February 3, 2023
Over the past few years, companies have held virtual meetings and conferences largely out of necessity rather than based on solid data. Now, however, there are a large number of events that have switched from entirely in-person to virtual or hybrid. From these, we can get a clearer look into exactly how virtual events have transformed large swaths of the professional world, especially when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
Late last year, a study published in Nature Sustainability documented the significant changes resulting from the upsurge in virtual events. These changes include not only environmental impacts (which were covered in a previous post), but also significant impact on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The study covered conferences spanning five scientific and engineering fields, ranging from smaller to large-scale events with subject matter relevant to an international audience.
In the conferences studied, the biggest obstacle was financial. For on-site events, researchers from Asia, The Middle East, and Africa spend up to 250% more, compared to participants from the U.S. Most of that excess financial burden involved the cost of travel and registration fees, both of which were eliminated or reduced thanks to the adoption of virtual event strategies.
The second greatest challenge was the time commitment required simply to show up. Such conferences have always been an important means of engaging with the larger researching community. Attendance can make or break a future career, especially for aspiring students on a shoestring budget. But with onsite events, the massive investment of time and money had forced many to choose between their job and their family or their financial stability.
The study found that, during the conferences taking place in 2020, thanks to the dramatic reduction in cost and time required, attendance from previously underserved regions increased by 40 to 120 percent, compared to the historical average before the switch to virtual events. There was also an increase of student participation by up to 42 percent.
Before the shift, there was an embarrassingly low amount of diversity at these meetings. For many of these conferences, a large majority were male, with women being a distant second, with participation in the single digits. With the move to hybrid and virtual events, those numbers started to show dramatic improvement with the attendance of women increasing by up to 260 percent. The number of gender queer and transgender individuals show signs of growing as well, although it was acknowledged that this might simply be from a greater willingness for people to self-identify as such.
One of the biggest potential problems for global and large regional conferences is language. While this does not seem to be a major issue at the moment, the language barrier will inevitably grow more prominent. Those running virtual conferences cannot assume that everyone will be fluent in a single language, especially as global attendance rises. Making sure that everyone can not only understand what you’re saying but be able to follow along with what’s going on in the conference becomes a unique, but far from a new, design challenge that has to be addressed if the conference is to be considered a success.
Initially, the ideal solution is to have a bilingual producer on board—someone who can understand and take cues from multiple, non-English-speaking participants, but this becomes more difficult as the number of languages increases. For presentation content, live translators are the preferred method of bridging the language gap. That tends to get expensive, depending on the language, and is difficult to find at the last minute. Using subtitles can have similar issues. Each of these solutions requires substantial preparation time by the event production team.
The increase in hybrid and virtual events has certainly improved multiple aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion. But that improvement presents new issues that demand our attention. One of the biggest difficulties comes from the need for more interactivity. For example, the audio requirements for two-way interaction can quickly lead to feedback problems if everyone is not using earphones.
As more participants attend from around the world, the issue of scheduling will become critical. The study found that turnout for those attending virtually dramatically dropped when the event occurred outside local work hours. It is already a common practice to hold the meeting in the time zone where the most participants are located in but as these meetings reach a wider audience a more complex solution might become necessary. In order to maximize turnout, event producers may need to let go of the idea of a simulcast, opting instead to spread an event across multiple sessions.
The sheer size of virtual conferences and the necessity of interactivity requires a more complex setup, a high level of production agility, and the right space to do things properly. This requires planning and forethought by knowledgeable event producers. But at the end of the day, it’s well worth the effort.
Lee Deaner is President of Leading Edge Training Solutions (www.letstrainonline.com), a leading producer of virtual and hybrid events, informational meetings, and training programs since 2009. He is also the co-author of The Virtual Events Playbook, available on Amazon and directly from Amplify Publishing.