Sheelah Kolhatkar hits a nerve with “The Feel-Good Female Solidarity Machine” in her Bloomberg Businessweek cover feature “Girl Talk”. Her primary criticism of the plethora of conferences for women around the world is two-fold: first, there doesn’t seem to be much follow up and the words don’t seem to go anywhere and second, while there is great camaraderie and influential people in the room, nothing seems to change.
She does in fact suggest that the women’s conference machine - and it is a machine that is now core to a billion dollar industry - is a pink ghetto and recalls a comment from Sallie Krawcheck, a former chief financial office of Citigroup who is now CEO of Ellevest to help shrink the gender-investing divide: “I would note, we have a lot of men’s conferences, too. Know what they’re called? ‘Conferences.’ ”
Looking at this as a equal opportunity optimist/pessimist, we cannot help but note that women’s conferences have served a HUGE purpose in connecting women, inspiring women and creating networks of women. And yet things have not changed enough or quickly enough.
As Zing Tsjeng, the UK editor of Broadly, said in the article “it does feel like we’re at this point in time where it’s one step forward, two steps back,” she said. “Even though we have Beyoncé standing on a stage with the word ‘feminist’ in block letters behind her, it still feels like we are fighting for very basic things.”
But therein lies the rub, we simply cannot take our foot off of the gas.
Women working together are a renewable source of energy and there is simply to way around the fact that the women’s conferences bubbled up from a lack of recognition at the ‘Conferences’ Krawcheck refers to. There are numerous voices who have tirelessly battled the sometimes nonexistent stage presence of women let alone the gender imbalance in the audience.
Kolhatkar illustrates it succinctly: “In 1999 there were two women running Fortune 500 companies. Today there are 20. It’s a gain, but still a very long way from parity. Women’s representation in Congress has inched up, from 11 percent in 2001 to 19 percent. Women make up only 24 percent of senior executive positions at the largest companies and 19 percent of corporate board seats. Privately, women from such industries as finance and consumer goods lament that the number of women moving up at their companies has hardly improved from when they started 25 years ago.”
So let’s start with the lack of a call to action. Kolhatkar laments a lack of discussion about changing policies or lobbying Congress. But she also points out that a lot of women’s political capital has been spent on issues related to our bodies that should have been settled long ago. We’re out of steam on the issues that are really brewing including family leave and equal opportunity, issues that quite frankly affect women AND men and are a huge obstacle for women in culinary who are deciding between being a chef and having a family.
Her suggestions? An organized political discussion, collective lobbying, an email list to stay in touch, network and organize activities around the agenda.
There is one additional suggestion that Kolhatkar has that is brilliant. It’s not in the article, but in an interview she gave to LinkedIN when asked “what needs to change?” She suggested that all of the sponsors of the conferences meet some sort of standard litmus test - like The Bechdel Test for movies: (1) has to have at least 2 named women in it (2) the women have to talk to each other and (3) they have to talk about something other than a man.
Here’s a call to action: what is the litmus test for corporate sponsors of women’s conferences? A minimum number of women in senior positions? Proof of equal pay at each level? A minimum number of women on the Board? Family leave initiatives? What should it be?
Even the NFL, which has its own host of problems, launched its first Women’s Summit “In the Huddle to Advance Women in Sport” and they are going to require that at least one woman be interviewed for any executive position openings in the league office.
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