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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 and has been named in the Inman 100 Most Influential Real Estate Leaders several times, 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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7 Comments

7 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!!

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Opinion Editorials

Do women that downplay their gender get ahead faster?

(OPINION) A new study about gender in the workplace is being perceived differently than we are viewing it – let’s discuss.

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The Harvard Business Review reports that women benefit professionally when they downplay their gender, as opposed to trying to focus on their “differences” as professional strength.

The article includes a lot of interesting concepts underneath its click-bait-y title. According to the study by Professors Ashley Martin and Katherine Phillips, women felt increasingly confident when they pivoted from focusing on highlighting potential differences in their perceived abilities based on their gender and instead gave their attention to cultivating qualities that are traditionally coded as male*.

Does this really mean that women need to “downplay” their gender? Does it really mean women who attempt this get ahead in this world faster?

I don’t think so.

The article seems to imply that “celebrating diversity” in workers is akin to giving femme-identified employees a hot pink briefcase – it actually calls attention to stereotyped behaviors. I would argue that this is not the case (and, for the record, rock a hot pink briefcase if you want to, that sounds pretty badass).

I believe that we should instead highlight the fact that this study shows the benefits that come when everyone expands preconceived notions of gender.

Dr. Martin and her interviewer touch on this when they discuss the difference between gender “awareness” and “blindness.” As Dr. Martin explains, “Gender blindness doesn’t mean that women should act more like men; it diminishes the idea that certain qualities are associated with men and women.”

It is the paradox of studies like this one that, in order to interrogate how noxious gendered beliefs are, researchers must create categories to place otherwise gender-neutral qualities and actions in, thus emphasizing the sort of stereotypes being investigated. Regardless, there is a silver lining here as said by Dr. Martin herself:

“[People] are not naturally better suited to different roles, and [people] aren’t better or worse at certain things.”

Regardless of a worker’s gender identity, they are capable of excelling at whatever their skills and talent help them to.

*Though the HBR article and study perpetuate a binary gender structure, for the purposes of our discussion in this article, I expand its “diversity” to include femme-identified individuals, nonbinary and trans workers, and anybody else that does not benefit from traditional notions of power that place cisgendered men at the top of the social totem pole.

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Opinion Editorials

Why I paused my career to raise our child

(OPINION) Our children are like tiny little sponges that absorb everything that we give them — your job and the sentiments it produces and evokes included.

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I never dreamed of being a stay-at-home-mom. Not in a million years did I think I’d find myself choosing to press pause on my career, but here I am, a mother for just nine months, doing just that.

HBR recently published an article about how our careers impact our children focusing on parental values and the emotional toll of our career involvement on our families. It got me thinking about my own childhood.

Growing up, my parents’ discussion of work was almost always negative. A job was something you had to do whether you liked it or not. As a child, I listened to my parents fight over money; I observed them in constant worry about the future. I watched them stress over unsatisfying jobs.

There was never any room for risk, no money to invest in a new career path, and no financial cushion to fall back on to give a new career time to grow.

Later, when choosing a path of my own, I would often wonder what my parents had wanted to be or who they could’ve been if they would’ve been able to choose careers they might’ve thrived in. All I ever knew is that my parents hated their jobs. While they’re on better financial footing now, the residue of their negativity persists in the career choices of their children.

While I was pregnant, I was working at an international tech startup in Silicon Valley. The company suffered from poor leadership; the week I was hired, my team quit and I was left to piece together a position for myself. The company continued to flounder, its culture unable to recover from interim toxic leadership.

I constantly worried about my son and the stress of a toxic culture on my pregnancy. Going into the office made me anxious. Leaving left me feeling stressed out and overwhelmed. Instead of imagining a bright, beautiful baby boy, I closed my eyes and saw a dark and anxious bundle of nerves. Of course, I blamed myself for everything.

Toward the end of my pregnancy, I promised my baby that when he arrived, I would do things differently. This would be the last time I accepted a job that I only felt lukewarm about. Never again would I participate in a culture that could diminish my talents and self-worth. I’d seen this kind of thing during my childhood and I’d be damned to repeat it.

During my career, I’ve watched coworkers hire full time live-in nannies, missing their baby’s developmental milestones and their children’s school events. I listened as one CMO talked about moving into his backyard yurt when the pains of parenthood became too much for him. He left his three preteen sons alone to fend for themselves in the mansion they shared in Silicon Valley.

We pride ourselves on the amount of work we put into our careers, but we rarely measure our success through the eyes of our children.

Children are mimics, they absorb everything we do, even during infancy. So, what are we offering them when we abandon them to make conference calls from yurts? What message are we sending them when our eyes are glued to texts, emails and push notifications? What are we teaching them when we come home stressed out, energy depleted and our values compromised?

We try “disrupting” anything these days so what about the working parent model? Would it be worth it?

My husband and I decided that it was and we’re doing things differently.

My husband works in the service industry. He doesn’t leave for work until late in the afternoon which means he spends all day with our son. At nine months old, my son has a strong emotional relationship with his father.

I carve out time during my days and nights to schedule writing work. I’ve recently returned to freelancing and I find that when I’m working with clients I believe in and doing work that I enjoy, we’re all much happier.

Everyone who’s ever had children says the first year goes by incredibly quickly. It’s true. My career will be there next year and for years after that. My son is only a baby once and I wouldn’t miss it for all the money in the world.

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Opinion Editorials

Zuckerberg makes eyeroll-worthy new years resolution

(EDITORIAL) This year, instead of losing weight, Zuckerberg is going to save himself and the world another way.

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Like the rest of us, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, has announced New Year resolution – public talks on the future of technology in society. In a post on his personal profile page, he has pledged to participate in and host these discussions. Quite the step down from last year’s resolution to “fix Facebook.”

We get it, Mark, baby steps.

2018 saw Zuckerberg grilled by U.S. Congress and the European Parliament. His company suffered a drop in stock due to these hearings, was caught in the Cambridge Analytica firestorm and federal investigations, etc. It’s evident Zuckerberg bit off more than he could chew and his deciding to pull back isn’t surprising.

Here are the positives: the public needs more discourse on the future of tech and how it will affect the fabric of society. We want to connect with each other – we should pay more attention to what that truly means.

The entrepreneur titans leading the charge should be part of those discussions. Politicians, people elected to wield power for the public, are placed in debate situations regularly. Why shouldn’t the face of a global, digital platform be exempt from this basic practice?

If Zuckerberg is willing to truly have a candid talk (without prep or talking points), could we learn something new about his personal views? Does Officer Data have a soul after all?

But when all is said and done, talk is… just talk. The dangers with privacy on Facebook are already here.

The stakes are rising as the political and cultural landscapes are changing every year. It’s been two years since the problems with Facebook’s user information surfaced after the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election (and Ukraine actually blew the whistle in 2015). Zuckerberg has had quite a bit of time to reflect and “talk” about what needs to be done.

We try to keep to our resolutions every new year, and we’ll see if Zuckerberg can uphold his, or if his efforts disappear as quickly as my will to ween off my daily coffee routine. Even from a skeptic’s standpoint, I’ll eagerly wait to watch what goes down in this upcoming discussions.

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