DEI Special Interest Group call recap: Facilitating discussions around DEI

The Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement’s Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion special interest group organises a series of interactive seminars on issues facing community managers who want to build equitable and diverse cultures in their communities and networks.

This guest blog post, written by Kate Baker and Emily Lescak, recaps the group’s 27 April 2021 seminar, in which 55 people from a range of countries discussed challenges and good practices in facilitating conversations around DEI. 

The event consisted of a panel discussion, chaired by  Janice McNamara, with panelists  Arne Bakker, Yanina Bellini Saibene, Angie Bamgbose, and Vanessa Boon. The discussion was followed by a breakout session to explore the topics in more depth. Here is an overview of the questions discussed.

1. Should online events provide live captioning? Transcripts can be saved by the attendees, which may make people feel unsafe to speak their mind.

 All of the panelists agreed that the benefits of inclusivity outweigh the cost of privacy. It is possible to create a safe space while using live captioning  by ensuring the availability of clear community guidelines, as well as asking facilitators to explain the extent and importance of meeting confidentiality. The benefits of live captioning are not just for those who are hearing impaired; it also helps non-native speakers to follow the conversation. If funding allows, live captioning (by a trained individual or subject-matter expert) is generally of higher quality to AI-generated captioning, which is prone to error when dealing with technical terms or accented speech. 

2. Are there learnings we can take from the past year of online facilitation that can be used to make in-person events more inclusive?  

Yes! Some of the examples we discussed include: 

  • Recruit a diverse team of organisers (countries, disabilities, backgrounds, areas of expertise) and ensure that each has a specific role; 
  • Send pre-recorded abstracts in attendee or speaker’s native language; 
  • Ask registrants in advance if they request any accommodations (e.g., closed captioning, translation, interpretation);
  • Organise hybrid events so people can attend online if attending in person is prevented by, e.g., visa issues, costs of travels, care responsibilities, career stages, etc.;
  • Continue the culture of displaying pronouns at in-person events on name tags, for example; 
  • Ensure there are various channels for participation during in-person events (e.g., during online events there are whiteboard, chat, non-verbal participation (inclusive of persons on the autism spectrum).

3. Is it important for the facilitator to have the same background as the group they are facilitating? In other words, is it better/easier for the group if the facilitator “looks like me or is like me?” 

Common experiences or/and identities can help to create a safer space. However, the skills and expertise of facilitators (e.g., someone who understands power dynamics) is more important than being similar to participants. It is important to be open about biases at the beginning of the discussion, and to be thoughtful about building up the trust and confidence of and between group members. The panelists noted to speak for yourself, and don’t speak for others. 

4. What vocabulary is hindering progress and which terms offer us meaningful language for inclusion? And, how does this vary across cultures / languages / countries? 

As facilitators, we shouldn’t let fear of using the wrong word prevent us from facilitating, and instead use language as a learning experience. It is important to have the right intentions and encourage feedback to improve our vocabulary. It is important to be specific about language (e.g., majority/minority vs. marginalised in this specific context) and avoid using acronyms (e.g., BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic), which can be dehumanizing because it pools all other than white, potentially hiding the underrepresentation of specific identities). Some languages, including Spanish, are very gendered (no neutral pronouns), making it difficult to include non-binary people. However, it is possible to create new terms (word endings) to accommodate this. 

5. How do you react as a facilitator when something inappropriate is said? 

As facilitator, you should not be accusatory. A person might not know the remarks they made are inappropriate. By using non-violent communication, for example “when you said this, I felt this, what did you mean?”, you can create a safe space for learning. One top tip was to refer to specific community guidelines at the beginning of a meeting to set the tone, and then refer to it as and when it needs enforcing (and enforcement is critical to the efficacy of such guidelines). 

6. How can you de-escalate tension around topics related to DEI? 

The panelists discussed how it is useful to have some stock phrases ready in your toolkit, as sometimes these comments come as a sudden surprise and can have an emotional impact on both you as facilitator and other participants in the room.  It is important to help people learn by being clear, for example,  “what makes you say that?” or “how would you re-frame that with deep compassion?” or “how would you explain this to a nine year old?” 

If you have suggestions for additional topics you would like our special interest group to cover, you are welcome to message us on Slack or join the #diversity_equity_inclusion_sig channel. If you’re not already a member of the CSCCE community of practice, you can request to join here

This event was organised by Emily Lescak (Code for Science & Society) and Kate Baker (University of Exeter)


These resources were shared by panelists and participants in the call. It is not intended to be an exhaustive collection of resources on this topic.

Podcast: White Women as Gatekeepers

Panel: Supporting Diversity in the R Community

Article: Scientific Meetings for All

Essay: Responses to 10 Common Criticisms of Anti-Racism Action in STEM

Resource list: Anti-Racism Resource Roundup

Blog post: Walking the Talk is the Only Way

Blog series: Rosalind’s Classroom Conversations


Resource guide: How to build community at scientific events