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Bloomberg on Women’s Conferences

The glam women's conferences are great in many ways, but they do threaten to trivialize the issues by focusing too much on having celebrities on stage.

The glam women’s conferences are great in many ways, but they do threaten to trivialize the issues by focusing too much on having celebrities on stage.

There is a smart and knowing piece about women’s conferences, called the “Feel Good Female Solidarity Machine,” on Bloomberg right now.  A founding member of the Power Shift team sent it to me with the observation that the action-versus-inspiration attitude taken by the author is our own core positioning.

I was just readying a new post reporting on the past week’s lessons from fieldwork in Uganda, but I thought perhaps I would put that off til tomorrow and instead jot a quick note about Bloomberg‘s women’s conference critique.   I do want to comment about our philosophy at Power Shift, but I also want to disagree ever so slightly with the otherwise right-on-target comments by Sheelah Kolhatkar, the author.

A core difference between Power Shift and these all-glam, ticket-selling events is that we want our audience to be as accomplished and engaged as our speakers are.  When we surveyed our target audience in preparation for the very first Power Shift, we learned that our desired group demanded an event oriented toward action. They wanted a participatory way to learn about the status of women, to find out “what really works” to help them advance, so they could take action steps toward empowering others, especially poor women, rather than themselves.

Our audience is also not entirely female (a growing number of males go to Power Shift, not because they are dragged there, but because they work on programs that aim to benefit women), so the objective of role-modeling that seems to drive most women’s conferences is not that relevant for us.  (The Bloomberg author’s description of the high heels, short skirts, and stool-top perches of the “role models” at the commercially-oriented women’s conferences made me choke with laughter.  So true.  So not Power Shift.)  We do wish to inspire, but we want to do it through intelligent understanding rather than  advertising imagery.

Of course, Power Shift is also invitation-only.  The space is restricted.  Instead of 2,500 seats, we have about 250.  We often break into smaller groups so that there can actually be a dialogue, rather than just talking heads.  We do sell a few tickets to people who approach us wanting to come, but only after they offer an application that can demonstrate a commitment to women’s empowerment.  We don’t care how much money they have, or how  they look in a power suit.  We want people who are engaged.

We have been fortunate that our sponsors are not about making money off of tickets or filling massive spaces with cheering crowds, but are happy to support a quality dialogue instead.  Our main partner, the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth, supports us because they are interested in stimulating real progress toward economic inclusion.  I know this because I am also one of their Senior Fellows. However, our other “fellow travellers,” such as ExxonMobil and Walmart, have been working closely with us in our research and they actually come to Power Shift (they don’t just write a check), even staying afterward to debrief on lessons learned.

For Power Shift, too, however, there is the need to get high profile speakers because even our rather serious audience likes to see and hear well known people in this context.  And that can sometimes lead down a slippery slope into an overly “rah-rah” (to quote Bloomberg) approach.  We try very hard to remain authentic, asking ourselves always if we are being true to our goal and our audience.

Our goal?  To get people who are in a position to create change thinking in new ways about women’s economic empowerment.  We plan for stimulating ideas, not drooling over fashionable shoes.

All that said, I am not sure I entirely agree with Kolhatkar about the glossier events.  I feel that the fact you can get people like Beyoncé to stand on stage in front of a sign saying “feminist” is not a symptom of the movement selling out, but instead points to a dramatic turnaround in political consciousness.

It is rapidly becoming cool to be a feminist.  That is nothing to gripe about–it is great!  And I think this kind of thing is happening because of a quietly rising awareness that women in the Western nations are being treated like chumps. (Sorry to be so frank, but there it is.)  I think women in “the West” have been in denial for decades and I, for one, am happy to see them snapping out of it, even if the first step is just to buy a ticket to a “women’s event.”

Bloomberg notes that many women enjoy these events because they meet other great women.  And it makes for good business contacts.  However, such conversations also build common ground for sharing the experience of inequality—a phenomenon not entirely unlike the “consciousness-raising groups” of the 1970s, just on a larger scale with better clothes.  I myself really don’t care whether the setting is a little too shiny if it gets women reaching across the divide of denial and saying, “Why are we putting up with this stuff?”

Of course, I prefer our own approach.  I feel it is more substantive. But it’s not what everybody needs.  Some women need their first wake-up call, their first taste of “female solidarity.”  Their first sense that, yes, if they pull together with others, it can be done.

And you know what?  That first sense that you are not alone after all feels good.  And that’s ok.  Because if there is one lesson we should have learned from the 1970s, it must surely be that the old-style Eeyore, it-will-never-get-better-until-we-blow-the-whole-world-up attitude just does not win hearts and minds.  And without hearts and minds, you have no movement.

As much as I agree with the Bloomberg points about the need for structural change, I also think the very fact that major institutions are actually standing up for women—even sponsoring what are essentially feminist rallies for them—is an astonishingly good sign.

This is something that has never happened before: major league, international, high level support for the women’s movement.  Wow.  I mean, really, wow.  Our great grandmothers would have been speechless with shock to get that kind of backing—and they would have run like hell with it, accomplishing as much as they could while the window was open.  We should do the same.

We are hard at work on Power Shift 2016 and will unveil the agenda very soon.  We are struggling to make the theme, Women and Leadership, fresh and edgy after nearly a decade of being turned into a cliché.  Even business schools, surely the most gender-unfriendly places outside the priesthood, got into the “women’s leadership” game.  But we aim to make women’s leadership a serious conversation rather than a cheerleading exercise.  And so far, it is looking very good. Stay tuned!


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