As human beings, we all benefit from feeling that we have a voice, and knowing that we’re not alone in encountering both the pleasures and harsh realities of life. Shared experiences bring us closer together, help us identify problems, and can drive change. This holds especially true for groups who are marginalized.
This week I had the privilege of attending the fifth annual Forbes Women’s Summit in New York City where the list of speakers and attendees included a powerful group of female entrepreneurs, executives, activists, journalists, and celebrities. The stories told and advice offered left me feeling inspired, empowered, and relieved that challenges I faced didn’t need to be isolating. Periodically checking my twitter feed for what was happening in the outside world, however, and more specifically on Capitol Hill, reminded me how rare the comfort of the conference was.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in relation to the investigation into election interference and potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian Government. Newly elected Senator and former prosecutor Kamala Harris asked a series of probing questions, but was interrupted by Senators John McCain and Richard Burr, the chairman of the committee. They complained that Harris wasn’t allowing Sessions to answer in full. It was was very similar to an incident last week when the same two male Senators chimed in during Harris’ time while she was questioning Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Harris has a no-nonsense approach to her duties in public hearings. She is calculated and tough, following up incessantly when those testifying avoid giving direct answers to her questions. Her style may even seem abrasive to some, but the same argument can be made about Senator Mark Warner. The difference is, Harris was the only one silenced by her colleagues and described as “hysterical” by cable news commentators.
Disrespect towards a woman at a level as high as the United States Senate unfortunately comes as no surprise. Don’t forget the now infamous exchange between Senators Mitch McConnell and Elizabeth Warren that sparked the hashtag #NeverthelessShePersisted earlier this year. Public displays of contempt send a message to women all over the country that being vocal can have negative consequences. Sheryl Sandberg dubbed the problem “speaking while female”, and provided the studies to back up how common gender bias is, especially in the workplace.
I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the tone at these hearings, and the open and welcome dialogue at the Forbes Women’s Summit. The setting of a Congressional hearing mired in partisan rancor and with one individual in the hot spot, testifying under oath, is bound to be tense compared to an event focused on unity. But I did wonder if the same type of toxicity would exist with more women in the chamber.
It’s hard to describe to a man what it feels like to sit in a room surrounded by hundreds of other professional women. That’s not because all men are chauvinists or closed minded - to the contrary, the list of male allies and feminists grows by the day. But for many women, there is shared understanding of the inconveniences of biological clocks and menstruation cycles, and more often than not personal experience with discrimination, sexual harassment, disempowerment and silencing. Some of these burdens are not exclusive to women, and others don’t impact the entire female community, but chances are they’re relatable to the majority of our gender. To acknowledge that truth is not to exclude men, but rather to foster a critical connection over mutual joys, concerns, and even painful memories.
At the Forbes Women’s Summit, I watched former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, who successfully sued her former employer for sexual harassment, describe the multitude of women who approached her to admit their own traumatizing accounts. I call it an admission only because of the shaming and retribution that often go hand in hand with speaking up. Carlson pointed out that most women who come forward never work in their chosen profession again. I looked around the room to nodding heads at every table, and wondered how many women in this audience have an untold story of their own.
One panel included the Editor-in-Chief of Teen Vogue, Elaine Welteroth. When asked about risks that paid off, she noted the magazine’s increased focus on political reporting. Welteroth recalled the shock expressed at an outlet like hers competing on subject matter with legacy news organizations. She pointed out that women’s magazines have always covered topical issues in addition to fashion and beauty. It shouldn’t seem remarkable that they would be able to cover multiple topics really well, but derision or condescension often come with the territory of pursuing “women’s” content and interests. Facing flat depictions of what we’re capable of is another experience that can damage self-esteem.
Lauren Schulte, the co-founder of a company which created a tampon alternative called Flex, was asked what it was like pitching the idea to male investors. She explained that when she opened up about her periods and resulting yeast infections, some potential male business partners were too grossed out to hear the entire proposal. Schulte found others who were on board, but it’s not hard to see why period technology hasn’t significantly evolved in decades. To think that limits placed on women’s health care because certain topics make people uncomfortable, is an infuriating and disappointing reflection on our society and a reminder of how many decisions have been made without women’s input.
Someone recently asked me why events specifically tailored to bringing women together were needed. Aside from the many statistics of inequality in the workplace, I mentioned the value of sharing information and personal wins and losses to measure one's own access to opportunities. For every advance there is a counter example of disempowerment and a reminder that the work is not done. For every woman elected to the Senate, leading their own company, or climbing the executive ladder, there is a woman believing she’s not good enough. Events like the Forbes Women’s Summit provide support to our ambitions, and an invaluable exercise in preparation for confronting roadblocks that will test our strength, confidence, and self worth.