Melissa Tyler is a Professor of Work and Organisation Studies at Essex Business School. Martyna Śliwa is a Professor of Management and Organisation Studies at Essex Business School. In this blog, they explore how changes to the way we live and work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, are encouraging us to think more creatively about inclusivity.

COVID-19 has brought about many changes in the way we live and work. It has raised awareness of inequalities, whilst also opening up opportunities to think differently about how we ensure our ways of working and learning are as inclusive as possible.

Events – ranging from informal day-to-day interactions to large, international conferences, are integral to working and learning; they can be settings in which inequalities are reinforced, but they can also be sites for change. At Essex Business School, we have developed an Inclusive Events Guide for planning, organising and participating in events.

The guide is based on the premise that equality and inclusion cannot be ‘completed’ but are values to continually work towards. Putting these values into practice is everyone’s responsibility, not just the work of those who are excluded. The Public Sector Equality Duty (part of the Equality Act 2010) requires public sector bodies to promote equality. The Equality Act stipulates nine ‘protected characteristics’: age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex, and sexual orientation.

Promoting inclusive practices

Three key areas in which we can proactively promote inclusive practices in and through events are: i) as chairs and participants in meetings; ii) as organisers and participants in conferences, workshop and seminars, and iii) when we are invited to speak or contribute to an event.

Below we have outlined some questions to consider when chairing or hosting a meeting, or to think about as a participant:

  • Is the theme/focus as inclusive as possible?
  • Does the agenda encourage a range of participants and points of view?
  • Can key meetings be held in core hours, with timings varied?
  • Is a rotational chair possible, or a deputy chair?
  • Is it possible to find ways to share available time for speaking fairly?
  • Is it possible, to include a ‘Speaking Out’ or ‘Speaking Up’ section?

When organising and participating in events, it is important to recognise that theme choices are not ‘diversity neutral’; if the theme is too ‘exclusive’ – for example, through potentially appealing to a narrowly defined, non-diverse audience – is it possible to rethink it? Women and people from Black and ethnic minority groups are less likely to be invited as speakers, especially in high profile roles such as keynotes. Selecting dates, times and venues should involve consideration of ‘core hours’ for the key parts of an event and of factors such as the timing of school holidays, religious festivals and national days, and potential caring responsibilities.

If you are invited to speak at an event, we’d encourage you to consider: Is the invitation and the format inclusive? How will the event promote equality? In many sectors, people are increasingly comfortable with declining invitations to be part of non-inclusive (for example, all male, all white) panels, or to request a commitment to inclusion as a condition of their participation. Multiple keynote speakers or small groups can provide a better platform for different groups and perspectives than single speakers. Organisers often welcome ideas.

A final thought – imbalances in event participation are a microcosm of wider issues and inequalities which cannot be ‘fixed’ at a day-to-day level. In a (post)COVID world, events can be important sites for raising awareness of this, and for thinking about what we might do to make our events more inclusive, accessible and sustainable now and in the future.

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