27 September 2023

Leading question: Why are women’s leadership conferences a problem?

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Jennifer Sanfilippo* wonders why women purposefully segregate themselves from the majority of organisational leaders to talk about leadership.

Photo: Jeff Bergen

The current political environment amplified by the #MeToo movement has thrown a blinding spotlight on the fact that women are vastly underrepresented in leadership positions across industries and sectors.

According to the World Economic Forum, it will take 217 years for disparities in the pay and employment opportunities of men and women to end.

That’s why I’m puzzled by the existence of women’s leadership conferences.

Why do women purposefully segregate themselves from the majority of organisational leaders to talk about leadership?

What’s the benefit of a “separate but equal” activity?

Peer networking and mentoring for women in the workforce certainly is valuable.

However, at the end of these leadership conferences, how many women advanced their career trajectory in a meaningful way?

By comparison, men work exceptionally well to advance their careers at gender-siloed events.

Whether it’s golf, fishing trips or a night at the symphony in the company box, they use these opportunities to strengthen business relationships, talent pipelines and succession plans and strategise mergers and acquisitions.

They have incredible social networks that drive business development and their careers.

Recently, I attended a women’s leadership meeting for bankers in Washington, DC.

One of the attendees brought along a male colleague.

At the end I overheard him say, “I am never coming to one of these again!”

In either environment, the extreme minority feels uncomfortable.

These separate activities contribute to the yawning gap between women in management and women in leadership, yet they continue to exist while we all struggle to understand gender inequity.

I’ve seen amazing women present at women’s leadership conferences.

It’s inspirational to hear from women who have worked their way up the corporate ladder to achieve great success in their careers.

Imagine the real impact these presenters would have on young professional men.

If executive men were sharing the stage with executive women in equal numbers, that mutual validation sends a powerful message to an integrated audience.

This approach would have a tremendous influence on organisational culture.

We know that exposure to leaders and decision-makers is crucial to career advancement.

How do we build the bridge between gender-siloed activities to get more women “in the room”?

For a start, internal analysis of soft benefits can be revealing.

Analysing the usage breakdown by gender for tuition, training, conferences, expense accounts, club memberships and attendance at political events are just a few areas of opportunity.

Gender-balanced work activities invite dialogue (the antidote to stereotyping and the perpetuation of biases) that socialises integration and supports the development of gender partnerships.

This is a big step toward moving the dial on gender equity.

* Jennifer Sanfilippo is a government and community relations professional for the financial industry and the creator of Jenderator.com.

This article first appeared at www.democratandchronicle.com.

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