At the August annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives in Philadelphia, Association Meetings held a roundtable discussion on why there are so few women leaders when there are so many women in the industry. We knew we had hit a nerve when the women leaders we had invited expressed strong support and enthusiasm for the roundtable. The resulting animated conversation highlights the many issues and perspectives connected with the subject of women and leadership. It's a topic our industry has only recently begun to explore following the launch earlier this year of the Women's Leadership Initiative, an industry-wide coalition spearheaded by Meeting Professionals International.

AM: Do you think female leadership is beginning to catch up to the field's demographics?

Lisa Block: Women are heading the meeting function in associations in significant numbers. Where we haven't arrived as much is as CEOs and number twos.

Kellee Magee: The MPI Women's Leadership Initiative survey this summer found that 76 percent of its membership are women. The MPI and PCMA boards are not reflective of that percentage.

Kitty Ratcliffe: Look at the supplier side: There are very few women running hotel companies. Christie [Hicks of Starwood] and Charlotte [St. Martin of Loews] are probably the most visible women in the hotel industry.

Magee: It's pretty thin after that.

Ratcliffe: Exactly. Women are strong on the meeting planning side of it, but when you look at the industry as a whole, it's predominantly male.

Brenda Scott: Kitty and I have both gone from number-two positions to the number-one position over the past five years. So I think things are moving. Are they moving quickly? No. Women like us need to keep accelerating the movement by speaking out, by nurturing, by mentoring, and also by working with our male colleagues.

Ratcliffe: Because the drive for change has to come from within the individual community, we CVB execs can't influence choices the business leaders and community leaders in that town are going to make. Our industry is a reflection of society as a whole. When you look at IACVB now, you'll see many small bureaus, and you'll see that many of them are headed up by women. So it looks like we're making some progress. But it really hasn't changed: I started out in the business 19 years ago as the head of a one-person bureau with a budget of $142,000. Those small bureaus with small budgets headed by women are still out there. What does cause change is when IACVB brings women onto the board of directors. That allows those women to grow by learning about association management and other areas [where] they need to grow professionally.

AM: What holds women back, particularly young women, from volunteering in organizations and thus setting out on the path of leadership?

Magee: ASAE, MPI, and PCMA all want rising levels of volunteerism. The question is where are you going to get it? We sit in judgment — and I'm equally guilty of frowning at the parade of gray-haired white men at ASAE — but at the same time, there are fewer of us volunteering.

Suzette Eaddy: When you're starting your career, you don't have time for volunteerism. It's only now that I'm at the top of my career that I have time to do a lot of things I'm doing to try to make my point in the industry. I couldn't have done this 10 years ago.

Lisa Block: It's about finding meaningful ways for people to become involved in industry organizations, and to take on volunteer assignments that aren't necessarily the traditional ones. And I think it's incumbent upon industry associations to look at it. I know from PCMA's perspective, we're spending a lot of time looking at how we can give volunteers opportunities to have really substantial, meaningful involvement without having to serve on a committee for two years. Or without having to go to a committee meeting in a city that they can't afford to travel to.

Susan Sarver: When the 20- or 30-somethings can't get involved in a leadership position, we must lay the groundwork, not only in modeling what's possible, but actually helping people learn the steps that will take them to where they want to go — or even just showing them what the possibilities are.

Magee: The 20- and 30-somethings are having a huge impact on all of our professions, and I think we are trying to find alternative ways of encouraging these people into leadership, short of having to be there 25 years. Career cycles are shorter than they used to be — so it's encouraging that our associations are trying to find ways to fast-track younger people, male and female, into leadership roles.

AM: Do you think men and women lead differently in their style or philosophy?

Scott: I was a banking officer for 18 years, and if you want to see a field where there are no women at the top, go into banking. A lot of my female colleagues tried to come up the ranks by wearing the little gray suits with the uncomfortable blouses so they would look like their male counterparts. That was one thing I have always said I would never do. I'm a woman, I love being a woman, and I come with all the emotions women have. I lead with my heart, not with my head. Men are beginning to recognize that we come to the table with strengths that men don't have. I think they can learn a lot from us.

Ratcliffe: Bringing emotions to the table can be a good thing — it can be a really bad thing as well. I remember a person who shall remain nameless who was on the board of IACVB years ago and he enjoyed telling me the story about the one woman on the board of directors of IACVB who, in the moment of heated discussion, burst into tears. It was a big chuckle for all the boys around the table because she cried. And not only did they lose respect for her, but for all women. I remember being so angry, not at him for laughing, but at her for putting us all in that position. So yes, we bring some emotion to the table — I have certainly done that — but only to a certain point.

Eaddy: I think women are more nurturing. If there's someone who's not currently contributing to the bottom line, men tend to just get rid of them. Women more likely will try to develop that person.

Debra Rosencrance: I think it's also true that it's not acceptable to lead in a way more characteristic of men: You're likely to be labeled a bitch. I'm very bottom-line driven, and I think some people take that the wrong way.

Ratcliffe: If you were a man, they'd call you aggressive.

Sarver: I have the same problem. I get resentful at times when I have to back up and spend more time explaining and worrying about feelings and things like that I don't see men having to do. On the other hand, I do think femininity is becoming an asset. Not only do you have to welcome and embrace it, as Brenda said, but if you show how your femininity is an asset and contributes to your success, even male counterparts will start to emulate you.

Block: In my association we've gone from 10 years of having a male CEO to a situation where our CEO is a woman, our chairman of the board is a woman, and our COO is a woman. Just in six months, everyone has noticed a striking change in the corporate culture. Because the industry our association serves is very high on having women in leadership positions as well as in the ranks, we purposefully are moving in that direction. We have not lost our bottom-line member service orientation, but we definitely take care of each other more, and the association takes care of the employees in a different ways.

For example, we've instituted a community service program that has been tremendous for the morale of the employees. Another example is allowing staff to work a compressed workweek. I would say 45 percent of our staff has taken advantage of that. I can't say that it's altogether better; it's too soon to tell. I can say that it's strikingly different.

Sarver: These kinds of programs are empowering men, too. I have male friends with young children who now can go when the care providers call because one of their kids is sick. We can't lose sight of the fact that these programs benefit everyone.

AM: But what about the ethic that to be successful, you have to work 60 to 80 hours a week?

Sarver: I don't think we said that's not still true. I think those kinds of perks benefit the workforce as a whole and keep the culture happy, but I'm not sure that leaders emerge from taking advantage of those opportunities. [Lots of laughter.]

Block: Very few of our senior managers are taking advantage of compressed workweek opportunities.

AM: Does that mean that life-balance is nonexistent for leaders?

Eaddy: You just do the best you can.

Magee: You resign yourself to the fact that you have no life.

Ratcliffe: The difference is that it wasn't an issue when we were growing up in the workforce. I never heard [about] work-life balance until about five years ago. For those of us who started working 20 years ago, it was all about the more hours you work, the more you learn about your chosen profession. The more you're willing to take on whatever it takes, the more you'll succeed.

The kids that are coming up now don't share that philosophy. They don't see that there's a reward for putting in the extra time that's going to help them get further ahead, and yet they want the same rewards that we wanted. They just want to get them for working nine-to-five.

Sarver: And the Gen X-ers are like this across gender lines. They have seen women leaders, they have seen their moms in nontraditional roles. So who knows how that's going to affect work at the end of the day?

Rosencrance: I don't think leadership is a male/female thing. If you're willing to put in the time, you can get to be a leader.

But what's hindered women in this industry, and probably throughout the marketplace, is that if you have kids, you're seen as having to leave to do this or that for them.

I live in San Francisco, and there's probably more people in my office who don't have kids than do, and there's a little bit of resentment on the part of those who don't have kids that they have to take up the slack. I think that, because women have traditionally had to deal with those issues, it's been a barrier to leadership for them.

AM: So you can't have a family if you want to be a leader?

Eaddy: I started in this industry 30 years ago, my daughter is grown now, and I really can't relate to life-work balance, flex time. You just did what you had to do to get the job done. And hopefully, you thought, you would succeed if you used all the necessary tools and did everything right. But today? I just don't know.

Scott: I've gotten away from the word “balance.” I want to be centered. When I'm centered, in my personal and professional life, nothing can knock me off center. I have a husband who's very ill. We're both centered, so we can find a real joyful and wonderful lifestyle in the situation we're in now. When you're centered, you can just about accept and take on anything that comes your way.

Block: I don't have children of my own, but I do have lots of children who are big parts of my life. And I also have aging parents who have had health challenges. I'm at a point in my life where work-life balance is about maintaining my personal life, my friendships outside the meetings industry, and assisting my parents.

Sarver: Don't you find that is less respected than people who have children? I don't have children, yet my work-life balance is very important to me. But I don't get even the institutional support that people who have children get.

Magee: Yeah. “We can send you on the trip; John can't go because he has kids.” I would like to make an observation: Here we are, women who are leaders in the industry, leaders in our field, who have volunteered to be here at 7:30 on a Sunday morning for this roundtable. Not one of us has children or children who aren't grown.

AM: Do women leaders need a sort of good old girl network to open up pathways to leadership in the industry? Or would that be exclusionary?

Block: We need to be very careful. Women who are in senior positions see the same landscape as the men do. They know what positions they need to have to get to other positions, which will get them to other positions. They're just as insular in wanting to get to the top as men are. They become part of the good old boys to get where they want to go.

Magee: We talk about how we need an organization for women in the meeting planning profession — hello, that's 75 percent of us. We are the organization. The question now is how to get our leadership to reflect the demographics of the organization. We don't need an association for women meeting planners.

Eaddy: We do need to raise the level of awareness in our existing associations. I don't believe they're deliberately trying to exclude women, we're just not on their radar screen. Everybody goes with who they know, people who are like them.

Sarver: And there's nothing wrong with saying to a female colleague, “Look, there are two people up for the board. They're equally qualified. Why don't you consider voting for the female?” I would not be a proponent of voting for anyone who was less qualified, but all things being equal — come on, ladies. Why not have the board be more equal?

Block: The grassroots are already there: As Kellee said earlier, 75 percent of the meeting planning industry is comprised of women. I don't know if they necessarily need mentoring at that level. They need mentoring to move into leadership positions.

Sarver: We have to be careful not to overemphasize the fact that we're women, or minorities, to the detriment of realizing how far we've already come. Then we're reinforcing some of the behaviors we're trying to eliminate. And it's excluding men.

AM: So we don't need a separate leadership group for women?

Magee: What we need to do is celebrate the women who are in leadership roles, and we need to help each other, mentor people on their way up.

Rosencrance: I'm concerned that if you separate it out into different cultures, you're never going to get together. You're going to learn how to work within the women's culture. It would almost be better to try to get everyone together to work on how to encourage people of all types, whether it's people of color, women, different sexual orientations, to get them to leadership.

Eaddy: Well, I believe that some groups do need support. Just like if you have breast cancer, there are groups for breast cancer survivors. I think there's nothing wrong with having a separate organization.

I've been going to a group called the Corporate Women's Network, which is a group of 1,200 women to support women. When the good old boys need something, they call Joe, they call Steve. So we formed an organization in the '70s so that if I need support for my pet project, I can call Mary, Sue, or Ellen. There are 40,000 associations, and they all serve different populations. This is just a different target. That's why I don't see the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners or the Association of Hispanic Meeting Professionals as exclusionary groups. We all just can't get along — we've proven that. And we all need different support groups to shore us up.

Scott: By 2010, the face of America is going to change: The number-one race will be Hispanic, then African-American, then Asian, then white. As it relates to our associations, we need reach out to each of these groups and bring them into our circle. We must reach out. And next time, let's bring some men around this table. I want to pick their brains.

Majority Rules?

Even though women tend to make less money than men throughout the hospitality industry according to industry surveys, they still hold the overwhelming majority of meeting planning, hotel, and convention and visitor bureau positions — though the percentage of women who hold leadership positions in various industry segments is not always clear. While Meeting Professionals International has not yet tracked the percentage of its female membership who are in leadership positions, 76 percent of its total membership are women. The International Association of CVBs reports that 50 percent of its 500 member bureaus in 30 countries are led by female executive directors/CEOs. And 58.3 percent of the lodging industry in the U.S. comprises women, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association's 1998 Diversity Study. While leadership was not addressed in the AHLA survey, interestingly, the largest percentage of women (65.6 percent) worked in the smallest hotels (under 100 rooms), and the smallest percentage of women (48.1 percent) worked in hotels with more than 400 rooms.