Equity, Equal Pay and Words of Wisdom: Female Event Professionals Speak Out About Gender Equality in the Trade Show Industry

March 21, 2022

While it’s wonderful and uplifting to celebrate the achievements of women on International Women’s Day or during Women’s History Month, it goes without saying that striving for gender equality, diversity and inclusion is a year-round effort. For example, ensuring equitable pay for women serving the same roles as their male counterparts and empowering female professionals to realize their career aspirations. Our industry still has work to do in achieving gender parity, but there has been progress. TSNN recently had the pleasure of speaking with several dynamic female event professionals to get their thoughts on how our industry can realize true gender equality, why more women must fearlessly claim their “seat at the table” while empowering other women, and the inspiring women who have shaped their careers.

What can event professionals and the industry at large do to increase gender equity? 

Meredith Rollins, chief community officer, PCMA: Men and women bring a range of strengths and perspectives to the workplace, [and] the goal is to support each other to advance our respective organizations. In terms of equitable pay and roles, be persistent about asking for what you want—the phrase “don’t ask, don’t get” rings true here. Do this while also clearly demonstrating your accomplishments and results. Another area to focus on is that perfection isn’t necessary for advancement. I recall reading an article years ago that said women apply for a job when they think they have 100% of the skills needed and men apply when they think they have 60% of the skills. We don’t need to have everything figured out to move up in an organization or land a new job. Enthusiasm, resourcefulness and flexibility all play a role here. Finally, we should give as much energy to deepening existing relationships as we do to widening our network. As we add others into our professional sphere, opportunities and connections abound.

Kelly Smith, executive director of sales, Caesars Entertainment: We have such a platform in this industry to promote gender equity. In my opinion, it’s resisting the urge to believe the myth that women aren’t able to have the same drive as men and that potential distractions at home make them less focused. I believe in the saying, “If you want something done, give it to a busy mom!” Wage equality is the other opportunity to help promote gender equity. Pay for the job being done, not who is doing the job. I’m fortunate to work for a company that is striving for 50/50 gender equity by year 2025 and that is a result of thoughtful planning and forward thinking. 

Angie Ahrens, director of marketing, events, MRI Software: All of us should not only be opening the door, as that is the first step, but also encouraging beyond that. Being invited to the table is a step of equity, but being engaged in conversation, trying new ideas and applauding accomplishments are more steps that need to be taken. 

Desiree Hanson, executive vice president, Clarion Events North America

Our industry has diverse gender representation overall yet is still heavily weighted on men in leadership roles with a few exceptions. I am fortunate to work for Clarion, where gender doesn’t influence leadership seats and is instead by merit. Interestingly enough, the U.S. leadership team at Clarion has more women than men represented in the group who earned their leadership seat at the table. The culture around diversity and inclusion at Clarion is driven from the top down, and everyone feels they have a voice, which will make great strides toward gender equity. I think the more the event industry can truly put a strong diversity, equity and inclusion culture at the top and pull through the organization, the faster we will see transformation here. Rising tides lift all boats. 

Janet Dell, president and COO, Freeman: The events industry is such an exciting place to create a career, full of dynamic opportunities. As an industry, it’s important that we’re highlighting all of these opportunities so we continue to attract people from all backgrounds to join us in this awesome business. And when we’ve got them on board, we need to create clear and meaningful development opportunities that pave a path for a sustained career. We are committed to mentoring, supporting and enabling women—and all team members—to thrive and grow personally and professionally. Recently, Freeman was humbled and honored to be named by Forbes as one of the Best Employers for Women in 2021.

Cassandra Farrington, vice chair, SISO/co-founder and board chair, MJBiz: It’s important to keep diversity issues toward the front-of-mind, which helps everyone make better decisions going forward every day. It’s about taking small steps forward all the time, and picking your head up every so often to notice that those small steps have added up to something meaningful. We’ve come a long way on this journey already with more miles yet to travel.

Cathy Song Novelli, senior vice president, marketing and communications, Hubilo: First and foremost, push for representation of all under-represented and under-paid people. Even when women are equally represented, we are often not equally paid. There’s a lot of hard work still to do there. This exists a lot in tech, and that includes event tech. And we need to get women comfortable with technology earlier. Where innovation is, money and power are. We need to get more event professionals to embrace new technology, and as women in particular do, we should start seeing an increase in gender equity in event tech. 

Kate Youngstrom, vice president, brand and content marketing, RX USA: There are the basics, such as focusing on gender equality during the interviewing and hiring process and making sure compensation is fair and equal, but that is just the basics. More than that, in our offices, we should make sure to keep barriers down for conversation, give access to information and trainings on how to be an ally. Make the conversation approachable versus fearful, so we can keep working together to make impactful change. I think at an event level, we need to make sure that the speakers we have on our stages, the talent we have at our events and the members we have on our boards truly represent an equal, diverse group. Our events are places where ideas are born and relationships are built, and the more we diversify the experts that lead the industry, the more our events will be known as places of true discovery, regardless of gender. The other important thing to do is to not make enemies of those who might not have all the information themselves yet. The entire conversation is about equality, which to me means including those that don’t quite realize how they can help yet. We’ll help teach them.  

Which women have truly inspired you career-wise and why?

Meredith Rollins: This is a long list but to share a few, the first is my mom Barbara Clark, who demonstrated how to be a loving and involved mother with a professional career. She was the one who first introduced me to the field of association management through her board positions with the American Association of Physician Assistants (AAPA), among other organizations. She also taught me the power of kindness. Deborah Sexton was my first CEO, and I saw tenaciousness and how to go toe-to-toe with anyone in your path, and Susan Euritt showed me how to balance family and work life and do it all with a smile. Ellen Moore taught me how to stand up for yourself in difficult situations and to always have your team’s back, and Christine Melendes showed me what it means to have a work family and how to bring happiness and positivity into the workplace. Stacey Shafer, Gina Meier and Mona Cotton have exemplified how to treat others well personally and professionally, keep your spirituality at the center and not take yourself too seriously. I’ve also been inspired working side-by-side with intelligent and dedicated women in the role of PCMA Foundation Chair, including Carol McGury, Valerie Sumner and Angie Ranalli.

Kelly Smith: I have wonderful female role models in my life but the one that will always outweigh the others is my mom. My mom found herself divorced, raising three girls during a time when women couldn’t get credit cards in their own name without a man co-signing for them. She showed my sisters and me that hard work, education and determination would not let her circumstances define her. Today, I find myself lucky enough to work with the most female-supportive boss that I’ve ever had. That leader is Lisa Messina, who embodies everything you’d ever want in a boss and more. She’s an excellent listener, solution-oriented and selfless. She’s not intimidated by other females’ success and constantly works to stay current. She’s everything I emulate as I direct my own team, and I appreciate her support more than any words could ever describe. 

Angie Ahrens: I have a network of some amazing individuals who I’ve met through networking and volunteer experiences, who support me every day—you’ll see them on my social media channels. They are always cheering on my accomplishments and encouraging me. I truly believe it’s important to put yourself out there, make the connections and continue to cultivate them. Women lifting up women is a powerful thing!

Desiree Hanson: There are a few women I’ve admired and looked to in my career for guiding my own journey, Nancy Walsh being the most prominent. I always admired Nancy’s leadership and her incredible ability to strike a balance between work and family. I took cues from watching and learning her decision-making process, and I’ve put them into my own practice. I’ve also been inspired by Courtney Muller for her openness and positivity to share and connect with teams. Yancy Weinrich taught me how to be fierce and strong in challenging situations. I’m inspired by Kelly Comboni daily for her energy, adaptability and intelligence. I’ve taken all of the attributes I value the most from these individuals, and I keep them with me and lean toward them every day, so I bring the best version of myself to my teams.

Janet Dell: My mom has been the most influential female in my life, both directly and indirectly. She was an English teacher prior to staying home to raise my brother, sisters and me. And she focused on raising and caring for our family with the same intensity and passion as some of the best executives I’ve encountered. She focused on ensuring each of us was developing and exposed to many different opportunities to grow personally and spiritually, while instilling accountability. My mom has always been generous with grace, modeling forgiveness for others and more importantly, of myself, when I inevitably make mistakes as an executive, mom, wife, sister or friend. I feel very blessed to have had her love and unending support throughout my life. I’m certain I wouldn’t have achieved half my goals without her influence. 

Cassandra Farrington: I have always deeply admired my mom for her determination to maintain her nursing career while raising six children and relocating every two to three years as a military spouse. She loved her work, and my parents prioritized making it fit in as well as they possibly could. In more recent years, the incredibly strong network of female event professionals has inspired, supported and encouraged me every step of my MJBiz journey. There are so many talented women doing amazing work in this industry!

Cathy Song Novelli: More than anyone, my mom. She, like many working moms, has a Herculean ability to balance a million things with grace. Even when things were hard, she made it look so easy. Whenever I’m on the verge of losing it, I try to emulate my mom and make her proud!

Kate Youngstrom: There are so many, I break them into categories. [First], my colleagues and co-workers who I have seen every day for years just continuing to work incredibly hard, deliver amazing results, climb the corporate ladder—a lot of them do this while also being incredible mothers. In the event industry, we are extremely lucky to see some of the most influential women in leadership positions. It creates a space where those just starting out in the field or those that are right in the middle of their career can look forward and say, ”That could be me one day.’ [Secondly are] the moms in my life: my mother, my aunts and friends who somehow manage to balance working and being sensational mothers while also having their own identity. The last are those women who take chances, women who stopped working after kids and came back 10 years later, the speakers and keynotes that own their own businesses, the famous ones on social media who share their lives every day in the hopes that someone can relate. Taking chances is hardand when I see women who do that, regardless of the outcome, it’s inspiring to know I can do it all, too. 


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