What Women-Only Conferences and the U.S. Election Taught Me
Women can never (and may never) do enough.
I write this not to gain pity or sympathy but to find acceptance in giving up, whether that’s forever or just temporarily.
This is not going to be an optimistic year-end review post. I am choosing to mesh professional and personal views in this platform because frankly, there is very little difference between the two in today’s state.
I am on team “2016 was the worst.” For all the obvious reasons and one more: this was a terrible year for women, for working millennial women like me, it felt especially like a failure.
For me, the challenges of the workplace became emotionally draining the second half of 2016. I felt unable to juggle a demanding work schedule which involved business travel, while trying to make a community of non-techy “women in tech” happen and proving that I was management material to myself, colleagues and peers. But because I’m strong-willed and determined to have a stellar career, I forged on. Until November.
With a motivation to become a Mr[s] Manager that anyone would be proud to work with, I went to the formerly beloved and since failed Ela Conf, a professional development conference for women in tech in Philadelphia. I had followed this community of ambitious tech-savvy professionals for over a year and desperately wanted to be a part of their tribe.
Luckily I was invited to moderate a panel on Leadership and Management at Ela Conf and with that received free admission to see the whole conference and meet these women in action. I was so pumped. I had a feeling this conference would change my life.
Ela Conf happened to fall on the weekend before the U.S. presidential election. The energy among the attendees was incredibly positive. A very high presence of “Yay sisterhood” and “We can do it!” quite literally concluded almost every talk. But while everyone was championing overcoming women in tech stigmas of the workplace, I couldn’t help but contemplate and obsess over the need for these conferences – and sheroes like Hillary Clinton to exist. That in the year of our lord 2016, we still needed to create safe spaces for women to exist. And furthermore, that despite the resources and access these communities provide and leadership at the helm, women must not and cannot stop fighting for what they deserve.
I got resentful. (I still don’t know a single working male who attends like-minded conferences). I asked myself and a few other attendees if they shared my concerns:
I got a few head nods but no one seemed to mind investing in these types of professional development programs year over year (side note: Ela Conf is one of the more affordable conferences. Do a quick search for more prominent networking events around the country and you’ll find that tickets climb up to the thousands.) I eventually left Ela Conf feeling conflicted: I absolutely loved every person I met and the content it provided, but it also reminded me that these conferences still continue to exist because sexism, racism and misogyny fuels male domination across every industry. As I would learn just a few short days later, this was especially true in politics.
The women at Ela Conf brought Hillary Clinton’s feminist ethos and hard-earned positivity to the stage, fueling excitement and hope for the future. Stronger Together, right? I, too, clingged to that feeling as I voted for the first female presidential nominee. But as election night unfolded that pestering reminder came to the forefront: women can never and may never do enough to change things. There will always be an unqualified male ready to take everything you’ve ever worked for away from you. This perspective is evident returning to work after the Ela Conf and the election results. I think about all the times a male peer surpassed me for a raise or promotion while I worked overtime or kept quiet in a corner. Or the times when I did get the courage to speak up at work, I’d receive a “talk” about communication style and suffered repercussions. Or when I’ve prepared a convincing argument for a raise or promotion only to receive a response that suggests I should be grateful for what I already have. Coupled with the reality that I’m still young (I just entered my 30s) the thought of having to keep fighting for the basics of good company culture was too much to bear. I simply had no desire to engage. I instead decided to retreat.
Witnessing unfair male advancement all my life come to a climax after the election continues to take a toll on my personal and professional outlook. I write this not to gain pity or sympathy but to find acceptance in giving up, whether that’s forever or just temporarily.
But remember how I said I’m strong-willed and determined? Yea well, I can’t let the bad guys win. This holiday season I set up monthly donations to pro-women and minority organizations that need support more than ever, in hopes that even just this little bit is enough. For now.