New research released last month revealed that just 3% of event professionals identify as black, African or Caribbean, proving there is significant work to be done to improve diversity and inclusion in the events industry.
We caught up with Ashanti Bentil-Dhue, co-founder of Diversity Ally, a recently launched consultancy and membership organisation aimed at improving diversity in the events industry, to find out what she makes of the research, the diversity challenges we face as an industry, and what’s on her agenda for the 12 months…
It’s been three months since you announced the launch of Diversity Ally. What have you been up to so far?
A lot of our time has been spent on education. A large part of the work we’re doing with organisations is on the basics, the foundations of understanding systemic inequality and what diversity and inclusion actually is. It has such a broad definition – it means different things to different people.
So, we’ve been using channels such as podcasting, speaking at events, writing or contributing to articles, facilitating or contributing to roundtables, networking, and meet-ups to talk about what diversity and inclusion is and what it means within the context of the events industry.
What type of clients are you working with? And what are they needing most help with?
Diversity and inclusion are not a course, or module or certification that you can study for, and then think right I’ve done it. All of our work is very consultative and it’s all about co-creating solutions that are very bespoke and tailored towards individual organisations.
But I would say that a common thread that’s running throughout is two things. One is really understanding systemic inequality in society, and how that impacts a workplace. The second thing is how to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations about inequality. So we move it on from just talking, and into learning about what conversation skills we need to practise as colleagues, peers, as managers and leaders, so that people come away from conversations feeling understood, valued, and that there was a clear action point after that conversation.
Fay Sharpe just published results of her research with Leeds Beckett and Imex Group, which revealed just 3% of event professionals identifying as black, African or Caribbean. Were you surprised by these results?
Unfortunately not. It’s not just within this industry that diversity is an issue. Across all sectors in the UK, the percentages of representation are well below 5%, so it’s really quite indicative of a much wider problem.
Is there anything specific to events that can explain why representation is so low in this industry in particular?
I think there are a number of factors. One is the fact that the events industry is very entrepreneurial. A lot of these businesses, even the big ones, are either family owned or started by one or two friends and they grow from there. With privately owned companies, diversity and inclusion may not necessarily be top of mind when you’re first starting your business. That just is what it is, it’s the nature of business.
Another factor is that certain parts of the events industry are very corporate in their make-up and the way they operate is a reflection of the wider corporate way of doing things in the UK. There are these ideas that you must have worked 10 years at this type of company or five years at that company, otherwise you won’t even be considered for a post. That is problematic because what that means is you’ve got the same people circulating around the same cluster of event companies and there really isn’t an access route for new people who may not have 15 years of experience to actually come into the industry.
Thirdly, there’s also a misconception that the issue is purely about recruitment and going back to colleges and schools to improve representation. The events industry is largely supplier led, so this is a quick win. You can choose to diversify your supply chain. We see a lot of representation in the supplier market, whether it’s décor, food, lighting etc, but we don’t see events businesses really leveraging that.
Diversifying your supply chain consciously and deliberately would change the representation that we see in the events industry. Everything is a process, but the approach we take towards diversity and inclusion somewhat influences and impacts the pace of change. If we view it as something separate, as a nice to have, as a corporate social responsibility, we won’t see change in the make-up of the industry, or the make-up of organisations. It’s time to stop talking. This is now about conscious change that people have the power to make.
Do you sense there is a genuine commitment towards improving diversity within the events sector off the back of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement?
I think it’s one thing to support or be aware of the Black Lives Matter movement and another thing to actually prioritise and a devise clear action plans within your organisation when it comes to equality.
BLM as a movement has received widespread global media attention and exposure. So from a corporation point of view, they see any actions they take as a sign of support for that movement. But in actual fact there are laws and guidelines in place already about equality in the workplace. These are not new, they haven’t been updated recently, they exist already.
This is really why we do the work that we do at Diversity Ally, because it’s helping organisations understand those responsibilities and how they actually effect change and move the needle in terms of the everyday lived work experiences of their employees and colleagues.
The clients that we’re working with and the organisations approaching us are committing towards making changes within their organisations. That is completely separate to the BLM movement or public declarations. We can’t get distracted or lulled into a false sense of security because of press releases, social media posts and a wider conversation happening about BLM. What we need to continue to look at is the lived work experience of all of us. It doesn’t really matter to some extent what race you are, what gender, what sexuality, it’s about how you are actually feeling in terms of your experiences. That’s what matters.
Do you think COVID-19 could potentially overshadow topics such as diversity and sustainability because everyone is so focused on trying to stay afloat? How do we keep these issues front of mind?
When we look back on what has happened in 2020 so far, at the start of and during the COVID pandemic, we have seen the events industry talk about nothing but support, community and collaboration. And the ethics and values and ethos behind that in terms of enabling businesses but also individuals to retain income, create income and survive. So we are already demonstrating the kind of behaviours and values that are required to keep sustainability and diversity and inclusion top of mind. What we’re here to do as Diversity Ally is keep those ethical values in mind, especially during a time like this.
Is there a lack of understanding among corporate companies that diversity and inclusion makes good business sense?
There are countless reports, research, white papers and data that have been shared with every sector in the UK outlining all of the business cases for diversity and inclusion. There’s not much more now we can do to demonstrate the commercial and profitable benefits of being more diverse and inclusive. So I’m not sure whether there’s a lack of understanding, as much as there is a lack of either will or effort to make the changes if I’m very honest.
What will your key focus be over the next year?
We’re really focused on making sure that we support as many companies in the events hospitality industry as possible work internally with their stakeholders on understanding systemic inequality and helping them upskill in having uncomfortable conversations so that they are able to create far healthier workplace cultures.
Secondly, we want to be able to recognise and celebrate the companies and internal champions who are trying to make a difference in this regard, so we’ve created the Diversity in Events Awards, which will take place in the autumn 2021.