The issue of diversity in conference panels has become a hot topic as groups have started urging men to refuse to speak at events that do not include women. Efforts such as ManPanels.org and SpeakerDiversity.com invite men to sign a pledge on the issue, and media coverage by Fortune, Huffington Post, and NPR is highlighting the topic.
But ultimately, the decision on whether to make diversity a priority rests with the organizations that host the events. One that is leading the way on the topic is the Social Capital Markets Conference, an annual gathering of investors and entrepreneurs that share a desire to find solutions to global issues. The concept is known as impact investing and social entrepreneurship. The 2015 conference at Fort Mason in San Francisco attracted about 2,700 attendees, including venture capitalists, institutional money managers, entrepreneurs, and people working in foundations, government, corporations, education, and more.
Every one of the nearly 150 sessions featured at least one woman. That’s because organizers made gender diversity mandatory, starting in 2014. “People push back on it, but we say there’s no way the only people who can talk about this are white men,” said Lindsay Smalling, the event’s producer and curator. “If that’s true then it’s not a topic we need to talk about at our conference. So we just take a really hard line on it and people find a way.”
Starting with the September 2016 event, the organization is going a step further by adding a requirement for racial and ethnic diversity. In addition to making panels “look” diverse, Smalling said it is also committed to ensuring the content hits on topics of importance to a broad audience.
“We’ve done some proactive outreach to different groups in the impact investing community who have done [for example] fellowships for black male entrepreneurs or women who code, and asked them to submit content ideas,” Smalling said. “And we haven’t said, ‘Will you do a session on diversity?’ because that’s always what they get asked. Instead it’s, ‘What matters to you?’”
At the 2015 event, that outreach resulted in sessions on topics such as “Funding ‘Otherness’: the Impact of Race, Culture, Gender, and other Identities” and “Measuring Racism: the Prerequisite for Diversity and Equity.”
“These are real issues that are right there in that space, and they just hadn’t been brought out explicitly,” Smalling said. “We got amazing feedback on that content, because people said, ‘I have not seen this anywhere else.’”