The rise of conferences on women’s empowerment

The sessions are a way for media firms to align themselves with working women and corporate sponsors


The major driver for the expanding women’s conference scene is that as magazine companies struggle with problems in their core print businesses these events bring in additional revenue. Photo: Yana Paskova/The New York Times
The major driver for the expanding women’s conference scene is that as magazine companies struggle with problems in their core print businesses these events bring in additional revenue. Photo: Yana Paskova/The New York Times

Lia Zneimer, a 27-year-old employee at the publisher Scholastic , joined 250 other invitees at a Manhattan hotel on Wednesday for a Time Inc. event called Women & Success.

In two panels moderated by editors of Time and Real Simple magazines, Zneimer heard Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the songwriter behind the Frozen song Let it Go, share their personal experiences with success and failure. Zneimer said she walked away inspired by Gillibrand’s thoughts about “having it all versus doing it all”.

After the panels, Zneimer sipped wine, chatted with other women and then left with a copy of Gillibrand’s book, Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World. The event left her wanting more, she said.

Conferences promoting women’s empowerment are on the rise and haven’t had this kind of cachet since the feminist movement encouraged consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s. This time, however, the booster sessions are not being run by friends in their living rooms, but by media companies looking to align themselves with a generation of working women—and corporate sponsors—eager to celebrate their achievements and push for new career heights.

Among those that have added women-focused events in recent years are National Journal (Women in Washington), The Atlantic (Women of Washington), More magazine (How to Command a Room) and Cosmopolitan (Cosmo’s Fun Fearless Life). Other prominent media personalities continue to expand their conference businesses, like Arianna Huffington (Thrive) and Tina Brown (Women in the World).

While no one tracks exactly how many conferences there are, those who both attend and produce them recognize that something of a bubble has formed in recent years. The space has become very crowded, they say, and they could spend nearly every week attending an event focused on women.

Based on the number of invitations she receives, Moira Forbes, president of Forbes Women, estimates that the number of these events has nearly tripled in the past two years. Forbes Women holds two annual conferences called Forbes Women’s Summit: Power Redefined in the United States and Asia.

“I feel like we’re reaching kind of a saturation point,” said Lesley Jane Seymour, editor-in-chief of More. “I feel like it’s everywhere. Everybody’s doing it; everybody’s trying to get in on this.”

The companies involved in organizing these conferences suggest several reasons for the increasing popularity of the events. One is that there are more women in positions of power than ever before. Pattie Sellers, a co-chairwoman and co-founder of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women conference, said that when it started 16 years ago, there was one female chief executive officer (CEO) of a Fortune 500 company; today, there are 25. “In hindsight,” she said, “we were going after a growing market.”

But the major driver for the expanding women’s conference scene is that as magazine companies struggle with problems in their core print businesses—declining newsstand sales and soft advertising—these events bring in additional revenue. Ken Doctor, a media analyst, said there had been a shift to more conferences because companies hesitant to spend on print advertising see more value in sponsoring events.

Consider the continued growth of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women franchise. On Monday, a three-day gathering got underway, with 400 attendees at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Laguna Nigel, California. Sponsors include Citigroup Inc., Cadillac and Pfizer Inc.; scheduled speakers include Mary T. Barra, chief executive of General Motors Co., and Melinda Gates, co-head of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

This year, Fortune raised the cost of its main conference by $1,000 dollars to $8,500 (and it still had a waiting list of 250 people) and also started distributing a daily newsletter focused on women. On Monday, it introduced a women-focused channel on Fortune’s website and is starting MPW Next Gen, a new conference aimed at up-and-coming female business leaders.

Sellers said that women had also become less hesitant about flaunting their status. “At first, leaders like Carly Fiorina and Oprah Winfrey were extremely uncomfortable with the word power and worried about being segregated onto a women’s list,” she said. The shift, said Sellers and others, is partly a result of several recent women-centric books, mostly notably Lean In, by the Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg.

“We are having a moment,” said Debora L. Spar, president of Barnard College and the author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection.

Spar added: “Young women are identifying as feminist at levels and in ways that haven’t been seen since the 1970s. And these are young women who grew up saying feminism wasn’t for them, but for a range of strange reasons have come to identify with.”

Balancing family and career advancement is an issue that invariably becomes a focus at these events. Poppy MacDonald, president and publisher of National Journal, said that even though work-life balance was not explicitly on the agenda of recent conferences, it came up all the time anyway. “It is usually the first question from the audience,” MacDonald said.

Women’s events that are attention-grabbing enough can raise a magazine’s stature with news organizations and others the publications want to impress.

Cindi Leive, Glamour ’s editor-in-chief, remembers the magazine’s first Women of the Year Awards in 1990, an event for 250 women. It has now grown to 3,000 attendees and is held at Carnegie Hall. The event draws media coverage, and for Glamour, Leive said, it helps its relations with Hollywood, where the magazine seeks many of its cover models. “The visibility of Women of the Year helps the women, the actors, the singers know that they’re not going to be duped when they do a deal with Glamour,” said Leive.

Sponsors seem to have a strong appetite for these conferences. Michelle Peranteau, director of marketing communications for the luxury watch company Baume & Mercier North America, one of the sponsors of last week’s Time Inc. event, said the panels and cocktail party were a chance to promote Promesse, the company’s new ladies’ watch collection. She said that after the panels, she enjoyed chatting with the female guests.

“It was nice to have an opportunity to network with these women,” Peranteau said. “It wasn’t a pushy sales message. It was just an opportunity to promote the brand.”

©2014/The New York Times

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