In the corner of my closet sits a pile of “gender neutral” items, accumulated from conferences, events, meetings, and various other encounters where swag is the primary leave-behind. I have used exactly zero of these things. In fact, as my pile of beer cozies, bill folds, mini-footballs, and clunky laptop bags grows, so does my frustration with the lack of swag that is truly gender neutral.
Ignoring part of your audience, doesn’t increase affinity for your brand, it’s just another reminder that I’m a woman operating in a man’s world.
In 2015, North American companies collectively spent about $20 billion on giveaways, using them to maintain customer relationships and cultivate new ones. In my experience, especially in finance, the number of these “gifts” that are actually gender neutral is shockingly small (and no, I’m not saying women don’t enjoy sports or beer. I’m saying there is a lack of diversity consideration when selecting these gifts, which by the way is usually a woman due to the gender split of marketing departments1:). Visors, basketball nets, beer mugs, T-shirts (even if you order these in small, they still won’t work for women), fleece vests—Excellent! Just what I need to complement my wrap dress and heels!—all speak primarily to men (although I bet most men don’t really value these items, either). In targeting one gender over another, the subtext is that women are just an afterthought, “Sure, women could wear this baseball hat, too.” Just because something isn’t outwardly sexist, doesn’t mean it isn’t alienating.
As more women rise up the ranks, take on leadership positions, and grow as a demographic to be cultivated, now is the time to start thinking more carefully about what is being communicated with our gift choices. Neutral (and really useful!) items such as water bottles, umbrellas, USB drives, phone chargers are always appreciated and don’t run the risk of sidelining part of your audience. Or, how about an including an option tailored for females in addition to the run of the mill souvenirs? How about a manicure kit? A blowout gift card? A gym bag I will actually want to use and looks professional? Underpinning corporate swag is an opportunity to show you understand me and what I need, critical if our relationship is sales-based. Hell, I’d even love some branded Band-aids because yes, my fancy shoes hurt.
These gifts are supposed to serve as tokens of appreciation. Small tchotchkes that brighten up offices, or even better, things actually used in the real world and advance the branding of the gifting company. Ignoring part of your audience, even if it does account for a smaller fraction, doesn’t increase affinity for your brand, it’s just another reminder that I’m a woman operating in a man’s world.
How am I supposed to bond with clients if I’m too busy trying to dig myself out of a sand trap to form a relationship?
Corporate promotional items are one of many things that mirror back to women they’re a secondary consideration. As an industry, huge strides have been made to address this, but right now, it’s still an uneven playing field for many women, and this is especially apparent when the playing field is actually a golf course.
Reaching a senior role requires more than doing a good job. It requires networking, relationship building, earning trust. Namely spending time with clients outside of an office environment. The natural go-to location for so much of this is the golf course. Yes, again, you can make the argument that golf is for everyone, but the reality is that’s it’s a predominantly male pastime. Only 19% of golfers are women, according to the National Golf Foundation, and there are even clubs that don’t allow women to join. How many women do you know are avid golfers? And men? So when it’s decided that this will be the basis for a client outing, I’m already at a disadvantage. How am I supposed to bond with clients if I’m too busy trying to dig myself out of a sand trap to form a relationship?
I’m a competitive person, and I play to win. But I find it frustrating that with this type of activity, to be in the game, one literally has to learn to play it. Mastering golf—even getting passable at golf—requires practice, dedication, long days on the greens, travel. It’s a level of dedication I can’t commit to. I do actually enjoy the game, but finding the time and other women to practice with is near to impossible.
If you work in a metropolitan area, the alternatives to golf are limitless: the theater, museum openings, fashion shows, culinary classes, wine tasting events, or even unique things such as Escape The Room. These require no skills to participate, are unique, and not predominantly one gender over another. Golf doesn’t have to be taken off the table, just add other events to the rotation, show you think about me.
Something else to consider when structuring corporate events is the timing. Evenings are not always great for working parents. Many of us want to get home to our families. I recently wrote about the success of the New York Women’s Foundation Celebrating Women Breakfast, of which I serve as a board member. The breakfast event is a great alternative to your typical dinner or drinks. It always gets high attendance due to its timing and we receive feedback all the time about how it’s easier to carve out 90 minutes at the start of the day than in the evening. At my previous company, we would use events such as this as an opportunity to entertain and bond with clients, which has the added halo effect of showing support for an important cause. Not to say drinks aren’t fun, but after one or two, it can get a little awkward (and if you don’t believe me that it can get awkward, ask some of the women you work with).
Even if leisure time isn’t currently restricted by paternal duties, it’s likely a consideration when making future career choices. If it’s communicated that work should come before family—even non-verbally such as multiple evening events or weekend outings—the likelihood of an employee moving on will be increased. Most working parents in finance already spend at least 70 hours a week away from their kids, don’t add another 6-10 on top of this. Consider family-friendly events such as a cake decorating class, or the circus, or a family picnic?
I could list endless alternatives to the oversized unflattering T-shirts and networking on the golf course, and I know that these perks are just window dressing around much larger issues of women in the workplace: getting women on the board; reducing the pay gap; equality; division of labor—it’s a long list.
But listen, it’s brutally tough for women to get ahead, even tougher when family is introduced to the mix. Free gifts, company events—these are supposed to show appreciation and develop relationships. They are little things yet communicate volumes about how you consider your employees and your clients. Get them right, make an effort for them to fit the needs of the intended recipient and you increase the chances of avoiding relegation to the closet of forgotten fleece vests and hideous laptop bags, and perhaps the freebie will actually help form the positive relationship you intend and perhaps it’s more likely people will stick around.
What are your thoughts? Tired of the same bad swag? Any other alternative ideas for corporate events? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Surely men find this frustrating, too? How many Father’s Day cards did you see this year that featured fishing, golf or beer? What is about certain situations that make us fall back on stereotypical ideas? ↩
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