The recently released study from the Women's Leadership Initiative, a research project funded by the MPI Foundation, breaks new ground for women in the industry. Women make up 76 percent of Meeting Professionals International's membership, yet just 9 percent of those women hold leadership positions within their own organizations, compared to 30 percent of male MPI members. WLI commissioned a two-part study in partnership with Michigan State University to analyze what it takes to be a leader in this industry and to identify women's critical challenges.

Results of phase one, a survey of men and women, found that the genders agreed on many of the qualities of leadership: adaptability, determination, exceeding expectations, and developing a vision, for example. But women identified additional criteria needed to reach or stay in leadership. These included: developing a work style that superiors like; working on difficult, highly visible projects; being good at negotiating; getting help at home; and decreasing sleep, hobbies, and interests.

Phase two, released in July, consisted of interviews with women in meeting and event planning who work for large and small corporations. Although the study taps women in the corporate world, its conclusions seem relevant to the broader meeting community as well. According to the study, career women face five critical challenges:

  1. Balancing work/family.

  2. Getting dead-ended by their ability to handle details and to multitask.

  3. Coping with communication differences between men and women.

  4. Dealing with leadership differences between men and women.

  5. Dealing with a leadership potential that is biased toward men.

Recommendations? Women interested in leadership positions must develop a strategic life plan. Corporations need to make a “sincere and substantial commitment of time, money, and staff” to determine factors that contribute to holding women back. They must develop a strategic plan that will produce changes so that the “organization as a whole can benefit from the leadership of women.”

And we're not talking token gestures. “Many of those who work at the executive, managerial, and nonprofit volunteer levels have to commit to radical change,” the report concludes.

According to M.J. Calnan, managing director of MPI's Women's Leadership Initiative, reactions so far to the study have been varied. “We guarantee one thing,” Calnan says. “The document will be of significance to everyone who reads it, either in their personal or professional lives — or both.”

The next steps, says Calnan, are nine strategies outlined in the just-completed two-year strategic plan. The strategies “will each embrace the research results in their planning and execution. They will include such activities as: doing European WLI research; tracking individual women and MPI chapter progress; launching a mentoring program; recognizing organizations with model programs to advance women; and offering an industrywide women's summit in 2005.” MPI also will provide ongoing resources, such as a series of pocket-type, “make it happen” aides based on the document's Committing to Change section.