How #MeToo is making its mark on the events industry

From so-called booth babes to sexual harassment of women, sexism remains rife in areas of the events industry, and some organisers must try harder to set a more inclusive tone

The #MeToo movement has received a big boost in recent years, not least in the events industry. Notably, there was widespread outrage when it was revealed that hostesses had been groped and abused at the annual Presidents Club Charity Dinner in London, attended by hundreds of businessmen and financiers.

An investigation by the Financial Times uncovered evidence that organisers of the men-only event ordered hostesses to wear skimpy outfits and many of the women said they were harassed or assaulted. In the hubbub that followed, organiser David Meller quit his job with the Department for Education’s board of directors and earlier this year the club was disbanded altogether.

There’s no point being preventative unless you’re prepared to actually do something

The recent rise in prominence of the #MeToo movement has made such behaviour all the more likely to be called out and in most professional situations there’s now a strong focus on treating everybody, male or female, in a respectful manner.

However, the events industry seems to have a particular problem. Soon after the Presidents Club scandal, and despite a warning by the chief executive of the UK Gambling Commission Sarah Harrison, the three-day International Casino Exhibition Totally Gaming 2018 took place, complete with a Playboy-themed strip show, pole dancing and scantily clad women galore.

#MeToo movement leading to questions around tech events

“Really, the prevalence of employing so-called booth babes, and colloquially referring to them as such at events, sets the tone and atmosphere,” says Lin Classon, head of public cloud product services at cloud management firm Ensono, which recently surveyed women about their experience of technology conferences.

“To me, the most revealing incident occurred last year during CES, the largest consumer electronics show in the world, with a stage hosting ‘stripper robots’.”

There are, though, moves to clean the industry up. Last year, for example, Sarah Soliman of Soliman Productions and Courtney Stanley of CS Consulting launched #MeetingsToo, an initiative based on the #MeToo movement aimed at stamping out sexual harassment at meetings and events.

“It is a big problem within the live events space and a lot of it boils down to the type of environment that’s expected and created at live events,” says Ms Stanley.

“At a live event, you typically see a lot of alcohol that is not only complimentary, but also typically endless, so you’ve got a four-to-six-hour event taking place in the evening where there is also somewhat of a vacation mindset.”

Who’s responsible for creating safe event environment?

Ms Stanley and Ms Soliman recommend creating a code of conduct for every event, and making sure that every attendee is given a copy. Event organisers should also hire security staff or volunteers along with a designated point person, they say. Finally, organisers should poll attendees after the event to discover whether they have been happy with the way things have been handled.

“I really don’t feel like that has to impact any kind of fun that is to be had at the event. I think there can be absolutely a fantastic event where every attendee has an exceptional experience and part of that is that they feel safe,” says Ms Stanley.

“I personally don’t recommend that we completely change to a situation where there’s no alcohol and no fun to be had.”

Importantly, there should be sanctions for sexual harassment or misconduct. “I think what’s necessary is first being preventative and second taking action. There’s no point being preventative unless you’re prepared to actually do something, like asking somebody to leave a conference,” says Ms Stanley.

“If you don’t do that and take on the challenge of holding people responsible for their actions, you’ll never reach the goal of actually providing a safe environment.”

However, says Ms Soliman, there’s only so much that events organisers can do. “If I’m a business owner, and I’m going to exhibit at a trade show and have booth babes, I think that’s down to the company and not the events industry,” she says. “Once we are in the venue, though, it really is the organisation and the venue’s responsibility to ensure safety and security.”

Lack of representation to blame for sexism at events

Shockingly, according to the Ensono research, one in four women has experienced sexual harassment at a tech conference. One respondent, a speaker at an international technology conference, says she was assaulted during the early-morning welcome mingle.

She says: “I introduced myself by extending my hand to the nearest person, who proceeded to grab my hand tight and pull me close, way too close and so hard I lost balance and had to step towards him, while he said something like ‘tell me what you’re working on sweetie’.

“I was perplexed and took a step back. The T-shirt I was wearing had a decorative zipper in front, right under my breasts, which he proceeded to grab and pull on, essentially ‘bouncing’ my breasts. ‘I bet people do that all the time,’ he said.”

Ms Classon believes that one reason sexual harassment is so rife at events is because too few women are involved at a senior level. Only 25 per cent of tech conference keynotes in the last three years have been made by women and 70 per cent of the women surveyed who have sat on a panel at a tech conference reported being the only woman there.

“What does that say to women who are just as dedicated and committed as their male counterpart? That we don’t belong,” she says. “In addition to instituting and reinforcing a code of conduct, we’d like to encourage the industry to make an effort to include more diverse speakers in the line-up.”

Events industry is changing, but too slowly 

Things aren’t exactly improving quickly, with the Ensono research revealing there was only a 4 per cent increase in the number of female speakers between 2016 and 2018, and delegates saying harassment is still rife. The #MeToo movement is slow to catch on in the events world, it seems.

“The rampant sexism in the events industry has persisted for so long because it was not seen as an issue that affects the bottom line of either the event organisers or the organisations who send their employees to these events. ‘Boys will always be boys,’ we’re told,” says Ms Classon.

“As long as this mentality continues to be allowed to flourish in corporations around the world, we will be continuing to fight an uphill battle.”