Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have too often been treated as a tick-box exercise but there is a shift underway towards practical application. Galvanised by the wider social sphere and movements like Black Lives Matter and Pride, societal pressure is impelling organisations to think hard about how they approach DEI; it is no longer an HR-driven ‘nice to have’, but a belief system integrated into the business and employee experience.
Talent attraction is driving change too. Tellingly, LinkedIn recently launched a new job search filter to help employees find companies that match their personal values around inclusion. It demonstrates that job seekers increasingly consider an employer’s commitment to DEI and seek tangible proof points. This is forcing business leaders to elevate DEI from paper to practice.
Studies by Deloitte have found that companies with inclusive cultures are six times more innovative and agile, while those embracing diversity are also 35% more likely to achieve better financial returns. DEI is the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense. And the opportunity is huge if you get it right.
Three key principles
DEI within experiential is very compliance based, and this encourages more box ticking. As an industry we need to ensure we go beyond that. Our DEI team at WRG has worked closely with the experiential team to develop three simple principles when conceiving and executing events.
1. Identifying barriers to inclusion
One of our core principles is really understanding who the audience is and how we can cater for them, and then identifying the barriers to inclusion so that we can engineer solutions. For example, if we’re putting on an event during Ramadan, how can we cater for those observing it, understanding there is a diversity of practices within the Muslim community? Knowing your audience means you can assess whether people are truly represented by the content you create, the speakers you engage and the overall experience you offer.
If we think about exhibition spaces, we often consider wheelchair access and hearing loops for example, but what about sensory issues such as light and sound? At recent events, we have incorporated sensory-free spaces based on the principles of universal design where everyone can relax. While this benefits people who are neurodivergent, it also provides a space that can be used as a prayer room, a baby feeding room or simply a quiet space, enhancing the event experience for everyone. This thinking helps us to innovate and push boundaries.
By audience mapping, organisations can really understand the people they are trying to connect with, using these insights to critically assess their decisions – around venue, catering, suppliers, ambience – and identify and overcome any potential impediments.
2. Considering the context
Event designers can become hyper-focused when working on a project but it’s important to take a step back and think about the broader context. For example, if we are putting something on during Pride, what is the relationship between that narrative and our event? It is also necessary to think about where events are being held and whether any concurrent events locally will conflict, particularly politically. Being considerate of that broader context is essential, yet it is often overlooked.
3. Intentional application
The third piece is intentional application: using insights from both the audience and the context to interrogate what you can do differently to ensure DEI principles are being applied to the events you create. Chiefly, it is about being accountable. For example, if you have planned an event in a space which isn’t accessible to people who use wheelchairs, change it. It might prove inconvenient but being accountable and honest shows authenticity.
Gathering insights to drive intentional application relies on putting in place the right listening mechanisms. For example, from an event perspective, are the questions asked in post-event surveys designed to capture DEI feedback, and can they drive improvements? Organisations should also look at ways to capture data regularly and often, allowing them to be agile and reactive in the designs they create.
Laying the foundations
Successful DEI is underpinned by a clear and considered point of view. There have been several studies showing that too many company statements around DEI use generic language and positioning that could apply to any business in any sector. Companies need a defined frame of reference that clearly connects to their overall purpose.
Ask yourself, what does DEI mean to your employees, leaders and customers? This should create the north star that guides messaging frameworks, initiatives and strategic priorities. A distinct point of view will ensure that all DEI activity feels true to your organisation and is a world away from a tick in a box.
According to the Harvard Business Review in late 2022, while 60% of organisations report having a DEI strategy in place, many of those still lacked clear or measurable goals, yet this is key to progress.
We can apply DEI principles to how we capture event metrics and how we measure the success of experiences. Consider an international tech conference designed to engage professionals across a wide spectrum of skills, backgrounds, and cultures. Traditional measurement techniques might report a high average satisfaction rate, but by integrating DEI principles into post-event surveys, this will reveal more nuanced insights.
For instance, we might find that non-native English speakers had difficulty following presentations, or that remote attendees felt less engaged than those physically present. This would guide event teams to adopt more inclusive strategies in future, such as multilingual translations or better virtual engagement tools, ensuring broader satisfaction and a truly global impact.
Expanding data collection methods to be more inclusive and equitable can significantly broaden and enrich feedback. For example, offering surveys in accessible digital formats compatible with screen-readers or providing a telephone survey option can elicit feedback from a wider range of attendees.
Diversifying the supplier base is another tangible application of DEI. If an organisation commits to sourcing 30% of its supplies from Black-, female- and queer-owned businesses, for example, not only does this support these businesses and add unique offerings to the event, it provides a measurable KPI that can be tracked over time. It also demonstrates a concrete commitment and accountability to breaking down systemic barriers in the industry.
Interrogating the data through the DEI lens is critical. Companies must ask the right questions, probe the numbers and be honest with themselves if they want to advance.
An ear to the future
The events industry is well-positioned to embrace DEI within its work. But to truly seize this opportunity, we need to actively encourage diverse voices and utilize our positions of power to ensure all are heard. We need to shift from ‘creating for’ to ‘co-creating with’, using those insights to influence what we’re working towards.
If we listen hard, we can take innovation to a new level – and make a real difference to people and to business.
Case study: DEI in action
At a recent senior leadership meeting that WRG produced for a client, we created a physical ‘inclusion line’, where delegates lined up in two rows facing one another before responding to a series of statements read by the host. If these were true, the delegates stepped forward into the middle on the sound of a gong.
The statements began innocuously (“you like the colour red”), before becoming more thought-provoking assertions around diversity, equity and inclusion (“you have changed your preferred dress, appearance, speech patterns, or cultural traditions in order to fit in at work”).
The tone was important: we wanted it to feel emotive and intense. The room was dark, except for a line of LED strips running between the two rows of people. We encouraged full silence: no music, no talking, just the voice of the host and a gong.
The result of each statement was photographed for the debrief at the end of the experience. The idea was for the leadership team to reflect on their reactions to the statements and ask their peers how they felt – for example, about the times they stepped forward and how many other people did so. The post-event follow-up included providing attendees with a list of ‘inclusion activators’, to support them in encouraging change on DEI issues within their teams.
Luke-Matthew Iveson is director of the DEI Centre of Excellence at Forty1 and WRG, parts of Inizio Engage XD.