Getting Personal at The Women’s Conference


Photo via The Women's Conference

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Wednesday marked the last day of The Women’s Conference, a gathering of 14,000 women at the Long Beach Convention Center in California – plus several smaller teleconferenced gatherings around the globe. The annual event, now twenty-five years old, was hosted by California’s First Lady, Maria Shriver – who encouraged women to be Architects of Change.

She said she had “a simple and profound message: we are the leaders we have been waiting for.”

In New York, over 500 women attended the Conference virtually as part of the Satellite Summit. Marie Wilson, Founder of The White House Project, opened the Summit saying, “We sit at the nexus of business, politics, and media. The comfort level of us as leaders is changing.”

Wilson encouraged all of the attendees, in the next twenty-four hours, to call a woman and encourage her to lead. She said, “It is our time, and we can’t do a democracy with only half of the resources.”

Opening Talks – Tales of Personal Sacrifice

Both Maria Shriver and First Lady Michelle Obama gave moving speeches to open the Conference’s main event Wednesday, reflecting on their family and responsibilities. Shriver discussed her mother’s death, her father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, and how becoming First Lady of California had changed her life.

She said entering back into the world of politics was not the life she had planned for herself, but, she said, “Being out of your comfort zone doesn’t mean you can’t handle it or you can’t do it or you’re powerless. Being out of your comfort zone just means you’re uncomfortable.”

She continued, “I now know… when you step into uncertainty, it’s not a disaster. In fact, it can be the beginning of a journey – to a stronger, wiser, more confident you.”

Obama also discussed the challenges she encountered when her husband decided he wanted to run for president. To a nodding audience, she talked about how life as a working mom often meant feeling overwhelmed – that she was “struggling to keep it together.” She “believed that the voice of the working mother need[ed] to be at the heart of any agenda,” and on the campaign trail she met with group after group of working mothers.

She said the group she was most moved by was military spouses, and continued with a lengthy and emotional description of the challenges these women (and some men) face in a life of sacrifice and frequent movement – sacrifice which is frequently overlooked by the rest of the population.

Side-by-side, the talks were remarkably similar. Both women expressed the inner turmoil they felt when their husbands decided to run for office – that they felt they were losing their identities as “working mothers.”

For some women in the audience, myself included, the two speeches were problematic. Both normalized gender roles, focusing on the women as the wife and mother, rather than the leader or the decision maker. Both focused on the woman as the one who gives up her very successful career so that her husband may follow his dreams. Both focused on the women as the one who makes sacrifices, in fact claiming sacrifice as a feminine trait.

Must women be defined by sacrifice? Do women have their own identity – or are they solely defined by their role as mother, wife, sister, daughter and their familial obligations? Speaking before thousands of female leaders, why couldn’t the speeches focus on women who make an active decision to take charge, rather than an active decision to make sacrifice for others?

Certainly sacrifice is a part of many women’s lives, and the military spouses Obama described certainly deserved a spotlight in the way they are managing their own lives and responsibilities, while their partners are working to protect the country.

But still, her talk focused on the sacrifices made by these individuals – sacrifices necessitated by the decisions of their spouses.

Must all discussions about women focus on sacrifice? There are other valuable, inspiring decisions and actions women make and take every day – and we heard very little about those kinds of decisions in the opening talks.

Top Women Leaders

A later panel, moderated by Campbell Brown, featured Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo! Inc.; Anne Mulcahy, Former Chairman and CEO, Xerox Corporation; Anne Sweeney, Co-Chair, Disney Media Networks & President, Disney/ABC Television Group; and Dr. Katharine, Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church.

The women discussed the challenges women face in the workforce – they felt they did not personally face open discrimination today as leaders. Mulcahy explained, “At the end of the day, you see the same characteristics in people who are leaders: trust, integrity, they provide direction, they align people around a shared set of goals.”

But she said, “there are tons of challenges still out there for women in business.” She continued, “I think we are past looking at good efforts. It’s time to talk about good results. Look at the Fortune 500 – two divided into 500 is 250. And we’re talking about 11.”

Bartz agreed – she said, “I don’t think we’ve made progress. I don’t think there is a level playing field.” She continued, “The venture capital community is really an old boys club.”

She reiterated a common complaint of women executives. “The thing that really annoys me is when a woman will say something in a meeting and everyone ignores her. And three minutes later a man will say it and it’s a great idea.”

While it’s hard to imagine anyone ignoring Bartz, she says it continues to happen to her today in her work on Cisco‘s board. But, she exclaimed, “Now I go, ‘I just said that!'”