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Breaking down barriers

by EN

Louisa Daley explores what barriers women face in the exhibitions industry and how we all need to collaborate in order to dismantle them.

The important thing to remember about barriers is that there is no ‘one way’ around them. This leaves us with various opportunities to improve the equality in our industry not only for women, but for every event professional.

EN presented a new episode from its Women in Exhibitions webinar: ‘Dismantling Barriers’ on 5 October, which was moderated by Mash Mediaeditorial director, Martin Fullard.

The webinar introduced both male and female event professionals who highlighted the barriers which prevent women from creating successful careers in the exhibitions industry and what must change to help them enjoy a better work environment.

The panellists included Ruth Carter, director of Red Fox Advisory, Lisa Hannant, group managing director of Clarion Events, Simon Foster, international CEO and business leader, Trixie LohMirmand, executive vice president of Dubai World Trade Center and Mary Larkin, president of Diversified Communications USA.

When we think of barriers, we often picture them as obstacles ahead of us which block our progress. However, Carter highlights that barriers can be all around us, particularly for women in exhibitions, and encourages eventprofs to look “upwards, downwards and sideways” to successfully dismantle all  barriers in sight.

Firstly, this means looking up at your company to ensure they aren’t using “unconscious bias” and looking down at your colleagues to make sure everyone is being “rewarded fairly and has access to equal opportunities”.

When looking sideways, “don’t assume you are being blocked because of your gender” says Carter, even though this often is a contributing factor. Instead, consider other factors first which are in your control to help you dismantle or work around the barrier, such as changing your environment or enhancing your skillset. “We must remember that barriers for parity in our industry isn’t exclusive to women,” shares Foster.

Businesses need to take a holistic stance and strive for a “culture of inclusion” in all areas, such as race, sexual orientation and age, agrees Hannant and LohMirmand. By including this range of viewpoints and experiences, you will not only achieve “good business outcomes” as Hannant suggests, but you will also build “better teams, better businesses and better cultures,” says Foster.

Like other professionals in many industries, the panellists have experienced these types of barriers during their careers. From candidates not wanting to report to a female manager, to women having to choose between work and family and being apologetic when they have to choose the latter.

Even when women do break down barriers and become the first female president of a company, like Larkin, they can simply be seen as a “token”.

She stresses that “the more comfortable people become with seeing women in the industry going to the top, the better for everybody.” Larkin adds that it is not the first female or the second, it is the fourth and fifth, which will finally break down these barriers.

It is important to remember that “dismantling barriers is about working together,” says Foster. “Not only as males or females, but as groups, leaders, and teams to make sure there is parity in everything we do,” he adds.

So what positive action can we take?

Try simple things like introducing blind CVs to remove the unconscious bias during your recruitment process. Have an open dialogue with your employees about flexible working patterns, such as shared parental leave or part-time hours to accommodate for a healthy work-life balance. This way, your employees won’t have to put a pause on their career or miss out on big family moments.

Next, promote more women into leadership positions, as “leadership defines it all,” LohMirmand and Hannant suggests.

Leadership should be about mentoring and sharing powerful stories where women are successful to ensure it will become “entrenched in the culture and part of your company’s DNA,” says LohMirmand.

Female leaders can also encourage other women to speak up and help increase their visibility in meetings, which often have a “laddish culture”, states Carter and Foster.

This will ultimately ensure women feel more confident in the work environment, whilst feeling seen and heard.

Remember, there is only one way to change the number of people at the table and that is to change the number of people at the table, states Foster. So take a look at your leadership positions and ensure there is an equitable male to female ratio.

Over to you.  What action can female eventprofs both future and present take?

The panellists encourage women to take every opportunity that is presented to them.

“Be brave and authentic,” they say. This means saying yes to panel discussions, showing interest in promotions and expanding your network.

However, Foster emphasises that being brave doesn’t necessarily mean shouting about it or adapting to laddish culture. It is about taking a step back from this environment, putting yourself forward and choosing an appropriate time to do so.

Try speaking to your boss in your annual review and ask what skills you need to build on to achieve that next promotion.

If you “take responsibility, be proactive, don’t apologise and put yourself in the driving seat,” as Carter says, you will be sure to break down any barrier that stands in your way.

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