Even when it’s your company’s driving force, being inclusive is not always easy. “We were on a shoestring budget for our first conference back in 2015,” says Melinda Epler, the CEO of Change Catalyst, a consulting firm that helps tech companies build inclusive ecosystems. When a deaf attendee reached out to request an ASL interpreter, “I thought, ‘I can’t afford it,’” she says. “But that would have been a big mistake.” She figured out how to make the ASL interpreter happen.
“Inclusivity isn’t something that’s nice to have,” says Epler. “It’s not an add-on. It’s got to be a core element of who we are.”
The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has thrust diversity and inclusion to the top of many event planners’ and attendees’ minds. But the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated those inclusivity goals. Creating and hosting a diverse event has always meant being intentional and considering a wide range of perspectives and needs. Hosting a diverse event online requires all that work, plus a whole new level of thinking.
Diverse events start with diverse organizations
Whether it’s an in-person or an online event, building a core of diversity starts at the beginning of any event’s lifecycle, Epler says. The organizing team and any speakers or featured guests should represent the breadth of diversity, including gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, age, ability, physical appearance, religion, and socioeconomic status — with a focus on intersectionality (representative of multiple groups), too. “If you’re including all kinds of voices on the stage, as a result, you’ll likely end up with a more diverse audience,” she says.
The same goes for your event team, whether it’s full-time staff or volunteers. Sonali D’silva, the founder of Equality Consulting, a leadership training workshop service based in Australia, sees volunteers’ diversity as a core element of building an event that represents and learns from different voices. “I always take some time with any volunteers, and make sure to ask them what experiences, heritage, and personality traits they are most proud of. That’s their strategic difference, which is what they bring to the table.” Making your staff feel valued helps set the same tone for your audiences.
Covering the basics
Just like with in-person events, inclusive language is a must. Avoiding ableist, sexist, racist, and homophobic or transphobic language might seem like a no-brainer, but language around identity is complicated and requires deliberate choice. Both Epler and D’silva recommend brushing up on your inclusive and diverse language skill set using any of several toolkits available online, like Change Catalyst’s toolkit for inclusive events. And just like an in-person event, online events should have a code of conduct. “It’s key that you’ve trained your staff or employees to enforce it,” Epler says. Consider the new virtual settings where issues can occur. “If something happens in a chat room, how do you handle it?” Epler asks her staff.
Online events carry a number of unique challenges to diversity and inclusion. While organizers may no longer have to worry about physical access issues like stairs, they need to worry more than ever about psychological comfort, D’silva says. “Even seasoned event organizers are struggling to adapt to Zoom, because they cannot transfer skills between the in-person classroom and the virtual room,” she says. Within the first five minutes of a smaller event, she takes care to greet all participants by name, with an accurate list of participants at her side. Within the first eight to ten minutes, she ensures the participants have a chance to chat with one another. “This takes away the anxiety of being on an online platform,” she says.
But there are still physical accessibility issues to consider with online events. The visually impaired might not be able to read the font of a slideshow shared to their screen through a videoconferencing service. Epler recommends text displayed in large, sans serif font in high contrast (black text on a white background) at no less than 24-point font. Microsoft offers a handy guide on how to make your Powerpoints accessible to people with disabilities. Hearing impaired and deaf attendees require live captioning or an ASL interpreter. Graphics and visual assets should be inclusive, too — representing not just the Anglo-Saxon characters that overflow from online photo libraries, but all different ethnicities, backgrounds, and body types.
Addressing technological and class inequity
A successful event addresses technological inequity, too. “Not everyone has great internet bandwidth,” Epler says. Have you considered how access to a web browser versus a downloadable app will impact attendees? Is there a way to attend an event without using video, to help with connection issues? In fact, have you considered whether your event listing is as inclusive as possible? D’silva recommends including a tutorial link for the online platform you plan to use on your event’s listing.
The internet offers plenty of opportunities to get feedback directly from your event attendees. Use it. D’silva often asks her attendees to fill in the blank within a simple sentence: “It would help me to learn better today if you could…” Before an event, hosts can easily create an online survey asking the same question, to be included in the event’s listing, then tailor their event directly to its diverse audience — preventing inclusivity issues before the event even begins.
Finally, don’t forget to consider class inclusivity, or access based on income. Both Change Catalyst and Equality Consulting offer scholarship seats for events that are awarded through a nomination and raffle system. (As always, consider your language; “‘I’m throwing a freebie your way’ is disconcerting for a lot of people,” D’silva says.) Offering prices on a sliding scale based on income is another option. Donation-based tickets are a great way to allow attendees to choose what they pay.
As for overarching rules to consider for diversity and inclusion while hosting online events, D’silva tries not to forget that inclusivity means always putting yourself in the shoes of your attendees — which means considering what techniques and approaches work best during a new normal.
“You do get locked into your point of view,” D’silva says. “It’s easy to think, ‘I always do this. I know it works.’ It works in the physical world, sure, but the online environment may call for a different approach.”