AV, Women and A Bright New Day

330-roseyTo begin, I want to speak on a personal level. This blog is without a doubt the most important one I have written yet, and as some out there know it almost didn’t happen for various reasons. However, after much cajoling (in a good way) by certain individuals — yes, you know who you are — I decided to continue to work on the blog with 100 percent determination toward its publication. I want to thank all of those out there who have provided the inspiration for me to write this blog — and here it is.

The women in AV are not just a group of talented individuals within the industry — they are also joined together in cause. For years (and I mean years) women in AV have been trying, even fighting to move to the top of the industry mountain. What has stood in their way for a long time was the proverbial “good ol’ boys” network comprised of some powerful men in an industry comprised of mostly men. If we stand back and take a good look at the grand landscape, we’ll see many hard working and highly qualified women, from company owners to technical, sales and marketing professionals. The women of the industry of course see them and this has given them great cause to keep pushing ahead until they can break through that glass ceiling which is well known in the entire world of business. The women in the industry have worked together to establish a multi-faceted approach to educating, supporting, encouraging and inspiring women in the audiovisual industry through collaboration, research, mentoring and networking opportunities. In short, a wonderful cause.

This year two great women in the industry were presented the prestigious InfoComm International Women in AV award at the show in Las Vegas. They are Cory Schaeffer (co-founder and vice president of business development at Listen Technologies) and Jan Sandri (president of FSR, Inc.). Another woman of note to make mention of here is the president of InfoComm International, Johanne Belanger (who is also the president of Freeman Audio Visual). Johanne wrote a blog that appeared on AV Network previous to this year’s InfoComm show titled “Countdown to InfoComm 2014: Johanne Belanger on the Best of InfoComm that gave her pre-show overview. In short, they are three pillars of the women in AV community. I wanted to reference more of the great women in the industry, however I decided on a different approach. I will be asking certain women (and men) to send me a list of all of the women they know who make great contributions to the industry and I will write a followup blog naming them and putting some quotes in as well, in essence as a tribute blog to these great women in AV.

On that note, I will now reference some of the men who were instrumental in paving the way toward the recent groundswell support that was built, as well as part of the reason for this blog being written in the first place. The first, of course, is Leonard Suskin without whom this groundswell effort may have not taken place. His blog Post InfoComm Wrap-up: Part the the Third – The Issue of Booth Babes and A Call to Arms not only spurred on the effort, his LinkedIn group post started the conversation, which essentially built to crescendo where numerous men participated and I may well have been one of the louder participants. In fact, it was the image in the blog that really drove the efforts forward as it was a picture of a young man with an ear to ear grin holding a beer in one hand, a candy bar in the other and two scantily clad booth babes, one on each arm. This was actually an image, according to Leonard, which appeared in a promotional marketing email. With this, we were motivated and ready to act hand in hand with the women in the group. Next came Mark Coxon’s blogAnother Look at Booth Babes and InfoComm14 with a statement ‘…as an industry we have done a poor job of holding companies accountable when they perpetuate the Good Ol’ Boy culture and marginalize the women in our industry.’ A very powerful statement, as Mark has been known to make. Others involved in the LinkedIn group include George Fournier of FSR Inc.and John Charlton of Futureworks, Ltd.

Here’s another one that was brought to my attention which came from InfoComm 2010 and possibly the one that hits home the most as to why this practice finally needs to come to an end. This CEPro article is entitled “Booth Babes at InfoComm 2010: See the eye-candy several exhibitors used to attract attendees to their booth.” The opening statement of the article — “Many male integrators check out more than just products at trade shows.” And if that’s not enough, you get a bonus slideshow of the best of the best babes! Can someone please un-boggle my mind? Here’s the article if you want to get an idea of just how ludicrous this practice has been for so many years.

A special mention also goes out to Karen Smidt, marketing manager for Milestone AV Technologies, an asset to the Milestone team as well as the industryfor her participation in the LinkedIn group thread that helped create the groundswell support effort which many of us joined in to advance. Here is a partial statement from her discussion in the group

Karen-smidt-0714“As a professional woman in the AV industry, I have been mistaken for a booth babe in previous years (despite being dressed in a company-branded polo shirt and black trousers). The first time this ever happened was several years ago and I remember it plain as day. I gave the customer a booth tour and answered all his questions. Right as he was leaving he said, “You know, I initially thought you were just a booth babe. It’s refreshing to see you actually know the product.” I’m sure this was intended to be a compliment but I found it quite jarring because it was the first time I realized that someone would automatically assume I’m ignorant of my company’s product simply because of my gender.” A bold statement from Karen, and one that also spurred my driving participation in the group discussion, as well as others. There were detractors in the group too in favor of the babes – maybe they’ll just happen to change perspective now with another look at Karen’s remarks…

In follow-up to this, I want to present quotes from two well respected young and highly driven women in the industry. Their commentary is based on the following statement:

gina-sansivero-0714Please explain your feelings about the current state of women in AV and what the future holds. 

Gina Sansivero, Director of Education for FSR, Inc: “The more women in the industry, the less likely it will be seen as a novelty to have us around 😉 Seriously, I think that there is a lot going on to support the women in AV — like the Women in AV award from InfoComm, the fact that InfoComm has a woman president, the women in the AV industry and supporting regional chapters, the mentoring award, the NSCA scholarship fund, the Women in Technology Breakfast, Women in CE. We know we already have exceptionally talented females in the industry, now we just have to make sure we keep attracting women through outreach and education. Women and men work side by side, seamlessly in this industry and I anticipate that as more women enter the AV industry, this complimentary cooperation will continue to be important and valued. Each have their own sets of competencies, skills and personalities to add to our dynamic industry and it will only enhance the industry and make it stronger the more diversified we become.”

Victoria-Ferrari-0714Victoria Ferrari, Account Executive of Synergy CT: “I was 18, the year was 2001 and I was told, “This is a male dominated industry.” That statement rang no truer than at tradeshows. NAB that year, there were some women working for manufacturers or reps, but I can’t remember scanning the badge of any influential female sales leads in tech. Over a decade later, and the story is almost the same. Why? Interest. I feel that men are naturally interested in technical things. It is innate in male DNA dating back to cave days, men out hunting — women at home with babies, or is it because those are things to which they were exposed when young? I wasn’t automatically drawn to the technical side of things, but I had to learn it to be respected and to succeed. Mentors were the key! They took time to teach me the small intricate technical details, and it was interesting! It *is* hard wired in female DNA to be curious and explore too! I am hopeful for the future! I have a sister just starting high school, and I remember when she was 10 years old taking apart her solar calculators, on her own, to build up a stock pile trying to power something else. I think with technology being a bigger part of our everyday lives, young girls will have more exposure, more chances to generate the interest. I see positive things in the world like Google’s “made with code” initiative. The future is bright, and I strive to one day be that person on the other side of the conversation telling a young girl, “This is a balanced industry.”

Inspiring words from two young industry movers who certainly have the ability to inspire those women who have more recently entered the industry, giving them great hope and promise. Before we get to the interview, we as a whole show great appreciation to Dave Labuskes, executive director and CEO of InfoComm International for the bold statement he issued not too long after the groundswell support had been established. Did he hear the noise that we had been generating in support of the women in the industry and the negative response to the use of booth babes? I’m not totally sure but I have a sneaking suspicion that it may have been as we have been told that InfoComm does look in on certain LinkedIn group discussions. I was actually a participant on the AV Week show (along with Kelly Perkins, Victoria Ferrari and Shannon Harvey — watch it when you have a chance) which George Tucker had been moderating the day the statement was released. The first part of the discussion was indeed on booth babes (referring to Leonard’s blog). George broke in toward the end to tell us that there was late breaking news in which we on the panel held our collective breaths waiting. It was at that moment that George told us about the statement issued by Dave Labuskes and flashed it up on the screen. He read us some of the detail and inside, as George read it, I started to celebrate. When the show was over I walked into another room and then the real vocal celebration began. An unbelievable chain of events.

With this, a new day had dawned on the industry and the women within it.

I know this blog will be fairly long as we are coming to the interview portion, however I think you will want to stick around and read on to hear a wonderful woman in the industry give her viewpoints and opinions on these issues. Penny Sitler, who is the advertising manager for Draper as well as a previous InfoComm Woman in AV award winner, wrote a powerful blogInfocomm: Reflections on Booth Staffwhich appeared two days after Leonard’s. After seeing her LinkedIn group participation, reading her blog and getting to know her better, I invited Penny to be a part of my blog and it is with great pleasure that I introduce her as my blog interviewee.

Penny-Sitler-0714A short bio: Penny Sitler leads Draper’s full-service in-house marketing team, handling web design and development, database management, technical and educational documentation, sales tools, display graphics, and all media channels, with a high level of functional integration. Over the past 30 plus years, Draper has grown and changed dramatically, and Penny has been part of that process. Today Draper is one of the world’s leading brands of projection screens and related products, serving markets in over 100 countries worldwide. Penny frequently speaks for Draper, but in this interview she has expressed her own thoughts and opinions.

CM: We’ll begin with women in the AV industry. Can you tell us what you feel is their mission in terms of advancing goals and ideals within the overall AV community?

PS: We want to do our best work, contribute to the success of our companies and our industry, and support ourselves and our families in the process. We want to bring new ideas and energy to the AV industry. We want to keep learning, and be respected and recognized for the good work that we do. There is nothing uniquely feminine about these ideas — every good employee aspires to achieve. Women bring a lot to the table, and in many cases advancing women within a company adds experience, knowledge, and diversity to senior staff. The AV industry needs good and knowledgeable employees. We have talented women among us, and more knocking on the door, who are ready to step up and do more.

CM: What level of support do you believe women in the AV industry have received from men in the industry within the last few years, and what would you expect to see going forward?

PS: Women in this industry want to be independent. We shouldn’t need “support” any more than anyone else. However, we have had a bit of an uphill battle just to come in and be recognized (especially old-timers like me who have been around since the bad old days… I’ve spent 32 years in the AV industry). The support we have certainly received is mentoring. Every person in a new job and field needs a mentor, and as we move into new experiences and situations, we can continue to benefit from mentoring. Most of the women in AV today have turned to men as mentors, because those who are ahead of us are male. I’ve had at least five or six mentors at different stages of my career, all male, and they have all earned my trust. I am grateful to all of them. I have passed it on — I have gladly mentored those who turn to me for support, whether male or female.

In recent years, the industry has recognized the opportunity to enrich its talent pool by attracting more intelligent women. I believe this is the core motivation behind the Women in AV award which is presented by InfoComm International each year. As a woman who has worked long and hard to succeed in the industry, I can tell you it was a great feeling for me to be recognized with this award. And I hope the publicity surrounding the award is helping to attract and retain some talented young women to the industry. But the goal must certainly be for this award to become obsolete. When the playing field is truly level, the Women in AV Award won’t make sense anymore. I’m afraid we are still several years from that point.

CM: The practice of hiring “Booth Babes” at InfoComm has become a hot button issue with blogs and articles being written and social media output to add to this as well, building groundswell support among women and men in the industry. What is your perspective on this?

PS: I’d rather not use the term “booth babes.” Let’s say models, as these people are generally hired through modeling agencies. First, the use of models on the convention floor leads to confusion among the attendees. Young AV professionals are frequently mistaken for models — Leonard Suskin gave us a first-hand account of his embarrassment when he made that error. This lack of respect — even if unintentional — toward women working at the show creates poor working conditions. While I was never mistaken for a model, it took many years for me to earn respect in the industry. The young women who are following me deserve respect. Now. They shouldn’t have to wait till their hair is graying.

Secondly, I think exhibitors are hurt when they staff their booths with strangers. I recommend that exhibitors bring a team of employees to the show — experts and experts-in-training. Put the newest employees, who are still learning, on the front lines to collect scans, answer the easy questions and escalate the hard ones. They will do a far better job than untrained models, they will do better work when they return to the office and they will learn more every year. If an exhibitor must use models, remember that people should never be treated as objects. Provide all your booth staff with professional logo wear, and at least some brief orientation about the products and company. Give them more to do than wave a scanner and pose for photographs.

CM: There has been a storm brewing over this subject of hiring the “eye candy” who contribute, in some people’s eyes, very little except to dress suggestively and scan badges. Executive director and CEO of InfoComm International Dave Labuskes just released a statement last week referring to his perspective on the subjects of the women in AV and the practice of hiring these models as you alluded to. What does all of this mean to you?

PS: Dave Labuskes’ statement covers everything that I think needs to happen. Dave and his team deserve HUGE accolades for this proactive commitment. In the statement, Dave committed the association to take three key actions: (1) InfoComm is planning a review of the exhibitor rules and policies, (2) New educational documentation will be provided to help exhibitors identify best practices, and (3) A feedback channel will be offered where attendees can report offensive exhibits and behaviors for immediate response.

All this should create a much more professional working environment on the InfoComm show floor. I will be staying in touch with this process, and I hope to see big improvements at InfoComm 2015 and in the years to come under Dave’s leadership.

CM: To conclude, what do you think can be done for women in AV to receive full industry support going forward in recognition of their wealth of contributions and achievements?

PS: I don’t want special treatment for women, and my female colleagues don’t either. Our needs are the same as male employees: respect, training, mentoring, networking. Sometimes there’s a benefit for us to connect with other women to meet these needs, and I make an effort to spend some time meeting women in the industry every time I come to a trade show. But at the end of the day, we just want to do our jobs, working side by side with our teammates of both genders and keeping it professional. And we are pretty damn good at it.

I’d like to thank my interview guest Penny Sitler as well as offer my great appreciation for the hard working and dedicated women who comprise this industry on an equal basis with the men. Thank you to all who have read this blog which was very important for me to write. I have heard of instances in the past where women have faced great adversity and while it looks like the landscape is changing, more still needs to be done.

There have actually been some men who have publicly said enough of this overall discussion already. My response is how can anyone believe they have the right to squelch or end discussion, especially one as important as this? Hopefully they will read this and see why this needs to be a continued forum and not one that should just be ultimately swept under the rug. As with anything else, if you’re not willing to be a continued part of the solution, you may just end up inadvertently becoming a part of what’s been an ongoing problem for quite some time. It is getting better, realize that and you can continue to make it better, this to all men in the industry. Where the reduction or modification in the practice of hiring booth models (a term I’m using now out of respect for Penny) is concerned, it is an important subject, however the main focus is and always should be on the great women of this industry.

Let’s all follow the lead to bring a higher level of professionalism as well as acceptance of the grand diversity that exists in the industry. An industry which I have personally been a part of for over 15 years (and others for many more).

Thank you all again for reading.