The challenges of making all welcome: three keys to organising inclusive business school events

What sort of experience do you have when you attend an event such as a committee meeting, seminar, or conference at your business school or externally? Sometimes one’s experience is highly positive - you know some people there and enjoy catching up with them, maybe you meet some new colleagues and keep in touch with them, maybe you make a contribution and feel heard and valued. However, it can also be the case the experience is less good - you don’t enjoy the event even if content-wise it’s been useful, you make your way home or log off feeling you were excluded from key conversations, you weren’t called on to speak despite trying to, or, worst case, you didn’t speak to anyone at all.

Events that are held in higher education contexts, as we know from our own research on them, are a broad mixture. They differ in size, degree of formality, function, perceived significance, and location; there are committee meetings where matters of importance to university students and staff are discussed and decided on, and conferences that, in addition to providing ideas- and data-driven sessions, involve travel and an opportunity to build professional networks through meeting and socialising with other participants.

Since 2020, there has also been a much greater array of online events, that will continue to run in one form or another, even as in-person events slowly return. It’s a real challenge to organise any of these, especially in relation to sustainability, equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). As part of the Chartered Association of Business Schools and British Academy of Management’s wider EDI efforts we, with colleagues Professor Melissa Tyler and Dr Shalini Vohra, decided to create some guidance in this area, focused initially on EDI.

We were inspired by what already existed in this area for other academic disciplines and supported throughout by colleagues at the Chartered ABS and the British Academy of Management. We believe the guidance we wrote is a first step along a long road. As with all guidance, the real test is in its use – even though it’s early days, we’ve already heard about three key challenges we can expect to hear more about:

  1. Rules v. flexibility

Any guide of this kind is essentially a set of principles and recommendations designed to address a challenge. The challenge here is how to organise an event so that it represents and promotes diversity; how to create an inclusive environment whilst organising and holding the event; and how to ensure that the organisation of the event does not lead to or allow discrimination. However, guidance is not, as we all know very well now from our pandemic experiences, a set of rules or laws. In this spirit, we hope that our guide will be read as a series of suggestions or invitations to reflect, as much as best practice principles – we’re confident that event organisers can interpret and make use of the guidance in smart, flexible ways, to start to address the challenges it’s designed to address.

  1. Quotas and the danger of tokenism

Any intervention to change how public events look and work will immediately run into the ‘problem’ of quotas or tokenism (someone being invited to speak in part because they belong to a specific group). There’s a lively academic and policy debate in both of these areas. We know from our own research that quotas are controversial because they appear to challenge the principle of merit in selection, and of course tokenism places a lot of responsibility and pressure on individuals-as-representatives. However, we also know that merit is not as simple as it seems as a selection criterion.

First, this is because the assumptions underpinning what counts as ‘merit’ aren’t diversity-neutral. Second, because even if we define and accept the notion of merit as an ideal that we want to accomplish, in reality people are chosen for a variety of reasons, many of which create bias and show preferences for a group (often the dominant group – in our profession, white men).

To counter accusations of tokenism or quota-filling, we would recommend being clear that positive action is happening for a purpose – to recognise and address existing biases that we don’t always see or recognise, that it is in all of our interests to challenge.

  1. Collaboration

Organising events in higher education, for research, learning, or professional community reasons, takes a lot of work and a lot of people. We’ve learned through working closely with colleagues at BAM and the Chartered ABS, from inception to implementation, that there are shared, common goals that we want to achieve in the equality, diversity and inclusivity sphere; and that we all have contributions to make to ensuring that the extraordinary diversity of the BAM and the Chartered ABS communities is known to everyone affected by or involved in them. Inclusion starts with our own organisational and professional practice, especially in the act of collaboration on an equitable, inclusive and respectful basis.

That’s it – enjoy the guide and let us know your ideas for developing it further, so that we can start work on the next version. There is a lot of work to do on EDI, and, looking forward, even more on sustainability.

 

Madeleine Barrows is Chief Executive of the British Academy of Management; Oliver Lowe is Head of Conferences & International, Chartered Association of Business Schools; Martyna Śliwa is Vice-Chair for EDI at the British Academy of Management, Associate Dean for Ethics, Responsibility & Sustainability and Professor of Business Ethics & Organisation Studies at Durham University Business School; Scott Taylor is Director of External Engagement & Responsible Business and Associate Professor of Leadership & Organisation Studies at Birmingham Business School, and member of the Chartered ABS EDI Committee.

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