Designing an inclusive event: Sci Comm South West 2019

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On 21st June UWE Bristol welcomed over 100 science-communication practitioners from the South West, the culmination of over five months of planning, organising and orchestrating, with a small team of five women at the helm. All throughout, attention was given to making the event inclusive. These are some of our learnings…

Definition of inclusion: the practice or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalised, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of minority groups.

Start early

We made time at the beginning to think through what might exclude people from our conference, and make adjustments to include them. We pooled our knowledge from events we’d attended, and looked at what others had been saying on blogs, online guides (here and here) and social media.

Location, accessibility, location

We chose the Business School for its facilities and location; it is fully equipped with gender neutral toilets, seating areas with high backs for privacy/quiet and, thanks to a recent student campaign, free sanitary products in toilets. Outdoors, there is ample disabled parking and inside there are wheelchair-accessible lifts. It’s the little things that really make a difference when aiming to be inclusive; for most people, it is relatively easy to get to by public transport.

Conference venue, UWE Bristol’s X Block_Credit Tom Sparey

Think about the room layout

Round tables, lots of natural light, and a relatively easy-to-use AV system, as standard in most of the rooms, made for a pleasant and relaxed setting for both the speakers and delegates. In more interactive sessions, ‘think-pair-share’ was used to allow everyone to participate in discussions. In future events we’d additionally invite questions during discussions from groups that may not have had the floor (e.g. young female, or BME).

We designated one room as a quiet zone, in case people needed time out from social interaction. It ended up being used as a rehearsal space, but such a room has been successful at other events.

Reach out

Are there other perspectives we’re not including? Keep reflecting on this. It was identified early on that our suggested panel didn’t have a community representative, so we made contact with someone known locally for their grassroots activism. We did a similar exercise for the presenters once our call for proposals was announced – it’s okay to invite in people from marginalised groups; they’re often thankful you asked to include them.

Seek help

We had someone to coordinate the whole event, someone to manage the registrations and social media, someone to recruit and manage volunteers and managers to invite panellists and compere the day. Divide up tasks and seek volunteer help (e.g. from students) to lighten the load and allow you to support more people on the day. Several volunteers wore identifiable shirts so people knew they could approach them if they were lost or had any questions.

Consider cost

One barrier to participation is financial constraint, so we offered bursary places.. Offering to pay for transport or to cover the cost of childcare was another option.

We made sure our ticket price was kept low, at £25 for concessions and £50 full-price, with early-bird options also. Many commented on how fair our costing was and that it enabled them to attend.

Check your language

You’d be surprised how easily jargon or images can put off your target audience. If the public’s only picture of the event is of white men in a room, then that is what they’ll expect and might feel “I don’t belong here”. Similarly, if the event includes or is for “experts” then the rest of us feel like “non-experts”, which can be interpreted as “lacking in sufficient knowledge”. We were careful to avoid these traps… and it is such a common problem that one of our sessions at the conference was all about the use of such language in public engagement.

To indicate that we would not tolerate harassment at the conference, we included a Code of Conduct in our programme. Several people commented that they really appreciated this extra effort!

Let people identify themselves

We’ve been to several events before where people get to design their own name badges, so we followed suit. It breaks the ice, is low cost and is fun! But on a deeper level, people’s identity is important to them. Let them define it!

Stay refreshed and come up for air

Breaks facilitate networking and problem-solving, and allow people time to digest what they have heard – so have lots of them! We had three refreshment breaks, if you include lunch, with additional coffee and teas at registration and an optional alcoholic and soft drinks reception at the end. Food was vegan as standard, with gluten free options available – this was a health and environmental choice. We worked with our caterers to offer oat milk, as it is more sustainable and popular than their usual soy/almond alternative, and to reduce single-use plastics. We knew our audience would appreciate this and we asked them in the registration survey what they required..  

Credit_Tom Sparey

During lunch, the site’s Grounds Manager led a nature walk so people could stretch their legs and unwind from what can often be an overwhelming morning of knowledge harvesting. We tied in what we were discussing inside with the outdoor stroll by highlighting what UWE is doing to improve biodiversity in the city and engage students to become ecosystem stewards. Many people commented that the walk was their highlight!

Remember this is an ongoing journey

Capture photos, videos, blogs, demographic data and people’s thoughts and feelings about how the conference went to make things better next time. But do remember to ask people’s permission first!

The adage ‘you can’t please everyone’ is worth remembering when designing events and conferences because, let’s face it, we all have different needs and preferences. However, we can strive to make events as inclusive as possible within our given constraints, so there is no excuse for not trying!

Practitioner checklist

Here are just a few questions you could ask yourself in the planning of your next event. Add to and refine the list after each event you hold.

Who

  • Does your team reflect the diversity you want to see at the conference?
  • Does the panel represent the diversity you want to see?
  • Have you reached out to under-served communities and asked them why they may not attend? (e.g. could hiring a translator or interpreter take away language barriers?)
  • Is your language in plain English, without jargon or exclusionary terms? Not sure? Ask your intended audience.
  • Have you offered bursary places?
  • Is your cost affordable to as many people as possible?
  • Have you asked about access and dietary requirements and permissions (e.g. for photos, recordings, etc.) upon registration?

Where

  • Is the venue easily accessible by public transport?
  • Does it have the technology you require? (e.g. hearing loop, wifi)
  • Is there space to move around, walk around the building safely and places to rest?
  • Is the venue breastfeeding friendly?
  • Are there disabled and non-binary toilets available? Do the toilets have freely available sanitary products?
  • Have you advertised to multiple groups through mediums that suit them (e.g. flyers in local community centres; speaking at a local event; sharing event through mailing lists and newsletters)?

When

  • Are you sure the event does not clash with a religious festival, national holiday or other important event?
  • If the event is held in the evening will people need support with childcare?

What

  • Do you have a code of conduct?
  • Will there be food and beverages that can cater to most needs? (Suggest ‘bring a dish’ or ‘bring your own’ if needed).
  • Is there a mixture of styles of sessions and content to attract a wide audience?

How

If you have worked your way through this extensive but not exhaustive list, the how should fall into place. Keep things fun and light and be open to feedback.

Read more about our event here.

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