Takeaways from the Inaugural Maine Women’s Conference

05 30 18

On May 9th I had the pleasure of attending the first ever Maine Women’s Conference in Portland, Maine. The stated mission of the conference is to “educate, inspire, and empower” women to take on expanded roles in their careers and communities. Since I lead a company with a make up that’s 80% women—women who work with amazing organizations such as the Population Council and EngenderHealth where women-centric initiatives are the focus—issues surrounding women’s rights and progress are always top of mind. I welcomed this opportunity to break out of the office for a day to bond and learn from my fierce fellow females. It was an incredible inaugural event, not perfect but a remarkable first effort. I’m grateful to have been there and to help establish what I hope will be an annual gathering.

Our first keynote speaker was Caroline Paul, one of San Francisco’s first female firefighters and author of The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure. Her talk encompassed EXACTLY what I had come to the event for. She encouraged us to be brave and step outside of our comfort zones. She spoke in depth about the cultural differences between how we raise our daughters as opposed to how we raise our sons. Her message was poignant: we teach girls to be careful and ask for help, while we teach boys to be independent and brave. She spoke about the male ritual of hierarchy (jockeying for position) versus the female ritual of parity (taking the temperature of the room, and bringing ourselves down to a level that makes sure everyone feels equal and comfortable). The takeaway: while both of these work, the parity ritual isn’t helping women move forward, and won’t until more women fill positions of power so it becomes a more valued tactic. As I have a two-year-old daughter, you can imagine how much her messages really hit home with me. So glad to have a signed copy of her book.

You can watch some of what she spoke about in her Ted Talk. It’s worth your time.

The audience then broke out into various panel discussions on topics such as leadership, networking, and negotiating. I was intrigued by a panel on how to be an active bystander, but since part of my day’s goal was to meet likeminded women, I opted for the networking discussion. I was curious about this session that was billed as providing a “feminine-minded perspective on networking that you can feel good about.” It was run by Jodi Flynn from an organization called Women Taking the Lead. It turns out that by “feminine-minded” she means an approach to networking that focuses on nurturing connections and relationships as opposed to “going in for the hard sell,” which is seen as a more masculine approach. However, while this was helpful for me, I’m not so sure that it’s because I’m particularly “feminine-minded.” I expect many people, including men, would value this more humanistic approach for all the same reasons I do…we’re empathetic humans. The panel was great and I walked away with some immediate action items.

Next was the low point of my day, the Exhibition Hall. When I started journeying through the aisles and saw stands full of purses and chocolates, it began to hit me as to how much more work we need to do to not only break out of traditional gender roles, but to break out of traditional gender stereotypes even among our fellow women. I was hoping to see booths representing the Maine Women’s Lobby, the Maine Women’s Fund, Emerge Maine, New Hope for Women, Planned Parenthood, and other amazing organizations in the state that support women and women’s issues. I was disappointed at the unbalanced nature of the exhibitors and curious as to which businesses and organizations chose and chose not to participate…and why.

Later in the afternoon I attended another breakout session, this time hoping I could glean the mystery behind how women rise to power inside of a “boy’s club” corporate environment. The talk was an interview with an amazing woman named Betsy Beimann, Chief Executive Officer of Coastal Enterprises Inc., a company that integrates financing, business, industry expertise, and policy solutions for shared prosperity in Maine. I was very impressed with her. However, when asked how she has overcome gender bias on her rise to success she said she never came up against it. I found this incredibly hard to believe even though she sounded sincere. Even if this had been her experience, I was hoping she might have a bit of advice for those of us who have come up against—or at the very least witnessed—gender bias during our efforts to rise up in our fields.

In my three short years working in corporate environments before starting my company, Owl’s Head Solutions, I had a co-worker who was told she was “too ambitious” (she ended up working for homeland security, by the way), another colleague who was demoted when she became pregnant, another let go when she was pregnant, and others who were sexually harassed by their bosses. How was Betsy Beimann able to avoid it? What were her methods? Did she receive equal pay to her male counterparts? Considering the event, this seemed like a missed opportunity to have a larger discussion around the topic.

Enter Maysoon Zayid, our final keynote speaker, and the afternoon was saved! She was unabashedly bold. She was bold about EVERYTHING…what it’s like to be a woman, a woman of color, and a woman with cerebral palsy. She took us on an amazing journey that not only had us in stitches, but had us all considering how we marginalize each other based on assumptions about…everything really. You can see her Ted Talk where she touches on much of what she spoke about during her session. I encourage anyone reading this to see her entire talk.

While the day had its ups and downs for me, I have to admire the women who made this conference happen. I’m so grateful that after the Women’s March, a group in Maine decided to keep the momentum moving forward. It’s much easier to criticize than to “do.” So I hope my comments are received as constructive…all meant to make the event stronger moving forward.

And while on the topic of criticism, I have one last observation: I have been unable to find ANY media coverage of the event. Not one single article, even though we were interviewed by the Portland Press Herald, and Lisa DeSisto, that paper’s CEO and Publisher, was the moderator of the Betsy Beimann interview. I find this extremely frustrating. For one, it diminishes the event’s importance, and therefore diminishes the importance of all the topics and issues discussed there. And secondly, if we can’t reach a larger audience and educate them on women’s issues, then we’re communicating in an echo chamber.

The conference organizers have asked for help in planning next year’s event, and I would love to participate so we might address some of the concerns I’ve expressed. Until then, thank you again to all of the amazing women who put this event on and to the amazing women who attended. Maine women—and all women—who stand together will succeed.

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