How unconscious bias training could change the face of the event world

The Ascent CEO Promise announced by PCMA CEO Sherrif Karamat in May challenged events industry leaders to build more inclusive workplaces. Importantly, it focused on what can be done to make meetings of the future more diverse, rather than on pointing fingers at the past.

“The industry can be a model for the larger world,” Karamat says, in discussing industry reaction after he lobbied leaders all over the world to make the pledge at IMEX Frankfurt. “When you consider how many women are in the sector and only 10 percent are in leadership roles, it is an opportunity to show the power of a transformed, more diverse workplace.”

More than 50 leaders have signed the pledge so far. Karamat is encouraging them to begin the transformation with unconscious bias training. Karamat contends that everyone has unconscious bias. “We need to recognize that, and then we can look at what can be done,” he says. “We don’t need to apologize about it, but we need to do something now.” PCMA, in fact, will be rolling out webinars and articles on the topic as its first content in the initiative. The education will then move to training at face-to-face events.

Many of the leaders who signed on are already stepping up in their organizations.

Make Diversity a Priority

Johanne Belanger, president and CEO of Tourism Toronto, agrees that unconscious bias is real. “I’ve seen it first-hand,” she says. Belanger feels she has a responsibility to even the playing field and to give opportunities. “The more diversity we see in leadership positions—executive staff, on boards, as presidents and CEOs—the greater the chance of that unconscious bias tilting in the other direction,” she says.

At another company, a recruiter brought Belanger a stack of resumes for a senior role. There were no female candidates. She asked that half be women. Those resumes came back looking just as qualified. “The recruiter likely didn’t consciously do this,” she says, looking back, but this unconscious blind eye to qualified women perpetuates the imbalance. “Leaders need to make diversity a priority, and that starts with the hiring process,” she says.

Belanger is calling for better, and formalized, unconscious bias training for leaders. “Being aware can help reduce it,” she says.

Bridge the Gaps

Cheryl Kilday, president and CEO of Visit Spokane, advocates opening up the workplace to more diverse perspectives. “We all have bias and need to recognize that fact so we can work together to make sure we are inclusive and not allow ourselves to be blind,” she says. Kilday worries that minorities can feel isolated. Her solution is to be proactive about making everyone feel welcome: “An inclusive environment should bridge any gaps that may exist.”

End the Silence

At See Monterey, CEO Tammy Blount is a model for taking time to talk about roadblocks to an inclusive culture. Besides regular workplace surveys by third-party consultants to monitor sentiment, she leads and encourages discussions about what it means to be open and accepting. “That includes bringing up subjects that might otherwise go silent,” she says. “We must take the time to live the values of respect and open opportunity.”

Learning to See Diversity

For Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC, education is the key to addressing the gender imbalance in the events industry. “Empowering our staff, volunteers and members to identify unconscious bias has to be the first step, followed by providing a clear process to address it,” he says. “We will be providing the learning as well as a process for reporting [bias], which will be shared with staff and included in our member code of conduct.”

Cooper knows change will not come overnight. “As this campaign and others are highlighting, the challenge for minorities is that it is hard to spot and prove unconscious bias, and therefore harder to tackle,” he says. He points to education as the key to turning the situation around. Doing so, he believes, is not merely the right thing to do: It will be critical for the industry in competing for talent. “It could have a significant positive impact on the talent we can encourage to join us in future,” he says.

Time for Change

Karamat is adamant that the time to start taking action is now. “It is 2018, and we are beyond talk. We need to do something about this,” he says.

Success for Karamat will mean not having this conversation in 2028. “We will live in a better, just society. The world is a big place and it will take a while. It is a process, but I am hoping the conversation will have changed by then,” he says.