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How some women’s conferences reinforce systemic workplace sexism

(EDITORIAL) They’re not designed to put women down, but many women’s conferences actually disempower swarms of women in the workplace.

womens conference

The following is an editorial response to “The insulting nature of well-meaning but misguided events for women in business“:

So, you’ve been invited to attend a “women in business” conference. The invitation is probably pink and black or pink and gold. It may or may not have a glitter element. The event promises breakout sessions on leaning in, building confidence, and a champagne reception. A slew of female vendors will be there pushing beauty products that promise empowerment. You’ll probably even walk away with a swag bag containing a rose-gold water bottle and nail polish.

Still thinking about going? Think again. This event isn’t about empowerment, it’s not about female bonding and it sure as hell isn’t going to build your self-esteem. It’s systemic workplace sexism and it’s got to end.

I spent 2017 and 2018 working in a tech company in Silicon Valley in a male-dominated workplace.

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During that time, I had a female manager go so far as to suggest that I become more feminine. During our biweekly one-on-one meeting she offered me “data points” that might help me to better achieve my goals at work. They included smiling more, using a sweeter tone when speaking and not interrupting my male coworkers during meetings even though I had more experience and actually knew what I was talking about.

Never mind that I was 6 months pregnant at the time and successfully leading an international team of remote designers through a company rebrand. She felt that my direct, no-bullshit approach was abrasive. She let me know that she was looking out for my best interests, that in order to get ahead, I should be more feminine and to her, femininity meant being subservient. Her final suggestion was to attend a women’s conference (because by attending, I might learn how to fall in line with the pink army and start walking in lock-step silence).

I asked her if she felt she needed to have this conversation with the males on my team. She did not.

The point is, no male manager would suggest these kinds of behavioral changes or encourage his male coworkers to attend a conference where they could bro-down with each other. Men don’t need these conferences because they aren’t chastised for their totally normal behavior in the workplace. They aren’t scolded for their abhorrent behavior either.

To attend one of these women’s conferences is to single yourself out as other and lesser than. It’s to say that you need a safe space to feel empowered or confident to offer your opinion and give your expertise in a place where you should already be owed that.

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Last fall you might’ve caught the podcast, The Dream. The 10-part series dives deep into the world of MLMs and takes special interest in the role women play in them.

Avon, Lula Roe, and Thirty-One, just to name of few, were all built on the backs of women. Their founders noted that women were good at selling housewares, make-up, ugly leggings, and Chevron-print totes. These companies promise women, especially stay-at-home-moms, the opportunity to earn riches on their own time and to feel empowered doing so. It’s typical prosperity gospel shtick, but it has women in its crosshairs.

MLMs are just one example of how businesses use the promise of female empowerment to lure women into peddling goods for little return.

I bring this up in regard to many (but not all) women’s conferences because they both offer the promise of empowerment. Direct sales companies often use women-only conferences and parties as a means of energizing their workforce. The conferences often cost a lot of money and are completely ineffective.

Equality in the workplace isn’t just about pay. It’s about being treated as an equal mind with equal expertise, equal value, and having an equal voice. Next time you’re tempted to go to one of these conferences, pause and ask yourself if any of your male coworkers are going to men’s conferences to empower themselves in a disempowered workplace. They probably aren’t.

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Want to feel more confident at work? Find a mentor, ask for help, and let your voice be heard.

Written By

Meg Furey-Marquess is a Staff Writer at The American Genius. She has covered tech for The Metro Silicon Valley and The Bold Italic. She was named one of the Top 39 Writers on Medium in 2016.

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