How a Women's Conference Made Me Feel Like a Person

Monitor that reads: "dare to lead"I was recently offered the opportunity to attend the Texas Conference for Women in Austin, TX. I love the influx of motivation that comes with attending conferences and I expected to be even more inspired given the emphasis on women’s empowerment. While at the conference, I was pleasantly surprised by their use of non-traditional women's branding elements. The step-and-repeat backdrops at each stage simply had WOMEN displayed in subdued jewel tones. There was no pink, no purple, no Tiffany blue and zero stereotypical feminine icons to be found. It looked like a typical business conference other than the unusually long lines at the women’s restrooms.

It wasn’t until the emcee of one session asked the audience to look around for open seats that I noticed there were approximately a dozen men in the room of 250 women. Only two of the nearly 100 speakers and emcees were men. To put this in perspective, only 15% of this year’s Emerson Global Users Exchange attendees (registrants and speakers) were women.

I’ve attended other conferences and women’s inclusion always tends to be reduced to issues regarding the gender wage gap, work/life balance (read: employee/mom balance), and proving our equality. As an avid consumer of business advice articles and leadership podcasts, I am always repulsed when interviewers inevitably ask professional women about being a working mother (as though they have no other wisdom to offer!). I was worried these passé practices might be reflected in the Texas Conference for Women sessions. However, the sessions were predominately career-oriented. The topics included advancing your career, budgeting, entrepreneurship, increasing efficiency - topics you’d expect at any business or personal development conference. They balanced this with sessions on issues unique to women such as those regarding the #MeToo movement and harnessing your hormones, providing a well-rounded learning experience to a diverse crowd (which just happened to be primarily females).

The atmosphere of the conference was in line with recent research from (female!) professors at Stanford and Columbia that states,

“Women who downplay differences made them more confident. Downplaying means deemphasizing gender differences, seeing them as less important than other factors. It’s about focusing on similarities but also about individuality: what makes someone unique as a person rather than what makes someone different as a woman. Women who did this thought they could overcome challenges at work. They felt comfortable disagreeing with others. They said they would take more risks, take initiative, negotiate. These effects were strongest in male-dominated environments.”

So, how can we work together to improve the branding, content and attendee ratio of other conferences? Here are a few tips for we can all all easily put into practice:

Apply to speak at events. If needed, brush up on your presentation skills. Many offices have Toastmasters clubs that provide a low-pressure environment where you can you can work with peers to master public speaking.

  • Join a panel. Avoid minimizing your role to emcee or moderator.
  • Think small. Not every speaking engagement needs to be at a 3,000+ attendee conference. Look for opportunities at your office to present at lunch or openings to speak at local career fairs or smaller business events.
  • Start somewhere. If the idea of speaking solo to a room full of industry professionals makes you nervous, find a colleague or friend and present your knowledge.

Make diversity and inclusion a habit.

A recent McKinsey report found that, “Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile and they also had a 27% likelihood ofBrene Brown standing at the conference. outperforming fourth quartile peers on longer-term value creation.”

To help women rise to executive team roles, assign them tasks that will help them learn the necessary skills and achieve visibility to advance their career (read: not just busy work or tasks others don’t want). If you’re unsure, consider whether you’d give a male employee with leadership potential the same task. Check out this great Women at Work podcast from the Harvard Business Review dedicated to how women can be more cognizant of the purpose of their assignments, S2, E1: Let’s Do Less Dead-End Work.

Get a mentor. Be a mentor.

Mentors offer tailored professional advice, can help you find inspiring conferences and events to attend and connect you with opportunities to advance at work. See if your office offers a mentor-protégé program or approach someone you admire to ask they would be willing to act as your mentor for a year.

I’m looking forward to the day when female-centric conferences are not in rebuttal to a male-dominated business-world, but rather an additional outlet for women professionals. Or better yet, the opportunity to find a diverse offering of sessions applicable to and presented by an equal number of women and men at every conference. Have you attended a recent conference that provided this opportunity, or do you have other tips to share to help neutralize the gender parity at conferences and events? Reply below and share your experiences and tips.

  • Melissa -- Great article and perspective. The TWC in Austin is a good one. I believe if conferences care about inclusion they will put a focus on diverse content. This means giving women the stage, a mic and breaking out of traditional norms. Seeing is believing. As an Emerson employee, Pink Petro is a community that allows you the opportunity to sign up for our speakers bureau. This gives our members the opportunity and exposure to speak. We get requests all the time. It's as simple as signing up with your Emerson email account. Thanks for shining a light on this topic. It's important!