When a new networking group holds its first Indianapolis meeting on June 8, it will have most of the trappings. Time will be set aside to “mix and mingle” with strangers. An industry professional will give a presentation, and there will be time to ask each other for information and favors.
But you won’t see a single man in that room.
“We’re flat-out excluding these men from our events,” said Alaina Shearer, 38, executive director of Women in Digital.
But don’t worry, gentlemen. You can still attend the group’s annual conference, held in Columbus, Ohio, from Oct. 25-27. Four percent of seats will be held aside for men. That represents the 4 percent of women who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
The reason men are excluded from most events, Shearer said, is to provide a safe space for women to share their stories of the workplace. That includes stories of sexual harassment.
“When the men aren’t in the room, the energy changes completely,” Shearer said. “There’s no way to back it up with science or anything, but the men aren’t there and the women find their voice. It’s a safe space where they can turn and talk to each other.”
Shearer has hosted mixed-gender networking events before, at the headquarters of Cement Marketing, the Columbus, Ohio, agency she co-owns. But before she went to sleep one night in 2016, she came up with the idea of holding an event that was just for women.
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She describes that decision as “instinctual.” Shearer wanted to tell the “struggles and victories” of her career, including how she came to own a digital agency. And to tell that story, she had to talk honestly about the harassment and discrimination she’s faced as a woman in the workplace.
During an interview for a job on a radio show, she said, a producer asked if she was planning to get pregnant. Pregnant co-hosts were good for ratings, he explained. Later, when she moved into advertising, one creative director said he couldn’t be in the same room with her, because he “didn’t know what would happen.” Another time, she said, a man grabbed her rear during a work function at a bar.
“There is nothing unique about my story,” Shearer said. “What is unique is that I can tell it. I’m self-employed and I can say whatever I want.”
Standing in front of her first crowd of 100 women in Columbus in 2016, Shearer was terrified. “Every instinct in my body told me to stop,” she said.
But after the event, Shearer said she spent three hours answering phone calls and e-mails from women who said her story had affected them — and who told her their own stories of obstacles and harassment in the workplace.
According to a 2015 survey by Cosmopolitan, one in three women aged 18-34 reported sexual harassment in the workplace.
Women in Digital has now attracted 2,000 women to its meetings in Columbus, Cincinnati and Austin, Texas, and is expanding to 14 more cities, including Indianapolis. Attendees at the inaugural meeting will hear Shearer’s story and have a chance to “Ask and Give.” That’s where networkers ask for information or help from each other — maybe how they made a big career jump at their company, or how to properly use SEO on a website.
“The ideal ask is one where you get butterflies in your stomach,” Shearer said. “It’s easier for men to ask for help. It’s harder for us.”
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The exclusion of men has been controversial, Shearer said. Many men are angry at first. But as many think about the reason for it, the attitude changes.
“They think this is how women feel when they’re kept from the golf course, or they can’t have lunch with Mike Pence,” Shearer said. “This is not a political statement. We aren’t just picking on dudes. We want to work with men.”
A few overtures have been made to include men in the events, but the group has voted to keep the event exclusive to those who identify as women.
“When there are no men in the room, we feel safe,” Shearer said. “We automatically feel we can trust each other.”
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Shearer said that discussing harassment and discrimination is a small part of the events. In subsequent meetings, she plans to bring in Indy-area digital experts to share their professional expertise.
“There’s something empowering about just being in a room with a bunch of super digital geek-nerd women who also fight for digital marketing or whatever they’re working on,” Shearer said.
If you go
What: Indianapolis Women in Digital kickoff meeting.
When: 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. June 8.
Where: D’Amore, 111 Monument Circle.
Cost: Registration is required, $10+ fees.
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