It's pretty safe to say that women dominate the events industry. Attend any networking event for the sector and it's almost a given that more than half the people in the room will be female. Despite this, some argue that women could use some extra help to get to the top.
Zibrant MD Fay Sharpe's new Fast Forward 15 mentoring scheme for women in events has been making the headlines recently, and has brought about some contrasting views. Some have accused the programme, which only allows women to apply, of being sexist, while others argue that a scheme encouraging people to develop their career in events is positive.
The statistics speak for themselves. In this year's C&IT A List, featuring 35 of the top agency players under the age of 35, 80 per cent are female. But when we look at the managing directors of these same agencies, it's a different picture. Less than a third (29 per cent) of the MDs are female. So what happens to all the women who start out so well, only to vanish into the ether at the top levels of the industry? And should agencies be taking a look at these figures, and thinking about what they can do to encourage women to reach the top?
"It's an interesting question," says Alan Newton, founder and COO of Eventopedia. "Do I think women need help? Not exactly, because I think they have all the skills necessary to reach the top. But because of the prejudice and discrimination that exists in society and the way things have always been, I believe that women do need to have help in some regard. So mentoring schemes that specifically support women are welcome."
Jane Baker, vice president of client services at Freeman XP, agrees. "I find it really interesting that there are still people in the industry that are unsupportive of Fay's scheme. It's a scheme that encourages people to do well and improve, and sometimes women need more help because they are coming from an inferior position.Statistics show that women doing the same job as men are still paid less."
But there are women, such as Sharpe herself, who have made it to the top regardless of gender. Some believe that merit and skill alone should be what propels people to the summit.
Absolute Corporate Events MD Chris Parnham argues: "Our industry has a wealth of great leaders and business owners. Some of these leaders are men and some are women, but that's irrelevant. I don't think there is just cause to prioritise anyone in order to get them to the top, but neither is there cause to hold anyone back, whatever the reason. Talent rises to the top anyway, regardless of gender. It should be helped by drive and determination, not special treatment." Is it discrimination to allow only one gender to apply to a scheme, even if statistics show that gender possibly has a steeper path to climb?
"I think that any kind of scheme that selects people on anything other than ability or potential is completely wrong," says Martin Ellis, managing director of Team Umbrella. "If you are good enough then you're the right gender. You should never advance anyone for anything other than their ability or potential to do something, any more than you should hold them back for any discriminatory reasons.
"People say it's okay because it's positive discrimination, but actually positive discrimination is still discrimination," adds Ellis. "If you discriminate in favour of any one person or group, you are by necessity discriminating against everyone else, and that's wrong. There may well be fewer women MDs, but that didn't stop Fay Sharpe and Jacqui Kavanagh (founder of Trinity Event Solutions). Why not look to those people for inspiration, not for a helping hand?"
So what does Sharpe herself have to say to defend her scheme? She is quick to point out that it is merely a mentoring scheme and that she is not promoting anyone based on their gender, or giving anyone an easy route up.
"I think mentoring, whether it's for men or women, is a really positive thing," says Sharpe. "That's why I came up with Fast Forward 15. It's not a sexist thing; I've got men who are mentors. But I do believe that women by nature are more cautious in terms of their approach to things.
The mentoring programme is to support those women with their confidence in setting goals, and to help them to achieve whatever their main aim is.
"Someone said to me that there's no need for this. So why did 139 women apply? Why have I got 300 people on a networking group that are interested in getting involved? I've had hundreds of people saying it's fantastic and wanting to know how they can help."
And the advice she gives to those who disagree with a scheme that only allows women to apply?
"I got a lot of applications from women in agencies, so I would say to some of those who are being negative about the scheme, maybe they need to do their own scheme for both men and women? I'm actually doing an internal scheme at Zibrant for men and women. It's just that with Fast Forward 15, I looked at how I wanted to support our industry and I recognised that there was a challenge for women, and therefore I focused on that."
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