Let’s Diversify Panels and Conferences Now


I strongly believe that we must diversify panels and conferences now. As a speaker and conference attendee, it has always bothered me that the slate of speakers and the composition of many panels have been predominately white and male.

I would sometimes complain to my fellow presenters and occasionally even joke about it in a passive-aggressive manner. Last year I was on one of those “manels”, the term used to define an all-male panel. I commented sarcastically, “I am glad there is at least one token female on this manel…me!” There was uneasy laughter by the mostly male audience of finance executives and my comment did little to make any impact.

A lack of representation regarding race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and so many other elements of diversity is apparent in a great many conferences and symposiums across a wide spectrum of fields and industries. In scanning names, it is also evident on the “best” lists of coaches, bloggers, and speakers from which speakers are often chosen.

Limiting the slate of presenters to a certain demographic of primarily white males means, as the co-founder of LinkedIn Reid Hoffman warns, we are reflecting “monocultures” and “echo chambers of uniformity.” And research makes a more than compelling business and ethical case for diversity and inclusion.  Many cite the work of the Gallup organization which said that “…employees in inclusive organizations feel appreciated for their unique characteristics and therefore comfortable sharing their ideas and other aspects of their true and authentic selves.” When conference speakers and panel compositions reflect this diversity, we are sending this important message to every stakeholder. Professional associations and companies are saying that “we believe we will capture more ideas, creativity, and many perspectives”, as Gallup wrote. 

As recently as yesterday, I saw a large leadership summit of 16 experts being promoted on social media. It listed two men of color and not one woman of color on the program. How is that possible? Are there no women of color who are leadership experts? We all know that is likely not the case.

I was scheduled to speak at one such program.  I asked the organizer why there was such little diverse representation. The response was one that my black colleagues tell me they often hear. “We tried multiple times and didn’t hear back from them” or ” There just aren’t that many speakers of color”, etc. Really? How hard did you try?

My Commitment to Change 

Something needed to change for me. In recent months, racial and social unrest moved me into some uncomfortable but necessary territory. I have been examining my white privilege more closely and layers of unconsciousness are slowly being peeled back.

In my personal work, I have learned that being anti-racist is going beyond feeling empathy and stepping out from my white privilege, to speak up and demand change. One tangible step I can take is to advocate for change at conferences and summits.

Steps to Take

There are already some great suggestions for addressing this inequity in speaker selection and the need to diversify panels. These include taking steps to address gender imbalance. As writer Selena Rezvani says “you can even make your commitment public by signing the pledge developed by GenderAvenger, a community that ensures women are represented in the public dialogue. The pledge simply states, “I will not serve as a panelist at a public conference when there are no women on the panel.” It’s been signed by everyone from male senators and congressmen, to law firm partners and university professors.”

We must go beyond gender and advocate for racial representation on panels and at conferences as well. Diversifying panels and conferences not only enriches the program itself but sends a strong statement to the world about what your organization and profession stands for.

Here are some tangible actions I will take to make sure we have diversity and inclusion top of mind at ALL our events. I hope you will join me in addressing this long-overdue change.

    1. Before accepting a speaking gig, I will ask who else is on the slate of speakers. I will agree to speak if there is a commitment to include both women and men of color.
    2. I will intentionally expand my network to include more people of color to have a vibrant contact list of recommendations.
    3. I will proactively recommend speakers from different communities who can bring added dimensions and enhanced perspectives to programs.
    4. I will ask my speaking colleagues and fellow authors to reach out to conference planners so they can recommend people of color from their networks.
    5. I will refuse to speak on panels and at conferences where there are no women of color in prominent speaking positions.

I look forward to the day when we won’t have to check the lineup of presenters. Let’s all step up and call out racism in every aspect of our professional lives. It is the right thing to do. Working to diversify panels and conferences is my place to start.


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