by Rachel Luna
This week, I had the privilege of attending the inaugural Lead On: Watermark Silicon Valley Conference for Women with 5,000 mostly female folks who gathered at the intersection of technology, leadership, and gender. I attended this event as a volunteer resume reviewer and was also able to participate in the general sessions. I’ll admit it was odd for me to be in a space so focused on gender as this is an aspect of my identity I don’t often have the opportunity to explore with as much depth and concentration. Here are some of my takeaways:
Conversations I appreciated
Leadership as a ‘lady thing’
“We’re going to talk about lady things, like leadership and taking over the world in 2016,” said Kara Swisher as she kicked off the opening session. The conference theme was “Lead On” and this sentiment was palpable in everything from the hashtag (#LeadOnCA), to the background music (“I’m every woman” and “You’re gonna hear me roar”). Of course, the main draw for the conference was the keynote lineup, which included Hillary Clinton, Jill Abramson, Dr. Brene Brown, Candy Chang, Kara Swisher, and Diane von Furstenberg. Their stories are remarkable not just because they are women but also because they are leaders.
Opportunities and encouragement to be change agents
It wasn’t all talk at this event; leadership was in action in a variety of ways. For example, conference participants shared goals and contributed to their own “Before I Die” wall, inspired by Candy Chang’s work. The exhibit hall, which at most conferences is all about commercialism, featured a couple community engagement efforts, namely partnerships with Family Giving Tree (where attendees stuffed 500 backpacks with school supplies and encouraging notes for children in need) and Dress for Success San Jose (which collected donations of handbags and jewelry). “What you do doesn’t have to be big and dramatic,” said Hillary Clinton, encouraging participants to make change. “You don’t have to run for office,” she said with a figurative wink and nod but no official announcement about her intentions.
Conversations I wanted more of
I’ll admit I spent most of the day fulfilling my volunteer duties in the Career Pavilion, meaning I only saw the keynote addresses and attended one workshop. So conversations like these could have happened in other spaces, but I found them glaringly lacking from the general conference dialogue and social media backchannel.
Breaking out of the gender binary
Everywhere I turned, there were examples of dualistic gender thinking. In general sessions, female attendees were celebrated while male allies were thanked for their presence. Every statistic was presented with just two options (ex: 70% of Google’s workforce is men and 30% women). An announcement that some of the men’s restrooms had been converted to women’s facilities elicited a big cheer from the audience, and I couldn’t help but think why some couldn’t have been converted to all-gender spaces. The result of these binary practices: our nonconforming community members were unacknowledged and rendered invisible.
Gender + any other aspect of diversity
I know this was a “conference for women” so it is expected we’d talk a lot about gender, but could we please acknowledge some other aspects of our identities? While listening to the main stage speakers, I noted less than a handful of comments that directly addressed aspects of diversity other than gender. And of those comments, most came from women of color. By not addressing intersectionality, the female experience was painted with the same (white, middle class, well-educated) brush. “Leaning in” and trying hard were touted as the keys to happiness and success while dynamics of privilege and power were unexamined.
Random things that got me thinking
- The items in my participant swag bag included two office supplies and four body/cosmetic products, including one item for children (sunscreen). I wonder how these giveaways were determined and what conversations happened around those decisions.
- A Nursing Mother’s Room was available for attendees. Although I did not utilize this space, I tracked it as one of the event’s inclusion efforts and was glad to share its location with the woman who was balancing her pumping equipment and bottles on the edge of the bathroom sink.
- An emphasis on making connections was built into conference process and content. Intentional spaces for informal conversations were available in the exhibit hall and general session area, Twitter handles for all speakers were included in all conference materials, and almost every major speaker described women supporting women as essential to success. In these ways, networking was framed with a relational perspective as opposed to a transactional one.
- All the resume reviewers were volunteers from local colleges and universities. It was nice to see higher education professionals recognized and sought out for their expertise in career support and guidance, especially in the business-driven environment of Silicon Valley. I even consulted with someone who currently works in corporate HR and said she brought her resume because she valued the advice of career services professionals.
- One last thing: shoutout to Kathryn Ward who also represented Samuel Merritt University as a resume reviewer and drove us both around the Bay Area that day!
Have you attended a conference like this? What were your takeaways? What would you like to see at a “conference for women”?