The diversity, equity & inclusion mistake you’re probably making too

When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workforce, we all need to recognize inequities and make an effort to change them.

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Over the last year, I’ve continued to learn when it comes to supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion, and my role in working to be an ally. I’m regularly reminded how people with different skin colors are treated unfairly, how much more I need to learn and that there will be mistakes along the way. 

Our marketing team recently asked me to speak at a conference about the digital employee experience. I’m always excited for the opportunity to share my knowledge and grow my own skills as a public speaker, so I immediately said yes. As the conference approached and I started preparing my talk, I went to the conference website to check out the speaker lineup and see who I’d be sharing the stage with. As I looked at the highly esteemed and qualified speakers, there was one thing that stood out most: they were all white. 

I cringed. 

And then I moved on to start preparing my talk. 

It wasn’t until a few days later when Pryia Bates, a fellow communications professional whom I respect, pointed out the same thing that I realized my mistake. In a thoughtful tweet, without naming names, she called on conference organizers and speakers to do better. That was my face-palm moment. 

I should have done something days earlier when I first recognized the issue. And at that moment I made a decision — I didn’t feel comfortable participating and I needed to pull out. Thankfully, Firstup fully supported me, and we canceled our sponsorship of the conference. 

Not speaking at one conference was an easy decision. But what were the lessons learned and what would we do differently going forward? How would we “do better,” as Priya asked? I’m far from perfect, but here are some lessons that I and Firstup have committed to going forward:

  1. Share what you learned. Our company has a weekly all-hands meeting that includes a section called “swing-and-a-miss” where we share mistakes and what we learned from them. I shared my cringe-worthy moment and what I was doing about it. And that’s why I’m writing about it here.
  2. Ask up front. Before last week, it never would have occurred to me to ask about the diversity of the speaker lineup when I agreed to join a conference. Going forward, I’m going to ask the organizers what their plan is for speaker diversity. If they don’t have one, I won’t sign up. If they have a plan, I’ll agree, but will also check back to make sure they actually acted on it with the speakers they secured. Firstup has also committed to this standard when considering future sponsorship opportunities. (By the way, if you’re a conference organizer looking for diverse experts in the fields of marketing and communications who are willing to speak on a wide range of topics, Advita Patel out of the UK put together this list.) 
  3. Hold yourself to the same standards. As we plan our upcoming Attune conference, Firstup is actively recruiting a diverse speaker lineup that includes people of color who are experts in our field. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we are committed to getting there in time for the conference. If you’re interested in speaking, let us know.
  4. Pay it forward. We need to invest in organizations and opportunities for underrepresented individuals to grow and thrive as professionals. I’ve decided to make a donation to two organizations committed to these efforts: A Leader Like Me, which helps underrepresented women and non-binary people of color progress in their career and achieve leadership goals; and The LAGRANT Foundation, whose mission is to increase the number of ethnic minorities in the fields of advertising, marketing and public relations. Using funds from the conference sponsorship that we backed out of, Firstup will match my donations. 

Do I expect these lessons to change things overnight? No, but my hope is that over time, as more of us recognize these inequities and make an effort to change them, they will. Will I make more mistakes this year? I’m sure of it. 

But as Priya also reminded me when I called to thank her for her tweet and share my story, “it’s about progress, not perfection.”

Additional Reading:

Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Related resources

Picture of Sonia Fiorenza

Sonia Fiorenza

Sonia Fiorenza leads communications and engagement strategies for Firstup. Sonia has more than 25 years of experience in corporate communications at Fortune 500 companies across industries such as financial services, biotechnology, and retail. She’s passionate about employee engagement for every worker from head office to the front line.

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