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How to ensure conferences are diverse, inclusive and safe

30 Oct 2019

Meredith Graham, Ensono’s senior vice-president of culture and people experience, discusses how conferences can be made more inclusive.

Something that can important for career progression in many industries is attending conferences. Whether it’s the latest tech meet-up or an academic summit, conferences are only becoming more prevalent in working life.

With that in mind, it only makes sense to extend the elements of positive workplaces to conferences, too. Diversity and inclusion, for example, are some of the most critical ingredients for successful and attractive businesses today. And more importantly, pursuing diversity and inclusion at work and work-related activities brings us closer to our goal of having no voice left underrepresented or unheard.

But how can we create that environment outside of the office, at events such as conferences? We asked Meredith Graham, senior vice-president of culture and people experience at IT services company Ensono.

Why attend conferences?

If conferences can’t embrace inclusion, should we even bother going to them? It’s a question worth asking but, for many people, conferences are one of the top ways of updating their knowledge with the latest developments and emerging trends in their industry.

It’s vital for the technology sector in particular, as Graham explained. “They’re where the big players reveal changes to partnerships, products and services, and being a part of the action sparks innovation and reinforces passion for the work.

“Conferences also provide a space for professionals to meet others in their field and build connections that they can leverage later on in their careers.”

‘Attracting more diverse individuals to pursue STEM careers starts with making tech workplaces and industry events more inclusive’

Graham said that diversity and inclusion have been areas of focus in her industry, but it is also an issue that travels far beyond the parameters of the tech world.

“With the way digitalisation has taken over, you can consider every company to be a tech company, which is why it’s important now more than ever for the industry to correct its diversity problem.

“Attracting more diverse individuals to pursue STEM careers starts with making tech workplaces and industry events more inclusive.”

Where are we going wrong?

Who exactly should we look to if we’re to build a solid and reliable path to inclusive industry events? According to Graham, we shouldn’t be placing those ambitions solely on the conference hosts and organisers.

“While companies may not have control over conference amenities, policies and other attendees’ behaviour, that’s not to say they can’t play a role in ensuring the representatives they send to these events are equipped with the resources they need to feel safe.”

That’s especially important given the fact that, as Graham and her team’s research shows, many hosts don’t provide a code of conduct for attendees, and when they do, it’s often not easily accessible.

To compensate for that, Graham advised companies “to take it upon themselves to educate their teams on things like appropriate behaviour at conferences and how to report a negative occurrence”, including any situations where they’re made to feel unsafe.

How can you get started?

Given her first-hand experience in cultivating inclusive environments, Graham offered her advice on how to ensure employee comfort and safety at industry outings.

She advised HR teams to create an internal code of conduct specifically for conferences. “This provides a roadmap for employees on how to report poor misconduct they witness or experience, and holds them accountable for their actions,” she said.

To populate your guide, her suggestions included clear definitions, outlines of appropriate behaviour, actionable steps for employees to take and lines of support for them to have on file.

“They should also align with your company’s values, so you ensure your culture is accurately represented in front of industry peers.”

And it’s not solely about securing more inclusion for today. It’s also crucial for letting future generations know that no matter their differences, they are wanted and welcomed in the conversation.

Graham concluded: “These events are widely attended by thousands of industry leaders, and the faces that make up the audience, as well as the keynote stage, are the same faces that will inspire the next generation of technologists.”

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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