers, a range of ages. We learnt a lot at the Talent2018 event from women in their 20s who spoke about their experience of learning to code after work and getting employment. Hearing personal stories about challenges and achievements help us all engage more around topics like training and talent. 

Three or four years ago, someone told me she was disappointed to see only white people on stage at one particular SheSays event, even with me hosting. I had to take on board her concerns – people of colour urgently need to be given opportunities to become more visible and it’s my responsibility, to use this thriving platform for women in tech and creative industries, to locate those women wherever possible to speak at our events. Here are the things I do, to find them…

1. Go to Diversity events

Especially Diversity in Tech events. Or at least review the speakers and follow them online. They will have followers who are inspired by them and they will be promoting others online who may make suitable speakers. Check out CodeBar and other Diversity in Tech groups. If I look at a conference web page and all the speakers are white dudes, I don’t think it’s an event for me and I won’t buy a ticket. Or maybe I’ll get in touch to politely flag it with them. I was grateful to the organiser of a workshop I signed up to recently, who reached out to talk to me directly about what I wanted to get out of the day and welcomed a chat about diversity too.

You might want to get out of your comfort zone and go to an event with only black speakers, to seek out new speakers. I went to the Shout Out Live event in 2015 and saw some incredible inspiring speakers. The Digital Blackness 2017 event at Sussex Uni was very small, yet successfully brought London speakers such as legend Patrick Vernon OBE – make the connections before you need them, it’s worth it in many ways and then, when you do need them, they’re already at the end of an email.

2. Be welcoming

Say explicitly in marketing material that you welcome women and people from under-represented groups, or specify people of colour, to your events. When you spot those people at your event, go and say ‘hello’. Be welcoming. It’s not patronising to be friendly. Introduce them to other people – not necessarily other POC (this happened to me once, when I was told to wait at a spot at the afterparty, for no reason, only to be introduced to an Indian man who happened to work for a search engine company. We didn’t have that much in common).

For my own events, I thought I was doing enough to write on the event marketing: ‘all backgrounds, all ages and all genders welcome’. But I had to make sure our trans and non-binary folk genuinely felt welcome – so I say it explicitly. Even at the Women of Colour Brighton group we’ve had to spell it out on the Facebook page, but because we didn’t put Womxn or Wom*n (in order to make it easy to search) some non binary people have said they thought the group wasn’t for them. 

3. Hire a diverse team

If I go to an event about diversity or a women’s empowerment event, and the crew are all men, I can’t help but be disappointed. The same white guys get hired over and over again. If you have a following, a platform, an event, hire women and/or people of colour whenever you can, for all roles possible. It takes time and effort to try out photographers, filmmakers and tech teams – but it’s definitely worth it.  Here’s a list of women photographers in Brighton I have used and would recommend. 

Rosie Powell

Idil Bozkhurt

Emma Croman

Katariina Jarvinen

Here’s a handy article for more on this topic…

How to be an ally to black women

Next SheSays event is sold out but you can still get tickets to my next Refigure event.