Fresh Takes

When women gather, the world changes

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Attendees at the Omega Women and Power conference
Attendees at the Omega Women and Power conference
Photo courtesy of the Omega Institute of Holistic Studies
“Being in the room where it happens” is the title of one of my favorite songs in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s popular musical "Hamilton," and for me, it’s at least a partial explanation of why I’m something of a women’s conference addict. In my book, Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World, I committed a chapter to making the case that being in the rooms where women come together, share learning and stories, connect personally and professionally, exchange ideas and collectively problem solve, can be, and often is, transformational.
Stella Kiguta speaks with a fellow attendee at TEDWomen, a conference that Pat Mitchell hosts and curates in partnership with TED
Stella Kiguta speaks with a fellow attendee at TEDWomen, a conference that Pat Mitchell hosts and curates in partnership with TED
Photo courtesy of Michael Brands | TED
Sometimes dismissed as gabfests or purely social, new research on women's conferences proves that there is measurable value that continues after the conference ends. Data collected in a recent Harvard Business School study concludes that women who go to women’s conferences are twice as likely to get a promotion within a year and three times as likely to get a 10 percent salary bump!

Researcher Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, adds another layer to the value proposition with the finding that 78 percent of the attendees at women’s conferences felt “more optimistic about the future,” while 71 percent “felt more connected to others.” This feeling of connection, Achor says, brings results: “If people feel like they are trying to get out of depression alone, or fighting inequality alone, or striving for success alone, they burn out and the world feels like a huge burden. But there is a powerful, viable alternative to individually pursuing success and happiness: doing it together.”

In other words, bringing women together is essential if we are going to remain optimistic in our efforts to build a better world.
One example of this was last spring, at the Connected Women Leader’s (CWL) forum, which I was privileged to convene with Ronda Carnegie and in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation. We invited a cohort of global women leaders to come together to review five of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Together, in the rooms of the Bellagio Conference Center on Lake Como, these leaders shaped new solutions and ideas that will further inform the UN strategies to reach these goals in the next decade.

Led by Ireland’s first President and former UN Envoy on Climate, Mary Robinson, the CWL produced a new Declaration on Climate Justice. This declaration calls for all women leaders to make the global climate emergency a priority frame for all their work and to advance solutions that are inclusive of all communities, especially women and girls, who are most adversely impacted by climate disturbances. The declaration was presented during UN General Assembly week and has been signed by more than 800 world leaders.

The forum also reviewed and promoted programs to increase economic equity and opportunity, particularly among marginalized and rural communities, and explored entrepreneurial options for food distribution. With the leadership of Dr. Anges Binagwaho of Partners in Health in Rwanda, these women leaders, putting aside any cultural and political differences, responded to the need to support a system of community health workers as a way of creating greater health equity. Many of these women leaders are reconvening in Rwanda for the Women Leaders in Global Health forum in November to continue their work, together.
The Connected Women Leaders Forum 2019
The Connected Women Leaders Forum 2019
Photo courtesy of Pat Mitchell
My experience with the CWL reinforces something that I believe and that research (such as that done for the book, The Athena Doctrine) supports: that when women come together, we are more ready to collaborate, to actively listen, to form alliances, and to bridge differences in order to get to a solution. I have witnessed this over and over as a journalist, an executive, and as curator and participant in the rooms where women come together, work together, and connect around common ground and cause.

Women, it seems, do indeed do power differently. In fact, “Do Power Differently” is the rallying call of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center, which hosts an annual conference at its campus in Rhinebeck, New York. Each year I make a pilgrimage of sorts to Omega’s conference, trusting that it will recharge my own commitment to embracing and engaging with my power and my privilege. It never lets me down. This year, as is often the case, I left this conference with a deeper commitment to speak up, show up, and advocate for our sisters who are not in these rooms, but whose needs and aspirations need to be represented and addressed.
Attendees at the Omega Women and Power conference
Attendees at the Omega Women and Power conference
Photo courtesy of the Omega Institute of Holistic Studies
Advocating for each other is how we change the power paradigm—and the idea that we can and must do this is one I first heard in a room where women gathered.

It was 1999 in Brussels, and I was covering a meeting of Arab and Jewish women for a documentary I was producing, “Women in War: New Voices from the Frontlines.” Bella Abzug, the gutsy congresswoman from New York, addressed the opening plenary, proclaiming, “In the next century, women will change the nature of power rather than power changing the nature of women.”

In that room, by the way, those 1,000 women, whose lives had been so affected by long-term conflict, drafted a seven-paragraph agreement that offered solutions to end the violence in the Middle East. Sadly, no “official rooms” took it up for action, but it was, for me, the first—and, gratefully, not the last—example of what can and does happen when women come together to negotiate peace, to bridge divides, to problem solve, to shape new strategies, to share ideas and stories, and to survive, thrive, and move forward towards a more just and sustainable future.

We need more women to be in the rooms where all this and more happens. These can be big rooms or small, full of women of any background, who are committed to creating a more equitable world. If you aren’t in the habit of gathering with other women, I hope you’ll consider changing that. We need you.

Posted: November 6, 2019
Edition: Gather