International Women’s Day (IWD) 2023 was celebrated in style as We Are Collider and Elevate Mentoring hosted a virtual panel discussion titled ‘Leading the Charge: The Female Leaders of Experiential’. This event brought together powerful and influential female leaders in the events industry to share their experiences, insights, and lessons learned in the quest to #embrace equity in the sector.
The expert panel consisted of 5 female leaders from across both brands and agencies within the sector;
Tracy Sorgiovanni, Managing Director, We Are Collider
Zoe Tuffs, Coach and Events Specialist, TimesTen
Robyn Dennington, Finance Director, We Are Collider
Stacey Mayhew, Experiential Marketing Manager, Pinterest
Natasha Blevins, Creative Director, We Are Collider
Despite the fact that 80% of the events industry workforce identify as female, there is still a disparity between men and women in senior positions. The panel identified a number of challenges which act as barriers to female development in the sector and discussed ways they believe change can be made.
In order to promote equity in the workplace, the panel emphasised the importance of companies prioritising diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in their hiring practices. This means not only seeking out diverse candidates but also actively creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for all employees. As Stacey Mayhew noted, “diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is not being asked to dance.” Companies must go beyond just hiring diverse candidates and work to create a workplace culture where everyone feels valued and supported.
When asked if leaders and c-suite teams in the industry were committed to achieving gender equality, the answer from all the panellists was clear. Leaders must advocate and be allies for underrepresented communities. Stacey highlighted the importance of not burdening these communities with finding solutions themselves, but rather ensuring that there is a collective effort to create change. Zoe Tuffs responded,
“Commitment is a complex thing, and I wouldn’t necessarily say that there’s a willingness to embrace it. There are big excuses, such as not having enough time. I see many leaders in our sector doing a lot of the doing but not necessarily leading. Leadership requires time, energy, skill, and expertise. If you looked beneath the surface of the shiny websites and D&I strategies being promoted, you would find issues such as poor recruitment practices, lack of career progression and development for women. So, there is a willingness to address these issues, but having the resources, time, energy, and focus to take actions that will make a real difference is another matter altogether.”
A key factor which the panel believed would assist change for women in the sector was mentorship and the existence of female role models. During the discussion all of our panellists shared personal experiences with mentorship and role models, emphasising the importance of providing access to such people who could provide guidance, support and encouragement. Many also shared experiences of being mentored by male colleagues, illustrating the important role that men have to play in the industry by being allies and advocates for female colleagues.
We Are Collider’s Natasha Blevins commented that;
“I’ve never had female creative directors, so I’ve never had those kind of role models within companies I’ve worked for. But I’ve definitely had inspiring female leaders who have affected my decision to work for those companies. It still feels very male-dominated in leadership, but it’s changing, just not fast enough. My first job had white male creative directors who told me early on that I had the talent and ability to become a CD. They didn’t see gender as an issue, and neither did I. That positive experience set me in good stead for my leadership aspirations.”
Another key theme was the need to address workplace culture, conscious and unconscious bias, and sexism. The events industry, like many other sectors, is not immune to these issues, and they can have a significant impact on women’s advancement and development. Robyn Dennington explained that in her early career in finance, she didn’t have the experience of ‘an old boys club’ but she did acknowledge that the path to leadership was less clear.
“Women may also hold themselves back with a lack of assertiveness and confidence, and a reluctance to speak up for themselves. We need to acknowledge this bias and encourage women to speak up, providing them with visibility and platforms to do so.”
The panel discussed the phenomenon of imposter syndrome and the Harvard Business report which stated that it is a predominantly female ailment which often holds women back from envisioning themselves in leadership roles. Zoe Tuffs reflected on her own aspirations to hold leadership positions, saying “I always wanted to be like my mum. She was a working mum who paved the way for me, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps.” However, she agreed that a lack of visible progression or role models can often feed into imposter syndrome as well as women’s own internal unconscious bias as major barriers. She emphasised the importance of finding one’s own definition of success and owning it, rather than conforming to external expectations.
Stacey Mayhew agreed stating that she had a personal experience of struggling with self-worth and confidence in her career, which led to a lack of understanding of her own definition of success. She explained that this feeling was compounded by imposter syndrome and a lack of self-belief. As a result, she held herself back from sharing ideas out of fear of judgment. She also acknowledged that she didn’t set boundaries and ended up overworking which she believes is common for younger women in the industry today.
The panellists agreed that the industry has improved over the years, moving away from the instances where invitations for business events were only extended to men, and male clients insisted on going to strip clubs and other sexist institutions for entertainment, but believed it’s important to recognise that unconscious bias still exists. Microaggressions and blatant sexism are still commonplace, and it’s important to call them out and rely on allies to navigate these challenges. The results of a poll undertaken during the webinar showed that 75% of participants had directly experiences gender discrimination in the workplace with the remaining 25% knowing someone who had.
Finally, the panel discussed the importance of normalising flexible working practices to support women who are balancing work with female milestones, such as childrearing and menopause. They believed that to do this requires a shift in mindset from companies and leaders, who must recognise that flexibility is not a perk but a necessity for many women.
By normalising flexible working practices, companies can prevent the loss of experienced professionals who may otherwise leave the industry due to inflexible working arrangements. The panel discussed ways in which the sector can take a compassionate approach to women’s milestones and lived experiences, to prevent the loss of experienced professionals.
We Are Collider Managing Director, Tracy Sorgiovanni summarised the session;
“The lack of gender parity in our sector is not only a problem of representation but also a missed opportunity for the industry to benefit from diverse perspectives and leadership styles. At We Are Collider, we have seen first-hand the benefits of having a senior leadership team that is 60% female. Our agency has thrived due to the diverse range of experiences, insights, and approaches brought to the table by our female leaders. I strongly believe that promoting equity and diversity in the workplace is not only the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense. By continuing to have open and honest conversations about equity in the workplace and taking concrete steps to address issues like unconscious bias and lack of diversity, we can create a more equitable and inclusive industry for everyone.”