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Working as a woman in a man’s world

For some women, the tradeshow industry is considered an equal playing field. The opportunities for men are the same for women, and there is no difference because of gender. However, for other women who find themselves working harder for lesser opportunities, the tradeshow industry is still largely considered a boy’s club.

“Breaking into an industry where women held only secretarial positions was not easy,” said Jill Hebert, CEO of Matrex Exhibits, which has been around for 23 years. “When road blocks are intentionally placed in your path, when your pay is less than equal, when the hours are longer, what do you do?”

A majority of the women who encounter gender issues in the tradeshow industry have found their own ways of confronting the struggle. Whether a woman chooses to deal with gender prejudice head on or adapt her methods and ignore the bias, every female has cultivated her own tactics.

“You’re going to have to play the game to get stuff done,” said Elaine Cohen, owner of Live Marketing, an experiential marketing firm that has been in business for over 35 years. “Whether it’s playing to men’s egos or making it seem like it was their idea, you just have to get it done.”

Other women are not so keen to tolerate the limitations set before them. To them, gender bias is just another obstacle to transcend in the workplace.

“You have to learn how to stand your ground and fight for what you believe in,” said Stacy Barnes, national sales manager at Brumark, who has been managing employees for six years. “You have to learn to overcome the fear of people not liking you.”

The gender line in the workplace is drawn early, meaning that women face simple challenges where men would not, such as asking an employee to carry out a task.

“It’s kind of like taking orders from your mother or father,” said Barnes. “A lot of people look at women bosses as the lenient mom, and they can do whatever they want. But of course they would do what the father wants every time.”

So what is a woman to do in a male-dominated industry? What kind of approaches do these women take to get results in their business?

“If there are issues, I prefer to speak with the individual directly and be clear about my expectations,” said Kim Merkin, who has managed a staff for 7 years and is currently the director of sales, west coast, at Czarnowski. “Speaking too sternly is demeaning.”

Rather than being straightforward and delegating tasks specifically, a more liberal approach of handling employees is creating a collaborative effort throughout the company.

“My philosophy is to establish goals, offer suggestions and brain storm with individuals,” said Hebert. “Give people creative freedom and they will develop the solution.”

Another controversial aspect of a woman’s job in the tradeshow industry is earning respect from other co-workers and employees.

“I believe it is important to clearly set performance expectations and then hold people accountable,” said Shelly Justice, 10-year owner of Convention Models and Talent. “Respect is a big part of managing employees. It needs to be earned, and there is no gender distinction.”

Often, women face challenges simply because they are seen as naive and have a tendency to lead with their heart rather than their mind. This view is detrimental to the progression of women in the workplace.

“Women are going to come up with more emotional or experience-related things,” said Cohen. “Where women tend to be much more human, guys are more practical and tech-solution oriented.”

The difference between men and women can also be seen in the way insubordinate employees are handled.

“The most important thing is to keep a level head,” said Shana Carr, division president of MC2, who has been managing employees for 12 years. “There have been a couple times where an employee got out of hand and I started to lose my cool as well. I walked away, cooled down, thought it through and went back with a different approach. Leadership is leadership, and it is not a gender-specific talent.”

Although women throughout the industry are developing their own ways of handling the gender bias, for some, it isn’t even an issue.

“I know who I am, what I have accomplished and what I bring to the table to my employees and clients,” said Justice. “I am very headstrong and not easily intimidated, and I am very confident.”

According to Alicia Rosen, president of Elements who has been in an executive position for six years, the time you’ve spent in the industry speaks louder than any other factor.

“There are often many roads that lead to the same place,” she said. “Every newbie definitely has to prove themselves as knowledgeable and competent before earning any trust. It isn’t handed out freely.”

Regardless of whether a woman is affected by her gender, the future for women in the tradeshow industry can only improve.

“I don’t think we have to play the ‘woman card’ to be respected in this industry,” said Carr. “The change will happen naturally as more women play more significant roles. We only have to prove ourselves with results.”


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