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The Dreaded Conference “Diversity” Panel - Two Ways to Improve this Critical Conversation

July 27, 2017

It’s become something of a fashion to include panels on “encouraging diversity” during public sector conferences. In today’s turbulent political climate, gatherings of government professionals are making a marked attempt to be more inclusive of younger people, women, and people of color. To a busy government worker, however, the importance of diversity initiatives can be lost without adequate context. Successful discussions of diversity will discuss at length:

A) Why diversity actually matters

B) The numerous benefits of diversity in practice

I recently attended a government management conference that drew city employees from across the country and sought to tackle local governments’ most pressing challenges. I particularly looked forward to the closing session, which promised to discuss the importance of diversity across government management positions. I anticipated a robust dialogue among leaders from across the country with a variety of experiences. Unfortunately, I left the session disappointed. Like many other conferences I’ve attended with a single discussion of “diversity,” this session did little to go beyond discussing diversity for diversity’s sake.

As a person in my mid-twenties, I was easily the youngest person at the conference, and as a woman, I was outnumbered 9 to 1. Overall, the demographics of conference attendees offered a glaring reflection of a national lack of diversity in government. There were four people of color at the conference, three of whom were there as panelists in the diversity session. The panel itself was moderated by a white man speaking to an almost entirely white audience. After five minutes of discussion, I witnessed about half the audience turn to their laptops, step outside to take a phone call, or engage a neighbor in unrelated conversation. Quite conspicuously, attendees did not see the value of the conversation.

The disinterest of the audience was, I believe, the result of poor facilitation and lack of topical context. The discussion went little beyond a discussion of hiring quotas (i.e. the number of minorities a government “should” employ) and failed to emphasize a key point: diversity initiatives matter because the lack of minorities in leadership roles means that the constituents a government claims to serve are not represented. The policy priorities of marginalized groups cannot possibly be understood nor articulated by those who have not lived, worked, or attended school in those communities. This point is crucial to a fundamental understanding of diversity initiatives and is frequently left out of the discussion.

Secondly, neither the moderator of the panel, nor any of the ensuing discussion, explained how diversity benefits a workplace. Having a diverse staff doesn’t just look good on a website—it increases productivity and avoids the pitfalls of groupthink. Consider an often-used but striking example: the major players of the 2008 financial crisis were overwhelmingly white, men, and of the same academic pedigree. As numerous studies have proven, having a diverse array of backgrounds within an organization results in higher-quality decision making, increased innovation, and improved performance. Opening diversity sessions by explaining the great potential of diversity, would, in my opinion, keep audiences more engaged.

It is high time that we change the narrative of diversity at these conferences, which should adequately explain the importance of diversity and highlight its numerous benefits. Another way to ensure better outcomes from these discussions? Actively recruit millennials, women, and people of color who already work in government to be there.

Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu