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The insulting nature of well-meaning but misguided events for women in business

(EDITORIAL) At events designed for women, organizers often miss the mark and what is often offered is completely insulting. We can do better.

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Comparing apples to… potatoes?

Most of our offline life revolves around events in the tech industry. My husband (our company founder) and I focus on demo days, pitch sessions, data meetups, tech policy panels, tech mentoring, and so forth. We even roam the halls of real estate conferences too, but rarely spend time at women-only events. And here’s why…

I’ve been to enough events for women in business to offer an assessment of what often goes on. For example, last year, I went to a one-day event for women in business. It was huge. It was beautiful. There was champagne, luxury massage stations, and even gourmet chocolates. The women were unanimously giddy. And I couldn’t have been more uncomfortable. I was a fish out of water. A fish on Mars, if you will.

The expo hall and insulting agenda

The expo hall wasn’t filled with tools to help you grow your business, no, it was exclusively weight loss products, scarves, jewelry, makeup, skin care products, bath bombs, and so forth. It was painfully disorienting. Insulting. Is this how women in business see women in business?

Then, looking over the agenda, the sessions were mostly about how to build confidence and find your self-worth, what skirts are hot hot hot right now, and how to communicate to male bosses when feeling emotional. I shit you not.

While I am acutely aware that this one event doesn’t represent all events tailored to women, most are at least marginally guilty of this well-meaning but misguided pandering. The gifts are often overly feminized – “thanks for joining us, here’s a free face lotion that smells like daisies and zebra print.” The vendors or sponsors are costume jewelry makers. The sessions are often little more than “hey, girl power is neat, let’s have girl power!” Okay – complimentary leopard print journals with glitter lettering does not girl power make.

Let’s talk about REAL girl power

Real girl power is not assuming that one gender is superior or inferior. Real girl power (surprise, surprise) empowers women. Real girl power doesn’t diminish women to a demographic that equates their business success to a face wash, a pink prop, an empty effort.

In an attempt to lift each other up, I would posit that we often hold ourselves (and each other) down.Click To Tweet

There is a time and place for this stuff

There is a time and place to buy makeup, overdose on the color pink, and giggle over gel nail polish. But that time is at home or with your friends on your personal time. There is no correlation to your business. You know, that place where you go to negotiate like a boss, where you juggle endless calls, train your staff, master your marketing, pursue continuing education about laws and policies, all while (oh my) managing to be a woman out in this big scary world.

If there was an event just for “men in business” with vendors that minimized them to neon signs for their man cave, engraved bourbon glasses, tie organizers, and golf balls, it would be a flop. If the sessions were about how not to fart during meetings, or how to not sexually harass your female assistant, ticket sales would be zero. This would just never happen.

What you can do next

Next time you’re part of organizing an event, think about what you’ve read here. Let it echo in your mind. Please. All conferences have something corny at them (that scarf vendor is always going to sell out), that’s fine, but is the focus on business as it should be?

I challenge you to seek out vendors that don’t diminish what it is to be a woman in the business world – seek out vendors that will help in business like lead generation tools, online ad managers, productivity suites, and so forth.

Next time you’re going to buy a ticket to an event that is “for women,” check out the vendors, sponsors, and agenda first. If you don’t see anything about business, rather a slew of weight loss and beauty products, think twice.

Look, if you’re going to have a girl’s weekend, just go do it. If you’re having a bake sale or trunk show, just go do it. But let’s not kid ourselves – many of these events for women are little more than a play day.

Stereotyping each other is bad. Stereotyping ourselves is worse. Paying to be stereotyped is repulsive. We can do better.

This editorial was originally published in October of 2016.

Lani is the Chief Operating Officer at The American Genius - she has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH and Austin Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Kj Lange

    October 20, 2016 at 5:45 pm

    I am with you on this. If I want to do a girls night out and help my friends in different other businesses sell their products, I will. And I do. A girls night out.
    But Womens shows are notorious for this stuff. The one that gripes me more is when they have psychics and tarot card readers.
    Seriously.

  2. Erica Ramus

    October 20, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    Years ago when I was an incoming President of our Chamber of Commerce I wanted to start a Women’s group, a subset of the Chamber. The EO fought me and I thought he was wrong. Now I think he was right. SO now our COC does have a women’s only subset – and I don’t go to anything. They have gift exchanges at Christmas, juggling family and business talks, luncheons that talk about choosing the colors you wear and how to financial plan as women. The prior EO thought that segregating woman/men would create a divide and that all groups were welcome at all talks – why make some just for one gender. He was right. I am not saying that the women’s group doesn’t provide value – to some – but it is not what I would have envisioned. If a talk can be on preparing for retirement, for example, why does it need to be targeted to women’s planning for retirement. Oh and the “choose the colors I will wear” and gift exchanges – please. Do it on the weekend.

  3. Kelly Mitchell

    February 28, 2017 at 5:58 pm

    Such a refreshing and candid perspective Lani. You reflect many of my thoughts and experiences.

    I think women events should champion women speakers. There are so many great ones out there that rarely see the light of day due to our male oriented society (in all verticals).

    For now, I’ll avoid “Women Conferences” because of all the things you’ve mentioned as I have before and at present. It’s sad.

    Doing business, regardless of your sex, is all about doing it better & learning new things. Not giggles & facials.

    • Lani Rosales

      March 1, 2017 at 12:19 pm

      AMEN – thanks for weighing in, Kelly. Truly. 🙂

  4. Bob LeDrew

    March 1, 2017 at 12:47 pm

    I’m seriously trying to imagine what a men-only “business show” would offer, the inverse of this. Booths from gyms? Ab machines? I don’t doubt there’s a need for women entrepreneurs to be supported. But surely this isn’t what they need.

  5. Erin Young

    February 6, 2018 at 8:59 am

    Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes. As a mother, wife, daughter, friend and an entrepreneur, there are a lot of people who deserve my time and attention. I don’t often get the chance to focus on self-development and learning. So when I do, I’m highly selective.

    When it comes to professional matters, I’d prefer that my gender have nothing to do with the conversation. Why would I choose programming targeted at me based on my gender? Can I expect that the industry’s very best content will come in pink packaging? I think not.

    In my mind, the best (and maybe even only) professional reason to gather on the basis of gender is to focus on strategies for overcoming gender inequality. And that conversation has just as much to do with men as it does with women so it shouldn’t take place at a women-only event.

    Women are diverse. Businesses are diverse. And in my very limited self-development time, I’ll learn more from being around the best from my specific industry–regardless of their gender.

    Hear, hear, Lani!

    • Lani Rosales

      February 8, 2018 at 8:40 pm

      Phenomenal points, thank you for taking the time to comment, Erin!!

  6. Pingback: How some women's conferences reinforce systemic workplace sexism - The American Genius

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Opinion Editorials

Study says women need to be seen as “warm” to be considered confident

(EDITORIAL) A new study reveals that despite progress, women are still successful when they fall into a stereotype. Let’s discuss.

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About 15 years ago, I took a part-time job in a mental health clinic handling bookkeeping and billing. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I attacked the job with what I felt was confidence. For the first few days, I simply felt as if I was an imposter. I kept asking questions and pushing forward, even though I didn’t make much progress. Within just a few days, I felt the hostility of the office manager.

It got progressively worse, and I couldn’t figure out what the heck I’d done to make her so confrontational with me. I thought I was pleasant and respectful of her position, and I was getting along with the other employees. When I talked to our boss, I was told that I intimidated the office manager. HUH? Me? Intimidating? I was a complete mess at the time. I could barely put together a business casual wardrobe. My emotional health was so fragile that I rarely went anywhere new. And she found me intimidating?

Researchers have been studying how people judge others. Susan Fiske, researcher out of Princeton, found that competence and warmth are two of the dimensions used to judge others. Based on that research, Laura Guillén, Margarita Mayo, and Natalia Karelaia studied the competence and warmth at a software company with 236 engineers.  Guillén and her team collected data at two separate times about these engineers and their confidence and influence within the organization.

They found that “men are seen as confident if they are seen as competent, but women are seen as confident only if they come across as both competent and warm.

Women must be seen as warm in order to capitalize on their competence and be seen as confident and influential at work; competent men are seen as confident and influential whether they are warm or not.”

We encourage women to be confident, but based on current research, it may not be enough to close the gender gap in the workplace. A woman must be seen as helpful and dedicated to others to have the same influence as a man. As a woman, it’s easy to be seen as the #bossbitch when you have to make tough decisions. Those same decisions, when made by a man might be considered just “business as normal.”

I guess the lesson is that women still have to work twice as hard as men just to be seen as equals. I know that I have to work on empathy when I’m in an office environment. That office manager isn’t the only person who has thought I’m intimidating. I’ve heard it from it others, but you know what?  As a self-employed writer, I’d rather be seen as undeterred and daunting than submissive and meek.

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Opinion Editorials

“Starting a business is easy,” said only one guy ever

(OPNION EDITORIAL) Between following rules, finding funding, and gathering research, no business succeeds without lifting a finger.

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While browsing business articles this week, I came across this one, “Top 10 Business Ideas You Can Start for Free With Barely Lifting a Finger.” These types of articles make me mad. I can’t think of many successful freelancers or entrepreneurs who don’t put in hours of blood, sweat and tears to get a business going.

The author of the article is Murray Newlands, a “VIP Contributor.” Essentially, he’s a freelancer because he also contributes to Forbes, HuffPro and others. He’s the founder of ChattyPeople.com, which is important, because it’s the first business idea he promotes in the article.

But when I pull up his other articles on Entrepreneur.com, I see others like “How to Get Famous and Make Money on YouTube,” “Win Like A Targaryen: 10 Businesses You Can Start for Free,” and “10 Ventures Young Entrepreneurs Can Start for Cheap or Free.”

I seriously cannot believe that Entrepreneur.com keeps paying for the same ideas over and over.

The business ideas that are suggested are pretty varied. One suggestion is to offer online classes. I wonder if Newlands considered how long it takes to put together a worthy curriculum and how much effort goes into marketing said course.

Then, you have to work out the bugs, because users will have problems. How do you keep someone from stealing your work? What happens when you have a dispute?

Newlands suggests that you could start a blog. It’s pretty competitive these days. The most successful bloggers are ones that really work on their blog, every day. The bloggers have a brand, offer relevant content and are ethical in how they get traffic.

Think it’s easy? Better try again.

I could go on. Every idea he puts up there is a decent idea, but if he thinks it will increase your bottom line without a lot of hard work and effort, he’s delusional.

Today’s entrepreneurs need a plan. They need to work that plan, rethink it and keep working. They have to worry about liability, marketing and keeping up with technologies.

Being an entrepreneur is rewarding, but it’s hard work. It is incredibly inappropriate and grossly negligent to encourage someone to risk everything they have and are on the premise of not lifting a finger.

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Opinion Editorials

New age stranger danger: teaching kids about AI

(OPINION EDITORIAL) The world is changing and so is technology. As tech changes so must we, in teaching kids about the dangers about AI.

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When I was younger, when my siblings and I would come home from school, we were required to nourish our minds for an hour (study, homework, read, do math practice, whatever we were feeling that day) and then we were banished from the house until dinner.

We had to go outside and create our own fun. We rode bikes to friends houses, we went “fishing” in the creek, sometimes before we left the house we’d search the couch for loose change and go to our favorite corner store and share a bag of skittles.

Our neighborhood was a safe one — it was one of those ideal 90s neighborhoods where our house was seated on the end of a cul-de-sac so there was little traffic and there were enough kids on the street to field two kickball teams.

Each parent on the street was allowed to reprimand us and there were rarely any locked doors. As a 10 year old it felt like ultimate freedom. But, with that freedom came a very important lesson in strangers and what to do if we were ever approached by one.

I’m sure stranger danger is still a thing taught by parents and schools alike but we went from don’t talk to strangers online or get in strangers’ cars to getting online to request a stranger to drive us somewhere.

With the advancement of technology has come a readiness to bring strangers in (/near / to) our homes. The most invitations coming from those personal assistants many homes can’t seem to function without.

Alexa, Google Home, Bixby or whatever assistant you may use are all essentially strangers that you are willingly bringing into your home.

Just yesterday I had a conversation with a college kid that didn’t know that the microphone on those things are always on — as such is true with the Facebook, Instagram and Facebook Messenger apps.

In a recent article from Rachel Botsman (BOTSman, hmmmm), she describes the experience her three year old had with an Alexa.

Over the course of the interactions, her daughter asks the bot a few silly questions, requests a few items to be bought, asks Alexa a few opinions, she ultimately sums up her daughter’s experience as saying, “Today, we are no longer trusting machines just to do something, but to decide what to do and when to do it. The next generation will grow up in an age where it is normal to be surrounded by autonomous agents, with or without cute names.”

I’m not a mother and I’m definitely old enough to be extremely skeptical of machines (iRobot anyone?) but the effects smart bots will undoubtedly have on future generations have me genuinely concerned. Right now it seems as harmless as asking those assistants to order more toilet paper, or to check the weather or to see which movies are screening but what will it become in the future?

A MIT experiment cited in the Botsman article 27 children, aged between three and 10, interacted with Alexa, Google Home, Julie (a chatbot) and, finally, Cozmo (a robot in the form of a toy bulldozer), which are all AI devices/ toys.

The study concluded that almost 80 per cent of the children thought that Alexa would always tell the truth.

Let me repeat that — 80 PERCENT OF THE KIDS BELIEVE THAT THE AIS, CREATED BY COMPANIES WHO WANT TO SELL PRODUCTS, WILL ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH.

The study went on to conclude that some of the children believed they could teach the devices something useful, like how to make a paper plane, suggesting they felt a genuine, give-and-take relationship with the machines.

All of these conclusions beg the question, how can we teach kids (and some adults if we’re being honest) about security and privacy in regards to new technology? How do we teach kids about commercialism and that as innocent as they may seem, not every device was designed altruistically?

We are quickly approaching an age where the strangers we introduce our kids to aren’t the lurkers in the park with the missing dog or the candy in the van, but rather, a robot voice that can tell a joke and give you the weather and order +$70M worth of miscellaneous stuff.

So now, it’s on us. Children of our own or not, we have to start thinking about best practices when it comes to teaching children about the appropriate time to trust in a computer. If the 5 year olds with smart devices are any indicator, teaching kids to be stingy with their trust in AIs will be an uphill battle.

This story was first published here in October of 2017.

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