A Primer on Gender Friendly Conference & Event Swag

Back in the day I worked for an organization that was quite keen on holding team retreats. These were off-site business affairs held at a somewhat centrally located resort or venue that could accommodate business meetings, dinners and frivolity for 100 or so managers for several days. Spouses/partners (SPs) were invited as well and, in a gesture of goodwill, the company arranged outings and activities for the SPs during the day while the staffers were locked up doing humdrum SWOT analyses and strategy stuff.

Several weeks before the gathering an itinerary of the available outings was sent out so that the SPs could sign up for their preferred activities; among the offerings were things like golf, shopping excursions, horseback riding, a day at the spa, cooking classes, and canoe trips. Now, people being what people are, there was a general guesstimate by the organizers up at the corporate office that the female SPs would sign up for cooking classes, spa trips and a visit to the local shopping district while the male SPs, naturally, would want to play golf, hop on an outrigger, and scale the nearest mountain while doing very very manly things like posing with the wild animals they caught. Or something.

One year however I got a phone call from a very perplexed administrative assistant/planning person at the corporate office who wanted to see if I could check with a few of the managers from my region to ascertain if, in fact, the female SP (of one manager) really wanted to go hiking and the male SP (of another manager) truly meant to sign up for the day at the spa.

A thing of the past…..right? Well, not quite.

Yesterday a friend of mine attended a seminar for organizational leaders (primarily Finance and HR) and was the lucky winner of a door prize/raffle called “The Executive Bag.” As she described it (see picture above)…”turns out the event sponsor thinks executives are 2XL males who like to golf.” (oh…and “The Executive Bag” contained two (2!) wine bottle openers with no wine………….#SuperSad).

Now I know it’s often a thankless task being the person responsible for ordering booth swag or assembling raffle prizes for a corporate or community shindig. Many a work relationship has blown up when one event organizer screamed at another in a planning session “Well if you’re so smart Betsy then you tell me exactly how many L vs. XL t-shirts we should order!”  

But this? How tone-deaf to think that a prize like this would go over at a leadership seminar with just as many females as males in attendance. Is it that only the men are truly ‘executives?’ Did the vendor/sponsor also have a designated “Lady Executive Bag” that held nail polish, a box of tampons, and a hair dryer?

One of the last bastions where this stereotyping exists is HR conference land. I’ve also witnessed it at payroll, education and healthcare conferences; three additional professions that tend to skew female.  Sadly the time-worn cliché of “Give Away a Coach Bag to Get the HR Gals to Visit Your Booth” is a cliché for a reason; over the years I’ve witnessed hordes of female conference attendees in orgasmic frenzy as they dropped their business cards in fish bowls.

I’ll admit I’m not, personally, a gatherer of swag; I keep things pretty minimalist at home and certainly don’t need to cart home loads of crap from a conference that will only clutter up my desk or closet or bookshelves. I’m not an idiot though so if someone wants to give me a new iPhone or some other fancy gizmo at a conference I’m all about taking home the booty.

But if you try to get my business by playing up dated gender stereotypes…keep the bag.

I don’t want it.

 

 

The Dangers Inherent in “Keeping Sweet” at Work

There’s a mantra, a commandment really, amongst certain religious fundamentalist groups that women and girls should always “keep sweet.” While the concept seems to have originated in polygamous/FLDS cults society, it has reached into other patriarchal groups. The phrase is designed to remind every girl and woman how she should conduct herself. Whether she is encountering life’s daily frustrations or something more harmful such as being forced into a marriage or encountering abuse, a ‘godly’ woman should maintain a smile on her face and acquiesce to the men-in-charge.

This, of course, has led to some horrible and harmful outcomes such as FLDS girls being forced into polygamist marriages at a young age. All because “the prophet” admonished them, over and over, to not show emotions or ask questions. The manifestation of this belief has been described as being “immune to gloom.”

Somewhat extreme I know; I’m willing to bet very few of you reading this consider yourself a member of a cult. I mean, it’s not like you’re with a bunch of pals sporting the same hairstyle, wearing matching Nikes and waiting to transport to the spaceship to join up with the Hale-Bopp Comet. Right?

Not to make light of a situation that took a tragic turn back in 1997, but that Heaven’s Gate group’s  “Procedures Book” read somewhat like an HR Policy Manual. Among other things the book “enforced a 7:22 vitamin intake time, the direction to shave with a razor, and the proper circumference for pancakes.”  As pointed out in this article, “these rules were implemented with the argument that they were training for the strict and disciplined life they would live on alien spacecraft. But in reality they kept members obedient and subservient to the group and its leader.” ……….I think I’ve worked for that company……..

Disregarding the rules for pancake circumference, which we can all agree crosses over into the realm of too much detail-obsession, we have to admit that some of these cultish behaviors sound eerily similar to the exhortations that infest a lot of organizations.

Don’t rock the boat. Don’t ask questions. Follow the directions. Keep a happy countenance. Keep a smile on your face.

Keep sweet.

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A few weeks ago I was having a miserable (OK…let’s call it shitty) day. I was swirling about in a mental twister; simultaneously tracking and worrying about home/family/work/to-do-lists/dogs/parents/chores/not-enough-hours-in-the-day. At one point I took a brief stretch and wandered out of HR to get some coffee. In order to get to the employee dining room I had to pass through the casino lobby and walk past the Valet Office which was chock-a-block full of patrons, visitors and employees.  But it’s a quick jaunt and I quickly arrived at the blessed coffee machine.

As I was filling up my mug (java!) an employee grabbing a Coke next to me asked “are you OK Miss Robin?”

“Oh no!,” I thought, as I quickly rearranged my face into the super friendly welcoming smile we’re accustomed to plastering on our faces in the hospitality industry.

“Oh sure. I’m fine!” I chirped.  *** Grin Grin Grin ***

And then I thought to myself, what load of fresh crap is this? I seriously think I need to pretend with an employee? Because I’m the head of HR or what?

“You know,” I said, as I let my countenance shift back into not-so-sweet-and-smiley-mode, “I’ve had a rough couple of days. I’m dealing with a sick dog, we’re slammed in HR, and I’ve just got a lot on my mind. I’m tired and just not feeling it today.” *** Shrug Shrug Shrug ***

“Sorry to hear that Miss Robin,” he responded. “It will get better.” (and then he gave me a hug)

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A few weeks after that I attended WorkHuman in Austin where, among other things, we discussed creating connections, exhibiting empathy, and finding ways to create a deeper sense of belonging for individuals at work. “Let people be themselves” was a phrase I heard uttered a gazillion times (and then I flashed back to my non-smiling-RBF hug at the coffee pot).

I spent a lot of time at the event thinking about the importance that ONE person can have in an organization. The symbolism of ONE act. The impact that ONE person can make when challenging the status quo.

I think when we talk about “working human” it’s moving it from the macro-enterprise-company level and being up-ended and inverted. Over the last four years at WorkHuman we’ve moved from talking about the “organizational change” and now discussing how ONE person, perhaps at the bottom or in the middle of the org structure, can be the catalyst for creating a more human-centric company.

By questioning and challenging those in authority.

By calling out institutional racism, sexism or other -isms.

By shining the light on destructive policies, programs or practices that destroy, rather than uplift.

By refusing to “keep sweet.”

The Precariousness of a #WorkHuman Journey

It’s just after 2 PM on Day 2 (and a-half) of Globoforce’s WorkHuman event in Austin and I just walked back over to the Convention Center from my hotel.

This hotel, which officially opened within the last several weeks, has a connecting skywalk that takes one from floor 2 of the hotel to floor 2 of the Convention Center. Very convenient.

This skywalk is a twisting, serpentine slab of concrete, perhaps 10 feet wide, that is suspended over a fairly bustling city street. There are no walls on this walkway; not even the illusion of a semi-comforting half-wall. Nope; this walkway is encased in what appears to be chicken wire. (OK; we all know it’s not actual chicken wire – it looks much sturdier and is actually bolted down but I have been much too afraid to actually get close enough to touch it and confirm this).

So every time I walk across this walkway I stay the straight and narrow right in the middle so as not to tempt the fates and end up having a strong gust of wind push me through the chicken wire. Yesterday as my friend Katee Van Horn and I made the journey we walked single file, lock-step behind each other, and didn’t even speak until we got safely to the other side.

And now, just a few short minutes ago, I stepped onto the walkway with a lady who was facing the seemingly benign treachery for the first time. She took one look, said “Oh hell no,” and reversed back into the hotel to find a safer land-based approach to the convention center.

I totally understood.

And then I got to wondering…was this event venue chosen for this one design element alone? Was the master plan to make ALL WorkHuman attendees take numerous uncomfortable, sweat-inducing, heart-palpitating journeys in unfamiliar terrain?

In numerous sessions we’ve been talking about being brave. We’re chatting about having difficult conversations at work with our leaders and team members and co-workers.

I think this march across the spiraling-death-bridge/walkway has been one giant metaphor for the organizational journey to being a more human-centered workplace. And a testing platform for HR leaders to see if they’re up to the challenge.

Well played Globoforce events team.  Well played.

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photo courtesy of Curbed Austin