Why we need to ditch the all-white manel (among other things)

Virginie O’Shea, founder of Firebrand Research highlights the importance of diversity in industry panel discussions in order to have a range of perspectives, backgrounds and passions.

Have you sat listening to a conference panel or webinar in the last 12 months and thought, ‘I’m so bored of listening to people agree with each other’? The same buzzwords used; the same perspectives given. I know we’re all probably suffering from webinar fatigue, but there’s something so important about having a range of perspectives, backgrounds and passions on a panel to foster a balanced debate.

We’ve been listening to events from the comfort of our home offices or kitchen tables and it has likely exacerbated a problem in the industry that has been around for a while, namely, diversity is seriously lacking at a lot of our events and it often means boring discussions.

Now, these events do often have a token “Women’s Panel,” where a bunch of industry women are tasked with discussing the lack of gender diversity in the industry at 7am in the morning (outside of the main track). But that isn’t diverse or particularly helpful either. Women’s panels on diversity aren’t targeted at the general audience, after all.

Every day, there’s another webinar or panel with the same problem. Juxtapose this with the industry’s push to become more diverse and inclusive (with actual targets and everything) and the popularity of environmental, social and governance (ESG), and you have a very curious mismatch.

Now, I’m not a conference organiser (thank goodness) and I know it isn’t an easy job by any stretch of the imagination. In a previous life, I sat on a floor with conference teams running around desperately trying to find backup speakers at the last minute and that didn’t look like much fun to me. But if we’re to have interesting debates at our industry events, we need a bit more effort to get a better balance on our panels. That doesn’t mean to stick a woman in the moderator role for a token gesture towards diversity, it means to find people with interesting perspectives from across the industry to actually discuss and debate a topic.

You don’t need to save your diverse panels just to discuss diversity. These executives have a day job as well as being who they are. I’d love to see a panel of black executives at an industry event that isn’t forced into telling the industry how to fix its diversity problem, for example.

I’m sick of hearing excuses about why the all-white manel is the go-to for every capital markets event. There are people out there, you just need to ask for them. If your sponsors put forward a speaker, ask if they have other options. For the sake of interesting debate and our collective sanity, if nothing else.