Cathy Breden, CAE, CMP, never aspired to work in the C-suite, let alone rise to executive vice president and chief operation officer of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events. Rather, she focused on being a professional while raising a family. In her case, that meant going back to work six weeks after the birth of her son a quarter-century ago. She was soon on the road for a two-week business trip, relying on her husband to care for their newborn.
Over time, she was given an opportunity to demonstrate her skills in a business environment that rewarded achievement. The fact Breden feels she did nothing exceptional to move up the ranks in the meetings and events industry is perhaps what makes her story so compelling. It’s true she had a supportive husband and mentors along the way, but few professionals achieve success without assistance. Her work, she says, did the talking—and her bosses were listening.
Breden remains an exception in a culture that tilts heavily in men’s favor. A 2014 study by the Center for American Progress found that American females make up only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. The challenges extend to industries, companies and positions of all kinds, including the highest office in the land: the presidency, referred to by Hillary Clinton as the “highest, hardest glass ceiling.”
“I don’t think society has caught up,” says Breden of the gender gap. “There is still an old boys’ network, and I think women are tired of having to navigate that.”
In the meetings and events industry, which is predominantly comprised of women except at the top of the ladder, the issue is particularly noticeable, and frustration is mounting.
“It drives me crazy, without question,” says Shelley Williams, Caesars Entertainment director of sales for the Eastern region, of the glass ceiling. “But I don’t think it is ever going away.”
NO EASY ANSWER
It’s easy to say a glass ceiling still exists, although the topic remains complex. Even when women reach executive status, their salaries often don’t match those of their male counterparts. Few would argue it’s a coincidence, but how we’ve gotten there is a matter of some debate—as is whether men and women will ever have equal footing in the business world.
Williams is not alone in being a pessimist, but there are voices of optimism as well. In interviews with five successful and influential female members of the meetings industry, the issue became so emotional that these otherwise well-spoken, outgoing personalities sometimes struggled to articulate their feelings. The conversations diverged into related topics like work-life balance, child care, work environments, seizing opportunities and basic human nature.
“Our industry is dominated by women, but if you look at leadership, it is still very male-dominated. So, there’s obviously something going on there,” says Carina Bauer, CEO of IMEX Group.
Call it sexism or a less controversial term, but the implication is the people in position to effect change—most often men—are reticent to promote women to the highest positions.
A dissenting voice comes from Angela Xavier, InterContinental Hotels Group’s vice president of American sales, who says attitude is everything. She is equally comfortable walking into a room filled with men as one with women.
“I come from a family with two brothers,” says Xavier. “Even now, I have two sons, a male dog and a husband. I’ve been sitting in a room with men from early on and I’ve never felt like I don’t belong there. My experience is the glass ceiling tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
There is another theory espoused by Lorie Tuma, a longtime academic focused on hospitality and tourism. Tuma says women are responsible for keeping members of their gender down. “Some women don’t believe there is enough success to go around, and that unfortunately creates this environment of competiveness,” she says.
Is any one correct? Or all of them? The answer depends—on your employers, experience, lifestyle choices and myriad other factors. There is no simple answer to this complicated, and perhaps most-pressing, issue in the work place.
IS IT WORTH IT?
It’s impossible to ignore child care when discussing the disparity between men and women in the workplace. The United States lags far behind the rest of the world on parental leave. Companies are not obliged to offer paid time to either new mothers or fathers, and many do not as a result.
This requires parents to pay for day care—as expensive as private higher education in many metropolitan areas—or hire a nanny or au pair, pricey propositions as well. At the very least, being a working parent requires a juggling act of time and resources. That goes for mothers and fathers attempting to maintain a healthy work-life balance. It does not end at infancy either, as parents try to remain as involved as possible in their children’s lives. Taking on more responsibilities at work can mean less time at home.
“I think what happens for people is it gets tougher to advance in their career and make tough decisions around trade-offs,” says Xavier. “It’s probably been perceived over time that those trade-offs are easier to digest for men than women.”
That hasn’t been a big problem for Xavier, who takes what she calls a “one-life approach.” “I don’t try to have a separate personal life from my professional life. I do everything I can to blend them,” she says. “When I first started in the business, I remember my mother saying nobody should work this much.”
Xavier is fortunate to be in a position where she dictates her hours (she may work 16 hours one day but take the next off to be with her family, or allow her family to enjoy a property’s amenities while she finishes business). She also praises IHG’s philosophy of including spouses and family at holiday events and celebrations, and Xavier will take photos and write notes to spouses unable to attend so they see their loved one being recognized.
While that appears to be a winning formula at one organization, it may not work for everybody, as IAEE has found in organizing its Women’s Leadership Forum the past three years. Through feedback and surveys, a majority of the 125 attendees said they were not interested in advice for moving up the corporate ladder. Instead, the next generation of workers preferred discussions on building a brand and developing a healthy separation between work and home. “That was a huge aha moment to me,” says Breden.
Bauer, part of the IAEE event, understands the dilemma. “People do question whether it’s worth it,” she says. “It’s a good question to ask yourself.”
STATE OF NATURE
Nevertheless, IAEE is one of several organizations that hold meetings geared toward helping women earn promotions.
Williams says the key for women to get ahead is to seize opportunities, some unexpected. That can mean contributing a key comment in an important board meeting or accepting blame to spare another co-worker.
“You need to be OK failing in front of other people,” says Williams. “People need to realize this is your time to risk your reputation to make your mark and gain their trust.”
That can be difficult for young professionals trying to break through in a group that’s worked together for years. Bauer suggests getting involved in group chapters, organization committees and volunteer activities to find your niche.
“I’ve found people in our industry often don’t mean to be intimidating,” she says. “They are open-minded and willing to work with you if you are professional, work hard and get things done.”
As with anything, it’s important to understand how others operate. Studies show females are usually more collaborative and open-minded—traits that often lead to better results—than males, but sometimes those skills don’t translate in informal settings where business is done. Williams says the stereotype of men doing business on the golf course holds true, as does the camaraderie that brings.
“Men network very differently,” notes Breden. “They support one another. If they know of a job they want, they call a buddy up. Women are less inclined to do that. They do it more on their own.”
Is that human nature or a learned behavior? That’s a question posed by Tuma, a faculty member at MPI. Women, she argues, are territorial by nature. In some respects, that trait is a strength. It encourages self-empowerment and pride. Tuma says the downside is there’s a fear of limited spots to be promoted into, and as multiple generations of females are part of the workforce currently, it’s difficult for each age group to connect.
“If I’m territorial by nature, competitive because I think there is only so much success to go around and have limited work experience, how can I relate, endorse, support and applaud another woman when she attempts to move up in her career?” poses Tuma, who has researched hundreds of women. “That’s where they are, generally speaking. You can’t possibly come to a different conclusion than there is a glass ceiling.”
A dangerous byproduct is bullying, notes Tuma, who left a tenured track position (“my dream job”) because the work environment was so toxic. Social media has replaced whispering at the watercooler, amplifying its effect, she adds.
“I believe bullying in the workplace is as important as sexual harassment and discrimination,” says Tuma. “It needs to be brought into the open."
“We have a responsibility to talk to our daughters and nieces about it. There is nothing honorable about making a work environment as miserable as possible so someone leaves. This needs to be eradicated.”
LET THERE BE LIGHT
In the seven years since Clinton’s famous speech, it’s fair to ask how much has changed. One thing hasn’t: Clinton is again a candidate for president, though she appears ready to make gender a more prominent issue this time around. On the opposing political spectrum is former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who is vying for the Republican nomination.
It’s worth noting that even in 2008’s defeat, Clinton said the glass ceiling has “about 18 million cracks in it. And the light is shining through like never before.”
Some, like Williams, are skeptical much will shift, but Breden remains an optimist. “Things are changing, and changing quickly,” she says.
In the meantime, meeting planners can find solace in the fact that the events industry has more flexibility than other professions. For instance, many planners start their own event companies and make a healthy living doing so.
“The industry allows you to be successful as an entrepreneur, and that’s a good thing,” says Bauer.