Behind the Scenes

The Work Continues

Looking at the meetings industry — from all sides — as an advocate for social change.

Should meetings be leveraged to move a social agenda forward? It’s a many-layered question that we explore in this month’s cover story. We spoke to leaders at organizations

representing the meetings and conventions industry, the destination-marketing and association communities, and the head of one religious association — headquartered in Indianapolis — who took a bold stand to move her 2017 General Assembly to a different state after Indiana enacted controversial legislation that potentially could allow for discrimination against LGBT people.

In a way, it seems only natural that conferences and events would be used to serve the common good. After all, they’re often the best and sometimes only platform to address society’s challenges. I’ve been reading about the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women on the recent occasion of its 20th anniversary, which provides one such example. The largest conference ever organized by the United Nations, it attracted 17,000 attendees to Beijing. The co-located NGO Forum on Women, held several hours away in Huairou, hosted even more: 30,000-plus delegates.

Anne Tinker, who has served as the director of major international aid organizations, including Save the Children, recalled attending both events in a recent issue of The Optimist magazine. “Delegates were bussed back and forth, and we had very poor accommodations,” she said. “No bathrooms, just holes in the ground, and to get to those, we had to walk through mud and construction under leaky tarps…. Still, that conference was a hotbed for networking. [Then–First Lady] Hillary Clinton spoke, and the World Bank published a report on violence against women that went like hotcakes. At that point, no one had looked at this issue in developing countries.”

Those linked events are recognized as a landmark in the gender-equality movement. But the work continues, Tinker said: “We need another conference, so the next generation of advocates can forge their own alliances and organize for future progress, especially for women in developing countries.”

Clearly conferences like these give those in underserved communities a voice. And that’s the ironic and unfortunate consequence of canceling large events as a form of political protest. It’s a win when the threat of a cancellation leads to a positive turnaround in discriminatory legislation. But when a major event is actually pulled from a destination, the fallout often is felt most deeply by those who lack a voice: hospitality workers who lose shifts when the meeting isn’t there to support them.

Meanwhile, we’re making only slow progress on several social fronts — including gender equity — within the meetings industry itself. We’ve written before about pay inequity among meeting professionals, and a recent story on our website on the underrepresentation of women speakers and panelists at scientific conferences generated a lot of traffic and sharing on social media.

As an agent for social change, the meetings industry has profound power — and a ways to go.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.