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April 8, 2021

Increasing Speaker Diversity of a Conference

“A remarkable lack of diversity among speakers.”

For any association or meetings professional, that comment represents an alarming reminder of the work to be done. During my time running a conference for practicing attorneys, that post-event evaluation comment represented a turning point in our processes and systems for speaker selection.

The diversification of content leaders ranks as a top priority in the association community. In 2019, a groundbreaking Association Forum study revealed that 64% of members considered speaker diversity a necessity, while only 46% agreed that their conferences had achieved it. With DEI reported as a top priority for associations in McKinley’s 2021 Association Viewpoint study, how can we get better at diversifying the speakers who deliver content at our conferences and events?

Part of building lasting change is the ability to share openly about challenges, successes and lessons learned. In this blog, I outline the steps we took and systems we changed to realize measurable improvements in speaker diversity.

Gain executive support

An abundance of studies had documented gender and racial inequities in the legal field. While we couldn’t control the demographics of the broader workforce, we could choose who would take the stage for the 2019 event.

Fortunately, the chair of the conference committee was committed to improving speaker diversity and our core team was unified in its efforts. In many cases, DEI initiatives fail because they don’t have executive support. If you want to make improvements but lack initial leadership support, you’ll need to make the moral and business cases for change:

  • Highlight how increasing speaker diversity improves the value of the content through more diverse ideas and experiences—in addition to being the right thing to do.
  • Emphasize the importance of representation. A diverse group of speakers increases the diversity and volume of attendees, as well as registration revenue.

Establish metrics

As we embarked on the ten-month planning process, we needed to establish baseline demographic data. Here are the steps we took:

  • Determine key metrics: Based on the available workforce literature, we knew we wanted to focus on improving gender, race and ethnic representation. Depending on your specific situation, you may want to prioritize age, geography, employer size or employer type.
  • Build a baseline of demographic data: We started by reviewing the previous year’s speaker roster. We had neglected to ask our past speakers critical demographic questions, such as gender, race and ethnic identities, although some of this data was previously captured in our customer relationship management (CRM) system. Since it was a relatively small group of 50, we decided to review their professional bios to fill in the gaps for this critical baseline.
  • Communicate with transparency: In hindsight, these kinds of assumptions should not be a standard practice—regardless of your confidence in their accuracy. While asking individuals to self-report demographic data on membership applications or abstract submissions can be sensitive, it is a best practice to communicate with transparency about why you’re collecting the data and its intended use.
  • Consider and address barriers to collecting needed data: For conferences with hundreds of speakers, time and lack of information may present barriers to documenting your baseline. If you don’t have access to a complete data set, consider starting with a reliable sample size or smaller conference. To improve speaker diversity for an annual event, this may involve simply collecting baseline demographic data in year one before establishing goals for year two.

Define your goals

Next, our core staff and volunteer team drafted goals for gender, race and ethnic representation of our 2019 session chairs and speakers. Our 2018 baseline data, while flawed in the collection process, revealed miniscule representation beyond white men. In hindsight, our goals could have been more informed by reviewing available workforce data. Either way, we had no place to go but up.

To create informed goals, your association should consider reviewing:

  • Current membership, speaker or workforce data
  • Regional, national or global workforce and census projections

Create a shared vision

Once we solidified our goals, we engaged the planning committee. We distributed a report on the 2018 event which, in addition to attendance and sponsorship data, included the evaluation data and the comment which served as our call to action.

It was important to create a shared vision with the committee — our conference champions but also a largely homogeneous group — of how the event could be improved for 2019.

In addition to sharing the conference report and referencing the workforce studies, the conference chair shared his passion for creating a more diverse event. He was authentic in his purpose and committed to creating lasting change for the organization and the field. The committee rallied around his vision.

Operationalize the plan

Our next step involved refining our approach to speaker recruitment.

If your process involves an open call for proposals, you’ll need to change how you market, collect and evaluate submissions. A blind review process that withholds names, companies and identifying information from reviewers can mitigate biases. In addition, you may need to curate some sessions if the traditional process doesn’t help you fully meet your goals.

For this specific example, most conference sessions involved a chair recruiting three to five other panelists. We found that this process was limited—most chairs seemed more likely to invite those in their inner circles, who often fell into similar demographic categories.

While we couldn’t fundamentally change the process at that time, we could be more intentional about the diversity of the people we invited to serve as session chairs. In addition to sharing the duties and deadlines in those invitations, we specifically outlined expectations around creating a more diverse event:

In particular, we established two simple yet important guiding principles to help us achieve our goals:

  • No “manels.” (Yes, we had panels with only men in 2018.)
  • No panels with only white people.

Some session chairs needed little support and immediately embraced our goal. They provided draft lists with more women than men and/or with a majority of black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). We approved these draft lists of panelists.

Other chairs needed additional support, and this is where some of our most important work took place. When some felt they were unable to meet our diversity goals — a common symptom of homogenous networks — we did two things:

  • We stood firm.
  • We collaborated with the chairs to brainstorm other options or conducted outreach to more diverse candidates on their behalf.

Measure and build upon successes

Making fundamental changes to your meeting or conference can be daunting, especially when sponsors or other long-time supporters expect speaking spots. Fortunately, the results of these efforts are often significant and highly rewarding. Having established our baseline metrics, we were able to quantify improvements in the 2019 conference:

  • 19% increase in speakers of color
  • 15% increase in female session chairs
  • Increased overall gender balance—although we didn’t achieve as much balance as we had hoped for in the coveted keynote and luncheon speaker roles, we would strive for more diversity in that area the following year
  • Increased attendance and associated revenue
  • Improved perceptions of value and satisfaction—much like a single 2018 evaluation comment spurred us to action, one comment from the 2019 evaluations validated our investment: “The diversity of the speakers was noted and appreciated.”

These results represented a first step. As we embarked on planning for the next event, we continued to refine our approach and processes with a new chair and planning committee.

In addition to measuring the demographic makeup of our speakers, we also noted that measuring the demographic makeup of our attendees could be a valuable metric in future years. In our small way, perhaps we could positively influence the broader gender and racial inequities in the legal profession.

Learn more

For more on DEI awareness and initiatives, please contact us, read our previous blog posts, and view our webinar on the topic:


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