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Racial diversity in the events industry: Five takeaways from the VEI & Smartxpo summit

Alison Ledger, VEI Editor

As the recent VEI & Smartxpo virtual summit ‘A Courageous Conversation About Race’ becomes available to watch on demand, here are five things you need to know

1. Let the fear of mishaps become encouraged engagement

There is widespread confusion over using the words ethnicity, race, background, skin colour black, brown or BAME in the workplace, said Meera Somji, senior manager of event analytics company, Smartxpo. It is this confusion that makes people feel they don’t know the right word to use. When coupled with the risk of being racist, this fear of mishaps is a powerful silencer. This silence can make it appear that there are no issues and that racism is a thing of the past. Racial bias is only visible when you start to listen to the lived experiences of those who face it. These fears must be put aside to allow racism to move from ‘accidentally saying the wrong thing’ to a systemic problem the industry can all challenge together. As Ron Walden, VP of Reed Exhibitions, suggested: “Let the fear of mishaps become encouraged engagement.”

2. The global events industry must respond to calls for greater diversity

Systemic inequality is about human rights and the fair redistribution of access, resources and power. Employees are the most important asset of any business and they need to be valued and protected. Data reveals there is a lack of diversity in the industry, particularly at leadership level. Not only is diversity and inclusion the right thing to do, it is good for business and the bottom line. To effect change, it starts at the top so it can cascade through businesses and the industry. The events sector serves many other industries and the onus is on event owners to be leaders for change. Businesses have spheres of influence and in those spheres are people who are suffering or are disadvantaged because of systemic inequality.

3. New data reveals stark lack of diversity

All leading exhibition organisers lack racial diversity among senior management. In a study of 145 senior leaders across the largest 20 exhibition organisers globally, conducted by Smartxpo, there are no CEOs from black or ethnic minorities and just 1% are senior leaders. The exhibitions industry lags behind other sectors and it is missing an opportunity as more ethnically diverse leadership teams achieve 36% higher profitability.

4. Companies must assess representation

Businesses need to understand how people identify – by race, colour etc. – and then seek to understand and assess representation in their companies, communities and industries. Once those gaps have been identified, this data can form the basis for setting targets and goals within an achievable timeframe to close those gaps. This parity should extend to pay to ensure the under-represented have the same opportunities for earnings.

5. When candidates for a job are equal, race plays a factor

“If candidates for a job are equal, should race influence the decision?” asked a member of the summit’s virtual audience. Walden replied: “There are probably multiple schools of thought on this but, if candidates are equal, the short answer is yes – race should play a factor. The reason for that is because black people in particular have been disadvantaged for a very long time and at some point we need to provide a step up. It should not be done at the risk of diluting talent.”


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