The jury is still out on whether tweaking events can eliminate sexual harassment incidents — maybe that’s too easy of a fix. But if the better answer is communication and education, is the meeting industry providing that support?
If ever an industry appeared perfectly suited to provoking sexual harassment, it would be meetings and events.
A witch’s brew of ingredients — attendees being away from home, hotel environments, and free-flowing alcohol at no cost to the drinkers — seems to create the ideal environment for incidents that run afoul of the #MeToo movement… right?
Not necessarily. There are countless examples of people overstepping their bounds while at an event, but alcohol and late night parties aren’t always to blame. Human nature, as we know, needs no excuse to exert itself.
“There is a real problem with people thinking that things only happen in ‘the dark alley’ or at events where drinking occurs,” said Carrie Abernathy, co-founder of the Association for Women in Events, and chair of the Events Industry Sexual Harassment Task Force. “It could happen just as easily at an 8 a.m. conference session, during an off-site CSR activity at 9 a.m. or when socializing at a Presidential reception in a hospitality suite at 8 p.m.”
Despite the severity of the issue, at some industry organizations, sexual harassment remains in the shadows. Many in the sector still don’t want to talk about the reality of sexual harassment and what, if anything, they do to prevent it.
A number of hotel companies declined to be interviewed by Skift to discuss how they address any incidents when they take place, or what they do when complaints arise while a group is on property. Additionally, a major industry association — whose leadership is said to be involved in combating this societal scourge — also took a hard pass.
Experts say altering or canceling events isn’t the answer.
“The real issue is acceptable behavior and accountability,” said Abernathy. “We need to look at the root cause, tackle why people harass, and provide education on what harassment looks like. We aim to eradicate sexual harassment—we don’t aim to end events or social situations.”
That education starts at the organizational level, explained business partners Sarah Soliman Daudin, president and CEO of Soliman Productions, and Courtney Stanley, motivational speaker. The two independent planners have joined forces to work on harassment prevention in the industry.
“The first step for all organizations is to establish a mission statement around sexual harassment and communicate it,” said Daudin. “They have to make it clear that sexual harassment isn’t tolerated.”
Added Stanley, “We also recommend organizations and planners create a code of conduct and integrate it into the registration process, so attendees or members have to accept it; and then communicate it again during the event. That way if something does happen, it gives the organization leverage to address and investigate the issue of inappropriate behavior.”
The duo also suggests training security staff, or even hiring security personnel, in what harassment looks like, how to respond, etc.
Further, the planners advise organizations to implement a reporting system through the event mobile app. “Sometimes attendees don’t know who the organizer is or what they look like,” said Daudin, “so having that reporting system is an important tool to include into your planning process.”
So, the first steps are taking place to better educate attendees and give them ways to reach organizers should harassment occur. But the meetings sector at large, ranging from organizers to hotels and venues, have largely punted on their responsibility to provide a safe space for people to meet.
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Photo credit: Attendees at a conference for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. NCDOTcommunications / Flickr