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The elephant in the room: gender inequality in the events industry

By Johnny Martinez, Shocklogic

There are many things that as men we take for granted. For centuries, we built a system where men controlled the productive and political arms of society while women educated and looked after the safety of the next generation. The industrial revolution and the propagation of the internet led to ever more women entering the productive apparatus while gaining the right to vote and eventually stand for government office. The fact is that despite all these achievements, we still have a long way to go before we can claim to have provided all the conditions for an equal industry. Male event professionals still ignore the situation of their female counterparts and tend to exclude themselves from uncomfortable but important conversations. These range from appropriate maternity leave and salary conditions to harassment and how unsafe women may feel in specific environments and spaces.

We like to think of meetings and events as a developed industry, for which institutionalized sexism and gender inequality are a thing of the past. The statistics tell us that as much as we’ve seen history change, we still see stories of gender inequality across every single level of the business sector. Women represent over half of the UK population, but less than a third of our MPs. Women now account for 47% of our workforce, a greater proportion than ever before, but statistics imply that men still take up the vast majority of high profile jobs, with only 6% of executive positions in the FTSE 100 held by women.

More concerning than this, is that according to many reports the gender gap across the business sector is now widening again, rather than diminishing. A recent study by the World Economic Forum found the UK has now dropped from the top 20 most gender-equal countries in the world for the first time in our history. The average salary for a woman in the workplace decreased by £2,500 since 2015, and the UK is now behind Bulgaria, Nicaragua and Burundi in the list of those societies where women and men have the most equitable life chances in work, health and education.

However, there are promising prospects for the events industry and this is reflected in how female-dominated this sector tends to be. At most of today’s top agencies and event management companies, women outnumber men 5:2 in junior and senior management teams. The number of women leading event management companies as well as travel and tourism institutions has increased by 40% in the past 3 years. Speaking to over 50 female managers in the industry, at least 98% confirm that they have never felt disadvantaged as women in the event management industry.

Perhaps the question around gender inequality becomes more alarming when we look at harassment and how women are widely more vulnerable to be harassed in the workplace. A recent survey among female event professionals shows that 61% of respondents have encountered inappropriate behaviour since working in the events industry. Of these, 19% mentioned they have experienced inappropriate behaviour within their workplace, 8% whilst travelling on a business trip and 34% working on-site at an event.

Some 95% of the respondents said that they were aware of predatory behaviour within their organisation and at least one male colleague had used their position of power to try to take advantage of them or a colleague.

A particular scandal erupted over a men-only fundraising dinner at the Dorchester in London for the Presidents Club charity that took place on 18 January. An meticulous investigation by the Financial Times revealed that hostesses at the event were groped, sexually harassed and propositioned. All of the women at the charity event were told to wear “skimpy black outfits with matching underwear and high heels” while hostesses reported men repeatedly putting hands up their skirts; one said an attendee had exposed his penis to her during the evening.

The Presidents Club has been a fixed event in London’s social calendar for more than 30 years, but this is for the first time that the activities that take place were properly reported. This seems really unusual, especially for a fundraiser of this kind of scale, which is attended by many British politicians, business leaders and celebrities. The questions raised about the event have only exacerbated the inequality felt in current business environment, where structures of sexual harassment and the institutionalised objectification of women are being torn down at a speed that we have never seen before. Many have questioned the relevance of men-only events and if our industry associations and elected institutions are doing enough to safeguard the wellbeing of women working at events.

I truly believe that both men and women can do more to tackle “the elephant in the room” and actually create solutions that shift the behavioural balance and foment the respect deserved by everyone in this industry.

There are three key takeaways I would like to highlight:

1. Begin the conversation today

Small great steps really do have the power to drive significant change. You just have to take that first step. Whether you work in a large global company or a small start-up, you already have the ability to create awareness about the current gender disparity in the business sector as well as the appropriate conditions that any men or women should expect from their workplace. Make sure you partner with the right people (colleagues, a mentor, the HR department) and then bring leadership into the discussion. It’s important to be prepared to illustrate the issues you plan to address but, more importantly, the proposed solutions, programmes, and initiatives you want to implement in order to shift the conversation to action. Perhaps you can start by voicing discontent at the lack of female representation at leading institutions or even suggest that male counterparts take a pay cut to meet the gap with their female counterparts.

2. Let’s make sure men are always involved in the conversation

Use your instinct and your professional network - both within your organisation and beyond - to connect both women and men who speak for a variety of roles, levels and specialities. There is incredible value in having men and women share their challenges, experiences and professional development in an open forum where there is mutual respect and understanding as well as the desire to transform the status quo. Men should take a much more active role in advocating for equality at work; rather than just a supportive campaigns and initiatives, we should see men at the forefront communications, events and activities. Other men and women will feel even more encouraged to speak up about these issues if they see a diverse collaboration between individuals regardless of member.

3. Learn from successful examples already out there

Look up to individuals and organisations that have created and championed effective programmes which bring about changes for women and minority groups in their organisations. Analyse and identify what initiatives actually worked well and if they had a constructive impact. Then adapt the best features of these initiatives to meet the culture, necessities and goals of your organisation and its community. While gathering information, get people to tell you about their ups and downs as well as their high and lows. This is because building productive and long-lasting initiatives only happens once we learn from all our missteps and disappointments. Generating real change can take time and we must learn from others’ past experiences to create new impactful solutions.