Addressing Unconscious Bias in the Events Industry: Best Practices for Event Organisers
Diversity and inclusion in the events industry is an incredibly important topic at the moment. The EIC’s 2022 Equity Benchmarking Study identified that 61% of professionals across all job grades in the events industry identified as White, and that there was “minimal to no representation from other ethnicities, especially in senior management and board positions”. It also noted that, whilst over 75% of those surveyed identified as female, there were high levels of dissatisfaction regarding the key elements of the DEI framework.
As highlighed in our 2023 Trend Report, the event industry’s response to this survey and its recommendations to improve diversity and inclusion has been positive, and we are already seeing change through the creation of more opportunities for marginalised communities in the industry. But something that continues to influence progress in terms of diversity and inclusion is unconscious bias, which can have a significant negative impact when left unchecked.
In this article, we explain what unconscious bias is, how it can impact inclusivity at events, and suggest how to overcome unconscious bias when organising events.
In this article:
What is Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious bias is a term that refers to the range of beliefs and assumptions that we hold that we are not consciously aware of. These beliefs can influence our attitudes and actions without us realising them, which can lead to discriminatory or exclusionary behaviour. In some cases, unconscious bias might also be present in a belief that we hold and consciously believe to be rooted in truth or fact, when this empirically isn’t the case.
Everyone is affected by unconscious bias and everyone has them. Unconscious bias comes about as the result of being in a society that is biassed towards certain groups of people and being surrounded by cultural norms and ideas that perpetuate certain stereotypes or misconceptions.
Understanding unconscious bias is the first step towards consciously trying to unlearn biassed patterns of thinking and feeling. Challenging unconscious bias takes time and effort to recognise where attitudes are coming from and consciously confront them, but it’s a necessary step towards being more inclusive.
It should be noted that some people have an issue with the term ‘unconscious bias’ because it implies that you have no control over your thoughts and means that some people feel that they don’t need to take responsibility for how this bias affects their actions. It’s important to emphasise that, whilst we can’t control the unconscious biases that have already formed, everyone is still responsible for unlearning these and ensuring that they don’t impact how they treat others.
How Unconscious Bias Can Impact Inclusion at Events
In the events industry, unconscious bias can play a significant part in organising meetings, conferences and events that make certain groups of people feel unwelcome. Without addressing unconscious bias and identifying how it influences our behaviour, we run the risk of planning events that continue to exclude marginalised groups or make certain attendees feel unwelcome.
This happens because, when we make decisions whilst planning an event and don’t recognise any unconscious biases that influence these, the events end up perpetuating negative stereotypes or failing to consider the needs of marginalised groups. This contributes to a similar approach in other events, meaning that the whole industry continues to support these biases and stops change from being made.
You may also be guided by unconscious bias when it comes to choosing things like a venue, catering and entertainment. One of the key things that unconscious bias can do is make us favour people we share identity traits with or who come from the same background as us, and in some cases this leads to brands and businesses run by minorities struggling more, despite the quality of their service.
Being biased towards people from a similar background to you could also impact the diversity of any panels put together or speakers and guests invited to an event. Even when these guests and panels are reviewed by other people, failing to overcome unconscious biases as an event planning team means that this lack of diversity isn’t realised.
Attendee experience can also be impacted by unconscious bias in events, leading to negative reviews and a bad atmosphere. If an attendee from a marginalised group doesn’t see themselves represented by anyone else at an event, or if an attendee with access needs isn’t able to participate in the same way as everyone else, they’ll be unlikely to return to the event and may spread negative reviews which impact your reputation.
Letting unconscious bias impact the inclusivity of events is an issue in itself, as this is not only unfair but also prevents greater diversity of thought amongst attendees. It depends on the purpose and nature of the event, but studies have shown that more diverse groups of people are better at coming up with creative ideas, meaning that having a diverse range of attendees helps everyone to get more value out of your event.
Looking at the wider impact, letting unconscious bias influence your events means that these unconscious biases continue to be perpetuated and strengthened instead of dismantled. This means that the event industry is prevented from becoming more inclusive and continues to operate in ways that unconsciously exclude certain groups.
Finally, from a branding perspective, events that have been influenced by unconscious bias can gain a bad reputation because of their lack of inclusivity. This kind of bad press can have a significant impact on the company behind the event and cause all kinds of problems, so it’s definitely worth putting in the work to decide how to avoid unconscious bias.
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How to Tackle Unconscious Bias in Events
After acknowledging that you are influenced by different types of unconscious bias, you need to decide how you’re going to stop this from impacting the inclusivity and success of your events. Below are five of the best approaches to overcoming unconscious bias when you’re putting together an event.
Create Diverse Event Planning Teams
It can often be hard to notice when we are acting as the result of unconscious bias if we are surrounded by people with similar backgrounds, and therefore usually similar biases to us. One of the best ways to overcome this is by ensuring that your event planning teams are diverse so that you’re making an effort to represent multiple groups of people from the beginning.
Event organising teams that are diverse in terms of gender, age group, race, neurodiversity and physical ability help to cover a range of attitudes and opinions that will hopefully mean that any non-inclusive ideas are weeded out in the planning process. If any suggestions or decisions are made that are influenced by unconscious bias, you have more perspectives represented in your team and therefore can make better collective decisions about what is and isn’t inclusive.
It’s important to remember that in a professional environment, some people may not feel comfortable speaking about or representing an aspect of their identity, such as sexuality, relationship status, or religion. You should also ensure that you’re not putting together diverse teams for the sake of diversity instead of for the sake of organising a successful event.
Ask, Don’t Assume
Another way that a diverse organisation team can be an asset in inclusive event planning is that it allows you to ask questions about inclusivity to people that may be directly impacted by what you’re discussing. Certain topics or questions about inclusivity and diversity might feel uncomfortable to discuss, but it’s very important never to assume whether an aspect of an event will be well-received by the group it is targeting, and always ask someone who can offer an informed opinion.
For example, if you’re organising a conference that has a panel discussing a topic, ask multiple people whether they feel represented by the panellists chosen. This is particularly important if the topic is related to an aspect of diversity and inclusion.
Another example would be that, if you’re making your events accessible for people with physical disabilities, you should always check that any additional measures are actually going to be useful and appreciated. It might feel easier to assume that you’ve done enough, but unless you have a disability yourself you won’t be in the best position to make this call, and should always consult with someone better informed.
When you’re consulting people about matters of inclusion, always ensure that these people are being properly compensated for their time and input. It might take longer and require more budget, but it’s the best way to ensure that any unconscious bias isn’t impacting how your event is run.
Invite Diverse Guests, Panellists and Speakers
One of the best ways to ensure that you’re challenging unconscious bias with your events and making them inclusive is to invite and cater to a diverse range of attendees. Don’t just assume that a diverse selection will buy tickets or reach out to you; actively seek them out so that you have a more representative collection of people attending or speaking.
This is particularly important if your event involves talks, workshops and panels, as this is an area where marginalised voices can easily be forgotten about, and make a significant difference when they are given a platform. It’s not enough to have a ‘token’ diverse voice on a lineup; you need to represent a range of identities and cover a variety of perspectives.
Make Feedback Ensure Accessibility
One aspect of events that can make them feel less inclusive is the way that feedback is given, discussions are held or questions are asked. Traditionally, an audience may be asked to put their hands up to ask questions at a talk or to form small groups to have discussions during a workshop. Not only can this be a barrier to people that have more difficulty speaking, but it can make marginalised people feel more conscious of sharing their opinion in a room where they are a minority.
There are a range of ways that this can be tackled, but a great suggestion is asking for anonymous feedback, suggestions or collaboration using digital platforms. This also allows participation from people that may not be able to attend an event in person and makes it much less daunting for everyone to get involved.
Run An Inclusion Risk Assessment
When you’re trying to make a conscious effort to remove unconscious bias from the process of organising and running an event, a great way to check this is to run an inclusion risk assessment once you’ve put a plan together. This involves making a note of all the groups you want to feel included, supported and represented, and then going through each part of your event and assessing it from their perspective.
Start with the venue; is it accessible? Is it easy for anyone to get to, or does it exclude people that need to take public transport? Is it in a location that is safe for everyone attending? Are there spaces where people can take time by themselves if they need a break?
What about the event itself; are any activities accessible for all abilities? Are the speakers and panellists representing a diverse range of perspectives and experiences? Does the schedule allow attendees to take breaks? Are there any activities that some people may feel excluded from, such as social events where alcohol consumption is expected?
You can also think about whether the vendors, sponsors and staff helping with the event demonstrate a commitment to inclusivity as well. Are you making an effort to use vendors with a diverse team and inclusive values? Are any partners or sponsors actively working to be more inclusive, and do their teams and clients represent this?
As we’ve previously mentioned, if this assessment highlights any uncertainty then you should always ask someone with an informed opinion whether there’s anything different you should be doing, instead of assuming that you’ll be fine or that you’ve found a good solution.
Making the effort to address and dismantle unconscious bias is difficult, time-consuming and can throw up uncomfortable realisations or conversations that need to be worked through to make progress. However, this difficult work is necessary in the events industry in order to create a more inclusive and diverse space where all kinds of events are always inclusive and not influenced by negative biases.
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