Women's Wisdom: Industry Trailblazers Share Insights on Gender Equity and Those Who Inspire Them

March 18, 2022

March, designated Women’s History Month, which corresponds with International Women’s Day on March 8, marks a particularly appealing time to celebrate modern-day females and those of yesteryear—the groundbreakers, the changemakers, the rising stars, the achievers and the “empowerers” who motivate those around them. We had the pleasure of catching up with six vibrant industry professionals who are making history of their own to get their thoughts on how their peers and the industry at large can further improve gender equity and the women who have inspired them most throughout their careers.

Julie Coker, president and CEO, San Diego Tourism Authority; board member, International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE)

Gender Equity: When it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), everyone has a role to play. Specifically, as it relates to gender, there are several ways to support DE&I efforts. First, there must be commitment at the highest level to ensure gender equality, and this can only be accomplished if there are women on the board and who serve on the executive committee where key decisions are being made. Second, the adage “what gets measured gets done” is even more true when it comes DE&I, so it is critical for an organization to have clear goals when it comes to gender representation as well as accurate data, so it can see where there are gaps in positions for women. From there, an organization needs to develop a strategy and commit both the human and financial resources needed to achieve their goals, whether it be in recruiting, supplier diversity, training, mentorship programs and so on. Finally, gender equity must be a business imperative for the entire organization and not just for the HR department. All decisions should be made through the lens of DE&I because there is a real return on investment when there is diversity of thought and experience around the table. 

Inspiring Women: My mom has always been a source of inspiration for me. She was a single mom who pushed all three of us in every aspect of our lives—basketball, cheerleading, summer camp, college and, eventually, our careers. The reason why my mom pushed so hard is that she understood women, particularly black women, were always going to be held to a higher standard. My mom also taught us black history, so we knew who we were and why we had earned a seat at the table. She instilled in me several things that I live by today: Always treat others with dignity and respect; be your authentic self, and if that is not good enough, then you probably do not want to be in that room; don’t ask anything of others that you are not willing to do yourself; pay it forward—you never know whose life you may touch. 

Thuy Diep, senior experience designer, Haute; Board of Directors, SEARCH Foundation

Gender Equity: My advice to event professionals is simple: Take risks. Seize opportunities as they come. Gender equity is a win for everyone. A scenario where all genders enjoy equity means employee satisfaction, increased loyalty and greater returns to the bottom line. This is such a wonderful time in our industry. The credit belongs to the women who paved the way ahead of us. We have to live up to their contributions and do our part every day. A famous quote, credited to Edith Piaf, says, “When you’ve reached the top, send the elevator back down for others.” There really are enough opportunities to go around and a safe place for everyone at the table. Be your inner cheerleader instead of your inner critic! Learn and appreciate how we got here and who got us here and be that for someone else.

Inspiring Women: Inspiring women are everywhere and in abundance! My list is endless and ever growing, really. The path for me in the industry was paved by the likes of the legendary Patti Shock, Denise Dornfeld, Michele Polci, Kate Patay, Annette Gregg, all of whom made great impressions on me early in my career. They all are incredibly authentic, giving and encouraging as mentors, bosses and leaders. I’m fortunate to be empowered by strong industry leaders within my Haute work family, including Alisa Walsh, Morgan Connacher, Kate Brack, Liz Lathan and Nicole Osibodu. The list of professional women who wear many hats and carry responsibilities such as wives and mothers, all while being among the greats in our industry, is truly inspiring for me.

Courtney Stanley, keynote speaker, event emcee, speaker coach, Courtney Stanley Consulting; Women’s Advisory Board, Meeting Professionals International; ambassador, Meetings Mean Business; host, #DareToInterrupt podcast

Gender Equity: We cannot simply assume that all women have the same goals or needs. Having individual conversations with the women sitting around our tables about resource gaps is critical to supporting their success. What we do know is that access to mentorship—regardless of the mentor's gender—is imperative. When leaders of all backgrounds invest in the growth of their team members by sharing their experience, knowledge and networks, we are all better positioned to rise. 

Inspiring Women: There are far too many names to list, so instead, I'll share some of the key qualities that the women who have inspired me most in my career live and breathe: confidence, authenticity, boldness, grit, compassion and integrity. 

Carrie Abernathy, lead meeting planner, industry engagement, Altria; co-founder, Association for Women in Events; host, “Like an #EventBoss” podcast and “Events: From Black to White” video chat show

Gender Equity: Increasing gender equity in the industry is the exact reason we formed the Association for Women in Events, and a clear call to action is so very layered that it can’t be solved (unfortunately) by a single thing.  I would say, we need to continue to promote women.  elevate their voices, promote their positions to ones of leadership. Continue to recruit and diversify. We need to change the mindset around what event professionals are before we can change the industry.  Event professionals are still looked upon as glorified assistants at times instead of strategic and integral pieces of the business case for organizations.

Inspiring Women: I am really inspired by women that persevere and women that elevate other women.  For so long, the top positions for women have been seen as reason for competition. For those women that create seats for other women—I applaud you.  Some of those women to me are Sarah Soliman (Soliman Productions), Rachel Sheerin (keynote speaker), Keneshia Williams (Black in Events Network), JT Long (Smart Meetings), Courtney Stanley (Women to Watch Awards). 

Kate Patay, chief strategy officer, Patay Consulting; chairwoman, SEARCH Foundation; ambassador, Meetings Mean Business

Gender Equity: Don’t be afraid to speak up. If you see speaker panels or teams of employees that aren’t diverse enough ask those in charge, why? Whenever I see an opportunity that reminds me of another strong woman in our industry, I share it. We need to champion each other, both on our platforms and behind the scenes. Walk your talk, ladies, and surround yourself with powerful women who will help you level up.

Inspiring Women: I’ve been inspired by the OGs of the industry who helped shatter these glass ceilings for us, like the Andrea Michaels, Joann Roth-Osearys and Jaclyn Bernsteins of the world, but I’m equally impressed by the ladies who are currently leading the pack. You look at the Thuy Dieps, Courtney Stanleys or Zena Phillips of the world, and you know they are absolute forces of nature. The future is bright!

Dahlia El Gazzar, tech evangelist, idea igniteur, DAHLIA+Agency

Gender Equity: Event professionals can, at every decision point, whether it’s related to a job, team, task force, brainstorming session, presentation, customer pitch or board position, ask whether they have included diverse, female-identified candidates for the opportunity. Continue to show up, ask the questions, and set by example. The only way to increase gender equity is by action. And to create the conversation and megaphone. Share examples of how you have increased gender equity, discuss how to do it better, how to empower others. We have the channels now to speak louder, so let’s use them. Set the example so that our little ones can read about your stories in their history books and take action in their own way as well. Set the stage for others to follow.

Inspiring Women: I have been blessed that my tribe on a personal and professional level has elevated me in so many ways in my career and with risk taking. My mom showed me how to show up, how to be empathetic, and that hard work definitely pays off. Every day, my tribe at DAHLIA+Agency inspires me to take all our clients and projects to the next level. I have several mentors in the industry that listen to my madness, validate my insane ideas sometimes, and support me when I go through my imposter syndrome phase. Make sure you surround yourself with others that support you and you can empower them. Thrive on that.

Kelly Smith, executive director of sales, Caesars Entertainment

Gender Equity: 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.

Inspiring Women: 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.  

Cathy Song Novelli, SVP, marketing and communications, Hubilo

Gender Equity: 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. We also 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. As women in particular do, we should start seeing an increase in gender equity in event tech. 

Inspiring Women: 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!

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