How to plan a great women’s conference

May 8, 2014
2014 Executive Women's Day presented by Astellas at The Players Championship; photo credit: PGA

2014 Executive Women’s Day presented by Astellas at The Players Championship; photo credit: PGA

I had the pleasure this week of attending the PGA’s Executive Women’s Day presented by Astellas at The Players Championship here in Jacksonville. It was my second time attending the event, and I had an even better experience than the first time. I met new contacts relevant to my industry, and the panels were all informative and entertaining.

What Not To Do

I have not always found female-centric events to be productive, however, and I’ve learned I’m not the only one who feels this way. I recently conducted an informal poll of approximately 200 female professionals. Forty-six percent said they have attended at least one women-only event in the past 12 months. When asked to comment on whether they found these events to be productive and beneficial, over half of the women who provided long-form comments left negative feedback:

“I have been part of women’s events in the past and found them very cliquey. I didn’t see women reach out to other women who they didn’t know to help them, which is a huge problem in our industry. Some women feel they have fought so hard to get where they are today that they don’t want to help anyone else or feel threatened. Men aren’t like this at all.”

“I have not found women-only events helpful in most cases. The biggest struggles I find in my industry are gaining the respect of my male counterparts, and women-only events don’t typically help those situations. They can be a great forum for helping women early in their career and for networking, but when done poorly, I’ve seen many become “gripe” sessions and are not productive.”

The Work-Life Balance Conundrum

One thing I personally have noticed about these events is the tendency to focus almost entirely on work-life balance. It is something we all want, of course. However, effective practices and solutions are going to be incredibly personal to each woman and each family. For that reason, I have not found these sessions to be helpful, and too many events I attend make this the sole focus. Again, I’m not alone.

“There was far too much of “making the family and career dynamic work” sessions and not enough information about dealing with glass ceilings, disrespect and a lack of opportunity in the higher education field.”

“Most of the women-only events I have attended in my adult life have focused on how to balance being a mother and working hard. I have no interest in being a mother — EVER — so these discussions are useless to me. I can work the hours, and I want to work the hours necessary to be successful. Work/life balance is not something that I am trying to attain. I just want success.”

What Works

I’ll never forget the first time I was asked to speak to a group of female-only sports management graduate students. They asked me questions I’d never been asked before, and I’d spoken in dozens of sports management programs prior to this engagement. I was working at ESPN at the time as a sports business reporter, and they wanted to know if a male colleague had ever treated me differently because I’m female. They wanted to know if a male boss had ever made me cry. They were curious how having a child in the future might impact my role on television. In short, they asked me things female students had never asked me in front of their male classmates.

My answers were no, no, and my husband and I don’t plan on having children (for reasons that have nothing to do with my career). I would imagine they didn’t feel like they got much out of those answers, but hopefully what I told them next was more helpful.

I told them about the study I read once by a female partner in a law firm who served on the compensation committee and had noticed she could divide self-evaluations into male and female piles without looking at names because of how differently the sexes complete these evaluations – to the detriment of the women’s careers. I explained how I’d noticed the same differences in men’s and women’s resumes and cover letters.

Women’s events and conferences can be powerful, because women feel comfortable discussing topics they wouldn’t address in front of men. In fact, nearly every positive comment on my survey about attending women’s events mentioned the ability to speak freely without fear or embarrassment.

However, to harness that power and make it productive, the focus should be on specific issues that hold women back, not generic complaints or simple success stories told by keynote speakers and panelists in a, “I did it, so you can too” way.

Tips for developing conference sessions

These are my tips, gleaned from my own experiences attending these events as an attendee, panelist and keynote speaker, for developing panels and keynotes that add value:

  • Identify a specific issue, or issues, women face in the workplace that the panel or speaker will address. For example, maybe the panel addresses compensation by discussing how differently women complete self-evaluations and negotiate for raises compared to their male counterparts.
  • Set a goal to give attendees a skill or tactic they can implement right away. Instead of covering broad topics, attempt to impart knowledge or methods attendees can use immediately.
  • Have a call with panelists before the event. I can’t even begin to count the number of questions I’ve been asked by the moderator as a panelist that didn’t apply to my situation. Talk through the issues with panelists beforehand – you never know when they’ll add something to the conversation you hadn’t even considered.
  • When possible, use visuals. If I was developing a panel on self-evaluations, I would either show samples of a male vs. female self-evaluation on a big screen or prepare handouts. Remember that some people are visual learners.
  • Leave plenty of time for questions. Some of the best discussions at the Executive Women’s Day this week came from questions the audience asked the panelists and speakers. More so than any other types of events or conferences I attend, women’s events tend to generate the most questions from the audience.

To learn more about event strategy or to inquire about having me speak at your event, please contact



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