by Andrea Doyle | September 05, 2017

Studies show the more diverse a workplace is, the better it is for the company's bottom line. A Harvard Business School survey of 250 firms found that those with greater diversity among their employees made between 18 and 69 percent more in net income than those with a more homogenous team. Companies with the greatest ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, and racial diversity are 35 percent more likely to see financial returns above their respective national industry medians, according to research conducted by consultancy McKinsey & Company. What many of us have felt and known intuitively is becoming harder to ignore: diversity matters in business and that includes meetings and conferences.

David Jefferys,
founder of LGBT Meeting
Professionals Association

"Diversity is the new normal," says David Jefferys, president and CEO of the Altus Agency and founder and executive director of the LGBT Meeting Professionals Association (LGBT MPA). The association has grown to 500 members and is having its first annual workshop and networking event this November. A strategic goal of LGBT MPA is to partner with organizations like the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners and support their model of diversity and inclusion.

Although optimism is strong, there still are challenges to overcome. Some industry experts feel that given the current political climate, diversity may actually start to wane. The recent clash between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, VA, demonstrated that anti-diversity sentiments are hardly a thing of the past.

Here is a look at the state of diversity in the meetings and events industry.

Progress in Jeopardy?
"I fear that diversity might slip down the agenda. There is the risk of the rise of nationalism and anti-diversity organizations, as evidenced by the events in Charlottesville and the White House response," says Rohit Talwar, an internationally renowned futurist and CEO of U.K.--based Fast Future Research. "This may have a bearing on business diversity and hence meetings."   

Martin Sirk, chief executive officer of the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), is more optimistic. "It would take far more than White House rhetoric to reverse course, especially when we see so many U.S. business and association leaders standing up publicly for diversity and inclusion," he says.

International associations strive to maintain diversity at their events, says Sirk, using a recent ICCA meeting as an example. The meeting of 150 delegates held in Fukuoka, Japan, attracted attendees from 35 countries, with less than 50 percent of those delegates based in Asia-Pacific. "Our Congress attracts delegates from between 65 and 75 countries, with no reduction in diversity expected," he adds.

Although many think of diversity as being driven by demographics encompassing, race, gender, sexuality, and age, to some it also encompasses informational differences.

Sherrif Karamat of PCMA

"We have this notion that including people of different color or sexual orientation means there is diversity. To me, this is not enough," says Sherrif Karamat, CAE, chief operating officer of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA). "We can all look different but still be homogenous. There must be a diversity of ideas."

This year's Convening Leaders, PCMA's annual meeting, attracted delegates from more than 40 countries and featured a broad range of speakers. One that was especially powerful was Vusi Thembekwayo, a South African venture capitalist who has a mentorship program that seeks out and nurtures black entrepreneurs, particularly women.

"It's truly not a North American event anymore," explains Karamat. "It's a global event with a diverse integration of ideas." In 2018, PCMA will be introducing Zoom, a multi-channel approach to helping people of all backgrounds launch their careers.

"We don't just talk the talk at PCMA. We walk the talk," says Karamat. The association is headed by Deborah Sexton, a woman, and there are several other women and African Americans in leadership roles, he adds.

In response to the theory that diversity may start to wane as a result of the current political climate, Karamat says there will always be obstacles to overcome. "There will always be hiccups and irritants along the way. When building something, there is never a straight line," he says. "Having public discourse when things get unsettling is how we get our arms around it, leading to a just society."