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5 Big Problems I See With Women’s Conferences

And How We Can Fix Them To Actually Fight Gender Inequality

In comes a new email from your boss. The subject reads, “You are invited … “

Your stomach flutters with anticipation. What could this possibly be about?

You open it up to learn … your boss is sending you to a “women’s conference.”

Every year, hundreds of women-focused business conferences are held across the globe. This is great, right? At first blush, it certainly feels great to be selected for one.

Wow! They must think a lot of me to choose me to participate!

Awesome! Who will I be able to mix and mingle with?

(Secretly) What will I wear? I need to stand out.

But pretty soon reality sets in.

Hang on. I’m already slammed. This is going to throw another monkey-wrench in my schedule.

Wait, why is Janice invited? She leaves every day at 4:00.

So, what are all the men doing that day?

What exactly are the chances that I’ll be volunteered to help organize this thing?

Women’s business conferences are a noble idea. If you’ve been to one, it’s hard not to be in awe of the passion, sophistication, and attention to detail demonstrated by the organizers and attendees.

But if there are so many amazing women’s conferences, why is gender diversity still such a massive issue in the corporate workplace?

Obviously, this is a complicated question. Improving women’s conferences isn’t a silver bullet, but considering how they miss the mark can shed some light on the problem as a whole.

My podcast cohost and I recently drew up a list of all the things we’ve generally disliked about the over 25 women’s conferences we’ve collectively attended. Here they are:

1. They are too politically correct and vanilla. There simply isn’t enough plain speak and authentic, hard-earned perspective.

Suggesting that women’s conferences should be less politically correct immediately brings to mind a recent HuffPost article that shared an insider look at a particularly egregious (and politically incorrect) conference held by Ernst & Young.

When I read this article, I gasped. And then laughed. The gist of it was a completely ludicrous education about how to rise in your career by working within the gender stereotypes of the 1960s: Eschew anything masculine (but don’t flaunt your body), approach men deferentially, avoid being assertive, and above all, avoid being authentic.

This is not the kind of political incorrectness we need.

Instead, what we need is less jargon and more real talk. We also need to laugh more; we face a lot of ridiculous things in the average work day, and sometimes simply laughing together about it helps us get through it all.

Cut the crap. No more phrases that have been done to death such as “lean in,” “executive presence,” “speak up,” etc. These are all solid ideas, mind you, but they’ve become meaningless with overuse. For example, the term “executive presence” infers that women have to change who they are to succeed. The result? Many of the most qualified women decide to opt out of the bigger roles. Women need authentic examples, preferably interesting ones, not buzzwords.

2. There are too many professional facilitators and consultants and too few women who have actually been in the trenches

Consultants have their place, and conferences definitely need facilitators to start — and keep — the balls rolling. But relying on academic advice from people who have never personally navigated the landmines of rising through the corporate ranks leaves a lot of expertise on the table.

Conferences need to do more than pay lip service to the idea that women can be leaders by allowing them to actually lead. Encourage them to share their experiences, their ideas, and their solutions. Another common issue with these conferences: Focusing on problems women are assumed to face without enough timely, tactical, or tangible advice on how to solve them.

If we want women to be leaders, we must make sure that the conferences aimed at that goal are interactive and offer opportunities to put those skills to use.

3. Organizing conferences is often a time suck for the very people they are supposed to be supporting

Too often, organizing a women’s conference falls to a woman who is already working her butt off in a leadership position. And although helping each other rise is a noble and worthy goal, the women leading the charge are generally forced to shoehorn the planning into an already tight schedule filled with all the other responsibilities of the job. One wonders: How many male executives spend hours on end organizing events for other men?

According to McKinsey’s latest “Women in the Workplace” study, companies’ commitment to gender diversity has gone up 13% since 2015. However, only half of employees think that gender diversity is a priority in their company. Could this be because it is left to women alone to lead the charge?

4. The conferences are too darn formal

Generally, a women’s business conference looks and feels like a conference designed for a very uptight, stuffy, unapproachable man. Everything — from the agenda to the seating — screams button up and mind your manners.

Is this really an environment that fosters the authenticity and vulnerability required to bring your best self to bear? We think not. Why not customize the experience to the attendees? What’s wrong with comfy couches, bean bag chairs, or (gasp) yoga pants?

To be fair, many icebreakers are not formal. In fact, they can be cheesy and sometimes downright offensive. This isn’t true across the board, but we’ve definitely experienced some doozies. Women may prefer comfortable clothes and humor, but we aren’t children. Drop the dumb games.

5. Women’s conferences only include, well, women

Though the intention behind female-only conferences is good, they still perpetuate the myth that women need to learn how to behave in order to become leaders. This is simply not true. The same leadership skills that work for men work for women as well.

We need conferences designed to challenge the idea that there is one right style of leadership — and that that winning style can only be achieved by straight white men. Yes, women must be included in these conferences, but so must leadership. How can we drive change without all the leadership in the room?

So what do we do?

Don’t try to change women for the job. Instead, enable them to change the job.

Though the EY conference is an extreme example, it highlights one of the biggest issues we have. We give advice to women focused on how to act just like those before them — whether male or female. For some reason, we believe there is only one way to be in order to be successful. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

When I was initially tapped for my first corporate executive position, I actually said, “No thank you.” I feared I’d have to become someone I’m not. I feared I would have to compromise my family, my health, and even my identity to be successful.

It took a while to realize that I have unique qualities that I could exploit (humor, humility, and the ability to inspire) and that the things that I wasn’t so good at (extensive travel, detailed operations) could be addressed by strengthening the team around me.

I love the quote by soccer legend Abby Wambach, “Imperfect men have been empowered and permitted to run the world since the beginning of time. It’s time for imperfect women to grant themselves permission to join them.”

We have got to stop pretending that there is a linear formula for being a successful leader. Instead, we must help women celebrate and exploit their unique, positive qualities.

Go ahead, hold women’s conferences, but shake them up … significantly

In our perfect world, there would be no need for women’s conferences or talk of gender parity. We’re making progress toward this goal: The number of women rising to a top CEO spot has increased 24% over the last five years. But obviously, we’re not there yet.

So, until we arrive at the nirvana that is true gender diversity (of all kinds, mind you), women’s conferences offer a unique opportunity for us to learn from each other. However, that only happens if the women attending and leading are allowed to show up as their authentic selves.

Showcase speakers that tell it like it is. Give real-life actionable examples of women who’ve crushed their careers without selling their souls, and play some fun music while you’re at it.

A few weeks ago, my podcast cohost and I experimented with something like this. Imagine a conference that kicks off with dancing and lip synching into a room packed to the gills with high-powered and successful women in the financial industry.

Not sounding so bold?

One of us was wearing a bedazzled tracksuit, and we may have had props, parody videos, and cheese cubes. And, it wasn’t just a show. We got real down and dirty about the things that helped us rise into executive positions. The crowd left incredibly inspired to be more of themselves, both in work and in their personal lives.

If we can’t shake up a conference, how can we hope to shake up the workplace?

It is time we start acknowledging that we must get much more creative in our approach to gender diversity if we ever want to have a shot at reaching parity.

We need to start asking the tough questions:

  • What is working and what isn’t?
  • What bold moves do we need to make to go from looking at gender diversity as a problem to solve and embracing it as an organic source of strength, especially in the corporate world?

Whether you’re a decision-maker or low down on the totem pole, one thing is clear. It is going to take all of us thinking well beyond the current conference box to get where we need to be.

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