5 big problems I see with women’s conferences, and how we can fix them to actually fight gender inequality

Erin Hatzikostas Headshot
Erin Hatzikostas.

  • Erin Hatzikostas is a former corporate CEO turned career coach, speaker, and podcast host.
  • She says women’s business conferences are a “noble idea” – but gender diversity still persists.
  • Instead, give women the tools to change up jobs and make conferences more creative.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In comes a new email from your boss. The subject reads, “You are invited … “

Your stomach flutters with anticipation. What could this possibly be about?

You open it up to learn … your boss is sending you to a “women’s conference.”

Every year, hundreds of women-focused business conferences are held across the globe. This is great, right? At first blush, it certainly feels great to be selected for one.

Wow! They must think a lot of me to choose me to participate!

Awesome! Who will I be able to mix and mingle with?

(Secretly) What will I wear? I need to stand out.

But pretty soon reality sets in.

Hang on. I’m already slammed. This is going to throw another monkey-wrench in my schedule.

Wait, why is Janice invited? She leaves every day at 4:00.

So, what are all the men doing that day?

What exactly are the chances that I’ll be volunteered to help organize this thing?

Women’s business conferences are a noble idea. If you’ve been to one, it’s hard not to be in awe of the passion, sophistication, and attention to detail demonstrated by the organizers and attendees.

But if there are so many amazing women’s conferences, why is gender diversity still such a massive issue in the corporate workplace?

Obviously, this is a complicated question. Improving women’s conferences isn’t a silver bullet, but considering how they miss the mark can shed some light on the problem as a whole.

My podcast cohost and I recently drew up a list of all the things we’ve generally disliked about the over 25 women’s conferences we’ve collectively attended. Here they are:

1. They are too politically correct and vanilla. There simply isn’t enough plain speak and authentic, hard-earned perspective.

Suggesting that women’s conferences should be less politically correct immediately brings to mind a HuffPost article that shared an insider look at a particularly egregious (and politically incorrect) conference held by Ernst & Young.

When I read this article, I gasped. And then laughed. The gist of it was a completely ludicrous education about how to rise in your career by working within the gender stereotypes of the 1960s: Eschew anything masculine (but don’t flaunt your body), approach men deferentially, avoid being assertive, and above all, avoid being authentic.

This is not the kind of political incorrectness we need.

Instead, what we need is less jargon and more real talk. We also need to laugh more; we face a lot of ridiculous things in the average work day, and sometimes simply laughing together about it helps us get through it all.

Cut the crap. No more phrases that have been done to death such as “lean in,” “executive presence,” “speak up,” etc. These are all solid ideas, mind you, but they’ve become meaningless with overuse. For example, the term “executive presence” infers that women have to change who they are to succeed. The result? Many of the most qualified women decide to opt out of the bigger roles. Women need authentic examples, preferably interesting ones, not buzzwords.

2. There are too many professional facilitators and consultants and too few women who have actually been in the trenches

Consultants have their place, and conferences definitely need facilitators to start – and keep – the balls rolling. But relying on academic advice from people who have never personally navigated the landmines of rising through the corporate ranks leaves a lot of expertise on the table.

Conferences need to do more than pay lip service to the idea that women can be leaders by allowing them to actually lead. Encourage them to share their experiences, their ideas, and their solutions. Another common issue with these conferences: Focusing on problems women are assumed to face without enough timely, tactical, or tangible advice on how to solve them.

If we want women to be leaders, we must make sure that the conferences aimed at that goal are interactive and offer opportunities to put those skills to use.

3. Organizing conferences is often a time suck for the very people they are supposed to be supporting

Too often, organizing a women’s conference falls to a woman who is already working her butt off in a leadership position. And although helping each other rise is a noble and worthy goal, the women leading the charge are generally forced to shoehorn the planning into an already tight schedule filled with all the other responsibilities of the job. One wonders: How many male executives spend hours on end organizing events for other men?

According to McKinsey’s “Women in the Workplace” study, companies’ commitment to gender diversity has gone up 13% since 2015. However, only half of employees think that gender diversity is a priority in their company. Could this be because it is left to women alone to lead the charge?

4. The conferences are too darn formal

Generally, a women’s business conference looks and feels like a conference designed for a very uptight, stuffy, unapproachable man. Everything – from the agenda to the seating – screams button up and mind your manners.

Is this really an environment that fosters the authenticity and vulnerability required to bring your best self to bear? We think not. Why not customize the experience to the attendees? What’s wrong with comfy couches, bean bag chairs, or (gasp) yoga pants?

To be fair, many icebreakers are not formal. In fact, they can be cheesy and sometimes downright offensive. This isn’t true across the board, but we’ve definitely experienced some doozies. Women may prefer comfortable clothes and humor, but we aren’t children. Drop the dumb games.

5. Women’s conferences only include, well, women

Though the intention behind female-only conferences is good, they still perpetuate the myth that women need to learn how to behave in order to become leaders. This is simply not true. The same leadership skills that work for men work for women as well.

We need conferences designed to challenge the idea that there is one right style of leadership – and that that winning style can only be achieved by straight white men. Yes, women must be included in these conferences, but so must leadership. How can we drive change without all the leadership in the room?

So what do we do?

Don’t try to change women for the job. Instead, enable them to change the job.

Though the EY conference is an extreme example, it highlights one of the biggest issues we have. We give advice to women focused on how to act just like those before them – whether male or female. For some reason, we believe there is only one way to be in order to be successful. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

When I was initially tapped for my first corporate executive position, I actually said, “No thank you.” I feared I’d have to become someone I’m not. I feared I would have to compromise my family, my health, and even my identity to be successful.

It took a while to realize that I have unique qualities that I could exploit (humor, humility, and the ability to inspire) and that the things that I wasn’t so good at (extensive travel, detailed operations) could be addressed by strengthening the team around me.

I love the quote by soccer legend Abby Wambach, “Imperfect men have been empowered and permitted to run the world since the beginning of time. It’s time for imperfect women to grant themselves permission to join them.”

We have got to stop pretending that there is a linear formula for being a successful leader. Instead, we must help women celebrate and exploit their unique, positive qualities.

Go ahead, hold women’s conferences, but shake them up … significantly

In our perfect world, there would be no need for women’s conferences or talk of gender parity. We’re making progress toward this goal: The number of women rising to a top CEO spot has increased 24% over the last five years. But obviously, we’re not there yet.

So, until we arrive at the nirvana that is true gender diversity (of all kinds, mind you), women’s conferences offer a unique opportunity for us to learn from each other. However, that only happens if the women attending and leading are allowed to show up as their authentic selves.

Showcase speakers that tell it like it is. Give real-life actionable examples of women who’ve crushed their careers without selling their souls, and play some fun music while you’re at it.

A few weeks ago, my podcast cohost and I experimented with something like this. Imagine a conference that kicks off with dancing and lip synching into a room packed to the gills with high-powered and successful women in the financial industry.

Not sounding so bold?

One of us was wearing a bedazzled tracksuit, and we may have had props, parody videos, and cheese cubes. And, it wasn’t just a show. We got real down and dirty about the things that helped us rise into executive positions. The crowd left incredibly inspired to be more of themselves, both in work and in their personal lives.

If we can’t shake up a conference, how can we hope to shake up the workplace?

It is time we start acknowledging that we must get much more creative in our approach to gender diversity if we ever want to have a shot at reaching parity.

We need to start asking the tough questions:

  • What is working and what isn’t?
  • What bold moves do we need to make to go from looking at gender diversity as a problem to solve and embracing it as an organic source of strength, especially in the corporate world?

Whether you’re a decision-maker or low down on the totem pole, one thing is clear. It is going to take all of us thinking well beyond the current conference box to get where we need to be.

Erin Hatzikostas is a former corporate CEO turned career coach, speaker, and podcast host. She’s the founder and CEO of b Authentic inc. You can listen to her offbeat career podcast, “b CAUSE with Erin & Nicole,” or you can start pumping up your career with her free guide,”10 Simple Steps to a Rich Career.”

This article was originally published on Insider December 11, 2019.

Read the original article on Business Insider

4 prominent women leaders share what they really want from their employers

muslim women at work
Women want flexibility and to be evaluated based on deliverables, not how much time they spend at the “office.”

  • Women in the workplace want equal pay and flexibility, but they also want thoughtful appreciations.
  • Four female leaders share how employers can invest in meaningful relationships with their employees.
  • For one, they should let employees know their work and insights are valued.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Last year, I received the iconic Turquoise Pantone 1837 Blue box as a bonus gift from a Fortune 500 company. Inside was a handwritten, congratulatory note and a gift certificate for $1,500 to Tiffany & Co. It provided a woman’s name and phone number to call for personal concierge service, along with an option to take the gift certificate directly into a store to select a piece of my liking. It was the most memorable bonus gift I had ever received.

I emphasize memorable because I have earned a performance bonus of $1,500 or more several times throughout my professional career, and while it’s incredible to receive “unexpected” cash, or achieve a bonus that you have been chasing, it was the creativity and personalization of this gift that made me feel appreciated and empowered.

It’s no secret that working women seek flexibility and want to be rewarded and judged on deliverables, as opposed to how much time we spend at the office. We also seek equal pay, in particular for women of color. While these issues continue to play out, it is promising to see more companies shifting their efforts to prioritize company culture, as evidenced by examples like this terrific, supportive note that a Chicago-area CEO sent to his employees to demonstrated that he understood they have personal lives.

So, what else do women really want from their employers? I checked in with four female business leaders, authors, and TV personalities on the topic, and here are their ultimate insights.

1. Go beyond meeting my expectations

human resources layoffs boss meeting
Connect what’s personally important to someone with the organization.

“Enlightened employers go beyond meeting the basic needs of their employees and seek to truly understand how to engage them,” Denise Lee Yohn, brand leadership expert and author of the book “FUSION: How Integrating Brand and Culture Powers the World’s Greatest Companies,” said. “By connecting what’s personally important to someone with the purpose and values of the organization, companies create meaningful relationships with employees and align their efforts with the brand.”

Yohn elaborates, “An example would be how Airbnb opens the café in its headquarters to employees’ families, even for dinner. This helps working parents, as they don’t have to worry about rushing home to prepare a meal or to spend time with their children. And it is a terrific expression of Airbnb’s brand mission — to help you feel that you belong anywhere — and its core value of hospitality.”

2. The value of my work is personal to me

greet coworkers
Employees want to know that they matter.

Carrie Bobb, president of Carrie Bobb & Co, a real estate firm that works with women-focused brands such as Soul Cycle, DryBar, and Sephora remarks, “Exceptional employees, the most valuable assets for an employer, want to know they matter and that the work they are creating is meaningful and will last beyond their time spent at the company. It must be personal. During extremely difficult situations or in the midst of managing a crisis, it is critical to have empathy. Not just express empathy, actually have it. There’s a difference. Often in large corporations, there are so many people involved in the messaging itself that the heart can get lost in translation. Employees want to be heard and understood, and they can tell the difference between a manager expressing the message the company wants to deliver and a manager actually expressing they care for the individual.” 

3. Ask for my opinion

coworker conversation
Women want to be appreciated, respected, and valued.

Jenna Wolfe, the host of Fox sports show “First Things First” and a former “Today” lifestyle correspondent, offers a sincere and direct perspective.

“I’ve worked in television for 23 years, the bulk of which have been as a sportscaster in a male-dominated field,” she said. “The happiest of them have been when I felt appreciated, respected, and valued. I want to know that you need me, that you want me, and that I make a difference. Ask me my opinion, let me sit in on content meetings, listen to my ideas, and show me you’ll actually implement the ones which can help us grow. Don’t get me wrong — a raise is nice. An extra vacation day never hurts. And I’m always down for a gift card to any sports apparel store. But for me, as a woman who comes to a sports office every day well read and well prepared, there’s nothing that makes me happier than commanding the respect of the people I work with.” 

4. Everyone likes to feel included

coworkers office
Inclusion goes beyond gender.

Gina Smith is the president of Rauxa, a woman-founded and led advertising agency owned by Publicis Groupe, and says she prioritizes being empathetic to a diverse group of women. She says, “We have always operated from the perspective that every employee deserves empathy, transparency, and the knowledge that everyone’s ideas are valid regardless of who they are. So it’s not just about meeting the needs of female employees — although that’s critically important — but also about age, experience, gender, orientation, color, and every other area of inclusion.”


Each of these testimonies reinforces that women want to feel valued, respected, and understood, and there are numerous ways for employers to demonstrate that. Meaningful, thoughtful, and personal gestures will go a long way and create a lasting impression. As a company founder of a female agency, I personally love to reward my team with personal gifts or self-care items that they would not spend money on for themselves, such as a massage or yoga membership, and by empowering them to take on more of a leadership role. 

For the curious, with the Tiffany’s gift certificate, I purchased a Paloma Picasso necklace that reads “LOVE,” a value that I prioritize in both my work and daily life. I wear this necklace almost every day and I never forget where it came from. In today’s fast-paced business world, it’s key to treat your employees like people, not transactions, because everyone can always use a little more love, all while moving up the leadership ranks.

This article was originally published on Insider on October 23, 2019.

Read the original article on Business Insider