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The BVOM is Greater for Women and All of Us with more Diverse, Accessible Events

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Having spent over a decade attending, designing and speaking at conferences, I feel a part of the conference space. I can’t say that I have always felt I belonged. Even now, I know I am treated differently.

At a recent tech conference where I was presenting, a man asked me if I was attending to watch. When I told him I was a presenter, he patted me reassuringly on the shoulder and told me I was “very brave.” As a 47-year-old woman, I felt reduced from “woman” to “girl.” Of course, I was only one female in a group of 10 male presenters—and the audience fitted the same profile—but it was this unconscious bias that perhaps upset me most. It made me feel I had something to fear—after all, I was being “brave”—and most of all it made me certain I wouldn’t come back next time.

Imagine that. Imagine the lost opportunity of only appealing to half a potential audience, or putting off hard-won customer—all because you fail to create a comfortable space for women (and indeed other communities). There is a strong business case for maximizing appeal of conferences to all people, but the way to do that is to really examine and address both obvious and hidden barriers.

Increasing the presence, influence, engagement and participation of women at conferences cannot be resolved by simply changing who is on stage.

I decided to ask Dr. Kate Dashper, an expert in gender and events who has spent more than 10 years looking at the role of women in events. I asked her to join me for a curry and a chat about how conferences can become more female-friendly. Luckily it is a word, rather than a spicy bhaji, that sticks in her throat at the start of our conversation—the word “conference.”

“‘Conference’ belongs to a group of words like ‘expert’ that become masculinized by the way they are perceived,” she said.

You will be relieved to know that we agree that changing the words is not the answer. The answer is reclaiming and redefining these words and spaces.

“I was at a conference where a [male] speaker was claiming to be an expert. He was basing his expert status on three years’ experience,” Dashper said. “As a woman I would be uncomfortable making such a claim, and I think that is a general problem which comes down to confidence. Women tend to claim less and be more self-effacing. Women are far less likely to refer to or even recognize themselves as experts. If they do claim it, they will likely diminish the status—joke with it in the next sentence.”

Dashper’s work researching women leaders and in HR has shown that many women lack the confidence to feel they can even question or negotiate with an “expert,” let alone be one. So a conference is a world of “experts,” “chairs” and “questioning authority,” and as such can feel like a non-friendly space. But there are ways to reduce the barriers.

“Technology is a big help and can gather a greater number of questions from the audience,” Dashper said.

For a non-tech solution, ask groups to discuss and formulate questions together to increase group confidence. And it isn’t just women that will be helped by this—it will help shy people, new attendees, minority groups and more.

Dashper believes even conference badges can be problematic.

“In the nature of the inequities in the workplace, women may be defined in conference terms as non-decisionmakers, and as a result can be excluded from networking or simply not treated the same as men,” she said. “In observations you can see unconscious bias in exhibition stands—women being approached less often than men. Assumptions are made and the badges don’t help.”

Visual cues to promote the conference or in the physical environment are very influential. Stock photography of masculine hands with cufflinked shirt sleeves symbolize this is a place for man-to-man transactions. The social media sharing of the all-male keynotes (one just arrived a couple of days ago in my inbox—how lovely) communicates that this is a male space. And don’t get us started on the conferences hosted with a golf day thrown in. Yes, women play golf, but golf is not often a place where men and women play together. Enabling men and women to feel part of one space and one event will secure better outcomes for all attendees. So here are a few conference-friendly tips.

  • Look at the bios of the speakers. Are there notable differences on how genders describe themselves?

  • Rather than relying on name badges with job titles or even company names, can you simply use first names or ask the attendees to describe their biggest bugbears, top motivation or favorite coffee? Beyond gender, this would help minorities, newbies and indeed all attendees to enter the space on a level playing field.

  • Use technology or group discussions to help all attendees question the experts—it is a good way to ensure all attendees get the value of the session.

The Conference Fashion Killer

Typically, men wear suits. Suits convey power, and aside from wearing trouser suits, women do not have anything near as powerful in their fashion armory. Dress codes are defined by male clothing. This morning I received an invite to a “black-tie” event—so now what? I haven’t got a black tie; this is a male dress code. What this means for me is anything from party dress to long gown. Alongside the relative ease of male clothing, men wear FLAT SHOES.

“Men’s outfits make it easy to move and walk around, to stand and network, to sit on stage,” Dashper says. “Sitting on high stools next to poseur tables, clipping on mics, storing business cards...”

I have had my heel wedge into a stage. I have had to clamber onto high stools more times than I like to remember. I have had to clip a sound kit onto my bra. At a trade show I cried as I left the long corridor out of the expo for a taxi due to my killer heels. And before you say it, as a short woman, I felt heels were my only option to read the name badges!

Trivial (and funny) as this all may seem, addressing fashion choices is a planner’s consideration. Asking people to stand for a few hours to network assumes everyone is in flat shoes. And one more thing: Women often carry handbags, so balancing a plate of food, holding a glass, carrying a handbag and networking do not mix—so what do we see? Both Dashper and I recall the frequent sight of men moving around talking in groups, women clustering around smaller tables trying to eat quickly so they can then network. The result: They miss the early and most productive parts of the networking and are doomed to hanging on to the conversations at the end of a break.

So our tips:

  • Think dress codes—tell everyone NOT to wear suits.

  • Have different mic options for speakers for beltless and pocket-less outfits.

  • Make sure that networking can mean moving between seats rather than standing or perching on stools.

  • Include gel pads for sore feet in the delegate packs or order a few Segways!

  • Serve a buffet at tables so you create more mixed networking clusters.

  • Get rubber rings for plates so attendees can hold glasses and plates in one hand (as much of a miracle as the hover board, IMHO).

Networking Nightmares

At a conference you expect women to ask questions in a loud voice in public. You ask us to walk into a room and mix with people we don’t know. Worse still, you ask us to do this while balancing a plate of canapés. And if the people serving drinks or the promo staff are in leotards (and assuming it isn’t a dance or gymnastics conference), this does not generally help us to feel we belong as actual business participants. So how can we make networking more comfortable?

  • Provide pre-conference introductions to help warm up interactions and confidence.

  • Enable us to book chats so we can plan.

  • Use structured networking to break down barriers for all.

  • Consider serving and exhibitor staff attire—is this appropriate, will it convey positive messages about your event, is it right for business?

  • Provide a buddy system so conference veterans make it their job to get people to mix.

Welcome the Whole Person

The reality for many women is that family is a part of their life, and they are typically the main caregiver. The problem is that conferences mean travel away and meaningful networking can often happen late into the evening. Or conferences may start with breakfast meetings at 7 a.m. Family time, family life and relationships are important for men and women.

“Conferences like work places should not ignore the real challenges faced to get the balance right,” Dashper says. “Consider whether meaningful networking events can be placed into the core of normal working hours rather than later. If the core outcome for people is new contacts, make sure it happens in the core of the day.”

If conferences last longer than a day, enable people to have personal space and provide longer breaks during events for contacting home and business. Maybe even supply “keep in touch” areas or “parent pods” for people to have private conversations with loved ones even when they are away.

Acknowledging that people have lives outside your event means that you support the whole participant at the event, and not just the businessperson. Whole people tend to make better relationships than people who are only half present. And if you are asking people to spend two to three days with you, why not offer childcare facilities? How about the pregnant delegates and pregnant prime ministers? The breastfeeding businesswomen? So, a few more tips.

  • Consider the timing of activities so you are not unconsciously removing opportunities from women, and indeed all parents, by programming OUT their family time.

  • Provide parent/keep-in-touch pods so people can connect with their personal lives.

  • Offer childcare and breastfeeding facilities.

To Finish

As our curry platter reached its end, we looked back at our recommendations and two things stood out. One is that women are not the only under-represented group in conferences—the industry has to reach out to people of diverse religions, races and abilities as well as women. The second thing is that all of the recommendations make for better design for everybody. With more diverse, open, friendly, accessible, personal and professional conferences, the business value of meetings could be greater for us all. If meetings really can change the world as we so often claim, then the last thing we should be doing as planners is maintaining the status quo.

SIDEBAR

MPI’s Inclusion-Focused Plans

New education and resources to be developed by MPI will help meeting planners design more inclusive experiences. As part of this initiative, the association is collaborating with the NYU School of Professional Studies (NYUSPS) Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality to conduct a research study that will examine tactics that can be utilized to make all attendees feel welcome through inclusive event design.

MPI will present the findings at the MPI 2018 Thought Leaders Summit in November. The association will collect feedback from industry leaders and senior-level meeting planners during the summit, and their insights will then be used to influence development of the MPI Academy’s Inclusive Experience Strategist Certificate Program, scheduled to launch in the first quarter of 2019.


About the Author

Jackie Mulligan
Jackie Mulligan

Jackie has been involved with MPI for many years as a researcher, speaker and chapter leader. She led her own doctoral research on the role of meetings in stimulating creativity, examining design, experience and meeting outcomes. She co-owns and directs events for Game Republic, and her startup ShopAppy.com is a digital platform for independent retailers and franchises to boost local economies and communities. Contact her at jackie@shopappy.com