Women’s Events: Empowerment or Exploitation? [1144 words]

Now that we’re back live and in-person, several organizers of women’s events have asked me to speak. I love delivering keynotes and workshops, especially when my content can change the lives of women and other people who have been marginalized. But I don’t always say yes to these “opportunities.” Here’s why.

Some women’s “empowerment” events actually exploit women.

First, a quick story. I presented at a women’s empowerment summit a couple of years ago as a favor to a friend. She explained that the speakers were all volunteers. But since I was coming from out of state, they would reimburse my travel. As a professional speaker, I typically get paid a fee commensurate with my value. I agreed to waive my fee, as I occasionally do for non-profit organizations and causes I support. Plus, it was a good excuse to see my friend.

A Professional Event

I arrived several hours early. The venue was stunning. The main stage was beautifully furnished, flanked by jumbo screens. Audio/visual teams ensured everything went smoothly, not just on the main stage, but also in the breakout rooms. The catered meals were delicious and expertly served.

Tickets for this event were fairly priced, and it was open to the public. Several sponsors paid a lot of money to market to participants at the event. Sometimes, speakers are allowed to “pitch” a product or service during our sessions at these types of events. That way, we speakers can make money on the back end. Not so here. That’s fine by me. I prefer to deliver a content-rich session with lots of great takeaways. Also, the nonstop sales pitches can become an annoying distraction for attendees.

Expert Content

I noticed that the speakers represented a broad spectrum of women. They spanned races, life experiences, and industries. Every speaker that took the main stage—all of them women—talked about overcoming barriers in their various industries: medical, manufacturing, agriculture, finance, and so on. I also noticed that every single one of them mentioned the gender pay gap at this conference. The whole point of this conference was to empower women to expect more, to empower women to claim their worth in their work.

But then, at the end of the event, something unexpected happened. As I was packing my stuff up, I overheard a snippet of conversation between two of the event organizers. One of them said, “Hold on, I’ll be right back. I have to go write a check to the A/V guys.” Something clicked in my mind at that precise moment.

The Pay Gap, Hiding in Plain Sight

I realized that this whole women’s empowerment event, where women were talking to women about how to show up empowered, how to claim their dollar for every man’s dollar, was a lie. The pay gap at that event was 100 percent! Women made 0 cents on the dollar for what the men were paid. This was not women’s empowerment. This was exploitation.

I get requests periodically from women’s groups. I love talking to women, especially about how we can be allies for each other. As a white woman, I have access and privilege that some other women do not have. I try to focus not on the obstacles in front of me, but on those obstacles that are keeping others from getting as far as I’ve gotten. It’s important that each of us advocates for everyone, but especially for other women and extra especially for women with less access and less privilege than we ourselves have.

The Hypocrisy of Some Women’s Events

What I find is a lot of these women’s empowerment events are case studies in hypocrisy. Organizers pay the caterer, the venue, the hotel, and the webmaster. They pay for the event planner, the A/V team, and the stage crews. They write checks to all of these groups, and they absolutely should. Those people work really hard to pull these events off.

Organizers can charge big bucks for these events. Rightfully so. And when companies are willing to pay a premium to market their goods and services to the target audience, then it’s also appropriate to collect sponsor dollars. That all makes sense. But what I’m asking, especially for women’s events, especially for events that tout women’s empowerment is this: Pay your women speakers.

It makes no sense to bring me (or any other woman, or anyone else) in to talk to women about how to feel empowered if I haven’t been paid a dime to be there. My time and expertise are valuable, or you wouldn’t want me for your stage at any price.

How to Do Better

For Organizers

If you are organizing an event around women’s empowerment, ask yourself who’s really footing the bill. If you’re collecting money from women, but not paying the women who speak at your event, that’s exploitation. Your impact does not match your stated objectives. Whether your intentions are pure is irrelevant.

People aren’t buying tickets for a chicken platter or a taco bar. They’re not coming in the door because they get that nice, uncomfortable seat at the conference center. They’re coming in for the content. So, organizers should also pay the people who are delivering that content.

For Speakers

If you receive an invitation to speak at one of these events, ask good questions. Start with “Is your A/V team working for free? Are the caterers donating food and service personnel? Is your venue donating the space?” You see where I’m going with this. One event organizer even told me, “We’d never be able to negotiate for those things for free! We didn’t even ask!”

If an organizer asks you to volunteer your time, you have the right to ask who else is volunteering. Are they giving you the same respect they’re giving other professionals? Choose your “opportunities” accordingly.

For Attendees

If you are attending one of these women’s empowerment events, speak up. Before you buy your ticket, ask two simple questions.

  • “Are you compensating the speakers for their time and expertise?” Remember, professional speakers don’t charge by the hour. We charge for the years of experience and expertise we’ve transformed into that one-hour experience!
  • “Are you compensating the other professionals who work at this event?” Keep in mind that some organizations rely heavily on volunteers to handle registration and other administrative tasks. That’s okay. But specialized event professionals deserve compensation for their time, equipment, and know-how.

If your women’s empowerment event comes at the expense of women (and only women), then it’s not a women’s empowerment event. The organizers are selling you a lie. You’re not paying for the content. You’re paying for the lights and the microphones and the uncomfortable chairs. That may be okay with you. But in my opinion, it’s a slap in the face to women’s empowerment.

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Amy C. Waninger Author Bio

Amy C. Waninger is the Founder & CEO of Lead at Any Level, where she improves employee engagement and retention for companies that promote from within. Amy offers assessments, advisory services, and training on essential skills for inclusive leaders. She is the author of eight books. Learn more at www.LeadAtAnyLevel.com

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