TSNN Interview: Emilie Aries, Founder and CEO, Bossed Up

June 14, 2018

In this era of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, women across a wide range of industries are speaking up and pushing back against the patriarchal status quo, and the events industry is no exception. 

But, in a field where women are chronically underrepresented in leadership positions, what’s it going to take to empower more female event professionals to reach their career goals free from the impediments of institutionalized sexism and gender inequality? 

As a former political activist and organizer who has worked tirelessly to inspire progressive change, Emilie Aries is a passionate advocate for the advancement of women in the workplace. 

She also happens to be the founder and CEO of Bossed Up, a women’s advocacy organization that provides training, resources and community to help empower women to craft balanced, fulfilling and sustainable career paths.

TSNN had a chance to sit down with Aries to hear her thoughts about the current gender dynamic, how companies and organizations can make their workplaces more diverse and equitable, and what women can do now to not only break the glass ceiling but also be the boss of their own lives through individual agency and action.

TSNN: How did you get started as a women’s advocate?

Emilie Aries:I started as a political activist, working on the Obama campaign after the elections, helping folks across the state really own their power and make their voices heard in Washington. I was put in a leadership position as the youngest state director in the nation to help enact progressive change but honestly, I quickly burned out in the world of politics because you’re not very close to the change that you’re making. My experience with burnout set me down this intellectual and almost spiritual rabbit hole where I wanted to learn everything I could about the very real problem that is our burnout workplace culture, why it affected women in a unique way and why so many of my peers seemed to be struggling with crafting a sustainable career path. 

TSNN: When and why did you start Bossed Up?

EA: I started Bossed Up in 2013 having learned how to advocate not only for the causes, candidates and campaigns I believe in but also for myself and what I needed to be sustainable in a career that doesn’t really like women who advocate in such a way. Besides helping women craft happy, healthy and sustainable career paths, we provide training, resources and community to help women not just achieve success but also define success for themselves and achieve it in a way that doesn’t leave them feeling burned out. It’s still a rebellious act in this world to be a woman who dares to take care of herself and then be better able to take care of those around her.

What I focus on is personal agency. There are absolutely systemic forces at play that make it harder for women, for instance, to have a child and a sustainable career path in the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t provide any sort of social safety net around parenting for men or women. So, while there are systemic battles to be fought, in the meantime, I’m really helping women fight for themselves. 

TSNN: With all this focus on the #MeToo movement and women’s advancement in the workplace, are we seeing enough focus on fixing gender disparities in our corporate culture? 

EA: Clearly not. I think there’s a systemic problem we’re facing, a cultural moment that we’re in that provides an opportunity for organizations to take a principled stand and make a business decision here. We know that when all people feel safe to contribute, be heard and achieve their goals and potential at work, that organizations make better decisions and produce better bottom line results. So not only is it moral imperative but also a business imperative for organizations to do more than simply check the box. 

What I’m seeing across the board are a lot of wonderful women’s leadership initiatives that are carrying this mantel forward but I think that puts the emotional labor on women yet again to solve this problem, while the vast majority of victims are women when it comes to sexual harassment and harassment in general at work. So, in order for us to really address this systemic, cultural problem that so many of our organizations are facing is not something we can do on our own and it’s not something our nation or government seems to be doing anything about, so it’s up to organizations to say this isn’t a women’s issue, this is a cultural issue. We believe in changing culture so that all of us know the perils of toxic masculinity at work, successful and mutual communication at work, and how we can create a culture where gender equality is something men and women and everyone in between carry with them into work every single day.

TSNN: What does that pathway to culture change look like?

EA: In all social movements it starts with awareness raising – agitation, actually. The first step of any revolution is education. People need to be aware of and outraged over a problem before we can do much about it, and clearly, we’ve passed that threshold. I recently spoke at the United State of Women Summit in Los Angeles where over 5,000 women advocates of all genders from across the country gathered together to learn how to be an activist in their communities for women, and on that main stage were five of Larry Nassar’s victims, one of whom reported Nassar’s behavior in the early 90s. So, this is stuff that has been happening for a long time and people have been turning a blind eye to it. But it’s actually a very good sign of our progress that we have surpassed the point of awareness raising and education to where people are outraged, and I think there’s a pent-up resentment underlying that outrage, which is understandable given how long we haven’t been listening to women victims. 

After awareness raising we need to look at accountability and behavior change, so one thing is to hold predators accountable, which we’re seeing in a lot of different ways – I would almost say that socially people are being blacklisted in a really scary way. But I think we need to be aware of what real accountability and transparency means – what is the appropriate punishment for this kind of behavior, some of which criminal and should be decided in a criminal way and some of which isn’t? 

TSNN: What should companies and organizations be doing now to prevent and punish sexual harassment in their workplaces?

EA: It’s imperative for every industry and specifically every company to get very clear, preferably before there’s an issue, on what accountability looks like. Make sure you agree on what the appropriate forms of accountability are – is it immediate termination and what would reach the threshold for that? Another way that organizations can be preventative and prudent in how they’re coming at this issue that’s less threatening and less of a doomsday preparation plan is getting clear about the behaviors you do want to encourage and will tolerate in the workplace. It’s pretty obvious to say, “don’t sexually harass women in the workplace,” but what are the behaviors explicitly that we need to change and how do we encourage that change? 

When it comes to creating a healthy workplace culture, it’s really about the systems and structures you put in place that encourage certain behaviors and discourage others. If organizations on the whole want to do more than just check the box, they can’t delegate this out to their women’s leadership group, it’s something we need to address systemically from an HR and a culture change perspective.

TSNN: What specific steps could companies be taking to alleviate gender disparity?

EA: First, I would say include men at every step of the process and make sure we’re not treating this as a women’s issue. If you’re going to have a workshop around unconscious bias in the workplace, have hard and fast rules about that. Make sure we’re not just preaching to the choir, that we’re not just talking to women – you have to engage men at every level. The Lean In Women in the Workplace study found that men are fearing mentoring women as well as the potential negative perception of even interacting with women – that’s a step backward. We have to make the uncomfortable acceptable to talk about, so bringing men into that conversation and putting them into leadership roles and on committees for addressing these issues to make sure they’re balanced in terms of gender is key.

Second, create anonymous reporting mechanisms where female or male victims can feel like they’re not going to risk their careers if they need to report someone. Especially in an industry like events and exhibitions, you’re working with so many vendors and different companies, it needs to be okay for there to be a reporting mechanism whereby women and men victims can report people who then get investigated. 

The final step is creating what the Harvard Business Review calls “space identity workspaces for women.” As much as I’m all about solving these cultural issues with men and women together, there’s still a very important value in creating safe spaces where women only can come together and develop the kinds of resilience, community and leadership identities that are going to help them persevere on a very challenging task that is being a leader in a male-dominated industry, or even a leader in a position in which you’re managing a lot of male vendors. 

It’s key for women in those leadership positions to not feel isolated – that’s when they internalize negative feedback that they might be getting based on things like gender and race as personal failings. When you get together in a room full of other women and say, “wow, I’m feeling really disrespected by all the folks in this particular sector” or “I’m having trouble being taken seriously because I present very young,” or “I’m not being taking seriously because people think I’m angry when I’m asking them to just do their job,” all of this biased feedback that women face, when we recognize that we’re all dealing with it we can then move forward in keeping our leadership identity intact, we can see ourselves as the boss, even when the world sometimes gives us negative feedback. Knowing that it’s not about you, that it’s something bigger than you, is very important, comforting and essential for women to thrive in leadership positions.

TSNN: What should female event professionals be doing to help position themselves for advancement as well as demand fair treatment in the workplace?

EA: One is to pick our heads off the desk and not just work hard but also make sure that everyone knows we’re working hard. Sometimes we get overly focused on doing a good job and forget to make sure that everybody knows we’re doing a good job, which means getting out there, networking, creating relationships with peers who you admire, establishing relationships with mentors and sponsors who you want to be like and making sure that those mentors and sponsors aren’t just all women. Invest in your own professional development, invest in training programs and the courses or the skills that are going to help take your career to the next level. 

Finally, invest in a community of courage, whatever that looks like for you. None of us can dare greatly when we feel alone, so not only is it psychologically necessary for our mental health to have friends and people who care about you unconditionally, whether you’re killing it or you feel like the week is killing you, having a community of people you can go to and feel encouraged by when you’re doing great and when you’re not is so key for every woman leader on the rise, for every young professional and anybody who’s facing an unknown pivot point or future. That’s a core part of what we create at Bossed Up is a community of courage where women across industries can support one another, so wherever you can get that, I would recommend making that a priority.


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