How to Increase Diversity in the Meetings Industry

Four ways industry organization can improve their DEI initiatives and drive real change.

meetings industry diversity

There's an old saying commonly repeated among school-age children as they ponder future career choices, "If you can see it, you can be it." The trouble with such axioms in an industry like meeting planning is that the prospect of finding role models of color leads to another hackneyed expression, "Like finding a needle in a haystack."

According to a recent industry report, Blacks are as "rare as hen's teeth" in the higher paying, more lucrative roles, overrepresented in low wage-earning positions or nonexistent. As the renowned author James Baldwin stated, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

To increase the visible presence of Blacks in the meeting industry, we must face the institutional hindrances to finding needles amongst the hay. Here are some suggestions:

Diversity Is as Diversity Does

Representation starts with intention. Real change occurs when companies invest in sustainable efforts that attract Black candidates, retain them through equitable treatment and provide them with equal access to opportunities. Stats show low representation plus slow advancement equal rapid attrition.

Creating internal support systems enables diverse workers to thrive, drive innovation and make even greater contributions to the bottom line. Establishing relationships with groups like the National Coalition of Black Meeting Professionals can also help hiring managers identify diverse candidates and help employees strengthen their diversity knowledge and networks. By investing in the lifecycle management of diverse employees from onboarding forward, companies can truly "put their money where their mouth is." They can also create sustainable talent streams by putting dollars behind internships and partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities. 

What You See Is What You Get

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman's research indicates that the majority of decisions are based on biases, beliefs and intuition — not facts or logic — including hiring outcomes. Representation requires taking a hard look at the systems that promote exclusion, allow bias and maintain the status quo. For example, if 80 percent of the job market is hidden, meaning organizations rely primarily on employee referrals to fill new positions, then there's little probability of tapping into a diverse candidate pool. It's time to face the music.

"An organization is only as diverse as its leadership and systems allow it to be," said Marlinda Henry, chair of the NCBMP. "You can't achieve representation without first recognizing that a problem exists and then taking action to fix it."

Take a deep dive into the recruitment, hiring, onboarding, training and advancement policies at your organization. Do the decision makers reflect America's demography, or do they mirror the populations of Maine, New Hampshire and West Virginia — the most homogenous states in the country? Consider bringing in outside DEI counsel to help diversify the talent pool and then commit to unlocking the closed-loop systems. 

Save Your Tokens for the Subway  

Representation is not just a numbers game. Although DEI is an $8 billion industry, only 23 percent of HR professionals believe that their programs are highly effective, according to research from HR.com. Employees of color have even less faith in their efficacy. Over time, there have been many attempts to "level the playing field." One such program arose when the NFL enacted the "Rooney Rule" with the goal of creating equal opportunity by mandating that ethnically diverse candidates be interviewed for head coaching and front office openings. With no hard metrics attached, circumventing the spirit of the rule by setting up interviews purely to skirt implied quotas became de rigueur, thus dashing any hopes of parity. 

In our industry, candidates can easily feel "Rooney Ruled" when interviewed on the basis of race rather than qualifications, or when asked to submit resumes merely for the sake of ticking the compliance box. As the saying goes, "The proof in the pudding is in the eating." They also say, "numbers never lie." Check the ratios for who's applying versus who's hired to know how effective the DEI programs really are. 

It Takes a Village

Achieving representation requires looking at the organization holistically to ensure that inclusive values are integrated into the corporate ethos and carried out in sustainable, accountable programs from the C-suite to the mailroom. Without a 360-degree view, companies can easily fall into the part to whole fallacy, which assumes that a fact about a part of a thing is true for the entirety, like stereotypes that left unaddressed will rear their ugly heads inopportunely.  

There are clear benefits to DEI that most of HR pros can recite as readily as a well-worn cliche. So why has our industry lagged so far behind for so long? In the words of Baldwin, "unfaced is unchanged." Becoming unwitting witnesses to George Floyd's murder has taught us that we can no longer deny what's been happening in our midsts. When we hear about racism or see inequities, we can no longer turn a blind eye, remain tone deaf or dismiss what's occurring.

We must take a hard look at the institutionalized hindrances that make procuring diverse talent like finding needles in haystacks, and take sustainable actions to change them. Representation matters. It's time to pay the piper for the tune that we've danced to for too long.  

Dzidra Junior, CMP, is president of the National Coalition of Black Meeting Professionals. She brings nearly 30 years of experience in hospitality to her executive leadership role at YMCA of the Rockies based in Estes Park, Colo., where she serves as vice president of business development.