The Power of Convening Women

As friends know, I am a bit of an addict when it comes to women’s conferences. I can’t resist the opportunity these events represent to meet new people, make connections, gain new perspectives and engage in meaningful conversations.

In the video above I'm giving the keynote address at the Women's Funding Alliance AMPLIFY 2015 gathering

Humbling, Inspiring, Illuminating

In 2015 I participated in five big women’s gatherings in five different countries, logging a lot of frequent flyer miles and deepening my understanding of the ways that our lives as women intersect.

In each of these distinctly different countries and cultures I found a commonality of purpose and a shared passion for change. From the Her Village International Forum in Beijing, to WE 2015 in Reykjavík, Jewelle Bickford's Career Equity Convening in Tuscany, and the International Conference on Gender Equality in Kerala, I met activists and leaders, artists and scientists, explorers and inventors — women whose personal stories inspired me and whose work is testimony to the courage, resilience, and power of women to make a difference in their communities, even when there are many barriers to their personal and professional fulfillment. 

Every convening is a learning experience, to be sure, and while there are some issues that resonate everywhere — work/family balance, equal pay for equal work, ending the violence and oppression that is a reality in nearly every country, and opening up economic opportunities for women — there are also strategies and solutions to be shared. In Iceland, ranked #1 by the World Economic Forum in terms of its gender equality, I learned how women have used collective action to get what they wanted, from equal pay to generous family leave and more women on boards and in management. Halla Tomasdottir, who hosted and convened the conference, was one of the women who helped redesign Iceland’s financial system during the global financial crisis of 2008-09, and she challenged all of us, men and women leaders who participated in her convening, to be bolder, braver, and to work together towards greater gender equity.

Watch Yang Lan's TED talk

At Yang Lan’s Her Village International Forum, I met China’s top women executives, academics, and thought leaders. Through casual conversations, as well as conference presentations, I gained valued insights into a China not often reflected in the mainstream media — young women business leaders, for example, who are challenging the old patriarchal systems with workplace redesigns that include more family friendly policies, and other young women who are delaying marriage in a culture where there are eight million more young men in their age group, looking for brides.  

I also heard well-known Chinese writers talking openly about the realities of depression and suicide in China, and what needs to be done to help those who suffer. I credit Yang Lan, who has been hosting these women’s conferences for three years, along with hosting one of China’s most popular weekly interview programs and managing the Her Village online community, for creating a space where for free expression and open exchange of ideas is possible.

Conservationists and filmmakers Beverley and Dereck Joubert (photo courtesy of  Wildlife Films )

Conservationists and filmmakers Beverley and Dereck Joubert (photo courtesy of Wildlife Films)

Also at Her Village, Africa’s leading conservationists and filmmakers, Beverly and Dereck Joubert, and Roar Africa CEO Deborah Calmeyer spoke about the serious crisis facing Africa’s elephants and rhinos — a result, in large part, from the Chinese market for ivory and rhino horns. It took courage for Yang Lan to offer the Her Village forum as a platform for this message, and the impact was immediate: The very next week the Chinese government publicly burned a huge stash of ivory to indicate a new intolerance for the poaching of elephants for the ivory trade. With the sponsorship of WildAid, Lan and other celebrities produced public service announcements condemning rhino poaching as well. Both of these outcomes are examples of what can and does happen when an idea or challenge is shared at a conference and a caring and committed community responds.

Addressing attendees at Her Village 2015 in Beijing

And yet, when I spoke at Her Village about the Chinese feminists who were under house arrest while we were there, I discovered that no one in the audience knew anything about the arrests, even though the news of it was on social media and on the front page of the New York Times. Even those Chinese who can get around the various blocks and firewalls to access Google or Facebook can and do miss important stories when the government wants to ensure a news blackout.

These kinds of cultural insights are difficult to gain as a tourist, but are plentiful at women’s conferences. Each conference is different, of course, with a different focus and format as well as different priorities; yet, I’ve come to believe that if you want to understand a country’s challenges, as well its unique assets  to evaluate its priorities, and even to envision its future  women’s conferences offer a lens that few other experiences can provide.

 What women’s conferences did you attend this year, and what did you take away from them? I hope you’ll share your experiences in the comments section below, not just for my sake, but so that others can discover events worth attending, supporting and following online.

TEDWomen: Near and Dear

With remarkable women at TEDWomen 2015. From left to right: Regina ScullyJacki Zehner, me and Courtney Martin.

There is one women’s event that is especially important to me, and that is TEDWomen, a conference that I co-founded and co-curate with TED. TEDWomen thrives thanks to its active and dedicated community, including many of you.  We’ll be convening for our fifth year in 2016, October 26-28 in San Francisco. Some of you may have seen the “save the date” announcement that recently went out; if you didn’t, make sure you’re signed up for the TEDWomen newsletter, where we’ll announce pre-registration in early 2016, and share more information as we develop the event’s theme.

President Carter onstage at TEDWomen (photo courtesy of TED)

At the 2015 conference, sessions explored various dimensions of the theme of “Momentum,” such as “ignite,” “sustain” and “surface.” So many ideas worth sharing emerged, from President Carter’s impassioned plea to see women as the solution to many of the world most complex challenges, to Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin talking about sustaining friendship through many years, to new ideas about poverty, education, extremism, and religion. You can see highlights from several talks from TEDWomen 2015 in TED’s Year in Ideas video.

I am eager to work with Chris Anderson and the team at TED to begin curating the lineup of speakers for TEDWomen 2016, knowing that the ideas that will emerge will be shared with a large global community. Again, I encourage you to sign up for the newsletter for announcements as the agenda takes shape.

Connection, Amplified

As co-curator of TEDWomen and as an avid attendee of other women’s conferences, one thing is clear to me: We women value community. We want to learn from each other, and to share our perspectives, the ways we find meaning, and our dreams and ideas for the future.

I hope that through the website, newsletter and expanded social media presence I launched this year, I can play some small part in helping you discover and strengthen your community.

At last year's Sundance film festival with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin

At last year's Sundance film festival with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin

In the first two months of 2016, I’ll be sharing dispatches from the Sundance Film Festival, where I’ll be convening a Sundance Women Initiative brunch (date to be announced) along with colleagues Jacki Zehner, Ruth Ann Harnisch, Keri Putnam and Caroline Libresco. In February I travel to Bogota, Columbia to participate in the Women Working for the World conference. This will be the third year of this conference, which Catalina Escobar and the Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar Foundation convene to hear from women working in the fields of reproductive rights and health.

What is the #1 event for women that you recommend attending in the year ahead, and why? Share your feedback in the comments, and I’ll summarize your recommendations in my next newsletter, and on social media.

I wish you and your families a wonderful holiday season and a very happy new year — one full of connection and community.

With gratitude and appreciation for all that you do,