Why Women Only?

Are Women Only Business Events Still Relevant?

A women’s only business conference is blessedly not a rare thing these days, but as a producer of one and a speaker who often attends them, I frequently find myself in conversations about whether or not they are still relevant. Conversations, which I alternate between enjoying engaging in and feeling intensely frustrated by. Which end of that spectrum I fall on often has a lot to do with just how aggressively the other person raises the issue.

There are a lot of ongoing conversations about the issue of women’s equality in the corporate world and entrepreneurial cirlces, particularly since Lean In hit shelves. Earlier this month, the Harvard Business Review had a post looking at why corporations do not need internal women’s only networks, which touched on a lot of the topics frequently raised in conversations about women only events. The debate about women’s only events typically boils down to: does having women only events have the unintended side-effect of further segregating women and what we perceive as “women’s issues” like childcare, balance and equity to arenas where only women are present? Or, as Avivah Wittenberg-Cox , the post’s author puts it,

…women are working far too hard at an issue actually beyond their power to solve. The men currently in power may not actually have the skills and knowledge to effectively manage across genders (not to mention across nationalities, the other global elephant in the room).

Now her post is about internal corporate networks specifically (she closes the article by acknowledging that “External women’s networks serve many vital purposes including lobbying, information sharing, education, and mentoring”). I agree with her that more does need to be done to make the men in decision making and power positions aware of the issues that women in their workplace are facing, particularly if they aren’t seeing gender equity in leadership positions.

As for external conferences and networks, like Wittenberg-Cox, I come down firmly on the side of yes. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that women only events are vital to moving more women into leadership positions. Why?

Increasing access. This may seem a bit trite, but as the producer of a women’s only conference (that has an all genders welcomed counterpart), it is always interesting to me to hear how many women register/attend that would not have felt comfortable attending a mixed gender event. The reality is that women’s only spaces, even if that simply means a space where women know they can go and discuss business/career/technology issues in the presence of other women, is still of value to a lot of women. And before you decide that this is an issue that dominates in junior circles, trust me: many very successful and high profile women have surprised me by revealing this concern.
Creating a space for honest dialogue amongst women about the real barriers that we face. And then finding productive ways of moving through that conversation to reveal how some successful women have overcome or approached those barriers. This is a conversation that also very much needs to happen with men in the room, but the lightbulb that goes off when women hear each other talk about some of the unique challenges that women face in navigating high profile careers is invaluable. Many women do not feel safe sharing those personal stories with men in the room, particularly men with significant influence. We need to work together to share our stories and then present them in aggregate or as systemic issues when discussing them with a larger mixed gender group.
We still have a lot of work to do.There are a lot of conversations that we need to be having about women as leaders, women as mentors, setting examples for up and coming generations, and what equality looks like. Those conversations need to happen among women. They do also undoubtedly then need to be continued in a broader mixed gender context, and I would encourage champions of women’s equality to find ways to get those topics on broader conference agendas.
Access to mentors. This is one that Wittenberg-Cox raises, Sandberg raises and many other savvy folks have pinpointed as well. Women still seem to struggle with accessing mentors, who can have a significant impact on advancing their careers. I have seen women’s only events as a less intimidating venue for women who are perhaps reticent to approach a senior leader to become a mentor. Furthermore, I try to actively encourage senior attendees to consider becoming mentors, as the business world lacks in female representation at the mentorship level as well.

One of the bigger challenges that I find in this conversation is that frequently men (and some women), who raise the issue, are those who come from a position of equality. They (to the best of their abilities) practice gender equity and feel like they don’t discriminate, many are men who are allies of women leaders and feel as though the presence of these conferences is somehow a judgement on their performance. Or, on the other hand, are women who genuinely do not feel they have been subjected to much in the way of discrimination. To those folks I say: wonderful. Truly. Wonderful that there are pockets (getting bigger all the time we hope) where discrimination is not an issue. Those pockets are still not the norm however, and until they dominate women only events will still have their place in the business world. And, to counter balance the possibility that they reinforce segregation, let’s keep trying to get more women speakers and more topics that have been previously seen as “women’s issues” on all conference agendas.

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