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Diversity & Inclusion at Social Media Week: Grading Ourselves

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This year’s SMWNYC conference is our most diverse ever, but that’s not good enough.

Last month, nearly 200 female executives from the advertising industry came together to launch Time’s Up Advertising. It was a necessary and much-anticipated follow-up to the entertainment industry’s own Time’s Up movement, especially in light of recent criticisms of CES after the conference failed to program a single female keynote.

In the interest of transparency, just over a week out from our tenth-annual Social Media Week conference, I wanted to share with you our perspective on diversity and inclusion and how we approach the programming of this year’s event. I also want to share our own diversity numbers with our attendees and the SMW community so you know where we stand.

First, some background: Putting together a four-day conference with 150+ speakers and nearly 100 sessions is a herculean feat that involves our entire team. In preparation for this year’s event, which has 50 percent more content than years prior, we kicked off our programming efforts back in July and have been working since then to bring you our most compelling and diverse lineup ever around our global theme, “Closer,” which explores the complex relationship between humanity and technology.

So, how did we do?

This year’s SMWNYC speaker lineup is 42% female and 24% people of color. In defining POCs, we’ve used the NPR’s definition (“all/any peoples of African, Latino/Hispanic, Native American, Asian or Pacific Islander descent”).

I can say with full confidence that this is our most diverse Social Media Week ever. I can also say with full confidence that it’s not enough. That’s because it’s not enough to be among the most diverse conferences in the lot. In our industry and many others, the bar is simply, and sadly, too low for such a comparison to be sufficient.

Those of us who work in conferences—and also award programs, industry associations, and the trade media—have a critical responsibility when it comes to elevating individuals within their fields. Those of us in a position to elevate individuals must always strive to do better, and hold ourselves accountable, when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

For others in the conference programming space, and in the spirit of knowledge-sharing, here are some lessons my team has learned in programming our most diverse conference in ten years.

  • Tracking gender and POC parity as you go is a helpful way to keep diversity and inclusion top-of-mind throughout the programming process. Our wonderful head of stage, Gail, was meticulous about tracking each confirmed speaker’s gender and POC status as they were added, and she reminded the programming team of our current numbers during every weekly check-in. This kept our big picture objective of being diverse ever-present in programming conversations.
  • Look at the big picture. We programmed our conference from an eagle eye view, which means that you will, for example, find both male and female-dominated panels within the context of the overall event. In our aim to achieve greater parity, we also wanted to make sure that the most relevant individuals were placed in the right settings. This is where our ongoing audits became supremely important.
  • Speakers can step up, too. One of our favorite moments during the planning stages of the event is when a male speaker, whom we had asked to join a panel, agreed to join but only on the condition that the panel reflected sufficient diversity. If you’re someone who is on the speaker circuit, remember that you, too, can help shape improvements in the way conferences are programmed.
  • Actions speak louder than words. In our early planning stages, our team batted around the idea of hosting a “women in tech” or “diversity in tech” panel. While these sessions are quite prominent at events like ours, we ultimately decided against it. After all, shouldn’t programmers allow diversity leaders and speakers to shine in their actual areas of expertise? Why limit these talented individuals to the subject of “diversity?” I do want to be clear in stating my support for conversations on these issues. Yet, although I respect conferences that host such conversations, our preference is to weave these topics within multiple sessions and program speakers based on their subject matter expertise, and not on their ability to speak to diversity in the first-person.
  • We can always do better. Even as the SMWNYC agenda began to take shape, we continued to audit the program and made changes to panel lineups and session headlines based on things we had missed. We listened to feedback from our community and optimized the schedule along the way. Most importantly, we took note of learnings so that next year, we can be even better.

Our 2018 SMWNYC conference is not only our most diverse; it’s also our most content-packed and far-ranging in terms of the diversity of perspectives and expertise we’ve been able to assemble. It’s our best conference ever because it’s our most diverse conference ever. Research shows that diversity makes for a better product overall, and we’ve seen that firsthand.

We look forward to bringing you a great conference next week, and an even better one next year. Building on this year’s theme (“Closer”), our hope is to create an open dialogue about diversity and inclusion at Social Media Week. In the spirit of community, we welcome your candid feedback and suggestions at newyork@socialmediaweek.org or on Twitter @socialmediaweek.

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