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International Confex shows its D&I chops

by Cameron Roberts

Gabrielle Austen-Browne, co-founder of Diversity Ally, tells EN about the event industry’s D&I credentials

International Confex 2021 not only served as a meeting place for the industry after months of lockdown, but also as a leader in diversity and inclusion (D&I). The conference programme included a variety of sessions aimed at promoting inclusive workplaces and Mash Media partnered with diversity and inclusion consultancy, Diversity Ally, to have a D&I presence on the show floor.

Gabrielle Austen-Browne (pictured below), co-founder of Diversity Ally, was onsite at Confex from build to close and I got the opportunity to catch up with her about her role at the show. She said: “We were the diversity partners at International Confex, so it was really important that we had a number of touchpoints at the show, which included our stand, a panel discussion and the diversity trail. 

“We designed our stand to be a quite open environment, as we knew the show would centre around conversations for us. Everyone who came to see us had a real interest in D&I. Sometimes at shows it can feel a bit like visitors do not really engage with the people on the stand that much, but for us at International Confex there was a lot of interaction and some great feedback about D&I at the show.”

Boots on the ground

One of the major draws of a live event is the footfall and face-to-face interactions that exhibitors and attendees can have. For Diversity Ally this meant getting in front of a wide array of industry leaders as well as fresh faces in the industry. Austen-Browne spoke about the types of conversations she had onsite, saying: “There wasn’t one particular group of people who we were speaking to which was really nice. We spoke to business leaders who are asking about recruitment and who are concerned about getting more representation within companies and creating inclusive workplaces. 

“Then we also had people who are working for businesses, who are trying to have the conversations with managers and directors about how the company can start to implement D&I within the company culture. We also interacted with a few people who were new to the industry and wanted to bring D&I to their new role.”

Diversity Ally’s expertise is in the D&I space, therefore advice on creating a diverse team and highlighting D&I as a core value are her bread and butter. I asked what advice she would give to the different segments she spoke to onsite at International Confex, something to kick start the conversation within an organisation.

Austen-Browne said: “With regards to leaders, we tend to find that there’s typically objections around the route to implementing D&I. So, the first thing that a board or directors should do is have a workshop in which they can openly speak about what they think their business challenges are when it comes to implementing D&I and what their thoughts are around this. A lot of the time leaders do not realise what biases they may have, it is not just unconscious biases, but it is also affinity biases which can prevent our industry from becoming more diverse. So, it is a lot around education, as once we do these workshops, a lot of the time we find that leaders have a deeper understanding of why D&I is so important.

“For employees I think that going online and utilising resources there around allyship within the workplace is a great starting point. Connecting and following the example of businesses within the industry that are doing D&I well is also a great route to increasing inclusivity across our sector.”

Diversity trail at International Confex

A first for this year’s International Confex, the team set up a Diversity Trail, aimed at highlighting exhibitors that had D&I credentials. The trail was set up by Diversity Ally and selected businesses based on thorough research of inclusive workplaces and projects invested in by each company. The Diversity Trail had the aim is to connect businesses, individuals and organisations who are committed to D&I

Austen-Browne expanded on the founding of the trail, saying; “At the very beginning of setting up Diversity Ally we looked at how many similarities there were between D&I and sustainability. Both can be quite difficult to implement at the beginning, both can be challenging for people to the point of becoming an irritant for some. In the research around that we saw sustainability trails at exhibitions, where companies are highlighted for their green credentials, which is something we thought we could replicate for D&I.”

Leading the way

International Confex had a variety of sessions on D&I, including ‘Event First Steps – one year on from the black square’ and ‘REACH – Race Ethnicity and Cultural Heritage: launching a new event management scholarship to improve diversity’ both of which took place on the keynote theatre on day two of the show.

REACH drew the crowds, a fund started to provide financial aid for students from diverse backgrounds wanting to do events courses at university. Mash Media managing director, Julian Agostini, donated £3 to the scheme for every attendee at International Confex, supporting the bid to diversify those in our industry from the ground up.

I wanted to get a sense of what questions were raised about D&I while Gabrielle was on stage at the event, as well as any last words of wisdom she would give to events industry members wanting to support D&I within our sector. She said: “One of the main things we got asked was how to get started on the D&I roadmap. Our key message around this is setting easily achievable goals, a lot of people try and do everything in one big go, just focus on one thing, which might be: an accessible website for those who are visually impaired, it might be increasing representation within the business or externally, but just focus on one thing to kick off with.

“The other thing was how do we benchmark ourselves as an industry, there is not a whole lot of data surrounding D&I, we were unsure of how we know if we are achieving our goals. The solution for that is utilising representation reports to begin to benchmark and collect data from the industry.

“The final major point from the panel was, ask for help, a lot of people try to do D&I by themselves with no expertise and wonder why it doesn’t work. It is hard to push D&I while having a full-time job, so you must utilise experts out there to help you achieve your goals.”

Austen-Browne’s final point to me reinforced the message that, though D&I might cause some awkward interactions, they are conversations worth having, she said: “For me, a big point to reinforce is to get used to having uncomfortable conversations. Some people in the industry feel uncomfortable saying the word black, if you’re not comfortable saying black how are you expecting to have a conversation in the workplace around hiring more Black people.”

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