Here at Sound & Stage, we’re certainly no stranger when it comes to attending events. From live music to military displays, sports tournaments to musical theatre, you can usually find us lingering in the shadows somewhere, taking notes and sneaking phone photos for Facebook. Last month, however, the tables were well and truly turned when, like an even more fraught and much less blonde Queen Elsa of Arundel, we flung open the doors to Sound & Stage HQ for the first time in forever to host an event of our own.
Marking the first of what will hopefully become a regular fixture on our editorial calendar, the inaugural Sound & Stage Steering Committee, kindly sponsored by Byrne Equipment Rental, brought together a selection of women from across the board in the events industry, to discuss how — if at all — gender plays a defining role within the sector.
Women in industry
Kicking off the conversation, Nicola Holmes, director at Custard Communications, addressed the opening question of whether or not there were any issues that women in the events industry currently face. She responded: “I don’t think it’s issues; I think the keyword is challenges, and I guess it’s how you deal with them as a woman. I think women are very good at embracing challenges, trying to find solutions and being very practical. I don’t think there’s any 'issue' but there’s challenges and there are ways of overcoming them, it’s how you approach things.”
And this particular sentiment was reflected by Katy Grice, sales & marketing manager — events UAE for Byrne, who told the table: “Personally for me, I’ve not come across any issues. I think that — when I look at the clients I deal with — it’s pretty much 50/50. Saying that, in my team of about 70 people there is only three women, but I don’t think there’s any ‘issues’ so-to-speak with that."
Julie Doucet, general manager at Wicked, added: “The one thing I would say is that — if you look at all the women that are in this industry — there’s not a lot of very shy or quiet women. I think you have to be quite a strong personality to be able to hold yourself with all the guys because they can sometimes be a little bit hard on everyone. But I think the minute that you make them understand ‘I’m as good as you can be, I know what I’m doing and that’s the reason I’m here’, they will respect you more for it. There are still challenges — I don’t think there’s any issues as such but you’re always going to have some personalities that are going to have a problem with reporting to a woman. I still see it from time to time.”
As the conversation moved around the table, the general consensus continued in this vein with most of the steering committee revealing that, while there had been challenges along the way, there was no major issue that stood out, such as women being underrepresented in the industry or having less important roles than their male counterparts. In fact, some even suggested that there may be ways in which being a woman has actually benefitted their role within the events industry. Bethan Poland, marketing executive at IBS Group, explained: “From my perspective, I think that there is a certain stigma but with what I do, men seem to open up more to a woman. So, in a way, it benefits the business because you can learn more about your client. The meetings that I go on, the majority of them are with men as managing directors or CEOs but I’ve never come across this as a challenge, I think they open up more and I actually find out more information. I also learn things about my company that I can then improve on and build a better relationship with the client.”
A cultural boundary?
While the group agreed that there was no one major issue facing women in the events industry, it soon became clear that any challenges were linked more intrinsically to the nature of the region rather than being a gender issue. Melissa Tenkhi, marketing co-ordinator at Wicked and Flow Air & Power Solutions, explained: “According to what has been said I would definitely agree that it’s not necessarily a challenge. It’s quite interesting because I think the question would be ‘Is there a difference being a woman here, in this region, than back home?’ Obviously, compared to Europe’s event industry the specific challenge here as a woman — which I guess would be the same challenge for men — is to adjust to a new culture that you have to deal with. I don’t think it’s a gender issue, it’s more of a multicultural issue that is the main challenge we all have faced here.”
Nicola Holmes agreed, adding: “It’s such a melting pot here — there are so many nationalities and cultures together. Back in the UK as an example it’s predominately British, so perhaps there are challenges being a woman in the industry there, but that’s an industry-specific challenge whereas here it’s more about the cultural challenges.”
Julie Doucet continued: “You know that you can say certain jokes or certain things with people from a similar culture to you, but other guys might take it the wrong way. It’s definitely a culture thing. Because of the way the UAE has been evolving — it embraces all the other cultures — we do forget sometimes that some people are actually very conservative.”
However, Rebecca Wilson, managing director at ESP International and President of the International Live Events Association (ILEA) Middle East chapter, suggested that rather than being a challenge, the multicultural make-up of the UAE could in fact be considered a catalyst for the industry’s development across all levels, whether gender-related or not. She explained: “I think that if you’re an expat in this country you’ve already proved something by being the person that’s moved away from home. Obviously everybody is individual with different personality traits, but the one thing that unites every expat in this country and any country is that they’ve got a bit of get-up-and-go, the confidence to make a change or be motivated by something other than just staying at home. I think that elevates people — male or female — to a point where they’ve got a certain amount of ‘oomph’.”
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The great tech divide
The one area in which a noticeable difference in male-female representation was picked up on however was when it came to discussing the lack of women in traditionally ‘male-dominated’ roles within the events industry.
Natasha Fownes, owner/producer at The Fixer Agency, opened the subject, saying: “The only thing is in the technical element of the industry — there aren’t many female AV technicians, yet in the UK you find that that’s rising. I’ve actually met quite a lot of French riggers who are quite phenomenal, but it’s not something that is that noticed over here.”
Fownes added: “But the funny thing is it’s really needed for weddings and female events. I do believe that we need to have a balance with male to female 100 per cent, but I do think that, just being in this region and doing these kind of events with royalty and settings where they really want only female staff — that’s why some companies have set up all-female crews. There is a market there and — trust me — I have a thousand people on our database and trying to find a female crew is a nightmare.”
And this point is one that Georgina Rawlings, group marketing & communications manager, The eclipse Group, believes could have potential for developing women’s roles in the more ‘technical’ side of the industry, saying: “It would open up an entirely different stream for us. If we had female technicians we could go and approach a completely different market — the Emirati female wedding side and other female events.”
She continued: “I think there’s a split in general — women tend to go more into management roles or administration roles. But it’s fostering an environment where, if a girl or a woman doesn’t want to be the girl who gets up in the morning, puts her make-up on, goes and sits down at a desk, it’s okay. It’s important that, just because she’s a woman and not wanting to do a traditionally ‘feminine’ role, she’s not discouraged from doing that or pushed down another road. It’s about empowering women to be strong enough to say ‘Actually, I want to be a lampy, I want to lug lights around on site and I believe that I’m confident enough and capable enough to go and do that’.”
So with all of those in attendance agreeing that there is a clear lack of women in ‘tech’ roles, was anyone able to come up with a valid reason as to why this is the case?
Rebecca Wilson suggests that it comes down to a very simple science. She explained: “I think it’s a very ‘left brain-right brain’ thing. It’s just that women don’t want to be techies — in the majority of cases men are probably just more interested and more suited. That is quite sweeping and it’s a bit generic, but I think the reality is that we are made up differently. But I think it’s tantamount to who’s sat around this table that women can get on and are actually really well-suited to very communication and people-orientated roles. In the events industry we probably play a more prominent position.”
However, Bethan Poland believes that, with open encouragement, the male-female split across the types of roles taken can be closed. She said: “I don’t think there’s a divide but at the same time I’ve not been on the production side of things — I’m in the office. But every time I say to the guys in the workshop ‘I’d love to go on site to see what it’s all about and learn about it’, they’re all open to the idea. I think it’s evolving.”
And perhaps evolution is the theme. Georgina Rawlings certainly believes so, commenting: “I think that the attitude has changed. There’s a real focus on what technicians they [companies] have and what experience they can bring to the table. I can’t speak for other companies, but certainly at eclipse that attitude has changed.”
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Facing the future
With all in agreement that the Middle East events industry — in fact the events industry in general — can definitely be seen to have a lack of women in technical roles, this then obviously throws up the question of what can we do to change it? Is it a case of ‘catching them early’ and encouraging young girls to experiment with things they enjoy, rather than sticking to learning, games and toys that encourage ‘gender-typical’ roles? Georgina Rawlings certainly believes that we are influenced throughout life to follow certain paths. She said: “I think that’s a massive issue — I think it’s the same issue they have trying to encourage girls to go into science and technology roles. It’s the exact same thing, there is absolutely no reason why a woman couldn’t go into a technical role. If you look at sound engineering as an example, it’s not just moving a load of boxes around and connecting up a load of cables — it’s really technical, there’s a lot of physics involved, there’s no reason why a woman couldn’t do that.”
And the consensus among our Steering Committee on the next generation was that it’s all about education. Nicola Holmes revealed: “I think it’s hands-on experience."
"I genuinely think women fall into jobs a lot of the time because it’s just stereotypical," she continued. "If women experienced some of the more male-dominated jobs they might think ‘I really enjoy this actually’. It has to be at entry level. It has to be there that they get the experience across the board and realise what they enjoy doing, because otherwise they fall into the first job, in a stereotypical female role and then it’s quite hard to move.”
And exposing young women to the opportunities available while they are still relatively young and undecided is a factor that most of those in the discussion agreed was also a vital step. As Bethan Poland explained: “Coming out of university I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I would have never thought of a job on site. I think there needs to be something to educate girls to find out if they do actually enjoy that part because, at the moment, you don’t really get exposed to that area. I think it’s more down to the older generation to welcome them saying ‘This is what we do and these are the different areas’, because at 16 no-one really knows what they want to do or what they like, they just fall into these positions.”
Katy Grice agreed, adding: “It’s about creating opportunities for people — doing internships, bringing people in from the local universities and schools and putting them on site. In the UAE, I think it comes down to education. Us being able to go in and do roadshows at universities, develop people and help them to understand what kind of roles are actually around — in a very growing market that’s only 44 years old and is only going to get bigger and better — providing people with opportunities locally. Instead of bringing more expats in, it’s actually giving them the positions and the opportunities here.”
And this widening of career opportunities is something that Kate Hamilton believes is already influencing the next generation. She said: “It’s already happening — when my mum left school it was either be a nurse or be a receptionist. That was it, that was all her choices were. And then when I left school I could basically do anything. But I didn’t know there was such a thing as a project manager or an event manager, which is really exciting when you’re 16 years old. I didn’t know that was out there. So I think the message needs to be there when these girls are younger — before they get to college and they’ve already got an idea of what they want to do — and giving them the opportunities and experience when they’re younger.”
Natasha Fownes also suggested that more exposure to women in the industry — through exercises such as Sound & Stage’s Steering Committee — can encourage those with an interest in the field. She said: “We can encourage women by doing exactly what we’re doing now — this is the pioneering start if you like for women to get involved and maybe having an opportunity to see women that are running their own companies, are managing directors or marketing directors for big agencies and thinking ‘I want to do something like that’. So it’s about us setting an example and going out there. We’re associated with SAE and a few of these really cool, young, technology colleges that simply weren’t here a few years ago. We’re at the start of something new — this is the start of us leading the way.”
Julie Doucet added: “I think we will have more women in the industry in the future, I do think that certain sectors will still have less women just because of the fact that it’s down to personalities. We all have things within us to be leaders in certain ways — whether we do AV or generators or whatever, it’s in our personality to take the way that leads there. A 16-year-old will never know if an industry is really what they want to do, but 20 years later they may end up there. I don’t know if the event industry is something where you say ‘I want to work there’ straight away, you almost get there by different ways and you end thinking ‘I fit in there’. It is up to us to say ‘Look we all do different things — anything is possible and anyone can do it’. Whether you’re a man or a woman, wherever you may come from, it’s possible.”