Skip to main content

Everyone is welcome, aren’t they?

Being invited to attend an event is sometimes an organisation’s first interaction with a person, whether that is a potential recruit, client, customer or supplier.  It is a crucial opportunity to create a positive first impression and to start building a relationship (or not as the case may be!).

Over the last few years, we’ve been on a journey to better understand what we can do as Responsible Business and D&I professionals to support our colleagues and to create more inclusive events, where everyone feels welcome.  We’ve learned some lessons along the way, and we know that we have not got everything right, but if you are thinking about your own approach, here are some of our insights:

  • Avoid reinforcing stereotypes – We recognise that the style of events we run for our clients, colleagues and other stakeholders will change over time, and what might have been deemed the ‘norm’ or ‘acceptable’ a few years ago, may no longer be considered appropriate or as widely accepted in 2024.   Of course, this can be a matter of personal preference, and there is an acceptance that some events just won’t be everyone’s choice.  However, it is also important to sense check your approach, and this is where employee network groups can provide a very valuable sounding board – the last thing you want to do is to run events which might inadvertently cause offence or exclude people and negatively impact your reputation as an inclusive organisation.   

There has been a shift in the approach to gender focussed networking events in recent years with a recognition of the important role of male allies and ensuring, wherever appropriate, that we include men in the conversations about topics which might predominantly impact women, such as menopause or pregnancy.  Another change is in relation to the type of events women’s business networks run, ensuring they are inclusive and avoid outdated stereotypes of women or their role in society e.g. we recognise that events focussed on fashion, beauty, cookery or parenthood can still have a place, but that these topics can be as relevant to men as they are to women in 2024. Of course, the same applies to stereotypes about men and events focussed on, for example, what might be deemed to be traditionally male sports or men’s mental health issues, which are often as relevant to women in today’s society.  A further consideration is the need to be mindful that event topics are not framed around 'fixing individuals' and thereby reinforcing stereotypes, and instead focus on the barriers and inequalities that minority groups face in the workplace.

  • Choose your venue wisely – Your choice of venue often forms someone’s first impression of an event and the organisation hosting it.  There are two really important considerations here from an inclusion perspective:
  • Is it accessible?
  • Is it culturally inclusive?

The most recent estimate from the Department for Work and Pensions’ indicates that 24% of the UK population lives with a disability, and whilst physical accessibility can often seem like a basic consideration that all events and venues are able to easily comply with, this is not always the case. Making it a priority means that all attendees are able to access your event and have a positive experience.  It is good practice to ask attendees if they have any other accessibility requirements, but at a minimum, attendees must be able to enter and navigate the venue with ease. This can include considerations such as ensuring ramps and lifts are available, allocated seating with clear and wide pathways for individuals in wheelchairs or other mobility devices, and signposting accessible toilets.

From a cultural perspective, the venue can make the difference between an individual feeling comfortable and welcome at the event, to not feeling considered or valued. As a start, hosting events in venues like bars and pubs or centring them around alcohol in general can be exclusionary for large numbers of people. This can include individuals from certain faiths as well as those who may be pregnant, recovering from dependency issues, or simply don't want to drink for personal reasons.

Additionally, inclusivity in catering can go a long way to making people feel welcome at your event. Being flexible and able to cater to a range of dietary requirements, whether they be related to religious, medical, or personal reasons.

Finally, for events that take place across long periods or at certain times of day, the venue may require other facilities such as prayer rooms, areas for breastfeeding, or breakout rooms. The key thing here is to ask attendees what they might need!

  • Get the balance right – The best events (and conversations) come from a diversity of viewpoints on panels and speaker line ups, and that is why it is not only the fairest and most inclusive approach, but often leads to the most successful events too.  

Consider the topic of the event, the demographics of the people that the topic relates to, and the team organising the event itself. The more diverse the team that is organising the event is, the more likely any potential speaker line-up is likely to be, due to a wider range of connections and ideas. It's generally a good idea to look for speakers beyond the personal network of organisers. Introducing one or two degrees of separation between speakers and organisers can help to diversify those speaking or participating in a panel, and one way to do this is by asking your (or your organisation's) network for suggestions of speakers whose voices are typically underrepresented in the subject area. Beyond that, finding and contacting organisations or professional bodies which represent specific demographics within an industry or area of focus, such as women in tech groups, or a mental health charity aimed specifically at people from minority ethnic backgrounds, can also help.

A key here, is avoiding tokenism. During the planning phase, you should have identified the scope of your topic and how it is likely to be relevant to or impact various communities, so you can ensure the speakers involved can participate and represent those communities. Crucially, the only individual on a panel from an underrepresented background should not be expected to speak on behalf of all minority groups: if you can't find more than one person from an underrepresented group to speak on your chosen topic, then consider broadening the scope of the event.

Pledges around panel diversity for both organisations and individual speakers are growing in popularity, so don't be surprised if someone you approach asks about the diversity of the rest of the panel, or declines to participate if they don't feel enough thought has been given to inclusion!

  • Inclusive communication and language - Whilst an accessible venue and a diverse line-up are crucial aspects of an inclusive event, the first impression people will get from your event is when they read the invitation. 

As well as inviting people to submit questions and details of individual requirements, being open and proactive about steps that have been taken to consider inclusion and accessibility can help to reassure individuals who may not feel comfortable disclosing a disability that you have already thought about people like them, which in turn makes them more likely to attend. Beyond this, using alt-text for promotional images, providing and following a detailed agenda (and communicating any changes that are made in advance), and simplifying the joining process can all make an event more accessible for disabled and neurodivergent attendees. 

In addition to this, the language and imagery you use to promote your event can a huge difference and determine whether someone registers to attend or not.  

Think about whether the photos you are using, particularly where they feature people, based on perceptions alone, reflect a commitment to diversity and are representative of the topic, attendees, and speakers.

Once the event begins, ensuring inclusive language is used in communications, materials, and by the speakers themselves can help to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable. Supporting speakers to understand the demographic makeup of attendees, checking on spelling and pronunciations of names, and using gender neutral language are all important parts of this. Additionally, whilst it may be a little trickier for those not used to public speaking, avoiding overusing colloquialisms or idioms can help non-native speakers of a language to be able to fully access the discussion.

  • Ask for (and learn from!) feedback about your event – Include a question about whether the attendee thought the event (and the venue) was inclusive and accessible and if there is anything you can do to improve that at future events?  Everyone is different and it is not always possible to foresee issues, but when you gain feedback, you can ensure you take that on board for future events.

We’ve focussed here on the approach we are taking to help us offer more inclusive events but of course, as a responsible business, sustainability is also a key consideration for events planning and something we are focussing in on at Irwin Mitchell. We are always keen to share best practice with others working in this space, so please get in touch if you would like to continue the conversation.