Are Women’s Conferences Effective? New Research Gives Fresh Insight

This article was originally published by Forbes.

I usually start my speeches to women’s groups by teasing, “This will not be a roast of the pale, stale and male good old boys club...as much fun as that would be.”

My speeches and workshops aren’t glorified stitch and b*tch sessions, designed to malign male colleagues. They’re substantive strategy sessions to help women advance in their careers and connect with one another.

While I have ample anecdotal evidence and survey data that demonstrate this content is effective, the policy nerd in me isn’t comfortable making that claim without longitudinal research that demonstrates its impact over time. Fortunately, we have it.

Research recently published in the Harvard Business Review found that well-curated women's conferences can increase both attendees' income and optimism. By working with the Conference for Women, researchers Michelle Gielan and Shawn Achor sought “to test the long-term effects of uniting women”.

In comparison of attendees to people who registered but had not yet attended (the control group), attendees were twice as likely to receive a promotion within a year of the conference and were three times as likely to get a 10%+ pay increase.

Beyond the financial benefits, 71% said that they “feel more connected to others” after attending and 78% percent of attendees reported feeling “more optimistic about the future”.

Achor’s research demonstrates why these data points matter. Social connection is the greatest predictor of success and happiness, and optimism can create a “happiness advantage,” through which every business and educational outcome improves.

Not bad, right?

So why is it so difficult to convince our bosses and colleagues that these conferences are worthwhile?

In a word, bias.

Men ask my clients questions like, “How’s your little girl group?”, as though these high-powered female attorneys are rehearsing to be the next Spice Girls (no shade to the Spice Girls).

“What do you talk about – boys?”

“Who brings the rosé?”

Men go to conferences all the time, and particularly in male-dominated professions it’s mostly dudes talking to one another and networking. Why is it trivial when women do it?

This bias appears when “The same action is interpreted as business oriented by a man and frivolous by a woman,” according to Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey in What Works for Women at Work. They go on to playfully comment, “Joan likes to refer to this as the assumption that women are little bits of fluff.”

So what do we do about it?

1) Invite men to attend.

Some of the derision women’s conference face is about discomfort with current shifts in power balance or uncertainty about what’s happening behind closed doors.

Whether they attend or not, it’s less threatening and more inclusive to people who are gender non-binary when these events are open to all.

2) Share the data.

The research in Harvard Business Review substantiates the value of these conferences. As Shawn Achor wrote, “This research shows that cynicism regarding women’s conferences and initiatives is unfounded, unconstructive, and uninformed.”

So next time you want to attend, show your boss the evidence, and, if your boss is a man, maybe invite him to come along. After all, who doesn’t like rosé?