A few weeks ago, I attended the first-ever conference organized by the Network of Empowered Women, which was held at Lake Louise, Alberta. The Network of Empowered Women is a University of Alberta-based student organization that focuses on encouraging female students to become successful in their career pursuits through resources, mentorship and networking opportunities. The conference included mostly female and some male delegates who together contributed to the great group of enthusiastic, motivated students willing to step out of their comfort zone and explore something new.
I would say that if I hadn’t known that it was the first NEW conference, it would have felt like it has been going on for decades now. I do hope it goes on for decades in the future. Every event, challenge, and speaker was exceptional, and every waking moment was enjoyable and inspirational. Below I will highlight the key things that I Iearned from the conference.
1. Have your personal ‘Board of Directors’.
There is tremendous value in mentorship, especially since different individuals become experts in specialized fields. Our first keynote talked about having a mentor with whom you discuss various things such as technology, communication, perspective of another generation, industry experience, and “everything and nothing”. While she was speaking, I could tell that what she has learned definitely helped her in being successful, as well as in how she communicates.
Learning from other people, especially in an informal setting, is one of the most effective ways of learning – especially for adults. A few email exchanges or going out for coffee with these individuals are just a few ways of keeping in touch and nurturing these mentoring relationships. It is and will always be a two-way stree: both individuals learn a lot from each other, which is helpful both personally and professionally.
2. Do not depend on him.
While waiting for our bus returning to Edmonton, I had a chance to chat with one of the corporate sponsors in the lobby. She shared with me her stories about relationships and her significant other. She said that when she was preparing for her wedding, her mother told her “Do NOT depend on him!” with such strong emphasis that all she could say was “okay”.
Being in a long-term relationship right now, this provided food for thought. I think there is a spectrum of sharing your life with a significant other, ranging from having one sole breadwinner to being equal income providers. There’s more than the financial aspect of relationships, as well. In order to feel really empowered, it’s important to discover the fine balance that you have defined for yourself between living your own life, sharing it with someone, and having people to care for and rely on without being too dependent.
3. Work like balance is definitely achievable: it’s about how you define it.
All throughout the conference, many speakers stated that work-life balance is achievable despite their seemingly demanding jobs. There was one speaker, however, who pointed out that it is not achievable, that there will always be an area of one’s life that will be compromised at various points in time. Both perspectives are insightful, and it pushed me to think about what work-life balance really is.
I discussed this not only with people in the conference but with my friends afterwards. I think it comes down to how it really is defined. Is work-life balance being able to cook dinner every night while finishing projects and working out three days a week? Is it being able to fulfill the doubled workload and work overtime for two weeks, not seeing family much and having five straight days off to make up for lost time? Or maybe it is working consistently all year long, with the summer months spent in volunteer work or competitive athletic challenges. Is it gaining the general acceptance by family and work that your commitment swings in one direction at times? The definition is also not static; it transform as events unfold in our lives. Being open and accepting of that will help us have a better outlook on how we have committed our time and effort.
4. While it may seem that feminism has run its course, equality and gender rights has definitely not.
It came up a lot of times during conversations in the bus, whether feminism has run its course. I would argue that on the global scale, it definitely has not. It’s just that the term “feminism”, while empowering for some, has also acquired a stigma. I heard stories of negative reactions from some hotel patrons when they were told what the conference is about. If it were up to me, I’d have them sit beside me in the workshops and speaker sessions, so they can see the value in conferences like these, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.
What I know for sure, is that even here in North America, there is still more work to be done in terms of making sure that equality is achieved. The fact that inequality is hidden – since the discrimination is not extreme in a life-threatening way as it is in other countries – makes it more difficult to address. No matter what specific term is used, everyone still has a role to fulfill to make the world a place where people can contribute, be successful, feel happy and accepted for their values and accomplishments with little or no barriers created by gender, sexual orientation, class, racial background or physical and mental abilities.
5. We all have mountains of struggles. Just remember, they can be conquered through our own empowerment climbs.
Our last keynote really hit me the most on a personal level, not just for myself but for other people, such as women that I know struggled and fought their way through life and are still doing so. I like her choice of terms: the “mountains” for the life struggles and the “empowerment climbs” for conquering them. I was fortunate enough not to be on the receiving end of an abusive hand, but I have witnessed tremendous amounts of physical, verbal and emotional abuse of women and children. Just like everybody, I have gone through difficult moments in life where we had those mountains of guilt, fear, feeling helpless, and feeling that it is “me against the world”. The more painful part is when family or the legal system are factors in these struggles.
The speaker shared profound moments of her defying the norm to fight for what she believes in, and there are several of them. With each of them, I had to grip my seat to keep myself from jumping, cheering and clapping. It takes strength, giving ourselves credit and recovery time, patience and endurance to show that we are individuals of value, deserving respect and support. Moreover, we should not be pigeonholed into roles that we are perceived to fill through cultural, family or societal expectations.
I remember her introduction when she said “as I think about the events that happened in my life, part of me still can’t believe these actually happened”. I look forward to everyone saying the same thing, feeling like powerful survivors at the end of those life hurdles.
6. Be very self-aware and be confident in what you are, your worth and what you are capable of.
In many of the discussions, speeches and workshops, I have observed a few things commonly pointed out. Women are less likely to be assertive in asking for a raise or in negotiations in general; they are more conservative in presenting themselves or their ideas, they give others credit more than they give themselves when they accomplish something great, and they compromise who they are for the sake of others. The TED talks, various research references and the observation of fellow delegates highlighted these.
This was pointed out even by my fellow delegate while listening in a speech, saying “Our speaker said that she was successful in the organization because they were supportive, gave her opportunities and that is all well and good. I just hoped she would have pointed out a little more that she worked really hard, and that that made her stand out in such a male-dominated industry.”
It comes down to a greater desire to be liked and accepted on top of the expectations towards women: that they should be more accommodating, giving, sacrificial or nurturing. It is important for every individual to know what they really want, what they value and what they are able to do, so that they can better express themselves and live fulfilling lives. There is nothing wrong with saying “The project was successful because I worked hard at it”. When presenting, don’t start with an apology, saying you’re not that good at this. Just say it the way it is. Say in an interview, for example, “Based on research, the average earnings for this position is this, and I’ll be happy to work for this amount of compensation” or “So when do I start?” You can get positive responses that you may never expect. You’ll never know until you ask, right?
Asking a keynote speaker or workshop presenter a question in front of everybody is kind of terrifying, slightly worse than those speeches I deliver in Toastmasters. After I blurt out the question and once the speakers respond, I feel an immense sense of relief and more admiration towards them, because I learn just a little extra that seems to hit home more than the actual speech. With almost every workshop and keynote speaker, I go through this phase – the terror, the jump and then the sense of “Wow! That was definitely worth the adrenaline rush”.
In instances when there is more than one hand raised, as quoted by another one of our speakers, keep your hand up. I say the only time that you lower your hand is once the other person is declared to be the last question that will be addressed to the audience. In that case, approach the speaker and ask the question directly. I suggest approaching the speaker anyway to thank them for answering the question if you did get the chance. Just like any form of public speaking or networking, it becomes easier in time. The best part about asking these questions is it gives you a more personal conversation piece once you have a chance to chat one-on-one in the conference or keep in touch with them in the future.
Now before everyone gets riled up about how shallow that sounds, let’s look into the reasons behind this. It can be argued that what should matter most is job performance and attitude in the workplace, and those things matter a lot. But knowing that we have limited interactions with some people or clients we work for, showing some effort in looking credible and competent goes a very long way. First impressions may not last forever, but they do stick for awhile.
In terms of appearance, there is a spectrum between not trying at all and trying too hard, and doing either extreme brings out various impressions. We were shown a picture similar to the one above and were told of the impressions that people had from various studies. While the pictures with more makeup were rated higher in attractiveness, competence, and likeability, they were ranked less in trustworthiness. It reminded me of a comment during the discussion about showing the impression of “trying too hard”. There is also the aspect of clothing. The color, length (no cleavage ever, please!) and the style of casual and business attire is greatly influenced by the culture of the organization or event.
The fashion show and presentation gave me more insight about this, which will be really valuable in the future. It’s about finding the right balance. I have to admit, I don’t think it will persuade me to wear nail polish – ever. And I’ll stick with lightly-colored lip balm as opposed to lipstick.
I would like to hear more from my fellow delegates, as well as anyone who has attended an event where they learned many valuable insights. The wealth of sharing lessons never ends. I hope that everyone takes a chance to participate in a conference, event or activity that pushes them outside their comfort zone and helps them learn things that are insightful and beneficial.