As four of us pulled into the parking lot of the Omega Institute for the International Leadership Association’s (ILA) 3rd Biennial Women and Leadership Conference we were greeted by smiles, waves, helpful directions from the very informal Omega staff members, and shouts of hello and hugs from fellow conference goers. It was hard to believe that when I arrived at the 1st conference at Asilomar in 2013 I had only known two other attendees. In June 2013, I had recently decided I wanted to focus my teaching, writing, and research on women and leadership and this was a whole new world for me. Now, only four years later, I was an insider! I had served on the conference planning team and thus knew the others on the leadership team, had met many of the keynote speakers, and the ILA staff members were now my friends. My own research partners were attending and many of the other attendees were becoming integral members of my network as I saw them at more and more events. In addition, my institution, the University of Phoenix, was well represented: We were the organization with the most attendees at the conference (eleven faculty members and students) and the university was a sponsor. What a wonderful feeling!
Cultivating Our Whole Selves
The theme for this year’s conference was Advancing Women in Leadership: Cultivating Our Whole Selves. I expect it quickly became evident to attendees why the conference planners selected the Omega Institute for our site. The grounds were lush and sprawling. In addition to the conference rooms, there was a lake to swim in, a sanctuary for meditation and yoga, a glorious library, a wonderful bookstore stocked with our books, and places to hike were everywhere. It would be easy to take good care of ourselves. This was reinforced when we went to dinner Sunday night – healthy, delicious food abounded. If we wanted to indulge and have dessert or a glass of wine in the evening, we could go to the on-site café, which was well stocked with decadent treats, including my favorite, ice cream cones.
We spent some very full days – arriving Sunday afternoon and leaving Wednesday afternoon – with tons of activities including seven 90-minute concurrent sessions filled with workshops and presentations going on in eight rooms. I cannot begin to share all that was happening, so I have selected highlights from some of the events that inspired me, some of the action items I left the conference with, and a few memories of times that were fun and fed my soul (or the souls of my colleagues). I expect these lists would be different for each of us. There were so many wonderfully energizing presentations that it is difficult to select just a few.
I’ll talk about Sally Helgesen’s plenary session and post-plenary reflection, Eleanor Roosevelt — as discovered through a fireside chat, a one woman docudrama, and a post-conference visit to Val-Kill — and one of the research sessions I found impressive and valuable. I’ll also cover the Asilomar Declaration and Call to Action and an upcoming symposium section in the Journal of Leadership Studies that will focus on women and leadership. Finally, for pure fun, I’ll delve into a fireside chat where attendees shared their original works and the wine and cheese gathering, with a brief discussion of the vintner’s fireside chat.
Keynote: Sally Helgesen
I’ll begin with some of the inspiration I received from noted author Sally Helgesen, who was the opening keynote speaker. Sally was already an “old friend” as she had spent time with the conference planning team getting to know us and ILA’s Women and Leadership Affinity Group (WLAG) when we initially visited Omega. She arrived on Sunday, the day before her plenary, and enjoyed being among the attendees, referring to us as “my kind of people.” Sally observed that the skills associated with women leaders when she wrote The Female Advantage thirty years ago — such as being focused on relationships, using direct communications, seeing ourselves in the center rather than at the top, being comfortable with diversity, and being able to integrate our personal selves with our lives at work — were not seen as mainstream strengths at that time. Yet today these same skills are increasingly recognized as what organizations need to be successful. She opined that women’s tendency to scan the environment and see multiple factors at the same time rather than being laser focused, as is more common among men, will also be increasingly valuable in our growing roles as visionaries. Sally observed that women see differently than men, and we see different things. She shared suggestions for how we can better use our visionary gifts to strengthen our organizations and to be recognized for the value we add.
To help us develop our ability to share our visionary gifts, Sally led a reflection session after her talk where she helped us work on developing our own brands. We worked on concisely sharing what we were noticing in the environment and what we intended to do about those observations. Many of us offered our initial personal visions. Sally asked questions and made suggestions to help us think about how we might strengthen the way we articulated our messages. As the session wrapped up, two women who previously had offered visions/brands shared their evolved vision. We were astounded by how strong they were, how they immediately captured our attention and even excited us. We realized that the visions themselves had not changed and we saw what a difference the way we present our visions can make in their acceptance.
Special Events: Eleanor Roosevelt
One of the most powerful presences at the conference was a woman leader associated with Omega’s portion of the Hudson Valley region, someone who died in 1962 — Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt's presence was brought to life for us at the conference in a spellbinding docudrama Monday night — you could have heard a pin drop in the main hall throughout the entire performance — by Debbie Dimitre. Debbie joined us for the entire conference and enriched our final day with a second docudrama that shared the story of American artist Grandma Moses. During Debbie’s, “An Evening With Eleanor Roosevelt” we learned of Eleanor’s challenging personal life and her role as a public emissary. She did the traveling for her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, during his many terms as president as he was unable to due both to the demands of the presidency and the after-effects of polio. Dimitre’s portrayal touched on Roosevelt’s popular daily newspaper column, My Day, written throughout her years as first lady, her life as an activist, and her proudest achievement, overseeing the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948.
The night before the docudrama, a fascinating Fireside Chat on Eleanor Roosevelt’s life and home, Val-Kill, was led by Val-Kill’s Board Chair, Manuela Roosevelt — Eleanor’s granddaughter-in-law — and National Park Ranger and curator, Frank Futral. Questions were asked and answered as we all learned more about the history of Val-Kill and Eleanor Roosevelt’s time there. Those fortunate enough to attend the post-conference Wednesday afternoon had further opportunity to literally walk in Roosevelt’s footsteps, touring Eleanor’s wonderfully comfortable home where those from all walks of life were welcomed by her and treated equally. A special highlight was seeing the small corner table where Eleanor negotiated with Jack Kennedy regarding what he needed to do to earn her support for his presidential run.
Selecting a single research presentation to share is both difficult and arbitrary. I attended wonderful sessions and, of course, attended only a small fraction of the sessions available. I’ve chosen to highlight “Measuring the Invisible: Assessing the Impact of Unconscious Gender Bias on Women Leaders” in part because two of the presenters, Amy Diehl and Leanne Dzubinski, received last year’s award for “Outstanding Scholarship for Emerging Scholars” from WLAG. I was not alone in thinking the session outstanding as one of the participants in the session suggested in the conference wrap-up that she thought the session would be an appropriate keynote presentation in 2019. The presentation this year is but one step in an exciting research agenda. Amy, Leanne, and Amber Stephenson discussed the work they are doing to create and test a tool to measure unconscious gender bias. Most exciting, I could see how the framework shared would enrich a study I am currently conducting!
WLAG Calls to Action
Throughout the conference, in addition to opportunities to learn and share ideas, we also had opportunities to discuss how we can further the progress in women’s practice of leadership. One session devoted to this activity was “From Grief to Grit - Asilomar Declaration and Call to Action: Personal, Political, Policy.” The Asilomar Declaration and Call to Action was developed following the 1st Biennial Women and Leadership Conference and updated following the 2nd. At the 3rd Biennial Conference, it seemed appropriate to focus on implementing the calls to action. Groups were formed in the workshop, each working on developing strategies to lead us into a stage more focused on taking steps to make a difference. Groups took varied approaches. In one group each participant committed to a personal action step and the group decided to become an accountability circle for everyone in the group. Others suggested new WLAG programs including mentoring/e-mentoring programs, success coaches, sponsorship programs to fund think tank ideas, encouraging more involvement from practitioners, sponsoring a peer-reviewed journal written for practitioners, and developing programs to empower girls. One group encouraged WLAG to become a more activist group, while another cautioned that activist policies are often inflexible leading to unintended negative consequences. The session succeeded in generating a wealth of ideas for action and inspired some attendees to personal action. Politics and policy, even WLAG policy, will require additional focus before being ready for implementation. We will be writing about this more and how the entire WLAG community can be involved in future Interface articles.
A second action item from the conference relates to developing a symposium section (a 10,000-15,000 word section including multiple articles) of an upcoming issue of the Journal of Leadership Studies focused on how women and leadership research can help move the needle in the world of women’s leadership practice. There were opportunities throughout the conference to share ideas for the symposium, which will be edited by the research committee of the WLAG leadership team. A plan and call for proposals should be available in the coming weeks. A symposium on women and leadership in the journal’s current issue is available for reading or downloading at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jls.2017.10.issue-4/issuetoc. While ILA members always enjoy free online access to the journal, this symposium is also available until July 31 to the public at no charge.
Wine, Women, and Song
There were many opportunities throughout the conference to relax and to enjoy the gifts of other women, reminding us of the importance of cultivating our whole selves. One treat was the glorious wine and cheese event held one evening under a tent overlooking Long Pond Lake. The weather was threatening, but held off allowing us to visit and network as we ogled and feasted on a truly spectacular assortment of local cheeses and enjoyed the wines of local vintner, Phyllis Feder, owner of Clinton Vineyards.
Following dinner Phyllis hosted a fireside chat, “Four Decades of Winemaking: One Woman’s Story of Wine, Women and Politics,” which my colleague Ann Austin attended. She shared her observations with me: “Phyllis Feder, consummate vintner and owner of Clinton Vineyards and Winery, shared sparkling stories and some secrets about wine making in upstate New York. Since I know a bit about farming, but nothing about wine making, I was fascinated by the delicate science of wine making, including the intersections of soil and air temperature, water quality, weather, corks, vats, and grapes. Good friends with Hillary Clinton, Feder appreciated Clinton’s enthusiastic support of New York’s farming industry. When Clinton announced her candidacy for president, Feder created a beautifully delicate wine she marketed to raise funds for the campaign. A fascinating evening, it was fun to be a naïve bystander enjoying the stories, questions, jokes, and interchange between Feder and the several vintners in the audience.”
Another celebration of our whole selves was a fireside chat on Sunday, “Women’s Leadership and the Arts” that featured the original art, poetry, music, and readings from conference attendees. Comments included “WOW,” “what a powerful evening,” and “a great way to demonstrate how women leaders cultivate our whole selves creativity beyond our leadership positions.” Attendees suggested this inspiring addition to the program should be a regular feature of the biennial WLAG conferences.
At the start of the conference, Cynthia Cherry, ILA President and CEO, asked us, as we pause, as we step outside of our day-to-day lives during our conference time, to consider what is calling each of us. We were reminded of Elizabeth Gilbert asking all she met during a recent book tour: “What are you most excited about in your life right now?” We were reminded by Sally Helgesen's keynote when she asked: “What inspires you?” We hope all who attended were called, excited, and inspired throughout the conference. We hope all who attended are looking forward to future conferences and we hope all who were unable to make our 3rd Biennial Conference will be with us next time.