I’ve been pondering the topic of how to design effective event programming for women professionals, turning it inside out, and asking some of you about it in private. Those of you who know me or have met me in person know that I am a feminist. Yes, we have the right to vote and not get fired for being pregnant, and Title IX requires equality in education, athletics and federal loans. But equal pay for women and paid family leave is still the exception -- not the rule. And most industrialized nations are way ahead of the U.S. on affordable quality childcare.
Many of us are fed up right now with the resurgence in male chauvinism. And some are tired of being bullied by more than a few men in the workplace. We have evolved and powerful people and systems around us have not caught up. Our society simply does not value caregiving as contributing to the economy, so as the natural nurturers, we end up doing double duty on the job and at home with children and/or aging parents.
This is why we crave the company of other women with whom we can discuss these issues frankly and share best practices for balancing all of it. Someone else might have a glimmer of the answer that can work in our lives. We seek out access to women leaders. We want to hear their stories, to understand how we might have a chance to rise as well, to hear their ideas on time management, household finances, division of labor and personal relationships.
And we seek out events where we might discover these insights, places where we might meet others like us with the hope of eventually working together, in a relevant environment that speaks to us. Women’s events generally have the goal of bringing us together -- to inspire us, connect us, and empower us. They tend to fall into one of three categories: (1) networking, (2) formal corporate-sponsored events with after-party networking, and (3) local women’s events with topics to help empower women.
Reflecting on all the women’s events I have attended lately, the question arises: Are these events truly empowering women? Are we taking the right approach?
The answer for me is no. No, we are often not taking the right approach with these events.
Industry specific networking events billed as women’s events usually seem contrived, artificial and even tainted by reverse discrimination, so I prefer gender neutral industry events, as well as socializing with other women informally in smaller group settings or in my community.
By contrast, larger, more formal events that bring in top female leaders with impressive titles as speakers are a more interesting and challenging topic. I have recently attended several large ‘women in tech’ events and noticed that the keynote speakers, all very accomplished executives with enviable resumes, pepper their remarks on stage with overtly feminist sound bites. Some use quite creative ways of re-packaging perspectives on the ‘bro culture’ that we have all been sharing for years now and they gamely engage the tweeters in the crowd. But listening to those personal stories and sound bites with similar themes, I often grow impatient with the pep rally genre, especially from business leaders who could have taught me something really valuable.
Panel discussions have not been a whole lot better, though some panelists try hard to raise the bar. As most of these discussions tend to go, the panelists are asked very general questions about work/ life balance, such as “How do you do it all?”
Some of the best talks I have heard have come toward the end of a day long event. I heard a female founder at one event talk on stage with a negotiation coach about how they overcame an investor trying to strong arm her out of her own company if she didn’t accept his deal. A female CEO of a 1,000+ employee technology company shared the details of how she got to where she was in her career, what her real challenges were and what she would have done differently.
This content mattered. It was relevant and useful.
It got me thinking about local women’s groups and how challenging it is to come up with strong programming for their events. Part of the underlying frustration is that men don’t generally hold events about work/life balance or dressing for success because they don’t see the need for the first discussion, and have long ago established their basic wardrobe choices. Hey, and casual Fridays apply equally to all, right? End of story.
I understand the importance of community for women, especially as we continue to fight for complete equality. I understand the need for us to grow, learn, and challenge ourselves among other women. But in my opinion, we are beyond the phase of raising awareness about the inequality we face. We need to move toward action.
What content will empower women long term?
I believe this is the key question.
And overall, I believe we need to raise the bar on the content we present to one another.
Event organizers, I urge you to find speakers who will share detailed substantive content that will educate the audience. No more “You go girl” pep rallies, as one of my fellow marketers calls them. The reality is that some leaders of both genders are reluctant to share their “secret sauce” with a group of strangers. They want to maintain any strategic advantage it may provide... and so they are not very transparent in educating others.
Please choose speakers that will provide actionable advice and mentor others at an advanced level. Do not worry about targeting the content specifically for the younger or more junior level audience members. Work on challenging the smartest women in the room. If you can accomplish that, then you have inherently also inspired the ones who may have more growth potential and given them an even better example to emulate.
Worried that fewer women will want to speak if the bar is too high? I urge you to set the bar so high that it becomes an honor to speak at your event. TEDx has accomplished this, and it can be a way to elevate more women into more visible positions, creating better role models for the next generation.
What do women need to be educated about?
Everyone should attend events that make them sharper and better in their specific industry sector and their own role. Think instead about events that explore the factors that really change a woman’s life and give her power to live and work freely.
Here is a list of values that I believe empower women:
Financial Education. A short personal finance course, such as those offered by Ever-Fi, should be a high school graduation requirement, and available in colleges as well. Women (and men) who have not learned personal finance and investing strategies tend to set themselves up for financial trouble in the event of job loss, small business failure, illness or divorce. Many women are more vulnerable financially due to childcare and parental care obligations that fall disproportionately on us. Money is the one thing that provides freedom to make the best decisions in hard times. We need to understand how stock options and restricted stock units work and how they will come in handy financially. We need to know what to do about family leave and unexpected long term disability. We need to know what options we have for loans in a pinch.. If we’re doing independent contract work in between jobs or later in life, we need to know how that will work financially, including the tax implications. Everyone with substantial income, including professional women, needs to understand investment options and strategies to protect and grow their wealth. More women empowered with greater financial resources and security means greater economic and political influence for us all.
Legal Education. If there is one thing I have learned in my professional career, it is to know when you need legal assistance and how to get it. I have watched too many women suffer severe and negative, life-changing impacts from not understanding family law. I have seen career women get pushed out of jobs and out of business partnerships -- without appreciating the need to discuss the situation with an employment attorney or corporate HR department.
Resilience Training. Women’s effective hard work that contributes to the success of organizations and other people is too often not recognized and rewarded accordingly. Many professionals must move horizontally in order to grow. This takes a lot more energy, focus, creativity and above all - resilience. We need to teach women exactly when to fight and when to walk, when to pivot and when to stay the course. And especially how to snatch opportunity from the jaws of a setback or slight. Business role playing games, incorporating open-minded men, might be useful in resilience training that builds confidence.
Specific Advice for Female Entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is difficult no matter who you are. But it is a fact that only 2.2% of all venture capital went to women in 2018. This is astonishingly low. Women entrepreneurs need specific and detailed education geared toward their challenges around dealing with implicit bias, projecting their best image and developing persuasion skills. The more women entrepreneurs get funded, the more influence women in general will have in our world.
Diversity. Of course this is the theme of most women’s events, but how do we move the conversation to something more productive? Exactly what is happening internally in companies that prevents it? Are management teams dismissing the exit interview honesty that women often provide when they decide to quit fighting a specific work culture that doesn’t support them? Are there geographic limitations affecting diverse hiring? What inputs do Diversity & Inclusion managers at large companies need to address the problem more effectively? How does unconscious bias influence HR outcomes? Could AI algorithms using skewed historical data be partly to blame? How do we make sure our hiring managers are educated about improving those systems with nuanced human judgment?
Equality in Marriage. “The most important decision you will make is who you marry.” wrote Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In, who has been quoted to excess. And while her perspective is helpful, it isn’t at the same time. It is too broad and non-prescriptive. Tell career-oriented women which traits to look for in a partner and which traits are red flags. Explain how to set up a marriage that is equal and stable and what the process for getting there is like. Marriage is changing, and women often have to shape it, but we have very little knowledge of how to do it.
Family Planning. The fact is that having children greatly affects a woman’s career, whether they do it with a partner or alone. Help women decide when to have children and how many to have, based in part on the likely career impact of those decisions given expected levels of support from a partner and/or other adult family members. Also discuss what options are available for maximizing the efficiency of a busy household and where exactly the biggest challenges hit, under which circumstances, and when.
You may feel like most of these topics are not really geared to “women in business” events because they address life skills more generally. I would argue that all of these items critically affect women in business, in part because traditional thinking around male roles persists. My overall concern for women’s programming is that it is too soft. I challenge all women to raise the bar. Yes, the topics of negotiating salary and how to interview may still be important. But can we take them further and deliver more helpful content?
There are several styles of presentation that I have seen work well at events. The first one is to launch discussions of difficult, real life situations that can be re-enacted on stage. Second, bring in female entrepreneurs for some of this content. They are often able to share insights about their corporate experiences more freely than current corporate executives can.
I would love to hear about your experiences at women’s conferences. What do you think could make them more useful and engaging? Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts and ideas on this topic.
Men friends, if you are wondering how you can help, read up on how to construct a more fully equal partnership at home. Understand how the life decisions we make together affect your female partner, learn about emotional labor and implicit bias. Check out this article, “6 Things Not to Say to a Stay at Home Dad” by Scott Brown.
Recognize that the women you work with operate and communicate differently from the way you do, and give us due credit for our work. Finally, be an advocate for us in our careers. Help us to gain the experience and exposure we need -- both while we’re working with you and beyond.