Women in leadership: ‘push further for real change’

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June Sarpong at Cvent connect 2019. June Sarpong at Cvent connect 2019.

Gender equality and women in leadership in the meetings industry is a much-debated topic. Fiona Keating reports on the changes that have taken place so far – and the work still to be done.

The symbolism of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s choice of venue for her election night party in 2016 prompted a wry smile from pundits. The Javits Convention Centre is built entirely out of glass from top to bottom. The outcome of that night was a bitter blow for Clinton, who was unable to break what she called “that highest, hardest glass ceiling” and become the first female president in the United States’ 240-year history.

In the events industry, just 27 per cent of CEOs and managing directors are women and 73 per cent are male, despite 80 per cent of UK students studying event management degrees being female. A report by BCD Meetings and Events in 2018 found that more than 70 per cent of respondents said that ‘traditional bias’ was the major barrier to women’s progress in the sector.

The suggestion is that men still prefer recruiting men. The old boys’ network “definitely” exists, says Dr Kate Dashper, reader in the School of Events, Tourism and Hospitality Management, who has conducted research into the lack of diversity in senior positions in the events industry.

“The industry thrives on networks which do tend to reinforce privilege and benefit those already in positions of power. I am sure people are often not deliberately exclusionary but if you are not already in the right networks it is very difficult to break into them,” she said. “A lot of business, and sharing of job opportunities, is done informally and so this will leave out people who are not already well connected to those in powerful positions.”

The issues

Maternity leave is a matter of contention, perceived as a barrier to professional progression, with 33 per cent of respondents agreeing with this in the BCD report. Increasing initiatives like flexible working and shared parental leave, as well as family-friendly staff benefits such as childcare vouchers, would allow women to build careers around their commitments outside of work.

“Clear and supportive maternity policies are important, and companies can try and ensure women feel valued and included in work practices and initiatives,” Dashper says. “When women do return after maternity leave they will need some extra support to get back into the swing of their roles and flexibility in how and when work is organised is invaluable. General family-friendly environments - things like how work socials are organised for example - also help create an organisation where women feel that they can take maternity leave and still be supported and valued by the company.”

At the Cvent CONNECT Europe conference in October 2019, June Sarpong, the BBC’s director of creative diversity hosted a panel discussion on women in leadership. Drawing upon her own career, Sarpong said: “In my own experience there are many times I have been held back from leadership. There are times when I haven’t even realised I have.

“When you look at the rates at which men progress versus women, it’s quite clear there is a serious disparity. But I never let that stop me. We know it’s not a level playing field. Sadly, the world of work is not equal. But things are a lot better for us than they were for our mothers. Perhaps it takes longer and you develop different skill sets in that process. The obstacles we face and the detours we have had to take are well utilised in management.”

Sarpong believes the way forward is for women to support other women. “Barack Obama has spoken about this in his cabinet – it’s the 3 to 1 rule. If a woman made a point in a meeting, two other women would echo her point. If you are in a position to champion a female leader then you must. You must see it as your duty. If a woman has an idea, make it your mission to ensure that idea is attributed to them.”

One is reminded of former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s quote: “There’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help other women.”

It’s not only female CEOs and MDs who can make a difference. Middle management often decides who gets the contracts, Sarpong says. “If you are a middle manager, make it your mission to award those contracts to diverse suppliers.”

“That’s a really good way of helping to level the playing field. Because the more companies that are run by women or diverse backgrounds the better. Research shows that women tend to hire more women and diverse leaders tend to be more inclusive. It’s an effective way of changing things.”

The solutions

Some headway is being made to address gender inequality in the meetings sector. There are initiatives such as the She Means Business conference at IMEX, and the Fast Forward 15 mentoring programme spearheaded by Faye Sharpe.

Mentoring is an effective mechanism for empowering women and minority groups within leadership. But mentoring and other leadership development programmes can only do so much. What needs to happen is to transform the mindset of those in positions of power at the top.

“Mentoring is really great for empowering individual women to go for higher roles and breakthrough any barriers they may feel or imagine. Having support from senior figures can really empower women,” Dashper says. “At the same time, there is a role for the events media to play as well in celebrating successful and inspiring women and ensuring that women are given the same platform to speak and be showcased as experts as are men.”

Women-only networking groups have sprung up in the UK. In March of last year, the first Eventprofslive Forum celebrated International Women's Day. This was hosted by Kate Bullard, an event manager and co-founder of Eventprofslive networking group and Michelle Rees, Head of Events EMEA GLG (Gerson Lehrman Group). Panellists included Holly Moore of Make Events and Annette Morgan from EY.

However, these women’s networking groups have been met with a mixed response. Some event organisers see this was discrimination against men and have put forward the suggestion of men-only groups to counteract the perceived imbalance.

Sarpong is at pains to point out that this is not just a women-only challenge. “Talking about these issues is important, and these discussions need to include men as well. Emma Watson's speech to the UN is an important reminder that men have a role to play in tackling gender inequality - it is not just a 'women's issue' but one that affects everyone as a fairer and more balanced industry is good for everyone, and helps drive innovation. Companies that have more gender-balanced senior leadership teams perform better so there is a business case for equality as well.”

The Credit Suisse Gender 3000 report showed that the return on equity for companies with women in more than 10 per cent of key positions was 27 per cent better than for those with less than five per cent. The study by the Credit Suisse Research Institute tracked 28,000 executives at 3,000 companies in 40 countries.

Quotas have been suggested as a solution but received a muted response. Only 33 per cent of women and 7 per cent of men polled in the BCD report believed that a quota system would be an appropriate way to try to address this lack of diversity in senior positions.

“I think women do not want to feel, or other people to think, that they are in a position because of their minority status rather than on the basis of their own achievements,” Dashper says.

AccorHotels set a strong example for the rest of the hospitality industry when they established their own gender diversity programme HeForShe. Sebastien Bazin, chairman and CEO of AccorHotels said: "I am strongly convinced that women should be free to realise their career prospects and given the same opportunities as their male peers. As the CEO of AccorHotels, I have the capacity and the duty to push further for real change."

The UN's HeForShe programme aims to ensure that men take a stand for gender equality. Currently, 29 per cent of general manager positions are held by women. AccorHotels commitment is to close the gender pay gap and to achieve the target of 35 per cent of female general managers by 2020.

The Association for Women in Events’ mission is to advance the careers of women in the events industry. Kiki J Fox, AWE’s president is pushing forward with change. “There has been progress and we have to celebrate that,” she says.

The meetings industry needs to reflect the wider community, which includes people of colour, the LGBTQ community as well as those with disabilities.

“More female and diverse panels will have an effect on the industry. The more people see that and make it normal, the more it’s going to reflect on the industry as a whole. Have you reached out to women of colour? Make sure your job boards are frequented by people of colour so we can get more diversity in positions of power. The unconscious bias runs very, very deep. We need to bring awareness to this, so people can adjust and pivot.”

This feature originally appeared on M&IT

Holly Patrick
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Holly Patrick
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A desire to travel led Holly Patrick to the business meetings and events world and she’s never looked back. Holly takes a particular interest in event sustainability and creating a diverse and inclusive industry. When she’s not working, she can be found rolling skating along Brighton seafront listening to an eclectic playlist, featuring the likes of Patti Smith, Sean Paul, and Arooj Aftab.

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