The Advantages of Attending a Women’s Conference
On my flight home from a three-day, all-women conference in Seattle, I wondered if the experience would have been different had it been co-ed. The conference was held for Les Dames d’Escoffier International, an organization of 2,300 women, all leaders in food, fine wine and spirits and hospitality. With representatives from England, Canada, and Mexico, as well as 39 local US chapters, it was a veritable United Nations of 250 accomplished women coming to the table with a common interest of gastronomy, nutrition, sustainability and best business practices.
During the conference sessions and networking breaks, I stood back and examined the human dynamics which most likely wouldn’t have been possible had this gathering been mixed. I also conferred with a New York Dame, Aileen Robbins—who was at her first-ever conference attended exclusively by women— to see what her take-aways were.
THE FREEDOM TO SHOW HONEST EMOTIONS
As Aileen described it, “There seemed to be permission granted to both presenters and audience to express rather than stifle emotions. We created a safe, supportive space for each other.”
I saw multiple women drying tears from their eyes when several speakers recounted stories of overcoming challenges in their careers, which often involved family hardships. One woman, a president from a major California winery, had to pause several times at the podium to gather er composure. She felt compelled to tell us that her mother had died unexpectedly three days earlier and that she almost cancelled her trip to conference. I suspect that this normally ram-rod strong woman would never have shared her grief and vulnerability had men been in attendance. Instead, she anticipated, and rightly received, our collective empathy.
ESTROGEN VS TESTOSTERONES
In mixed sex conferences, especially where women attendees are in the minority, women more often than not tend to defer to their male colleagues. Rarely do we ask the first question during Q&As. If a woman does decide to step forward, she knows her question needs to be better structured than a man’s as she will be judged. And, if the question is too provocative she will be seen as someone gunning for power. Whereas at our conference, as Aileen described it , “The spirit was more collaborative than competitive.” Women wanted to learn from their peers, rather than to show off.
LISTENING WITH COMPASSION
Aileen and I agreed that women listen differently from their male counterparts. As Aileen noticed, “They paid close attention, and their questions/comments were less aggressive and defensive. No one I met seemed particularly competitive, nor was anyone out to prove that they were the smartest, most accomplished person in the room.” Unlike gatherings where men are included, there did not seem to be any score keeping or bragging. If anything, the opposite was true. Most presenters at the Seattle LDEI conference were humble just stopping short of “self-abnegating,” as Aileen described it. Perhaps in ten years, women will be more comfortable in speaking about their triumphs though I predict they will still do so with more modesty than bravado.
NETWORKING BY SHARING
When you elect to attend a professional conference of all women, you naturally anticipate an atmosphere of solidarity and affirmation. We were among our peers at the LDEI conference. We knew they would generously and honestly share their stories of success as well as failures. Hearing how the women overcame their challenges was equally motivating. While our networking conversations usually started with an exchange of ideas and business cards, it often ended with a discussion over how to manage raising a family while working, or how to deal with elderly parents, but also about joyous occasions such as recent wedding, anniversaries and births.
A #METOO PRESENCE
With a room full of women, discussing the “MeToo” movement and what happened to Dr. Ford anchored many animated conversations. Our keynote address was given by Seattle’s veteran broadcast journalist, Lori Matsukawa, who described her rise to success through making careful choices. That was expected. What was not expected was her decision to divulge, for the first time publicly, an attempted rape. Lori vividly described being dragged toward an abandoned house where another man was waiting. A soldier from the local base with his wife were randomly driving by and decided to stop and investigate the apparent struggle between the young teenager and a burly, older man. The entire ballroom heaved an audible sigh of relief when Lori recounted how the soldier and his wife intervened, had her get in the back seat of their car, and called the police.
Later that day, I heard five different #MeToo accounts. Telling their stories was cathartic. It was as if these women needed to share with other women their own story of sexual abuse knowing that it would be met with understanding and compassion and not ridiculed as President Trump had done with Dr. Ford.
SUBSTANCE AND FASHION FLAIR
There is a general thesis that women dress for other women. In most instances, special effort was made to carefully pack clothing and jewelry which reflected each participant’s personal style. I rummaged around and found in the back of my closet a hand-painted, silk dress by Michael Vollbrach, an American fashion designer from the ‘80s. This is what I wore at the Grande Dame Awards ceremony honoring Dr. Marion Nestle where I gave the introduction. Little was commented on what I said. But, the white silk dress—covered with dramatic red and black playing card figures—drew rave reviews. Of course, the women noticed. Men? I doubt it. Especially, as my dress was high necked!
But seriously, when Dr. Nestle took the podium, the audience was riveted at every word she said about her career as our nation’s #1 food advocate.
When I attended wine industry sales meetings early in my career, where only 5 % were women, I would enjoy the planned evening activities along with my male peers. Then, I would quietly retire to my hotel room to read a book, watch TV or catch up on work. The men would retire to the bar. What I’ve observed with women’s conferences, however, is that women welcome continuing their evening conversations over a glass of wine—or a dirty martini. For us, it is liberating. We don’t have to confront sexual overtones which often exist with male colleagues. Our “sisters” just want to let their hair down and have some fun. Being able to totally relax and laugh—and not be judged-- is therapeutic. It recharges our batteries and readies us to rejoin our normal world of work and family.
Attending professional conferences exclusively with women always ends with a feeling of camaraderie and rejuvenation. We return home with many new ideas along with the encouragement from our new acquaintances and old friends. Women empowering other women with a shared goal of mutual success. That was my most rewarding take-away from attending an all-women conference. For Aileen it was "profound and lifelong friendships that developed. Not just people to have lunch with, but people to travel with, share your life with. This sure as hell wouldn’t happen at a co-ed conference.”