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Women in Event Tech: Lean into Leadership

Women in Event Tech: Lean into Leadership

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As women steadily take the lead over men in higher education, one might assume that they’re also making similar strides in leadership. However, women are still vastly underrepresented in executive roles, this is even more true for women of color. According to the Catalyst, women make up only 5.2 percent or 26 of all CEO’s in S&P 500 companies. In the tech industry, women are far less likely to be involved in leadership and Alford Media Services is well aware of the industry’s gender disparity. By implementing leadership training, formal and informal mentoring, and opportunities for growth, we have come to see a number of women take on leadership roles. We spoke to Melanie Reed, VP of Business Operations and Allison McMahan, Marketing and Communications Manager, about how they reached these roles and what their path to leadership was like as women in event tech.

Melanie Reed headed off to The University of North Texas decidedly set on earning a business degree, but when she got through orientation, she knew she wanted to be part of a more creative field. With interests in writing and teaching, Melanie earned her Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature with a minor in Education. Today, Melanie is a female leader within the event tech industry, using her knowledge and experience to mentor talented employees at Alford. Just as Melanie’s work is a large part of her life, she’s also dedicated to her community and family. As a mother of two, Melanie and her family often travel abroad, experiencing and learning about other cultures and environments together. Her favorite trips included visiting South Africa and fishing in the Amazon.

Immediately after college, Melanie worked as a Production Manager for a meeting planning company. “I was the only employee who held a non-creative role and so all the budgeting, scheduling and keeping everybody on track ended up falling in my lap.” Melanie said, “So, I had to learn how to manage, lead, and organize, which was a really great learning experience.”

Melanie began at Alford as an Accounting Clerk during her college years. After she spent some time pursuing other interests, Melanie returned to Alford and progressed through several business areas and roles including; Scheduling and Travel Coordinator, Office Manager, New Business Development, Director of Travel and Office Operations, and into her current role as VP of Business Operations. Her trajectory to leadership was developed over years of hard work, training, mentorship, and her own instincts to spot talent and develop future leaders. Being a female executive within the events industry is still rare, “I have encountered few women in a similar role as me, however, the ones I have come across made a huge impression.” Melanie said, “Johanne Belanger, former President of Freeman AV Canada, was someone that made a big impression on me. She taught me to stop seeking work/life balance and just be 100% present wherever you are. It’s something I still work on.”

According to a survey of 21,980 firms from 91countries, companies with female leadership performed at higher rates and correlated with increased profitability. At Alford, Melanie actively mentors women who she believes have the skill set to be on track for leadership. “When people ask me who Alford’s up and coming leaders are, several of our women are on that short list.” As a leader, Melanie has learned a lot about what it takes to manage people, projects, and work/life balance. Melanie shared some valuable advice for women seeking leadership roles, suggesting, “Speak up and don’t apologize, learn to use your voice. If you don’t speak up for yourself, nobody else is going to.” She also said, “It’s important that wherever you are working, your own values and brand should be in line with the company’s values. Because if not, there’s a disconnect.”

Often times, unconscious bias can lead to a diminished role or career for many women. In a report by AAUW researchers called, Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, it was found that “top female college and university leaders cited discouragement, sabotage, and unfair expectations as barriers to leadership. The women reported a lack of understanding and support from family and colleagues, as well as different expectations for themselves and their male peers.”

“Speak up and don’t apologize, learn to use your voice.”

When asked how she handles unconscious bias as a leader, Melanie explained, “Everyone has an unconscious bias to some degree. I was given advice once at a gender partnership training where they suggested that when someone says something that’s offensive or biased, to say “ouch” and don’t just ignore it.” Unconscious bias is significantly worse for expecting and working mothers. Consider that 70.5% of all women in 2016 with children under 18 were in the labor force, according to Catalyst. Yet, many Americans still hold negative stereotypes about working mothers and their competence as leaders.

When Melanie became a mother, she had just been promoted to her role as VP of Business Operations. Unfortunately, she was the first woman to take maternity leave and come back to work, and thus had no role model to show her what career and motherhood looked like. “I would feel guilty if I had to stay home with a sick kid or go to a school event. I was really hard on myself for a while.” Melanie said, “I was concerned with my new promotion and being a new mom that I didn’t want it to seem like I was doing less or being given special considerations. I was very lucky to have a really supportive husband who did say you know, you’re being too hard on yourself.” Luckily for Alford’s future female employees, Melanie paved the way, declaring, “Ultimately, it’s not about how many hours you sit in a chair. It’s about the influence you have, the work you produce, and what you do that matters.”

Allison McMahan first attended The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York where she received her Associate’s in Fashion Merchandising. With an initial interest in visual merchandising, Allison found that she preferred the creative areas of her courses more and decided to change majors for her bachelor’s degree. She then went on to the University of Texas at Dallas, earning her Bachelor’s in Arts and Performance, focusing on photography and art history. During and after college, Allison worked as a freelance photographer and web designer, while also maintaining roles in retail and retail management. Allison’s freelance skills were in close alignment with what was required for the Marketing Administrator position at Alford, peeking her interests and ultimately establishing her new career in event tech. Working for Alford has given Allison an opportunity for travel, one of her favorite things to do. She also enjoys live music, trying new restaurants, and unashamedly binging Netflix.

As Allison progressed in her marketing role at Alford, she began to cultivate a skillset for strategic goal setting and project management. “Once we got through our goal setting, we looked at what could be done and decided that we needed to bring someone else into the marketing department,” said Allison. After expanding the functions of our marketing department, and taking on a supervisory role, Allison was rewarded for her excellent work and promoted to Marketing and Communications Manager.

Seeing other women within your company obtain management and leadership roles can do much for morale. Alternatively, when women don’t see themselves represented in a company, especially in leadership, they are more likely to leave their job or even the industry altogether. Eighty percent of women in Science, Engineering, and Tech (SET) report “loving their work”. Yet 56 percent leave their organizations at the mid-level points (10-20 years) in their careers, according to a study by the Center for Talent Innovation.

The reasons for attrition are varied and expansive, ranging from lack of representation or mentorship to bias and unfair expectations of women versus men. Some of the ways we can combat these barriers are to incorporate space for conversations about career growth and make it your priority as a leader. Research from the National Center for Women and Information Technology shows that fostering a “growth mindset” helps organizations create inclusive environments and makes it more likely for employees to develop their full potential.

“It’s really important to listen…it’s about creating those collaborative and diverse environments.”

Being as Allison has traversed the waters toward female leadership, we asked her what kind of advice she would give other women who want to become leaders at their own companies. “Keep a list of your accomplishments and goals that you’ve set and achieved and always be planning for the next steps both in your position and your career,” Allison said, “It’s also important to take on projects that get you out of your department or usual role, especially if you get the chance to work with people you don’t normally work with. Collaborative environments have been the area that I’ve grown the most.”

On her road to upper management, Allison credits her mentors over the years for being great role models, stating, “In college, I had a really great professor who always gave me good advice, whether it was for classes or my future career and what my next steps were going to be. Here at Alford, Melanie has been a really fantastic mentor. She’s great about empowering her employees and pushing them forward. She listens to what your goals are and then gives advice on how you can achieve them.”

A recent analysis by Harvard Business Review found that once people reach the C-suite, the soft skills of leadership matter far more than technical skill. This assessment holds true for Allison, who as a female leader, said, “It’s really important to listen. Listen to other people’s ideas as well as be able to take criticism well and just to grow from that. Also, it’s important to bring other people into the conversation that you normally wouldn’t because it’s about creating those collaborative and diverse environments.”

Women understand it was those who came before us that laid the first bricks for gender equality in the workforce, and now it’s up to us to do the same for the next generation of young women. But what exactly will the next generation face as technology and hopefully, gender equality persists? Melanie reflected upon her own young daughter when she said, “I’m already seeing that communication skills are being lost. You have to be able to speak effectively, you’ve got to be comfortable speaking in front of people, and you have to be able to write effectively. That’s so foundational to being a good leader, and those things are being lost just because of the technology.” Alternatively, Allison said, “I’m amazed by my friend’s kids, a lot of them already have a career plan. They have life goals by the time they walk into a middle school and it blows my mind because I was not that organized at that age. So, if anything, they’re going to have a work/life balance issue and might need to learn to go with the flow a bit more.”

There is no easy fix for solving the leadership gap, but there are certain incentives for doing so. A report by the McKinsey Global Institute found that $12 trillion could be added to the global GDP by 2025 through advancing women’s equality. In order to achieve gender parity in the workforce, we must become part of the solution by actively assessing our bias, offering flexible schedules, investing in the next generation, and ultimately by implementing policies designed to address these barriers.

Alford’s female employees are supported by a company that recognizes the value of diverse leadership. Melanie and Allison’s evolving career paths are leading examples of how working for a company like Alford Media has no limits. While, unfortunately, this is still too often the exception rather than the rule, it’s not a matter of will there be equality in workplace leadership, but rather when.

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