What’s Missing from Women’s Leadership Conferences

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” Peter Drucker

Have you ever attended a women’s conference? I’ve attended many over the last several years. The conference committees work hard to invite interesting guests and motivating panels. Despite their best efforts, it seems that these conferences all take the same path. Unfortunately, much of what is heard sounds like a lot like old news and complaining.

          Young Leaders:

  I sat in on one panel of “young leaders”, with very diverse representation. It seems every group you can imagine spoke. Specifically, there was racial diversity and religious diversity. These young women were asked what things they wanted to change. Of course, they wanted to be heard. They felt ignored by the older generation. On this panel, they were given free rein to speak spontaneously. After making the usual valid points about our need for greater understanding between generations, the conversation struck me as devolving into “woe is me”. The tone of voice came across as whining, and their statements amounted to the “it’s not fair” variety. Maybe it wasn’t their fault, maybe the older generation moderators needed to help redirect the questions and ask for the panel’s solutions. At $150 per ticket, listening to complaining 18-year-olds wasn’t an expected part of the package.

Fresh Faces?

As an exhibitor, my time attending the speaker sessions was limited, and perusing the program didn’t reveal much that would help women become better leaders. Furthermore, where were the fresh faces for speakers? The speaker list included many local retreads, people I had already heard speak numerous times. It appeared that the committee ran out of ideas when it came to connecting with some real women leaders. This area has a bounty of influential, powerful women. Did anyone even contact them, or was the speaker invite another case of Rhode Island’s “I got a guy/gal” mantra?

Empowerment to Stay Home           

Lack of creativity didn’t end with the speaker choices. The same tired old themes emerged, as in the many other women’s conferences I’ve attended in the last 10 years; female empowerment, self-care, work life balance, diversity and inclusion, and other topics that have been around for years. Where were the topics about women who made some hard decisions, especially during the pandemic? For all the talk about becoming “empowered” or on “parity” with men’s pay, no one addressed the elephant in the room; the women who have dropped out of the workforce because of childcare or elder care issues. Why have these women dropped out as opposed to men? Because the truth is many women would rather take care of their homelife before their work life. When push came to shove, the empowerment these women felt was the power to just stay home, economize and change their lifestyle to accommodate their family life. Did this phenomenon happen because women are so like men? No, the shift happened because bearing children changes most women. And who can argue with biology.

Men and Women are Different           

Let’s all face the truth. Women and men are different. Most women can have great careers if they have all the necessary support behind them. Once that essential support plank is gone, their ship can begin to sink. Women were not going to allow their family ship to sink, they got out those life jackets and guided everyone to shore. Why is it that women’s conferences don’t address this fact of life? Why is our biology ignored in women’s discussions? It always seems to be what we’re not talking about.

What We Want to Hear           

How many other women wanted to hear from those women who left the workforce and are doing very well, thank you very much? Or those who are managing a hybrid work arrangement? The focus of these conferences needs to adjust to what women’s issues are today, not what they were in yesteryear.  We need to hear from women in groundbreaking non-traditional professions, like airline pilot, general or admiral in the military, sports commentator, carpenters, plumbers, and car mechanics. In addition, there was no mention of the mental health struggles many women faced during the early pandemic phases and post-pandemic. Making difficult choices causes stress, and stress leads to anxiety and depression. That topic eluded this gathering.

    Enough of the Same Stuff         

We women want empowerment and more control over our fate. Our women’s conferences should find new refrains that address what those themes mean for 2021. We’ve had enough of the same old same old. Bring in some fresh, even controversial ideas, real topics we can sink out teeth into. Otherwise, it’s just another day of replaying the same song by a different singer, and another chance to check out the glamor shots, make up, jewelry, soaps, teas, and endless choochkies and swag.  Maybe we could also focus on women’s health. Have a free blood pressure checkup, mammogram, chair massage, info on intake of sugar and salt, free vitamins, and a speakers on nutrition and mental health at any age.

What Has Changed?           

And for all the chatter about empowerment, self-care, work life balance, diversity, and inclusion in the last many years, not much has changed. We pay the high-ticket prices to attend these things and hear the same thing over and over. We walk out feeling refreshed for a day. But what happens when we get back to the office? Has anything really changed? Probably not.

            What will it take for women to get real about what they want to hear? Right now, it still sounds like an echo chamber.

“Keep recognizing that reality is changing and that your ideas have to change.” – . Grace Lee Boggs

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Mary T. O'Sullivan

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, Member, International Coaching Federation, Society of Human Resource Management. Candidate, Master’s Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM. Mary O’Sullivan has over 30 years experience in the aerospace and defense industry. In each of her roles, she acted as a change agent, moving teams and individuals from status quo to new ways of thinking, through offering solutions focused on changing behaviors and fostering growth. In additional, Mary holds a permanent teaching certificate in the State of New York for secondary education, and taught high school English for 10 years in the Syracuse, NY area.