Pale, male and stale? Designing a diverse panel of speakers

5 things I learned last month

Sarah Tulej
4 min readDec 22, 2020

For the first time, to my glee, I got the opportunity to choose a panel of speakers for an event about sustainable fashion. I can count on one hand the number of times panel events in my line of work (corporate sustainability) were not completely white, and often very male. About five years ago I was at a corporate event and the first panel was wholly male, white and middle aged. As soon as questions were invited I stuck up my hand, heart pounding, and asked why this was the case. The panel chair stuttered and mumbled something about it being quite hard to find (non white male) speakers. Utter bollocks!

What I hadn’t expected was that so many women would approach me in the break and thank me for saying something that they were also thinking. So I was keen to see how I could go about recruiting a diverse line up, now I finally had the opportunity.

Before I go into it though, there is plenty you can do without needing to be the event designer:

  1. If you see a very undiverse lineup at an event, write to the organisers and ask them to do better
  2. If you are invited to be a speaker, consider whether you are the right person or whether someone whose voice is less often heard should be offered the opportunity instead
  3. If you are a speaker, work with the organisers to find diverse speakers

And now, here are some of my tips if you find yourself organising an event yourself:

Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash (when I searched for ‘panel discussion’ 😫)

1. Discuss expectations with the budget holder

I was very keen that topics like racism in the fashion industry, and the problems related to fast fashion companies being owned by billionaires, were able to be discussed freely. I made sure to clarify this with the budget holder so that I could then ensure that the panellists could openly discuss issues that often get skirted around as they are deemed too controversial. The next priority to discuss with the budget holder is…

2. Pay the speakers

Particularly if you want people from marginalised backgrounds or working outside mainstream organisations, paying for people’s time is a must. Very often activists, for example, are expected to speak for free because it will give them ‘exposure’ or because the people organising the event simply don’t understand that they can’t afford to work for free. This was something I ensured was available before taking on the role of chairing the event. If I could do it again, I’d do more research on what would be considered a fair rate, given the event was being put on by a large corporation.

3. Give yourself enough time

It takes time to find people and give them enough time to accept and then prepare for an event. Since the default recommendations you will get are unlikely to be very diverse, you’re going to need more time to do research potential speakers, ask others for ideas, before you can even start inviting people.

4. Ask your network for ideas

I could think of a few speakers that fitted what I was looking for — people doing innovative work in fashion sustainability that were diverse in terms of ethnicity, class or gender, particularly given that the issues affecting textile and garment workers. However I needed a good list to be able to find a panel in a fairly short window of time. Not expecting much, I asked for suggestions on LinkedIn.

To my surprise, I got about 50 comments with some great ideas. But even so, most of the suggestions were white women. Be aware that if your network is pretty homogenous (which mine still is), so will be many of the suggestions. To tackle this, over the longer term, look to connect with people from different backgrounds so that your network becomes richer.

52 comments — this doesn’t usually happen to my LinkedIn posts!

5. Involve the speakers in designing the questions

I spoke to each of the three speakers in advance so that we could get to know each other, ask questions about the event and suggest things that I could ask them about. This led to a much richer discussion because the panellists had the opportunity to talk about things they have deep knowledge on, such as the ways in which garment workers have been left destitute as companies cancelled and refused to pay for orders during Covid.

When designing events, particularly more complex ones than a traditional panel discussion, taking the power dynamics into account (and challenging them) is even more important. I am aware that these tips aren’t going to fundamentally change the system, BUT that they provide an entry point for people who are starting out thinking about diversity and power.

What have I left out? What else can people in positions of influence do to ensure more diverse voices are leading the dialogue about sustainability? Let me know what you think…

Here are some places to find diverse voices on:



Sarah Tulej

Northerner living in Rotterdam via East London. 🎉 Intersectional environmentalist, photo snapper, charity shopper 🌱