The Conference Connection…How to Make It Matter

By Michelle Quinn
East Bay Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The popularity of women in leadership conferences has skyrocketed over the past few years.  From women-focused events in specific industries (finance, tech) to lean-in circles, networking opportunities continue to grow.  But what do you really get out of these conferences and groups? That may be something you want to consider before making an investment of your time and money.

East Bay Times

It’s become the modern-day version of the consciousness-raising party.

Women gathering in corporate auditoriums, hotel ballrooms and convention centers to get pumped up to tackle the challenges of work.

Bust through the Glass Ceiling. Take Your Seat at the Table. Fake it ’til you make it. Get rid of your fear.

Pick your mantra.

On Thursday, more than 6,000 women (and some men) streamed into the San Jose Convention Center to hear the U.S. soccer star Abby Wambach, the TV actor and producer Mindy Kaling and panels of mostly women in business talk about their struggles and successes.

The Watermark Conference for Women Silicon Valley, in its second year, epitomizes the popularity of women and leadership events that have taken off in recent years. There are Lean In Circles on many campuses and workplaces, and women-focused events for specific subindustries.

Of course, there is no harm in women coming together to swap stories about challenges they face, exchange business cards and get pumped up. And if they leave with a few tips for dealing with “manterrupting,” “bropriating” and “talkblocking,” that can be helpful in what for many is a male-dominated office or field.

But I wondered what women really get out of these gatherings. Isn’t all the good advice already on the Internet? And as one woman lamented, “Every year we have these conferences and when will it be that men and workplaces have to change rather than women?”

Well, yes. When will that be?

I didn’t get to the “Better Man Conference,” held earlier this month in San Francisco, but the agenda looked fascinating, including one panel on “What Does It Mean To Be a Male Ally? What Is Gender Partnership, It’s a 2-Way Street.”

Without many men, aren’t conferences such as Watermark’s just preaching to the choir?

Perhaps, but even so that choir has some points to make if we listen — particularly in the tech industry. We know the stats aren’t good for women in tech: At top companies such as Google, women hold about 30 percent of the jobs. They make up about 23 percent of the leadership at Facebook. Female entrepreneurs don’t have much access to capital. These persistent disparities are the backdrop to conferences like these.

On this day, with a sea of 6,000-plus women filling more than 600 tables in the convention center ballroom, suddenly women in Silicon Valley were unmistakably visible and not isolated in their separate silos.

“There’s something about being surrounded by like-minded people,” said Marlene Williamson, Watermark’s CEO. “It gives some confidence. It builds some self-esteem. There’s real value in meeting other people who are going through the same thing.”

Thilmin Gee and Humera Malik, both with Electronic Arts, said they attended women’s conferences for the vibe of the collective experience.

“Yes, you can read a book,” Malik said. “It’s the power of all the women together that you feed off of, knowing you are not alone.”

Nancy Hayes, former dean of the business school at San Francisco State, said that while women get inspiration at these events, it’s hard to know the longer-term impact. Attendees go home and often don’t know what to do with the consciousness-raising they have experienced.

“Can you keep it up?” asked Hayes, now an angel investor of women-led startups. “That’s the challenge.”

At the Watermark conference Thursday, the headliners were edgy with their messages.

Mindy Kaling, star of “The Mindy Project,” said she would rather be rich than sweet.

The advice-giving about stepping up, leaning in and not apologizing got to be too much for some attendees.

“When will the culture change and we don’t have to step out of our skins as much?” asked one woman.

Christina Ushijima, assistant general counsel at Shutterfly, wondered out loud how the advice-givers would feel if they were talking about race rather than gender.

“Why do you have to give up authenticity and pretend to be something else to succeed?” she asked.

Tamar Elkeles, chief people officer at Quixey and formerly at Qualcomm, acknowledged that the burden is still on women to adapt.

“The best we can do is survive in a male-dominated world,” she said.

That’s a bleak assessment.

For many women at Watermark and at other conferences, meet-ups, Lean In Circles and cubicles, that is far from enough.

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