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Continuing to Stand for Women by Opting Out of Speaking At Women’s Events

I write this after a decent amount of thought, and I’m hoping this comes across in the spirit I’ve intended.

For 2019, I’ve made a decision to take a break from speaking engagements that focus topically on women, women in startups, investing in women, women as leaders, and the rest. This includes speaking or moderating events that may not be topically focused on women but are part of something called a “women’s track.” My initial plan is to take a one-year hiatus and see how I feel about it after that. I’ll reconsider at the start of 2020.

First, I want to be clear on a few things:

  • I am enormously grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had to speak in my direct community and beyond on all sorts of topics, including these. It’s an honor to be asked. Always.
  • I remain committed to helping to #changetheratio in funding that goes to companies with at least one female in leadership. This remains the main focus of the MergeLane Fund, which I co-founded in 2014, and I remain invested in this mission personally and professionally.
  • I understand that putting attention on this topic has been a critical contributor to creating more understanding of issues women in business uniquely face. I also appreciate that having topical sessions on women’s matters helps to create more parity at events in the number of women on stage. That’s all great.

I want to share some of my reasons for this decision:

I think my energy for the topic AS a topic is low. Elizabeth Kraus and I were very public about our worry that we would only be asked to talk about women after co-founding MergeLane (we talked about that on an episode of my Real Leaders Podcast). That hasn’t been exclusively the case, but the shift toward this topic as a percentage of the asks I receive has been dramatic. It’s probably 80%. That’s fair, but after talking ABOUT this topic for four years, my energy isn’t as high as it once was. I don’t feel I have as much new insight to share, and I know there are a LOT of amazing people — men and women — who have more to contribute than I do.

As a function of the above, I miss talking about other things that interest me a great deal. For example, at the moment, my work around Conscious Leadership and our Leadership Camps is lighting me up. I teach this work to men, women, and anyone who wants to engage around it.

Another factor is that I want to be increasing my learning curve during the times I set aside to attend, moderate or speak at events. When I am in contexts related to topics I’m less accustomed to hearing about, I get to learn more, and I like that feeling.

For me, right now, the approach of creating women’s subject matter, women’s tracks, women’s awards, and women-only events is feeling less effective than creating events where men and women are squarely confronting big topics together. I feel this way even in the context of typical “women’s leadership” issues. To me, it seems real “parity” depends on men and women sitting side-by-side and addressing areas where the ratio or the behaviors or the understandings are out of whack. This is my rationale for excluding “women’s track” events. My sense is that naming something a track with “women” in the title often means fewer men show up for the conversations. I want to be in conversations that include all of us. At least for now.

Honestly, I don’t feel “right” about any of this. I can easily see the opposites of my stories that I’ve shared. I’m just making a decision for myself, and I’m just making it for right now.

I made this decision a few months ago but have stalled on sharing it. After making it, I was scanning my phone email inbox and saw a preview subject of an email from the wonderful J.P. O’Brien of BlackLab Sports . The subject snip said “Panel at Boulder Startup Week - wo”. I saw that “wo” and thought “ah, heck, it must be a women’s event, and I’m not going to like saying no to J.P.” When I looked at the email in earnest, the subject read “ would you be willing to moderate a panel on the Adventure Track.” I thought “Adventure Track, I am not a subject-matter expert on Adventure companies.” But to moderate? And learn from my panelists as I make the session spicy and interesting. COUNT ME IN!

Here’s the thing. When I embrace my many areas of interest, those ARE women-centered activities. When I stand for causes I care about, that IS women-centered advocacy. Reducing myself, or any woman, to women-defined topics runs the risk of undermining our breadth and richness as humans. It is for this reason that I’m choosing not just to DO this a new way but to TALK ABOUT it too. I want to embrace my range -- my intersectionality --  as a “woman in leadership.” And I’d love for you to do that too, whatever that means for you.

I want to toss in three other opinions/preferences:

  1. I’m declining panels that are single-gender on any topic. That one will likely be forever. Many men and women already do this. Thanks for your leadership.
  2. I’m not that interested in panels of more than three members. My preference actually is one strong moderator and two killer panelists. And I hate it when everyone goes on stage and agrees on everything.
  3. I love being an emcee, and I think I’m pretty good at it. I especially love emcee’ing awards events. I prepare thoroughly, I can be funny enough, and I love shining a light on amazing people. So if you’re looking for an emcee, ask me!
  4. And know that sometimes I’m asked to do a 1-1 interview on stage. Sometimes the person I’m interviewing is a woman and we’re talking about a wide range of issues, mostly having little to do with our respective genders. I’m all in on that!

If you have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them. Your feedback is gold. And, if you want to be someone to whom I refer requests on which I’m holding off for now, let me know that too.

NB: Hat-tip to Kate Nicholson, Leah Pearlman, and Danielle Dannenberg, for their invaluable input on this post, which sat around for six months before I had the courage to share it.

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