Bloomberg Businessweek featured an article this week entitled “Girl Talk – The Female Solidarity, Have-It-All, Feel-Good Machine” by Sheelah Kolhatkar. The article discusses the preponderance of women’s empowerment conferences, headlined by such impressive women as Michelle Obama, Xerox CEO Ursula Brown and Jessica Alba. These conferences draw thousands of women, garner thousands of dollars a ticket and are sponsored by well-known and well-established companies like Deloitte, Citigroup and Zurich Insurance. The interesting piece of the article, however, asked the question: notwithstanding the multitude of these conferences, were they doing anything to effectuate change?
Clearly women’s conferences as a threshold matter are a good thing. Women attend them to be motivated, to share ideas, to network. They often leave inspired, enthusiastic, ready to lean in. While these positive byproducts are not to be minimized, the article questions why there are no substantive discussions at these conferences about changing policies or creating real revolution – whether the “explosion of these events is a reflection of how far women have come or proof that they haven’t made much progress at all?” Because, after all, women are just talking. So what does it take to create true change? One answer lies with the companies and firms in which women work. The fact that women’s conferences are so popular to begin with, that women create and attend these events in an effort to elevate their careers, begs the question why women’s conferences are so necessary? Men certainly do not create specific events for themselves to discuss issues of male career advancement. The reason is that most women do not get the kind of support that they need from the companies that they work for; they need to go outside of the workplace to feel empowered.
When you drill down to the core of workplace inequality and why women do not feel supported by their employer companies, it is the culture of organizations and the messaging to women about how to fit into that culture that is largely to blame. Women are told to work harder, to make more sacrifices, to act less like women and more like men. But the reality is, even when women do all of those things and more, they are trying to fit into a corporate culture that does not address, as Harvard economist Claudia Goldin states, “the more complicated structural questions that would make a difference to large numbers of women, such as figuring out how to pressure American employers to reduce the need for face time.”
In actuality, issues regarding the advancement of women are not so much “women’s issues” as they are issues of a corporate culture that needs to look and feel very differently. Companies need to, and can consciously, appoint more women to their boards. They can promote more women to leadership positions. They can recognize a less than traditional trajectory to the top to allow for alternative career paths. They can put the structural frameworks in place to help women succeed on their own terms, and take concrete steps prove to women that they can succeed. It is the job of women’s empowerment conferences, gender diversity initiatives, women who have shattered the glass ceiling and women who still strive to attain that level of success to transform the business world. To keep pushing organizations to make the systemic, institutional and fundamental changes that are crucial for women to attain workplace equality. To work together collectively – to be the catalyst for change – to truly be one powerful voice for the advancement of women.
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