Episode 88: Selling Empowerment

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, maybe you’ve noticed there are a lot of women’s conferences out there lately. They’re popping up everywhere…advertising empowerment, inspiration….and not just for women nearing the top…

“What about your average consumer who’s watching Kim Kardashian or who has like, no clue as to what even empowerment means and what feminism is or why it matters to them? So my goal is really to set out to create the world’s most accessible women’s conference.”

But are these events actually changing anything for women?

“They’re really based on this philosophy of you can just work to improve yourself, make yourself better, smarter, stronger. But the fact is as long as women are fighting these little solo battles I don’t think a lot is going to change.”

Coming up, we take a look at the growing business of women’s conferences and whether they’re anything more than a tonic.  

Sheelah Kolhatkar is a staff writer for the New Yorker. When we met a bit earlier this summer she was still at Business Week. And earlier this year she wrote a piece for that magazine that articulated so many things I’d been thinking about women’s conferences but hadn’t quite been able to put into words.

I asked Sheelah how she came to this topic in the first place.

“I noticed over the last couple of years I’d get invitations to these women’s conferences, it seemed to happen every month, it was women’s empowerment, it was women in science, women in STEM, the glass ceiling – there were dozens of them. And I was intrigued and of course I’m interested in women’s issues, it’s something I write about. So I started to go. The first thing I noticed was the way a lot of the women up on the stage look – they are very glamorous, most of them…this was the strong point I came away with. Often wearing these stylish little skits and dresses, they had these crazy high heels on…I’m not someone who can really wear heels though I think they look great…they’re all up there in these stiletto heels talking about feminism and women’s empowerment, and when you sit in the audience there’s this row of high stiletto heels right at your eye level, it’s all you see when you sit down below the stage – and I thought that was odd given the subject matter of these conferences, and so I started to wonder, what exactly were these conference achieving – they were clearly turning into a huge business for a lot of corporations and media companies and I started to wonder whether any of the women attending were coming away with what was advertised – which was empowerment, inspiration, changing the conversation, they were vague promises but I wondered if people were getting what they paid for.”

And that business about the shoes – that really struck me at the last couple of conferences I went to. And if you’re thinking well what does it matter what people wear on their feet, I guess to me the fact these women on the panels all looked so glamorous and were in these towering heels made me wonder, do I fit in here? Does my version of feminism belong here? I suppose I felt a little intimidated by the glamor level.

AM-T: “It became a game with myself when I went to one – is there anyone on a panel who isn’t wearing stilettos? And I think the last time I went to a conference who wasn’t actually wearing stilettos, nobody was wearing flats, they were wearing some kind of in between shoe. But I’ve also wondered about this – do you have to look like the best approximation of a model to be a panelist at this thing, and if so, doesn’t that defeat the purpose?”

“I think that’s a good question. I should disclose I’ve participated in many of these conferences as a panelist and moderator, so I started to think about this myself. You want to look good, a lot of people are watching you, people are making videos, tweeting photos – of course we want to look good. And then you look around at what other people are wearing, and part of the aesthetic comes from the broadcast TV world because often these conferences go to TV anchors and reporters and ask them to do these live interviews, because those people are used to doing that. And the broadcast TV aesthetic is quite unforgiving for women in my opinion…typically it’s a very image conscious business and the women are very, very thin and wear these tiny sleeveless dresses as they report on the news all day, and they wear these high heels. So this has translated over to the conference world.”

But not completely. Sheelah points out there is one conference with quite a mix of guests – Tina Brown’s wildly successful Women in the World conference. It’s been held on a few continents. She has tons of celebrities from entertainment, politics and royalty. But she also features refugees and rape victims from Syria and India, women whose names we’d never know if we didn’t attend the conference and hear their stories. But the thing about hearing their stories is, you want to do something to help after the event is over. And you don’t really get the opportunity. Even if you come away awed by their bravery and determination.

AM-T: “With regard to whether these actually do anything, that was what was lurking in the back of my head. Like the people you talked to in the piece I’ve come away inspired with a lovely warm glow inside, thinking about all the achievements I’ve heard about, all the conquering hard times and all that, but at what point did you start to think…was it at the very first conference you attended where you thought, is this achieving anything? Or was it as a result of going to several that the warm glow began to wear off?”

“I had a moment of epiphany when I acted as moderator at one particular panel. It was at Advertising Week, and the subject of the discussion – it was called ‘the glass ladder’, and it was about women in creative professions, film, music, creative directors, it was group of very impressive women from different companies, very accomplished women.”

The event was held at a big theater on 42nd Street in New York, and the room was packed.

She says you could feel the excitement in the air. This topic was something these women really wanted to sink their teeth into – because there are so few women at the top in these creative industries. Sheelah says the session was a hit. And at the end, she glanced out across the room…

“So the house lights came up and it was all women, there wasn’t a single man there. And I guess that shouldn’t have really surprised me but I was still a little shocked to see how uniformly female the audience was. And I thought well, I’m glad that women are seeking out these kinds of experiences to help guide them or get advice but really men ae missing from these conversations about why there aren’t more women in certain industries, why their careers fall apart after children, why maternity leave is so far behind most advanced countries, and none of those things are really going to change unless men are involved. Because men still run most of these companies, they’re the ones setting the policies at these corporations where all these women are struggling to figure out how to move forward, and just that moment really crystalized it for me.”

I’ve had that feeling too. That said, one of the conferences I went to a few years ago, the SHE Summit in New York, had one panel where men talked about men’s part in this whole effort to bring more equality to the workplace and life in general. But there were almost no men in the audience. And one of the men on the panel even raised this. He said the names of these conferences put men off.  

AM-T: “He pointed out, how many men are going to attend something that has the word women in the title? And I think about that all the time I mean even the title of my show, I’m pretty sure, I know I have male listeners but they’re going to be a minority because most people are like, that’s not for me, because it has ‘women’ in it. And I think that’s a problem with these conferences.”

“I raised this with a lot of the conference organizers and they all acknowledged that yes, we need to get more men – but packaging these things and branding them as a women’s event is very effective. They are sold out – even though there’s a new one popping up every day there seems to be unlimited demand, which I concluded is a reflection of the fact women are very frustrated. They go charging into the workplace, they get their degrees, they get the best grades, and then they suddenly encounter all sorts of obstacles they weren’t anticipating. They look around, they’re thinking about starting a family or trying to move up or making less money than their male colleague and they’re kind of just bewildered, they did all the things we’re telling them to do and they’re feeling really frustrated. So as long as that exists as a problem in our society, these conferences are gonna fill up with women.

 Now getting more men involved is one important goal. I would say having spoken to a number of historians and social justice experts and activists, a few of them said you know if there was more follow through afterwards that might help too. Because the conferences are very individual, very focused on personal issues, personal improvement – they’re based on this philosophy that you can just work to improve yourself, make yourself better, smarter, stronger, lose a few pounds, get better footwear, ask for more raises. There’s a lot of advice about how women should ask for raises more often, which I think is true. But as long as women are fighting these little solo battles I don’t think a lot is going to change. I spoke with a few women studies professors, academics and historians who have studied social change, movements, and civil rights, the fact is things don’t happen on a big scale till people take collective action.  So people, women, need to group together and push for changes whether it’s in the political arena or within individual companies and I think so long as women are being preached at, being told they should constantly work harder to make themselves better, there’s just going to be a wall – there’s only so far you can go with just pure self-improvement advice.”

Or is there? We’ll come back to Sheelah again a little later in the show. In the meantime, we’ll hear from someone with a different take.

Claudia Chan is the founder and CEO of SHE Global Media. She and her organization put on a women’s conference every year in New York – one I’ve been to a few times. She says the aim is to bring together a group of women who want to be leaders – women who are part of what she calls the macro movement…

“Our core conference every year is SHE Summit, and it is a membership driven global empowerment conference and it's all about attracting, identifying, convening who these individuals are, to give them the role models and the education and the conversation and the activation to rise to their highest potential and lift other women.”

Heady stuff.  

Claudia started her conference right around the same time I launched The Broad Experience. It was 2012. And until former state department employee Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote her famous ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’ article for the Atlantic that summer, women and the workplace definitely felt micro rather than macro. Her article and Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In changed that. Suddenly it felt like everyone was talking about this stuff.

“Yeah. And it's great because it's almost like a crescendo has happened right, and we're all tackling different pieces of it, and so you know, I come from - my last company was another event company called Shecky’s, and we convened women and their girlfriend groups for shopping experiences, discovery. And so my whole background was convening mass crowds of women and figuring out what they would be attracted to. And so my whole goal was I wanted to mainstream women's empowerment – I’m like everything out there women’s conference-wise was elite, exclusive and expensive. And I'm like OK, well that's great and it's important to convene our most successful powerful people, you know female leaders, but what about your average consumer who's like watching Kim Kardashian or has no clue as to what even empowerment means and what feminism is, or you know, why it matters to them. So that's you know I my goal is really to set out to create the world's most accessible Women's Conference and to create an agenda that was that was very relatable and practical.”

Claudia’s had some fantastic speakers – including Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, Deeprak Chopra, and Marianne Pearl, the widow of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. And then there was that panel on men’s part in lifting women up that still sticks in my mind a couple of years later.

“I mean and this year we're actually going to have even more men and that's what it is right? It’s giving this audience – and we charge you know two hundred to five hundred dollars for access to the conference so it's super accessible for two days, and it's almost like a leadership curriculum that women will go through, but you're just getting this massive exposure to such a wide variety of role models and thought leaders.”

AM-T: “But the argument that was made in that Business Week piece was and then you get back to your desk, and the guy next to you is still being paid more. And there are all these structural issues that mean there’s only so far you can go with all that stuff that you took away from conferences because of the way that the American workplace works. You’re hitting a wall after a while no matter how empowered you feel when you leave a conference.”

“Yeah you know so it's interesting, I mean I'm doing this because I'm a product of consuming thought leadership, I'm a product of consuming inspiration. And whether or not I consume that inspiration through books or through conferences or my Sunday sermons when I go to church or my yoga meditation and immersions, and you know like I have my mixed bag of sort of what’s ignited me, what's activated me. But you know in order for people to really get activated we need to connect with other people, we need to get educated, right, we need to get inspired and it's that inspiration, it's that content that creates the consciousness and it's the consciousness that actually creates the change. And then we can say that you know these conferences are critical because in many ways, it’s hearing other people's stories, it’s seeing other role models. We cannot be what we cannot see, we cannot become what we do not believe, so you know we need exposure to these types of things, and there's something about the physicality right, I mean it's one thing to read some article in The New York Times and read a great compelling piece, or watch a really inspirational video, but it’s a whole other thing when you're physically energized - the power of a real life energy is so strong.”

It’s true. There is something about being in a room with all those other people who care about the same thing. And the panels are inspiring.

“…and the thing is that greatness and leadership and making a massive social change to actually change these structures that we’re pissed off about, we have to be the change we want to see. So we can’t just go to a conference and say, ‘Oh it's amazing’ and we go back to everyday life. You know we have to actually work harder unfortunately, you know, to actually do the more work so that OK, so what else am I going to do about that like that really pisses me off, that thing about blah blah blah policy, or this issue, or the fact my company doesn't have this, like can we be social entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs? We need to self-motivate.”

So for Claudia, self-motivation is key.

And the thing is, she’s got so much energy and she feels so passionately about making things better for women…you get all caught up in her enthusiasm when you hear her speak. There’s definitely a whiff of Oprah about her. Claudia genuinely wants change. She wants to help people. She’s not a cynical person. Unlike yours truly.

Talking of my dark side, what about what comes after the conference? Does anything change?

“What I typically see is people sort of up their game. If you're, whether or not you're, for example if you're starting a company or you're building a company, because a lot of what we teach is ‘obstacles are what create the opportunities’ right, and you know it's often easy to get discouraged, and we've seen people sort of up their game. One person launched a water company, Wellness Water for Women, out of coming out of SHE Summit. She personally said to me, you know this is inspired me so much, I'm going to do this. We've had a lot of those stories. A lot of women have actually met collaborators like assistants, made hires through connections at SHE Summit. We've had people that have met and created businesses together.”

She says she’s had women in corporate tell her they’re now determined to make changes at their workplace.

“And it's definitely one of those things where you know everybody always asks well what's the what's the next step out of this, we can’t just continue to bring people together, we have to have like more practical next step. And the truth is there's a lot of things that do happen, it's just a lot of that is hard, you know it's hard to track those things.”

 I can believe it. Doing this podcast I have the same feeling – I think and hope that in its own way it’s helping galvanize change…but frankly this show isn’t going to alter America’s lack of a maternity leave policy, for example.

But talking of impact, I wonder if Claudia has ever thought about this idea for her conference – it’s something Sheelah Kolhatkar brought up with me. All these conferences are sponsored by big corporate names. And you do wonder sometimes…are these sponsor companies walking the walk where women are concerned…or just talking the talk?

Here’s Sheelah again.

“I think companies who are involved in this world, particularly there are a lot of corporate sponsors who pay money to have their logos prominently displayed, if conference organizers wanted to push for change they could tell those companies, if you want to be affiliated with our women’s empowerment conference, you need to make a commitment to get 30% female board members at your company or to publish all the salaries of your employees so people can see whether they’re being paid less than their male counterparts…all these things they could do. And I think that’s happened in small ways around the margins but I think the people in this industry could really push for change by demanding that in exchange for the branding and public relations benefit you have to actually do something.”

AM-T: “Actually that reminds me of something you alluded to in the piece…you get these women from famous companies who are often panelists, guests, talking about their own experience but then you might read something 3 days later about that company that’s not flattering about how it treats its female employees…I ’ve often wondered, watching these women from companies that have a lot to lose about being too honest, how honest are you able to be up on the podium?”

 “Well I went to the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit, which is a very interesting conference that’s been going on for 15 years or more, and it’s been very successful, I think they’re now charging $10,000 a head, this is the cream of the crop of corporate America, and I did certainly notice a lot of these women go on the stage and do these interviews but they are corporate actors, and they can be fired at any point like anyone else, and they have to think about their company and their company’s share price, and their PR department, they’re very restricted what they can say. They were often presenting I believe a rosier view, where they were glossing over some of the dirty details, and then you’d notice in between sessions, you’d have these off the record chats over wine at dinner with these power women, and they would just dish about how hard things were, their whole board was male, it was this incredible struggle, many of them have husbands who didn’t work outside the home and that’s how they’re managing to have families and do it all – but you just wouldn’t necessarily know that from the outside, they look like these superwomen who are doing all these things that seem really difficult when you actually try them yourself. And that was something Anne-Marie Slaughter mentioned when I spoke to her for this piece. She said if I were doing this, I would ask all the women to go up there and give us the warts and all description of what their domestic arrangement is like – I think it would be hard to get that kind of honesty, I don’t know why women are so scared of talking about it…but it has become a big stigma, you can’t go public with some of these things. But I think that would be more helpful, than presenting this glossy view that you can have the raise, and the big job, …nothing works that smoothly in reality and I think women get incredibly frustrating thinking they can have all this stuff that is in fact impossible to achieve without tremendous sacrifice, so a more honest conversation would be helpful.”

Finally, I wanted to ask her about something – that word that plays such a big role in any discussion around women.

AM-T: “What do you think of the word empowerment? How does that word make you feel?”

“Well it’s a complicated word. I think the concept behind it is very valid and important. There are a lot of women who don’t feel like they have the authority or self-confidence to speak their mind and ask for what they deserve and point out injustice when they see it. At the same time it’s been coopted by a lot of people selling us things, and it has maybe cheapened it a little bit, the power of that word has been diluted by the fact it’s being used by so many people to sell whatever it is they’re selling.”

She says take American’s National Football League – some of its players have been involved in notorious domestic violence cases and the League has been roundly criticized for its slow response. But even the NFL has launched a women’s summit with the tagline ‘empowerment through sport.’

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. Thanks to Sheelah Kolhatkar and Claudia Chan for being my guests on this show.

Now part of my discussion with both Sheelah and Claudia didn’t make it into this show. We got into a conversation about two women you could say are the unofficial leaders of the current women’s movement. They are Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter.  

And here’s where I’d like to hear from you.

Maybe you’ve read Lean In or Slaughter’s book, Unfinished Business. You know each woman comes from a different place – Sandberg is all about the individual making change, Slaughter is much more about institutions and structures needing to change.

If you have strong feelings about either woman’s message or how they’ve affected your attitude or your life and you’d like to be on the show, send me a voice memo with your thoughts. Please start off by telling me your name and where you live. I’m at ashley@thebroadexperience.com. And I’ll need those voice memos by August 15th.

As usual you can comment on this episode either on the show’s Facebook page or at TheBroadExperience.com – you can also sign up for my newsletter right there on the homepage.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. See you next time.