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Meetings management: a gender issue?

Women in positions of power seem to be making the news these days.  UK Prime Minister May, Bundeskanzlerin Merkel, Scottish First Minister Sturgeon, US presidential candidate Clinton, md of the IMF Lagarde…and so it goes on.

But in the events industry, even though there are many more women running events than men, there are not many females running event companies. Why should this be so? Are women just better at organising individual events rather than actually running event companies? Or is it the fact that, in general, you cannot bring up a family and run a demanding organisation at the same time?

Many governments are now enacting legislation to rectify the gender imbalance in business and the public sector for high level jobs which for too long have been dominated by men. It is clear that improvements in child care and flexible working for men have not been enough to correct this anomaly.

If society is set up, economically speaking, for both partners in families to be working full-time then gender equality in the workplace has to be manipulated to reflect economic reality. Letting the market decide does not really work.

But what is it about event management that makes the male/female imbalance so stark?

Let’s start with what makes a good meetings manager. The ideal candidate needs superior diplomatic skills to reconcile the ambitions of the client for the event with the lack of available budget and ludicrous deadlines.

They should be good at planning the detail…we are dealing with real people who all need to be accommodated. A good event manager stays calm under pressure and is able to manage changes, often at the last minute, keeping both buyer and supplier on their good side. They need to multi-task.

Physical stamina is also a must because most events begin long before the delegates are out of their beds and end long after they have returned there. Event managers must be able to switch tasks instantly as they are rarely only running one event at any time. They must be able to cope psychologically with clients changing their mind all the time… and then changing it back again.

A good meetings manager is a natural sceptic. Planning for contingencies comes naturally and firm promises are only for people getting married. What meetings managers really want most is certainty, even if it is bad news…and solutions, should the worst happen.

So far, so good. This description could apply to any male or a female candidate.

Let’s have a look at what makes a bad events manager.

There is no place for ego or ‘grandstanding’ when you are running an event. A successful event is one where almost no-one notices there even is an event manager. Throwing a tantrum or shouting at staff when things go wrong is poor  management and even more counter-productive when pulling an event together. Speaking softly but carrying a big stick gets more things done, more quickly.

There is no time for organisational politics if you are an event manager. There is just too much to do and too many deadlines to achieve to be worrying about politics and positioning oneself in the corporate hierarchy.

Being a team player is less important than staying outside the group and looking at things objectively to get the best result. It is no surprise that most corporate event managers have very small teams internally and often tend to be the only jobholder of their type.

They also spend a lot of time outside the office on site so their internal profile with senior members of the organisation may be somewhat vague when executives are plotting and planning for the future.

Would men be better at these types of task than women, given the chance?

It is a well-known maxim that if you want something done ask a man, but if you want something run, ask a woman. The idea is that men are better risk-takers and tend to act more quickly in a crisis than women. This is one reason why men tend to end up owning an event business because they are likely to seize the opportunity more readily than women, take more risk and let others deal with the detail.

And then there’s the money. As a general rule men are paid more than women, mainly because most women have to take time out of their careers to have children. This means getting back into the organisational hierarchy at the same level when they return is very difficult as things have moved on and roles have been filled.

At the heart of the gender debate, of course, is education and personal development. The job of a senior (female) event manager is as equally complex and challenging as any senior (male) executive job. There is a constant struggle to match tasks with resources in order to achieve a bigger organisational goal, whatever that may be. But pay rates and development training do not stack up in the events industry when compared with say the investment organisations make in the roles of Head of Marketing or Director of Operations.

The real mystery though is still why so few women rise to the top of event organisations. I recently addressed 200 event managers at a British university studying for a business degree in Hospitality Management. There were only three male students in the whole room!

Is it because, perhaps, the marketing of such degree courses promotes the fashion and music festival sectors so heavily? That’s all great for female students, but 98% of all meetings, conferences and exhibitions are not in these sectors. Male students looking for a challenging career are unlikely to be attracted by a discipline that centres on such soft sectors.

What’s more, the specific skills of logistics planning, doing a budget and reading a hotel contract are not tackled at most universities. These are technical tasks you will only learn on the job, unfortunately.

What is needed is a more practical approach to event management at universities than the fluffy curricula currently in offer. This then may attract more business-minded female entrepreneurs who could then develop into the all-round event business leaders of tomorrow. It would certainly stir up more female competition for the top jobs…which is what we want.

John Fisher, director of FMI Group


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