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Leveling the Playing Field: Women in the industry

Many in the exhibition industry may have heard of the once prevalent ‘old boys club,’ the idea that industry members were mostly male. Yet the consensus today is that women are an equal force in all aspects of the industry from labor and administrative roles to tradeshow management and C-level positions.

Each of these industry professionals comes from varied fields and backgrounds, but one thing in common among these women is the unwavering passion and dedication for her career in the exhibition industry. Leading the way for all those to follow, these experienced professionals offer sage advice that could benefit both men and women entering the field.

Traci Browne, freelance writer and owner, Red Cedar Marketing

I was IT director for a biometrics company and we were exhibiting at Comdex back in the ‘90s. I watched them running the Ethernet by shooting the cables across the convention center using compound bows. When I saw that I decided I wanted to be involved with tradeshows full time. I mean honestly…compound bows? It doesn’t get cooler than that.

Kristin Castelli, vice president of sales, MG Design Associates Corp.

I never planned to be in this industry; however, a series of events played out early in my career that paved this path. I was a communications intern during college at an exhibit house and then moved to Chicago in 1992. In Chicago, I worked in customer service for Cahner’s (now Reed Exhibition) registering people for shows and compiling show kits. On the weekends, I worked at McCormick Place handing out the daily magazine for various industry shows. At the time, my brother worked for a company called Comdisco whose exhibit house was Matrex Exhibits and he arranged an interview for me with Jill Hebert, the president. She hired me as a sales rep, handed me a phone and I started making calls. Jill really took me under her wing and mentored me every step. I will always be grateful to her.

In 1999, when I decided to move to San Francisco, I interviewed with many companies. MG Design presented me a unique opportunity to open their first satellite office. Back then, startup satellite offices for exhibit houses were unusual. I’m proud to say our office in San Francisco is still thriving and growing today.

Lara Davie, senior project manager, ELITeXPO

It was back in 2000 my friend Dalene Threeton (who was working for Exhibit City News at the time) called me and said she had a job for me – that a friend needed an office manager and I needed to get out of California. I was a single mom struggling to make ends meet at part-time jobs at the time. She said, “This is the perfect job for you.” I interviewed and was hired to be the office manager at the Hoffend Xpositions Warehouse in Las Vegas. When I saw how a tradeshow came together after all the planning, I knew it was the industry for me. I have been in love with the industry since and am currently with ELITeXPO since October 2003.

Pat Friedlander, owner, Word-Up

Before I officially joined the tradeshow industry, I worked for a number of years in book publishing. In addition to the rock ‘n’ roll days of ABA (American Bookseller—now Book Expo), I was involved in exhibiting at Comdex, CES, NCC, MacWorld and a number of other shows because we published lots of books on how to use software or to program in SQL. I truly loved the face to face experience. In the late ‘80s, when book publishing started to fall apart, I had to make the choice: move to NYC or get out of publishing. I chose the latter. After an extensive job search, during which I was still working, I came across an ad in the Tribune for a position at Giltspur. The short version is that the rest is history.

Betty Kasper, executive vice president, MG Design Associates Corp.

It was a fluke as the tradeshow industry wasn’t widely known as a career path in the 1960s. I was simply looking for a job after school and began as a receptionist at General Exhibits in 1960. I learned from the bottom up. As they saw I understood the industry, I was able to perform other job functions and move up, assisting in many roles from writing proposals to running blueprints. While it was a very male dominated industry, I worked for a group of men that allowed me to explore the industry and learn.
When I took a position as a receptionist at MG Design, founder Michael Grivas Sr. quickly told me to find my replacement and made me his assistant. I began account managing and when he started to retire, I started working with his clients directly. Today, I am executive vice president at MG Design Associates.

Diana Simmons, executive vice president & COO, Hargrove Inc.

I was in the right place at the right time. I was 21 years old working as an office manager at an architectural firm in Lanham, Md. In the same building, in a tiny room without windows that once stored maintenance supplies, two men had just started a new tradeshow business. This converted broom closet was the first office for what is now known as National Trade Productions and its owner was Bob Harar. Since it was just a two-man startup, of course they needed a woman to help them get the work done. So, they paid my boss, the architect, to have me help them.

A year later they were in a position to move to a real office space and asked that I work directly for them full time. At the time, I did what many young women did and asked my mother for advice. She told me not to change jobs – it was too risky. That was the first time I didn’t take my mom’s advice; somehow I just knew that this was my fate – I was meant to go to work for this company. Looking back I know now that one decision truly changed my life and put me on the path to a real career.

Kelli Steckbauer, director of global business, MG Design Associates Corp.
I needed an internship for a summer while at the University. My aunt was the director of marketing at the time for MG Design and set me up to work there for a summer. After the summer, I moved to Germany to finish my degree and upon returning and graduation, MG Design hired me back. I’ve been there for the last 10 years.

My career has been spent with MG Design, but in various roles. I was lucky enough to come in full time and work closely with two awesome women. They really taught me the ropes and the industry. Even though I was counting straws and napkins and making sure all of the clients’ product arrived, learning from the ground up has made me much more knowledgeable. I moved into a senior account manager role, then to director of client services, where I oversaw the account management department and then into sales. In 2010, I officially began the global division for MG Design and built it from the ground up, which leads me to where I am today, director of global business. It’s been a roller coaster, but I wouldn’t change anything about it.

What does it mean to be woman in a male-dominated industry?
Kelli Steckbauer
I find the fact that we still consider the industry to be male-dominated quite interesting. I honestly feel that the days of the ‘old boys club,’ that does still rear its ugly head at times, is diminishing in the U.S. Yet, globally, I do not feel that is the case at all. I notice when I’m one of a handful of women at an OSPI event that isn’t in the “spouses” group and my spouse is the one with all the women. I’m sure they love him by the way! However, generally, it has not been an issue. I feel they treat me just as any other man they do business with.

Betty Kasper
I find the industry isn’t as male dominated as it once was. When I began in the industry, I was seen as a secretary no matter what function I was performing. It wasn’t as easy to stretch and grow your career as it is now.

Lara Davie
I personally do not see the industry as male dominated anymore. I would say 80 percent of the exhibit managers I deal with on a daily basis are female. When I first began my career with ELITeXPO back in 2003, I did notice that in the freight side of what I do, it is mainly male dominated and it was difficult to be taken seriously at times when trying to do my job. But I always treat everyone with respect and I feel that if you do that – keep your word and be professional – it should not matter.

Pat Friedlander
Coming from the publishing industry, which was great repository for the weird and the wonderful, I was hit by how homogeneous the tradeshow industry was – how white, how male. I was used to diversity. With its roots in manufacturing, I wasn’t very surprised by the mindset. But I still remember the guy who hired me saying, “I can’t believe a girl is the best candidate.”

A fact that I love to share is that not once in all the years at Giltspur’s corporate office was I invited to have lunch with ‘the boys’—others (all male) in management. I was totally marginalized. Fortunately Giltspur’s strength was in its divisions where I found the people to be much more creative and insightful. I also realized that my career would outlast theirs and that the industry held promise for me.

Diana Simmons
I’ve never considered this a male dominated industry. When I became general manager of the mid-Atlantic division for GES, I was the only female general manager at the time. This is not something I was conscious of until someone pointed it out to me.

I have never associated my role in a relationship with another by gender. I don’t think it matters nor has it ever inhibited my ability to succeed. I am fortunate to be a part of a great organization that also happens to be a woman-owned national company and to work with and have worked with some very influential women in our industry.

Traci Browne
I’ve never faced any challenges as a woman in this industry. I will say that I’m extremely disappointed by the lack of female representation at industry meetings on panel discussions. If it’s because women are not putting themselves out there, then that needs to change. We, as women, need to own our space and put ourselves out there.

What challenges do women face in the tradeshow industry?
Traci Browne
Madeline Albright said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” I try to live by that. Reach out to women who’ve been in this industry for a long time and ask for their advice. And more importantly, help everyone who comes up behind you.

I have an issue with groups dedicated to women in our industry. We are not a minority. I’ve never been treated as anything but a professional by anyone in our industry. My job takes me to many conferences across many different industries. There are so many events I go to where women truly are a minority. I’ve been to conferences where women are less than 5 percent of those in attendance. Those women clearly have hurdles they must overcome. We don’t have the same hurdles. Look around you and find people you respect whether they are a woman or a man and ask them for advice. Ours is an industry that thrives on relationships, start building those professional relationships regardless if they are men or women.

Betty Kasper
I don’t feel that as many challenges exist anymore. When we walk into a meeting people listen to a woman and take her opinions and ideas seriously. Before, the men in the room would think, “What does she know?” Today, women and their ideas are accepted in the workplace.

Pat Friedlander
I think as a whole, women are overachievers and people pleasers. Perhaps our biggest challenge in this industry is to keep balance in our lives and to learn to be pleasantly assertive.

In any industry, women are judged more harshly than men, and as unfair as that is, I believe it is critical to practice extremely good judgment when it comes to social events. ‘Nuff said.

Diana Simmons

I believe women dominate many aspects of our industry, some of which are perceived to be administrative or operational roles. Women can be more resilient, possess diverse skills sets, and have the ability to be more flexible in a very diverse and changing industry. The challenge for women is that we can be perceived as being too emotional at times. Don’t fight this perception – instead, embrace it. This is a strength, not a weakness. Channel this emotion into passion for the job, for developing the people and for achieving excellence.

I think you have to ask how as women we achieve balance in lives. I think we get caught up in this conversation of having to choose between work and home life—and I know women can have both and be successful.


Kelli Steckbauer

Personally, I have not come across many challenges for being a woman in the tradeshow industry. Back when I first started, and still at times, you get the few people out there that hoot and holler like the stereotypical construction worker on a lunch break, but those men are going to do that no matter what industry you are in.

I have had challenges working globally as a woman, however. For example, the Middle East is starting to boom with shows and, for the first time this year, I actually cannot attend one, simply because it’s in Saudi Arabia and I’m a woman.

How did you overcome these challenges?
Betty Kasper
You need to gain respect.

 

Pursue it. Learn more. Gain the respect of those around you whether they are your mentors, colleagues or clients. Be yourself and know what you can offer. We are in the service industry, so we need to know what people need before they do. People will look at that as knowledge and a benefit.


Lara Davie

Being new to the industry with my first position and then new to a different aspect of the industry with my current company, I had to learn everything I could about the industry and what my job involved. I joined industry associations like EACA (now E2MA) and EDPA. It is like any other job you may have, if you do not know what you are doing no one will respect you as a colleague. I have been fortunate to have worked with amazing people who have taught me many things both personally and professionally.

Diana Simmons
By surrounding myself with and learning from excellent people, focusing on doing the best possible job every day, and staying true to my core values. By having a passion for the business and always striving to succeed in all that I am doing. By focusing on the company and the people around me to achieve success knowing personal success is a by-product. By never blaming anyone else or even a male-dominated industry or company for any failures or shortcomings.

 

Kelli Steckbauer
You can’t change ignorance or cultural ways of life, so you power through. I accept the fact that I cannot go to Saudi Arabia and I asked a male colleague of mine to go on behalf of me. He was happy to. And, if someone wants to make comments as I walk through the show floor during installation, I ignore them. The fact is, I’ve been really lucky. I came into this industry when more and more women were as well and haven’t faced some of the challenges I’m sure other females have.

Do you have any advice for future females who enter the field?
Kelli Steckbauer
Be yourself and don’t focus on male vs. female. Focus on doing the best job that you can and your hard work will be recognized and pay off.

Lara Davie
Stay true to yourself. Honor who you are as a person. Don’t be afraid to call a spade a spade if you need to. What is it they say? You have to stand for something or you will fall for anything, right?

Betty Kasper
Be yourself and learn everything you can. Give 24/7. In my opinion, it should not be about you or your company, it is about your client. When your clients look good, your company looks good.

Pat Friedlander
Learn to value yourself, your opinions, your tastes, your insights. And learn to do the same for those of others. Learn what is negotiable and what is non-negotiable. Learn to speak directly without ‘qualifying’ what you’re saying. Develop a good handshake, good eye-contact, your own style. Keep yourself healthy and in shape. The road life can be a killer.

 

The other piece of advice is to support other women, unless you have a values conflict. Often the temptation to support men against other women is very seductive—you become ‘the good girl.’ Don’t fall for it!

Traci Browne
I hope to see women putting themselves out there and submitting more sessions at industry events, especially our female tradeshow and expo executives. Let the younger generation see there is a place for women at the top of the ladder. I’d like to see women kick up their self-confidence a notch or two. Stop questioning if you’re good enough. Let your freak flag fly.
Diana Simmons
Employ a humanistic approach to managing people because the true success of any leader or manager (male or female) is measured by the success of your people. Understand that there is no “one size fits all” management approach. It’s essential to learn what motivates each person and adapt your approach to each person.

 

Never stop learning; keep educating yourself no matter how old you are or how long you are in your career. Recognize the importance of seeking out and learning from those around you and especially from those who may work for you. Continue with your formal education; higher learning institutions are not just for young people. When I was in my forties and had achieved a level of success in my career, I went back to school. I didn’t need to do this for a promotion; I needed to do this for myself to keep learning new things. I am very proud of the fact that I was in college at the same time as my daughter. That was the second best decision I made in my career.

What are the benefits of being female in the tradeshow industry?
Traci Browne
Men like to help women. This is a fact. With at least a ratio of 95 percent of those working on the show floor being men during setup, we can use this to our advantage. I’m not saying play some helpless female role; I’m just saying be your own pleasant self and when someone says “Can I help you?,” smile and say “Yes, thank you.”

Kelli Steckbauer

The good majority of our clients are women, and that can be a benefit. Personally, I tend to connect better with women clients, as we have more in common. On the show floor, it’s great…most of the time the bathroom lines are shorter than the males! I’ve also worked with men who respect women and have good old fashioned values. When I’m supervising install and need a place to sit, they find me a chair or make me a desk, so I can work easily. I don’t see them going out of their way to do that for a male colleague.

Betty Kasper
If you know your stuff, they listen. Most clients are female in our industry now.

 

Kristin Castelli
For the most part, I really don’t think of this industry in terms of male or female. I feel that in this industry you are judged by whether or not you can perform and that has nothing to do with whether you are female or male. There may have been a time when I first started where it seemed all my peers were male, but any differences quickly fell by the wayside as I was soon respected for what I delivered for my clients and my company. My advice to anyone entering the field – male or female – is to be open to learning, be driven, be smart, have integrity and most importantly…be committed to helping others succeed, clients as well as co-workers, and your own success will follow.
Lara Davie
I think that as a whole, women hold the key. We are naturally born to manage many things at once. While some may say our emotions make us a liability, I see female emotions as an ever driving force to do the best we can. If you ask anyone who the No. 1 woman they admire is, I bet they would say their mother. I know my mother was my hero. She pulled up the boot straps and supported our family when she had to. Women know that when the going gets tough, you just have to do what you need to get it done.
Diana Simmons
The opportunities are limitless in this industry for anyone—male and female—if you’re goal oriented, willing to learn and work hard, have high ethical standards and be honest and fair. As it pertains to women, this industry offers unlimited benefits in terms of diversity of jobs and skill requirements.

Take my career as an example: the first company I worked for had different jobs that employed varying skill sets including office management, meeting planner, conference developer, tradeshow operations director, vice president and president of the company. I’ve also worked for companies that serve different aspects of the industry, from show management to a national tradeshow general contractor, to a company that is a full-service creative and event production company as well as tradeshow general contractor (Hargrove).

Do you anticipate any changes in the future?
Kelli Steckbauer
I do see changes already occurring and more coming in the future. Twelve years ago, as an intern, it was clear the industry was male dominated. However, I see more and more women every day taking over roles that men used to hold. The ‘old boys club’ I mentioned before is retiring and women are stepping up in their place. Even at MG, when I first started, and for some time after, a male held the role of VP of sales and now we have a woman.
Pat Friedlander
The biggest changes that are coming revolve around so many of the male leaders in the industry taking retirement. This opens up new opportunities for women to step into leadership positions.

Lara Davie

I would like to see that women and men were paid equally for a job well done. I read online all the time that women are still paid less than men.

Diana Simmons

The one thing you can always anticipate and count on in this industry is change. Like most industries, we are affected by the economy as well as the ebb and flow of business sectors, technology and such. Our business is so diverse that we are in a constant state of change because we serve many other industries. Therefore, we have to be flexible in our approach to business so that we can serve and take care of our customers.

 

It is important for women to stay attuned to the changes in their organizations and the industry and to recognize the opportunities that present themselves.

What do you hope to see for female tradeshow professionals in the future?
Kelli Steckbauer
I hope to see more and more women in leadership roles throughout the industry. Leading organizations like EDPA and even exhibit houses. Let’s get more women presidents and CEOs out there.
As mentioned earlier, I began in the industry as an intern. My career has been spent with MG Design, but in various roles. I was lucky enough to come in full time and work closely with two awesome women. They really taught me the ropes and the industry. Even though I was counting straws and napkins and making sure all of the clients’ product arrived, learning from the ground up has made me much more knowledgeable. I moved into a senior account manager role, then to director of client services, where I oversaw the account management department and then into sales. In 2010, I officially began the global division for MG Design and built it from the ground up, which leads me to where I am today, director of global business. It’s been a roller coaster, but I wouldn’t change anything about it.

Betty Kasper
I don’t know how much further we can go. Female VPs of marketing are everywhere. We can keep it going. We are here to stay boys!
Kristin Castelli
What I would like to see is an influx of young people into our industry. The challenge is how can we as an industry recruit and keep young smart professionals engaged in the future of exhibit and event marketing.

Lara Davie
On a funny note… more comfortable high heel shoes… 🙂

Pat Friedlander
I would like to see maintaining and enhancing professionalism, the infusion of a feminine sensibility to this industry and the supporting of women by other women. The skills that so many of us develop as mothers are really valuable in an industry that depends on people juggling lots of projects and responsibilities.

Diana Simmons
I hope to see more women at the highest executive levels in companies— running the businesses in the tradeshow industry.

Let me take a moment to brag on my daughter. She is married with a beautiful 7-month-old daughter, working two jobs. She is the head coach of University of Maryland’s cheerleaders where she teaches young women every day, and she’s a successful manager in a company. I am in what I consider to be a successful career and am proud of the fact that my husband and I have been married 37 years. We raised a wonderful daughter together and are now doting grandparents. If you ask my daughter and me both about balance, we will tell you that we work hard at it each and every day. And, while it’s hard, we never give up—because we want both. As a result, it’s truly amazing—astonishing even—what you can achieve.

Posted in People, Women in the Industry
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