Most organisations recognise the benefits of a gender diverse workplace in the modern economy—equal hiring practices lead to higher engagement, more creativity, and better talent recruitment. But if you look inside the offices of event agencies and convention bureaus across Asia, how many women are actually sitting in the top seat?
The meetings industry is dominated by women, but when it comes to leadership positions, women are in the minority. What are the challenges women face and how can we close this gap?
Marine Debatte, head of event solutions, Asia Pacific, Japan and China at BI Worldwide, says the prospect of motherhood can be daunting for women looking for a career in events, where regular travel and long hours can mean less time spent with family. Debatte herself is a mother of two young children. It’s a tough juggling act, but one she thrives on.
“Motherhood is a big question for many,” she says. “It is challenging and puzzling at times, but it is also a strength. I don’t think I’ve ever been so productive since becoming a mum.”
She adds: “Young women are worried they won’t be able or willing to put in the hours anymore, that their families will judge them for working. Your support system is important. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that you can’t embark on this journey alone.
“There is still a lot of pressure (and taboo) around being a parent and working in our demanding industry, but companies and leaders have a responsibility in being open, flexible and supportive… On the bright side, our industry makes us mobile. My clients will see me carrying my ‘office’ with me around town because, well, my work is where my laptop is. That flexibility is what helps me keep it together.”
Deanna Varga, director of Sydney-based management consultancy Mayvin Global, is one of a growing number of women who choose not to have children and says she has experienced reverse discrimination in the workplace. “As the ‘non mum’, many a time I was expected to be the one to take the famil, work the late nights, or give up my weekend,” she says. “While this is part of the job, it should be part of everyone’s job in our sector. As a whole, it adds up and it’s very tiring, particularly in a female-dominated sector, to be the one who is expected to give up that time.”
She adds: “Many times, my staff have expected me to be flexible with their leave periods because they have children and assume they have first right of refusal for time off. I think unconscious bias goes both ways and it’s important everyone recognises their own bias.”
Working at BI Worldwide, a global engagement agency headquartered in the United States, Debatte says she has never encountered a glass ceiling but cautions that not all sides of the industry are as progressive.
“On the agency side, women lead very often and that gives us huge opportunities,” she says. “In some markets, being a woman has a real edge, in others, it’s a real challenge that is not spoken of much. On the production side, it is a very manly world, but there are some exceptions and these will only grow.”
For Varga, who services a number of clients in the business events sector, hotels can do more to raise the profile of female leaders.
“We don’t have many women at the top in the hotel sector apart from Rachael Argaman, who is CEO of TFE Hotels,” she says. “There is a strong argument for a merit-based system in these traditionally male-dominated leader sectors, and the supportive training for those selected female leaders to create a level playing field.”
Marriott International recently expanded its Women’s Leadership Development Initiative via a strategic partnership with the Asian University for Women (AUW). With the aim of empowering the next generation of female leaders from developing markets, in 2017 the company provided 50 volunteer mentors for AUW students, as well as work-study opportunities for students in Hong Kong and across South Asia.
The company has also established a Women In Leadership committee in APAC, where 26 ambassadors in 11 countries design and implement engagement initiatives. While in China, the East China Women Leaders Aspiration Program offers a one-year mentoring programme.
AccorHotels also promotes diversity through its Women At AccorHotels Generation (WAAG) network, which has 10,000 members worldwide. Through WAAG, the group is working to combat sexist stereotypes with mentorship and training, and by fostering professional female networks in local markets.
As the #metoo movement continues to gain momentum internationally, Debatte says business leaders need to sharpen their focus on workplace equality.
“For me, #metoo is not only about women, it’s about the abuse of power, which can be applied to anyone regardless of sex, gender, caste or religion,” she says. “In Asia-Pacific, it remains an everlasting challenge to find a balance between respecting local culture and putting an end to ancient traditions or behaviours that can be prejudicial.”
When it comes to equal opportunity in Asia, Prapaphan Sungmuang, general manager of the Thailand Incentive and Convention Association (TICA), says the Kingdom is leading the pack.
“I feel that we are very lucky in Thailand. We are known for being progressive in Asia for embracing diversity and inclusion,” she says. “Not only do we respect men and women, we respect all other genders. Because of our gentle nature, we tend to be more tolerant. We believe in getting the job done through teamwork, regardless of gender.”
Sungmuang, who has worked for TICA for 25 years, adds: “Other than women and other genders, my success has been supported by many men too, especially when becoming a mother to my two daughters. Maybe our industry can adopt the hashtag #mentoo to celebrate our support for each other.”
She believes we all can do more to encourage greater gender diversity, especially for the transgender community across APAC.
“The best support anyone can give is to treat everyone equally. Men, women, transgender – we are all humans,” she says. “Being focused on inclusiveness will help us attract future talent into our industry. Everyone wants a safe working environment.”
Sungmuang advises: “There must be strong policies and standard operating procures for gender equality because it makes a deep impact on the culture of a company. It stamps out bullying. When that happens, companies will be become an employer of choice and, for a service-oriented industry like ours, having a passionate and happy pool of talent will attract business leads.”
For Varga, leading by example is the key to establishing a culture of inclusivity.
“When I look at the business events industry in Australia, I am inspired by the number of women who are in senior positions – both within the sector and critical adjoining sectors – like Karen Bolinger, CEO of the Melbourne Convention Bureau; Roslyn McLeod, managing director of Arinex; and Sandra Chipchase, CEO of Destination NSW and executive producer of VividSydney.
“If you see it, you can aspire to it. These women are driving our sector and have made waves over a number of years. Whether they had equality or not, they broke through, and that’s the important message. We make a difference, and move forward to continue making a difference, inspiring others as we go.”
So, what legacy will you leave for the future generation of female, male and transgender leaders?