The meetings industry represents the perfect storm when it comes to the kind of sexual harassment that sparked the #MeToo movement.

Meetings and conventions bring together hundreds, if not thousands, of men and women who stay in hotels and socialize at receptions and networking sessions fueled by alcohol—lots of alcohol.

The possibilities for bad behavior are nearly endless.

As Annette Gregg, regional senior vice president for AlliedPRA and a member of Meeting Professionals International’s board, put it, “We have a large female workforce, we produce thousands of events a year, you get open bars and people on the road.”

AlliedPRA has responded to #MeToo with a white paper aimed specifically at sexual harassment. Written some six months ago, it augments the company’s employee manual on discrimination and safe environments, Gregg said.

Meeting Professionals International’s board of directors revised its Principles of Professionalism last January to state that it won’t tolerate sexual harassment.

Despite these efforts, however, there hasn’t been much talk surrounding #MeToo, according to Joan Eisenstodt, founder and chief strategist of meetings consulting firm Eisenstodt Associates LLC.

“We’re not doing a good job of addressing sexual harassment,” she said. “We’re not seeing this as the big issue it is. I really don’t know anyone, including men, who haven’t experienced some degree of harassment with a sexual tone.”

Eisenstodt thinks the lack of well known — often lurid cases — that have rocked the worlds of entertainment, politics, and media, is one reason it’s been relatively quiet on the meetings front.

Only two sexual harassment cases—involving former Wynn Resorts CEO Steve Wynn and Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association CEO Ronnie Burt—have been publicized.

Then there’s the complex issue of what constitutes sexual harassment, along with the challenges victims face when trying to expose wrongdoing.

“Harassment is one of those words that’s going to be described differently by everyone,” said Gregg.

Some incidents are blatant.

In a blog post, Eisenstodt relates the experience of one woman planner who was asked by a speaker to deliver his presentation to his room the night before the start of the conference. When she knocked on his door the man greeted her “holding an open bottle of wine covering his genitals and wearing nothing except a smile.”

Harassment, however, can also be a touch or a remark deemed inappropriate or simply a feeling of being dismissed due to gender, as many women in the meetings business often feel, Gregg said.

Although there are no hard numbers to back it up, it’s known that women make up the majority of meeting planners. Their lack of real power is often behind incidents of sexual harassment, according to Eisenstodt and Gregg.

“There are so many women in the meetings industry but that doesn’t mean they’re in areas of authority,” said Gregg. “The more women we get in places of authority, the less harassment we’ll see.”

Being Proactive

An extreme example of a male-dominated industry is the sciences. Terri Olsen, director of meetings for the American Physical Society, said the industry is about 80 percent male.

American Physical Society got a bit of a jump on addressing sexual harassment and discrimination with its code of conduct written two years ago. The association had a code governing staff but not specifically meetings, Olsen said.

Although American Physical Society hasn’t had any sexual harassment issues itself, according to Olsen, “The reason for the code was bad behavior in the sciences. There have been some things in the news about scientists acting inappropriately.”

One of those stories involves Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, who was scheduled to speak at an American Physical Society conference this April.

Krauss has been the subject of multiple sexual harassment allegations and after objections from members, the event’s leadership removed him from its agenda, Olsen said.

That response to scheduling speakers with that kind of reputation is—in addition to formulating codes of conduct—another way meeting planners are reacting to #MeToo.

Having women speakers and corporate or association women execs represented on conferences’ “main stages” is something “we’re also seeing; whereas before we didn’t think about it,” said Gregg.

Although meeting planners and organizations are recognizing they need to address sexual harassment, just as they would other risk management issues, it may take more to affect change.

“Until the dynamic changes, or we have policies that are really enforced, or there’s a major lawsuit, I don’t think things will change,” said Eisenstodt.

Photo Credit: A cocktail party during an association event. Meeting planners are developing ways to limit sexual harassment at events. International Transport Forum / Flickr