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The balancing act

by Nicola Macdonald

In January 2019, EN gathered a group of senior female organisers for a breakfast roundtable at Camm & Hooper’s Six Storeys to discuss gender equality and equal opportunity in the exhibition industry. Here’s what we found out…

For over a year the #MeToo movement has been making headlines around the world. In addition to shedding a somewhat unsavoury spotlight on some high profile individuals in the world of pop culture, it also became a shorthand for looking at gender issues in a wide range of contexts.

Most forward-thinking business leaders have a strong awareness of the gender balance, and the gender pay balance, in their workforce, but how can an industry as a whole work to improve its diversity and gender balance?

One answer is clearly through its industry press, and while EN works to try and feature a diverse range of individuals each month, on the whole we still have some way to go in achieving gender-balanced coverage.

Another is through industry associations, and while things are certainly moving in the right direction, the leadership of the exhibition industry associations still sees an imbalance in terms of gender, with one woman on the 12-person ESSA board, five on the 14-person AEV board and five on the 20-person AEO council.

To gauge the opinion of just a small subset of our industry, EN invited some senior female organisers to discuss the topic of gender and diversity in the world of exhibitions, along with their personal experiences.

First, the conversation turned to the attendees’ experiences as young women growing up in events.

“I’ve realised, looking back, that my personal career experience and mental health have been impacted by some leaders’ decisions that have been under researched or ill-advised, forced through by arrogance or gone unchallenged,” says Alex Jones, marketing director at CloserStill. “I think as people we often struggle to challenge in a positive way. That was definitely the case with myself and I had to learn the hard way that a two-way conversation is okay, no matter the seniority or gender of the person you are discussing things with.

“At CloserStill there’s a collective group of women, and indeed men, with similar experiences and we’ve been able to talk about it in a really positive manner. It’s important to be able to make sure that the younger women, and men, coming through have a voice and that they can say ‘that doesn’t seem right’, and are given a platform and encouraged to talk openly.”

Haf Cennydd, MD of GovNet Exhibitions, reflected on a gender-based incident early in her career that threatened to impact on her ability to bond with male colleagues, saying: “I remember someone asking me if I’d slept with my boss to get my job, because we got on.

“That really, genuinely upset me; it hit me like a hammer that someone would think I was in that position for that reason. It almost made me want to pull back from building relationships with my male colleagues. But then I thought ‘sod this, I’m here because I’m good, I’m not here because I’m a female’.

“I’ve seen a huge change in the industry, compared to how I was treated as a junior by some very senior men, who should have known better. I haven’t witnessed those kinds of behaviours in the last five to 10 years. They still exist, but there are also women who behave in those ways. If we’re all aware of unconscious bias then it makes life a lot easier. I don’t feel today there’s such a stigma attached to whether you’re a male or female in a role.”

Lydia Matthews, group head of content at ITE Group, agreed: “There are personality traits that get people to where they are, whether they’re male or female. With younger women in the business they’re already coming into the business with a different viewpoint – it’s how you take them and coach them through that journey. I think the male/female divide is a conversation, but it becomes more and more down to the individual and how you can develop people”

Ruth Carter, MD of Telegraph Events, recalled learning the offside rule to enable her to participate in conversations in meetings where she was the only woman, adding: “The flip side now is that if you listen to the conversations you’re having around the boardroom, or with your teams, the conversation has gone the other way, It’s not about revenge or retribution, it’s about balance.

“The gender pay gap at Telegraph Events is pretty damn good, but one of the big challenges I’m seeing, because we’re quite female dominated, is that if you had a chap that put up a girly calendar we’d be on him in a shot, but I had a lady put up a chippendales-style calendar and she was really surprised when I asked her to take it down.”

A strong theme that emerged from the discussion was finding a balance in the workplace and in the wider industry. While sales might be a role typically filled by men, and which should be aiming to being more women into the fold, the inverse is true with the historically female ops roles.

The topic of balance led on to a discussion around quotas – always a subject which prompts strong reactions. The research by international exhibition association UFI on women in the industry found that an intriguing 49 per cent of respondents (who were predominantly but not entirely female) were in favour of female quotas for boards.

Naomi Barton, portfolio director – Revo Media at Clarion, commented: Three of us in this room were lucky enough to be part of a company [Ascential] that for the FTSE 350 had the top percentage of women on boards, and that was a really strong agenda that they pushed.”

In 2016, Ascential took part in the Hampton-Alexander review, which aimed to see British business drive to improve further the number of women in senior leadership positions.

The review had a stated aim that a third of all FTSE 100 leadership roles to be occupied by women by the end of 2020, up from 25 per cent in 2016. Ascential was highlighted in the November 2016 review as ‘leading the way’, with 57.1 per cent women on its plc board, the highest at the time in the FTSE 350.

“Some of the environments I’ve been in have been very inclusive, very focused on that diversity and inclusion piece and in the last few years there have been huge leaps forward,” continued Barton.

Emily Challis, portfolio event manager at Fresh Montgomery, commented: “If quotas can help get you to a balanced place then that is a good thing. I don’t think the principle of a quota is a good thing – to be putting women on a board just to have women on a board – but if that’s what it needs and there’s no other way to get women to the table, then I think quotas are the right thing to do.”

Upper Street Events CEO Julie Harris added: “I’m all for balance, and it is important to make sure we don’t go the other way. My approach is mentoring and support, as opposed to slamming the table.

“You have to have the right support systems in place to allow women to rise to the top. I sit on three boards and I would hate to think that I’m on those boards because I’m a woman, and that I’m a quota. It’s not my experience on any boards I have been on that the men who are there are there due to nepotism.

“Coming in [to the exhibition industry] as a CEO, a huge number of my peer group are men and being on the AEO board, most of the council are also men. The first people to call me were my male peer group I have had the most amazing support, which hasn’t been the same in every other industry I’ve been in.”

No men allowed

A perhaps surprising general consensus from the group was that ‘women only’ groups are rarely the way forward (which made EN suddenly conscious that we hadn’t invited any men to join the discussion).

Jones mentioned that CloserStill regularly holds ‘women in CloserStill’ lunches.

“I think people may have thought it stemmed from the #MeToo movement’ which of course it didn’t,” she reflected. “It was simply about having a group of smart women who happen to like and want to support each other and wanted to think about the future of the business and everyone in it, now and for anyone that joins us as we go through the next exciting period of growth.”

Carter commented: “I’m not sure how I feel about having a group like ‘women in CloserStill’, ‘women at Telegraph’ etc., can you imagine if there was a similar group of men? I think we have to be really careful.”

Debra Ward, MD of Camm & Hooper, mentioned that she had chaired three, ‘women in x’-style groups but had tried to have around 20 per cent of the group by male, adding: “The reason to do it is to give women confidence and to make them feel safe about airing their concerns. Over 20 per cent would change the dynamic, but without it then we’re not as rich.”

Lori Hoinkes, MD of Fresh Montgomery, agreed: “I struggle with the idea of the woman only groups too, it feels like a double standard. There really is no issue at Montgomery; when you look at our pay gap the women are making slightly more than the men because the majority of senior roles are held by woman. We’re in a good position.

“I do, however, still find some of the more junior women who are coming up through the organisation lack the confidence of their male counterparts, despite their strengths and abilities. There’s an issue of self-confidence that needs to be supported.”

“Women seek reassurance much more than men,” added Corina Hedley, group event operations director at ITE Group. “I’ve talked a lot about imposter syndrome. Certainly for younger team members it’s about reassuring them to be strong and be themselves. Operations is predominantly women and I actually do have to be mindful to try and have a mix, and make sure that men are given opportunities and are coming through. I love the idea of including 20 per cent men in a women’s network because a lot of companies do have these women only groups, and they are great, but we do need to be mindful of the male perspective.”

Family first

Naturally, the topic of family and maternity leave was part of the conversation.

“Coming into Upper Street, what really struck me was the challenges for women, particularly those who are coming back from maternity leave and who have got kids,” commented Harris. “Being offsite, being away from home, needing flexible working and support and mentoring – this is a particularly heavily operational business, where you are away from home, you work late nights and in the run up to a show it’s 24-7. It’s important to make sure that we support women practically, as well as emotionally.

Barton added: “I took the role of portfolio director on a very large UK trade event when I had a six year-old and two year-old twins. I had been in the Middle East for seven years.

“I witnessed people coming back from maternity leave and just looking completely overwhelmed.”

She added that it was fantastic that having a young family didn’t stop her from being hired and thriving in the role.

Carter revealed that The Telegraph, including Telegraph Events, has just introduced six month paternity leave with the aim of supporting women in the workplace as well as giving men time with their young families.

“For men who take that it will help them understand about the return” she added. “When I had my son, I reckon I was promoted six months later than I would have been. But, you know what, I don’t have a problem with that because I wasn’t there.

“I wasn’t there and, also, they don’t know what my head’s going to do. Whether it’s a man or a woman you have no idea how your head is going to play out once you have a family. I don’t mind it being delayed. I think this will help men get that understanding.

While our discussion sadly had to come to an end, EN hopes this is just a small part of the ongoing industry-wide reflection on diversity and gender equality.

What do you think event profs? How should the conversation around women in the industry continue? Email editor Nicola Macdonald at nmacdonald@mashmedia.net.

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