Marian Wright Edelman says, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Of course that extreme isn’t entirely true- Edelman herself was the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. But the sentiment is true and important for everyone to think about. It’s tough to stay in a field (let alone advance) when there are no colleagues or leaders who look like you. It’s not just that you can’t see the path to the top, it’s also that peers and managers can’t imagine “someone like you” as a leader.
One of the things I often speak and write about is the lack of diversity in financial services. And although the impact investing and ESG space does slightly better than the rest of financial services, we’re not even close to reflecting the racial, ethnic, or gender diversity of the United States.
So what can we do? If you attend, speak at, sponsor, or organize conferences, you have the opportunity to address the “you can’t be what you can’t see” problem. Conferences that feature diverse speakers remind and encourage employees and management to see women of color, men of color, white women, and LGBTQ speakers as leaders. When I say “diverse speakers,” I don’t mean a day full of white male speakers and one panel of white women speakers talking about what female clients want. A diverse speaker lineup means racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, and gender diversity throughout the day, including the keynote speakers.
Here’s how you can help make diverse conferences a reality.
When you first hear of an event you are considering attending, check the speaker list and agenda. Is it diverse? (See above for definition.) If it’s not, give feedback right away, encouraging the organizers to be more intentional with their speaker lineup. If you have a speaker suggestion, make it. Conference organizers are usually receptive to help in finding excellent speakers. Do this as early as possible so the organizers have time to make adjustments. If it’s too late to change the agenda for this year, give specific feedback at the end of the conference about the diversity you’d like to see next year.
When you are asked to speak, you’re already seen as a leader. Continue to show leadership by asking who else is speaking. Is it diverse? (See above for definition.) If it’s not, offer to make introductions to other speakers, especially women of color, and say you’ll be happy to commit to a speaking engagement after the organizers have ensured a diverse speaker lineup. If you don’t know of diverse speakers to suggest, please feel free to contact me, or introduce the organizer to me. I’m happy to make introductions. This is particularly important for white speakers to do. We should not ask or rely on people of color to do the heavy lifting in this area.
Sponsorship often comes with two event tickets. Make sure at least one of those tickets goes to a person of color or a woman within your organization. If one of the attendees hasn’t been to the conference before, make sure the more experienced attendee knows they should facilitate helpful introductions for the first-time attendee. Sponsors should also ask about speaker diversity, request the organizers be intentional with speaker choices, and offer introductions (before writing that sponsorship check!). Again, I’m happy to be a resource here if you need help with introductions.
Be intentional not only about the topics you cover, but also who speaks about them. Make sure your keynote speakers (and all speakers that take the stage on their own) are diverse. Panels should also be diverse- and not by adding a white woman moderator to a panel of all white male experts; make sure the experts themselves are diverse. I know this can be hard, especially because of the scarcity of diverse leaders in financial services. I promise you there are excellent women of color, men of color, white women, and LGBTQ speakers- you may just have to expand your network to find them. Please feel free to ask me for help if you need it.
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