Tradeshow and Exhibit Thoughtleaders
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Mary Higham, CEM's Articles

Challenges in the Male-Dominated Tradeshow Industry

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As a show organizer, I have had my share of experiences where vendors, laborers and exhibitors have noticeably treated me different because I am a woman. Now, don’t get me wrong, it has become more of the exception than the rule, but it still exists. There are many champions for women today and do their best to squash the gender inequity of our industry.

However, gender disparity is still here. Both men and women are guilty of enabling it to persist. Sometimes, it’s a subtle undermining, “Are you sure you want to do that?” or an off-the-cuff term of endearment, “Sweetheart, Honey, Young Lady” that feels like a condescension. Even as a show attendee at another industry event, I once had an exhibitor’s mascot grab me as I went by, make a public show of kissing my hand, and when he pulled me in for a photo, asked not about my business, but if I would go out with him later. In my experience, I manage these scenarios by using extreme professionalism and ignoring misogynistic behaviors. As a show organizer, there is little time to become offended by people’s actions (unless extreme!) and being professional and courteous has always been the best way to achieve what I need to do.

I currently work for a large tradeshow in the security industry. The average attendee at my show is male and the exhibitor spaces and themes tend to be very male-oriented. Knowing my own encounters, I imagined that the women who handle show activities for many of our exhibitors may have their own experiences to share.

I reached out to several of my female exhibitor contacts who run their organization’s booths and show participation to see what their thoughts were regarding the matter. Each of these women represent well known, internationally branded exhibitors who take large scale booths 2000+ sf and bring 100-300 staff to the show, many of whom are male. The overall response seemed to be that they all notice both subtle and blatant sexism but have discovered ways to ignore or turn around comments and behaviors - sometimes to their own advantages.

I asked them to be very frank, so we have made this anonymous and used a series of randomized initials, each representing one of five prominent exhibit managers..

  Have you ever encountered a time being a tradeshow manager in a predominantly male industry (Security) where people have treated you differently because you are not a man?
  Yes, a few times. It seems to be on either extreme of the spectrum, either they go completely out of their way to help me or they just completely ignore my request. (Luckily, the times where they ignore me have been fewer!)

  I am often second guessed by our sales people when I go to give out housing and booth assignments. I usually ignore their arguments in favor of working through it, and don’t let them get to me. Eventually they realize that they can’t override me and do what they were supposed to.
SRS:   Yes! I can't tell you how often I am told to 'smile' during setup!

  Absolutely. There is this perception in our industry that “event planners” are glorified administrative assistants because of the tactical nature of the position. However, tradeshows and events are a big part of our overall business strategy and a main source of demand generation. There are only a handful of us women, so at times we are asked to do things as if we were a secretary or “wife.”  Yes there are times we have to work on hotel reservations or catering but most of the time we are executing major events that have direct impact on our bottom line. Let’s not even mention the level of gender harassment – you have to have a thick skin to make it as a woman in ANY position, but especially in this [security] industry.
Mary:   Are there any obstacles that women encounter/need to overcome as tradeshow managers in male dominated industries?

  Yes, one obstacle is that there still is the “old boys” club among some staff at shows. These are the staff who seem to know everything and talk down to you since you are a woman. I was once called “little lady” at a show and was told not “to worry about anything and it will all be taken care of.” This was disturbing not only since I KNEW he didn’t hear my concerns, but I knew he would not do the job I need to get my booth completed.

  Yes, I think the biggest obstacle is needing to be firm and forceful without being labelled a “bitch.” Sometimes things must get done, and sometimes we need to do/say it with conviction. We also need to oversee everyone else’s jobs, that often don’t get done. Our staff teases me that I’m their “Show Mom,” but sometimes I feel like it!

  I feel that there are so many unspoken “rules” for being a woman that men never have to consider. Our appearance at a show has to be flawless: groomed, polished, a little sexy but not TOO sexy (because that would be overly provocative and give the attendees the wrong idea) and our manner needs to be pleasant and inviting but not too inviting (because there is a fine line with being flirtatious).

  As I mentioned previously; the biggest obstacle we face is being seen as “the party girls.” Our careers don’t seem to be taken seriously in our industry. I’ve worked in the financial and healthcare industries and both have seen events and shows as an integral part of the overall marketing strategy. Many of our male colleagues think it’s all about party planning, being perky and that everything magically happens. It doesn’t help that it is hard to measure the TRUE return on investment for shows and events. If we had a better way of capturing ROI, it would help build our case better. Sure you can measure how many leads a show generates, but since our sales cycle is so long, it’s hard to dollarize the leads. To me, it’s all about the overall experience – how an attendee experiences our brand. Brand awareness and relationship building are major parts of generating sales.
Mary:   Are there any scenarios that you think being a woman can be an advantage as a tradeshow manager?

  Yes, there are times when being a woman helps. Since there are fewer women tradeshow managers, I think it makes you stand out on the show floor and the staff at convention centers seem to remember you more easily. There was a time when I was in Nashville and a labor manager happened to remembered me from a previous show I had done in Las Vegas! This helped since we already built a rapport at the previous show and I felt that he was extra attentive at this show.
MPH:   I think we are better equipped to tackle adversity as we encounter it so much more frequently. We have to have nerves of steel to get where we are, and we demonstrate everyday as part of our roles.
  Yes, absolutely. In general, because we’ve spent our lives battling subtle sexism wherever we go, I think it makes us tougher and more prepared to handle situations.
  Yes! Women have a sense of urgency, nurturing nature and attention to detail that is hard to find in our male colleagues. We also have a creative way of looking at things and don’t back down until we find resolution.  

  I don’t see this as a man versus woman competition, where one presents itself as better than the other. I do, however, believe that some women are naturally highly organized, very detail oriented and driven by high-pressure deadlines. A strong woman always has a backup plan and the ability to think creatively in situations where Plan A doesn’t always work out. Tradeshow Managers must be able to multitask, deliver on commitments and strive for near-perfection. There are many paths to success and, as women, we are often in scenarios where we can adjust expectation, adapt to the environment we’re in and execute.
Mary:   Do you have any advice to other female tradeshow managers?
  My advice would be to stand strong in your convictions. Don’t back down just because you are facing an obstacle. You may have to change the way you approach that particular person/event to get the job done. But you still need to fight for your job and to be heard. 
MPH:   Strength cannot be emphasized enough. You need to add strength into your actions, voice and tone, and people will respect you for it.
  Charlotte Whitton  once said, “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought of half as good.” People may expect you to not be as capable, not be as strong, not be as strategic. Prove them wrong.


Approach everything strategically. Think about the big picture and how your events/shows will have an impact on the bottom line. A tactical person wakes up and says, “I have an event coming up and need to nail down the floor plan, catering, etc. - all the logistics.” A strategic event planner wakes up and says, “I have an opportunity to get face-to-face with customers and establish a relationship that will lead to more sales – how will I make this happen?” Don’t be afraid to fight for a seat at the table – if you are being held accountable for a budget, then you should be part of the entire planning process from beginning to end. It’s all in your delivery – you can get a lot further with customers, vendors and colleagues by being nice and genuine. People will forget what the issue is, but they will never forget how you reacted to the issue. Finally, NEVER LET THEM SEE YOU SWEAT. Always exemplify grace under pressure.


I’ve had the unique opportunity to have been mentored primarily by other strong female tradeshow experts. My advice to any female in industry is to surround yourself with brilliant ambitious women who you respect. Aim to not see it as a competition between genders but that men and women each bring a unique set of skills to the table. Tradeshows are not driven by one individual. Success is achieved by recognizing individual strengths and leveraging them to build a strong team. 

I was very grateful for the opportunity to speak with these outstanding exhibit managers. I was impressed and thankful that they not only took time out of their busy schedules (some of these women manage 60 shows and events a year as part of their job!) but that they were so candid in their insights. Some of these issues might not be as prominent in a less male-dominated industry, but it showed me that these are shared experiences across many different companies. I hope that groups like the newly formed Association for Women in Events and the Tradeshow and Exhibit Thoughtleaders can provide forums for these issues to be addressed. I am thankful for this panel of industry leaders to have participated and look forward to hearing more from other women in the tradeshow and events industry.

© 2016 by Mary Higham