Cathy Breden, CAE, CMP, never aspired to work in the C-suite, let alone rise to executive vice president and chief operation officer of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events. Rather, she focused on being a professional while raising a family. In her case, that meant going back to work six weeks after the birth of her son a quarter-century ago. She was soon on the road for a two-week business trip, relying on her husband to care for their newborn.
Over time, she was given an opportunity to demonstrate her skills in a business environment that rewarded achievement. The fact Breden feels she did nothing exceptional to move up the ranks in the meetings and events industry is perhaps what makes her story so compelling. It’s true she had a supportive husband and mentors along the way, but few professionals achieve success without assistance. Her work, she says, did the talking—and her bosses were listening.
Breden remains an exception in a culture that tilts heavily in men’s favor. A 2014 study by the Center for American Progress found that American females make up only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. The challenges extend to industries, companies and positions of all kinds, including the highest office in the land: the presidency, referred to by Hillary Clinton as the “highest, hardest glass ceiling.”
“I don’t think society has caught up,” says Breden of the gender gap. “There is still an old boys’ network, and I think women are tired of having to navigate that.”
In the meetings and events industry, which is predominantly comprised of women except at the top of the ladder, the issue is particularly noticeable, and frustration is mounting.
“It drives me crazy, without question,” says Shelley Williams, Caesars Entertainment director of sales for the Eastern region, of the glass ceiling. “But I don’t think it is ever going away.”
NO EASY ANSWER
It’s easy to say a glass ceiling still exists, although the topic remains complex. Even when women reach executive status, their salaries often don’t match those of their male counterparts. Few would argue it’s a coincidence, but how we’ve gotten there is a matter of some debate—as is whether men and women will ever have equal footing in the business world.
Williams is not alone in being a pessimist, but there are voices of optimism as well. In interviews with five successful and influential female members of the meetings industry, the issue became so emotional that these otherwise well-spoken, outgoing personalities sometimes struggled to articulate their feelings. The conversations diverged into related topics like work-life balance, child care, work environments, seizing opportunities and basic human nature.
“Our industry is dominated by women, but if you look at leadership, it is still very male-dominated. So, there’s obviously something going on there,” says Carina Bauer, CEO of IMEX Group.