Sexual harrassment is wrong. Sexual harrassment is a violation. Sexual harrassment happens all the time in the meetings industry.
Google search “sexual harassment at conferences,” I dare you. This is an epidemic, and we are not talking—or doing—nearly enough about it.
Events create the perfect storm for inappropriate behavior: attendees are away from home, far from their families, and often forget about their day-to-day responsibilities. Many people look forward to their annual conference getaway because it feels like a vacation. Conferences are an escape.
Who is a common target for sexual harassment? Ambitious, young, professional women.
Think about it: young people are eager to advance. They are inexperienced and they are optimistic about conquering the world.
Nearly every young woman I have spoken to about sexual harassment disclosed that she has been a victim of misconduct during a conference, in a meeting or in her office.
“When I was twenty-three years old, fresh out of college and working as a meeting coordinator, my married, drunk client followed me to my hotel room and forced his lips onto mine. I pushed him away from my body and ran into my room, mortified. What if someone had seen us, thought it was mutual, or that it was my fault? Would I get fired? After the conference ended, he continued to send me lewd, unwanted text messages. Remember the infamous politician Anthony Weiner? You get the picture.”
“At age twenty-six, a senior colleague slipped me a piece of paper with his hotel room number written on it… in the middle of a networking event. An elite gathering, I had so looked forward to, quickly transformed into a stressful nightmare. I worked closely with this man for the next two years, and felt like I had to pretend that nothing had ever happened. Who would I have told? I was junior; he was senior. Who would they believe? I was scared I would lose my job.”
“Recently, a new contact sent me a message on LinkedIn, asking to meet during an upcoming conference. He expressed that he had a business opportunity to pitch me. As a person who had just started her own company, every opportunity for new business was not only exciting, it was critical. Early on in the meeting, I realized that there was no opportunity. There was only a lonely man, looking for some company, who became angry when his advances were turned down.”
Ladies and gentlemen, these are not new stories. This stuff has been going on for decades, and not enough is being done about it.
Alcohol is flowing at events, my friends. Attendees are going to drink too much. Lines will be crossed. Someone will get caught in the midst of yet another perfect storm, and not know how to escape to shore.
Nothing good happens after midnight, right? Wrong. Some of the best networking and relationship development happens after hours, when people feel free to relax and simply get to know one another.
But when women do not feel comfortable due to fear of being hit on, being spoken to inappropriately, or being touched without their consent, what do they do? Should they plan to end the night earlier
For some, that decision may make the most sense. However, knowing that building relationships is critical to being successful in business, and more specifically in the meetings industry, hitting the hay early may damage the opportunity to advance. Furthermore, knowing that women have a more challenging time securing C-suite positions as compared to men, should they choose to sacrifice those precious hours of networking in hopes of avoiding being harassed?
Okay, so how do we fix the problem?
Train Your Team
Senior professionals, I am looking at you. We need you. Young people need your wisdom, experience, support and guidance to help us succeed. Take time to talk to your team about what to do if someone makes them feel uncomfortable or if they see another person who looks like he or she may need help. Conversations like these not only provide education, but they also establish a relationship that feels safe and supportive.
Create A Conference Code of Conduct
Just as attendees agree to follow a hotel’s regulations while they stay on property, they should be held responsible for their behavior during a conference. Create a policy where your attendees agree to act appropriately (including verbiage on sexual harassment or harassment of any kind) and have them check a box to comply during their online registration.
Provide an Emergency Contact
In your conference materials, whether it be a printed agenda, signage or a mobile app, include a staff member’s information for attendees to contact, should some kind of inappropriate situation occur. Hopefully you will have created your aforementioned conference policy, as that contract will provide leverage when making tough calls about how to handle the crisis.
Use the Buddy System
Talk to a trusted friend and ask that you each look out for one another. If you have had a negative experience with a specific person and feel comfortable confiding in your chosen friend, do it. Be open about the harassment you have experienced and request that your friend assist in limiting time spent with that person, should he or she continue to make you feel uncomfortable during events.
Do Your Part. Be Smart.
You are responsible for your behavior, and your behavior alone. When those endless, complimentary beverages are flowing, approach with caution. Only you know what your limits are and how much alcohol you should or should not be drinking. Just because an event feels like a party (and it is), do not forget that it is still a professional setting, and you are surrounded by colleagues and peers. Your reputation is always on the line, whether it is between the hours of nine and five, or when the clock strikes midnight.
Stand Up for Yourself
It is absolutely okay to excuse yourself from any conversation or environment that makes you feel uncomfortable. One of the biggest challenges that women struggle with is being afraid to offend anyone. Do not sacrifice your comfort or integrity for a business connection that does not respect you. Put your needs first. Furthermore, if someone is behaving in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, there is nothing wrong with requesting the person keep things professional. You will never regret standing up for yourself.
Listen to Your Intuition
You know that feeling you get when something just doesn’t feel right? That is your intuition. If you are in a situation where you feel distressed for some reason, take a moment to hit pause, assess the environment and address the issue. If something feels off, something is off. Go with your gut.
It is a human right to feel—and to be—respected. As meeting professionals, we have the power and the opportunity to create environments that are exciting, imaginative, and most importantly, safe. We need to talk about the fact that sexual harassment is a huge problem in the meetings industry. Then we need to take action.
Courtney Stanley is a marketing and business development strategist. Recognized as one of the meeting industry’s top young leaders, she has just finished a term on Meeting Professionals International’s International Board of Directors. @LadyPhenomena