The Feel-Good Female Solidarity Machine

Feminism is being branded and sold like never before. Who is it really helping?

The first sign that one is at a women’s empowerment conference is that there are women on the stage at all—the all-male panel discussion remains an inescapable part of modern life. The second sign is the footwear. Picture a horizontal line of 4-inch stilettos, dangling at the eye level of the audience, as the women wearing them sit perched on stools. It appears that the first thing a successful, liberated woman does is slide her feet into the most gait-inhibiting shoes available, ideally in snakeskin.

Is Tory Burch on the dais, outfitted in her own designs, talking about how women need to believe in themselves more? How about Diane von Furstenberg, saying, “I have never met a woman who is not strong”? Perhaps Jessica Alba, the actress and co-founder of the Honest Company, which markets nontoxic household products, is in a white armchair, asking Gloria Steinem for “tips for how women can excel in the workplace.” Talk of “finding your power,” followed by a discussion on the glass ceiling (or some approximation), “balance” (as if it existed), and securing a mentor (famously easier for men)—these are all indicators, too.

If Tina Brown, the celebrated former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, is there, you know you’ve reached the summit, literally. Her annual Women in the World Summit, a venture she launched in 2010, has done so well that it sold out 2,500-seat venues four years running and expanded overseas, showing that it was possible to monetize female rage. People pay up to $300 per day to attend, and the summit was profitable from its very first year, thanks to sponsorships by such blue-chip backers as Toyota Motor, Dove, Google, and MasterCard. October’s inaugural Women in the World London was packed morning to night with activists from around the world reliving their struggles, movie stars sharing life secrets, politicians, and royalty. During breaks, women milled around a crowded lounge, nibbling on popcorn and tweeting. Adding to the Burning-Man-for-feminists vibe, a gal in a camel’s hair coat passed out postcards soliciting donations for a Mary Wollstonecraft memorial (“from well before the Suffragettes!”). When asked why she was there, Eddie Harrop, a young handbag designer with a cascade of blond hair, said, “I want to be inspired.” Haseena Latheef, the founder of an ethical online fashion retailer, chimed in that she was also seeking motivation. “You think you’ve got issues in life,” she said, “and then you hear what these women are up against.”

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Stefanie Ascherl, an entrepreneur in her early 30s and a women’s conference regular, said these events restore hope. “I think a lot of times, being a woman, we’re expected to do everything—have a family, be productive in business. It’s overwhelming,” Ascherl said, fresh from the Pennsylvania Conference for Women, which attracted 8,000 women to hear Alba, Steinem, and Rachael Ray, among others. She added that expectations of being thin and perfect-looking only add to the stress. “When I come to these events and see all of these women doing all these amazing things—it’s pushing me and motivating me to go forward,” she said. “I wonder—if men just sat down and let women do things, maybe some amazing things would happen.”

There wasn’t much time to contemplate the question, because as soon as Women in the World wound down, more summits were about to begin. In fact, it was possible to spend almost every single day last fall at a women’s empowerment or networking event of some kind. The Monday following Brown’s event saw the opening evening of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit, geared toward high-level women in the corporate world. Before that lavish three-day extravaganza closed, two more competing women’s conferences were vying for social media attention: the Women’s Forum Global Meeting, in Deauville, France (“to strengthen the influence of women throughout the world”), and the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, in Houston (hashtag #OurTimeToLead).

On Oct. 23, MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski launched her Know Your Value conference in Boston, which was to be the first in a nationwide series. The Women in Policing Conference (“Hear Them Roar!”) was sandwiched in there. Earlier in the month, there was the Inc. Women’s Summit (“Be Inspired, Be Empowered, Get Equipped”), followed by the S.H.E. Summit (“the world’s most accessible women’s empowerment conference”). And that was just October. There’s also TEDWomen, Jump Forum, Leap Conference, BlogHer, Watermark, Women Rule Summit, the 3% Conference for women in advertising, Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, a woman’s conference sponsored by nearly every state and industry, including by several investment banks, plus dozens of one-off panels all year long. In what may be a sign that the branding of women’s issues is immune to irony, the National Football League hosts its first-ever Women’s Summit during Super Bowl week on Feb. 4. Coming off a string of player domestic abuse scandals and cheerleader lawsuits over fair pay, it’s called In the Huddle to Advance Women in Sport, and it features Serena Williams and Condoleezza Rice.

Having been to many of these events, and having eagerly participated in a few, I can attest that they’re often stirring and, yes, inspirational. It can be galvanizing to be around so many females with superhuman résumés, to hear their tales of surviving corporate battles or even actual wars. You often leave with a rosy glow, a sense of resolve, and a commitment to do more, for other women and for yourself. But then you return to your desk, probably next to a higher-paid male co-worker, and the old, familiar malaise sets in. There was no discussion of changing policies or lobbying members of Congress. No e-mail list to stay in touch and organize. In the end, one wonders if the explosion of these events is a reflection of how far women have come or proof that they haven’t made much progress at all. Why, in spite of all the energy these conferences generate, are women still just … talking?

“Women are constantly being exhorted to lean in, to push the corporate envelope, to push their careers higher. And they want to. So the good news is they’re taking it on themselves to organize these sorts of events,” says Michael Kimmel, the author of Angry White Men and a rare male speaker at such events. “But the bad news is, they have to go outside of their companies to get it. Why? Because they can’t get the real support and understanding they need in such consistently male-dominated companies.”

Most political activity around women’s issues in the U.S. has been consumed for decades with a war just to keep abortion legal, a right that was supposed to have been won in the 1970s. Members of Congress spend thousands of taxpayer hours fighting over whether Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of health care to women, should even be allowed to exist. While all the oxygen is sucked up re-litigating these old questions, important issues such as family leave, affordable child care, equal pay, and the persistent lack of women decision-makers get neglected. The women’s empowerment business has risen up to fill the void—for a fee.

“I don’t think there’s much link between the growth of women’s conferences and the advancement of women,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter, president of the New America Foundation and author of Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, who’s in constant demand as a speaker. “As long as we talk about all these issues as ‘women’s issues,’ we’ll never get there. If the point is advancement of women, this is not the way to go.”

Slaughter points out that many of the conferences serve a valuable business purpose, giving women the chance to network and schmooze the way men have always done on golf trips and in skyboxes. “I enjoy them because I meet lots of fantastic women doing fantastic stuff,” she says. “But I don’t think you should confuse that with increasing the number of women in the workplace. I don’t think the chief cause of not advancing women is lack of contact.”

Helping the Women Help the Women

While the phenomenon is everywhere now, when Brown started Women in the World six years ago, she says, “it was like pulling teeth to get a sponsor.” The first year the summit was held in a “tiny” theater with 350 seats, and Hewlett-Packard was persuaded to provide about $600,000 in seed money. Brown, who’d launched Talk magazine (which closed in 2002) and the Daily Beast (later folded into Newsweek), was in the midst of her own professional reinvention. This time, her talent for sniffing out the Next Big Thing didn’t fail. Toward the end of the Aughts, she says, she could see the beginning of a “global women’s movement” and wanted to create a newsy live event around it.

“It took off like a bucking bronco,” she says, sitting in her bright corner office in the headquarters of the New York Times, which recently formed a partnership with Women in the World and provided office space. “By the third year the response and the demand was so intense, we realized we could move to a much bigger sponsorship.” She and her senior executive producer, Kyle Gibson, who spent years as a producer with ABC News, intentionally search out fresh, heart-twisting stories, and barely let the speakers rehearse to ensure that the discussions are as raw and tear-jerking as possible—“you can’t be squeamish about the content,” Brown says. Toyota signed up as a top, seven-figure sponsor, providing cars to shepherd conference delegates and backing a contest for female entrepreneurs who are featured onstage. After its expansion to London, the summit made its first appearance in India in November. “That is really the concept that I crave,” Brown says. “To make this into a global platform.”

When she started, the only real competitor—although the two are very different—was Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit, which has been around since 1999. The summit is aimed at the true cream of XX-Factor American business—chief executive officers, chief marketing officers, board members, and senior VPs. The inaugural conference had one sponsor, Women & Co., a unit of Citigroup offering money management for women. Since then the franchise has exploded, with more companies interested in sponsoring than it can accommodate—other consulting firms are lined up in wait in case Deloitte decides not to renew.

The major sponsors last year included Citigroup and Zurich Insurance, and contracts are estimated by others in the industry to be in the low seven figures, although Pattie Sellers, an assistant managing editor at Fortune who’s shepherded Most Powerful Women since its infancy, won’t confirm this. Registration for the main summit and four related events clocks in at $10,000, up from $8,900 last year. Women relish the opportunity to troll for clients and share survival stories while gliding through the carpeted hallways between events. “You know, we raise the price and the wait list gets longer,” Sellers says. “It’s a good business.” She pauses. “It’s a very good business.”

Once they get going, conferences can be highly profitable, which is vital for print magazines that have watched advertising revenue evaporate. (The company that owns this publication has embraced that strategy.) It’s so lucrative that Fortune created a handful of spinoffs, including Most Powerful Women Next Gen, for younger women leaders. The bound conference agenda booklet is fat with ads for Cadillac and Johnson & Johnson.

“When I come to these events and see all of these women doing all these amazing things—it’s pushing me and motivating me to go forward”

In 1999 there were two women running Fortune 500 companies. Today there are 20. It’s a gain, but still a very long way from parity. Women’s representation in Congress has inched up, from 11 percent in 2001 to 19 percent. Women make up only 24 percent of senior executive positions at the largest companies and 19 percent of corporate board seats. Privately, women from such industries as finance and consumer goods lament that the number of women moving up at their companies has hardly improved from when they started 25 years ago.

Women’s events are a subset of the broader conference business, which, according to IBISWorld, has grown to $13.4 billion in annual revenue, a figure that includes trade shows. The TED Talks, which helped usher in the conference age and have self-replicated into a zillion inspirational spores, are run by a nonprofit, the Sapling Foundation. According to a talk given by Chris Anderson, who has run it since 2002, TED generated $27.8 million in revenue from its conferences in 2012, largely because it persuades 1,400 people each year to pay thousands of dollars to come. Even conferences that are priced at the lower end of the market, such as BlogHer, an event geared toward female bloggers that charges $199 for two days, claim to break even because of the generous sponsorship deals, despite spending $2 million to $3 million to put on the show.

“I would note, we have a lot of men’s conferences, too,” says Sallie Krawcheck, a former chief financial officer of Citigroup. “Know what they’re called? ‘Conferences.’ ” During earlier phases of her career, as she was clawing her way up the ranks of Wall Street, she says she relied on women’s networking events and the wide connections they forged. When she started out, Krawcheck says, she was one of only two women stock analysts at Sanford C. Bernstein. There were so few women on Wall Street in general, she had very few peers she could compare notes with.

Krawcheck is now CEO of Ellevest, a women’s investing platform which is designed to help shrink the gender-investing divide. In the late 1990s, her pet peeve was when the big banks started their own mandatory groups and seminars for their tiny minority of female employees. “There’d be an all-day diversity meeting for women, you’d be invited specially or be expected to go, and you’d all talk about diversity stuff for a day,” she says. “And then you’d leave, and no one would get promoted! And you’d think, ‘I spent a day away from work, I have kids at home.’ And they’d do the same thing with the people of color.” The outside conferences, she believes, are in a different category, having to continuously impress their audiences enough to get them to come back.

For her series, Brown knew she wanted to avoid “how to” in favor of stories about women doing extraordinary things in the face of adversity. She then bundled these into a Broadway-caliber show curated like an issue of Vanity Fair, a mashup of rape victims and Oscar winners. Like her best issues, the result is a mix of high and low, of sob stories and rubbernecking, train wrecks and aspirational glamour—and no small amount of stagecraft. On opening night in London, she stood alone in a pool of light on the red carpet, her head bent, outside Cadogan Hall, a concert venue in the center of the city. A few minutes later, a black sedan drove up and came to a stop. Even the paparazzi fell quiet as the car door opened and a long, slender leg emerged, terminating in a crystal-encrusted pump. Queen Rania of Jordan had arrived.

Brown rushed over as the queen slid out of the car and grabbed her wrists.

“Thank you for coming,” Brown said.

They walked, holding hands, toward the entrance. Every few steps they paused as the flashbulbs went off like fireworks. When they reached the door, they turned and swept down a set of stairs and into a VIP reception. Later that night, the queen opened the summit with an earnest interview about the plight of Syrian refugees in Jordan, to a rapt audience.

Dr. Renee Engel and Thandie Newton
Dr. Renee Engel and Thandie Newton at the Women in the World Summit, Apr. 24.
Photographer: Andrew Toth/Getty Images

Late in the afternoon the following day, there was a panel called The End of Misogyny? An eclectic group of women was ushered onstage, including the playwright Bonnie Greer and Charlotte Proudman, an English barrister whose excoriation of an older male lawyer who made suggestive comments to her on LinkedIn went viral and turned her into a feminist hero.

“Is the end of misogyny a pipe dream?” asked the moderator, the historian Dr. Amanda Foreman, in an elongated English accent. “We’re going to try to answer that question in the next 29 minutes.” She paused for a moment and glanced at her notes, as if contemplating the dozens of directions where a discussion on whether misogyny could be eradicated might go.

The conversation moved like a locomotive through questions about pornography, abortion rights, the role of the media, the definition of feminism (“I mean,” Foreman asked, “is there anybody in this room who is not a feminist?”), whether the online world is sexist, race, how feminism in Pakistan was at a very different stage (obviously) than it is in the western world—many girls there can’t even go to school and are married off at age 14.

It was bleak. Greer gamely rummaged around for something positive to say. “This mess, it’s crumbling,” she said. “A snake always fights hardest when it’s going down. We need to be ready when the stuff falls down so that we can move on to the next level. This is a very exciting time.”

Then, Dr. Foreman asked Zing Tsjeng, the U.K. editor of Broadly, Vice’s women’s website, what advice she would offer to her younger self 10 years into the future. Tsjeng shrugged her shoulders and sighed. “I would like to be able to tell her that it was all worth it. Because it does feel like we’re at this point in time where it’s one step forward, two steps back,” she said. “Even though we have Beyoncé standing on a stage with the word ‘feminist’ in block letters behind her, it still feels like we are fighting for very basic things.”

The Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who studies women and the labor force, has been to some women’s events and left feeling discouraged. She characterized them as focused mainly on “low-hanging fruit,” while avoiding the more complicated structural questions that would make a difference to large numbers of women, such as figuring out how to pressure American employers to reduce the need for face time. “I don’t want to liken it to a difficult disease, but it really is like that,” Goldin says. “Everyone knows some people get cured of disease X, let’s call it cancer, and some people die of it. So they go to events where there are professionals with ‘M.D.’ after their name, and they think that they’re holding the key to something. And sometimes they’re just quacks.”

She believes the idea that individual women can address the problem is misguided—that telling them if they only try harder, ask for more raises, and make the right choices, everything will work out, is wrong. “Everyone thinks that pretty soon they’re going to come to a fork in the road, and this is their way of figuring out where the right part of the fork in the road is,” she says. “But what they don’t realize is, that isn’t the issue. The issue isn’t what they’re going to do. It’s something bigger.”

“Change is always through a collective action,” says Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, an emeritus women’s studies professor at the University of Michigan. “It has individual leaders who are terribly important. But change is not one person acting in isolation. It has to become collective. And I don’t know if you see any collectivity coming out of these meetings.”

Slaughter, the author of Unfinished Business, says most of the women on conference stages are corporate actors, under pressure—either explicit or self-imposed—to gloss over problems at their companies. And that’s why they rarely admit that they have experienced or even witnessed sexism or discrimination, as a group of Hollywood actresses such as Jennifer Lawrence and Lady Gaga lately have. And the complex (and expensive) scaffolding they have holding their big jobs up is usually carefully hidden from view.

She says that if she were to design a practical lineup of conversations intended to help women in their careers, she would start by making the most prominent women she could find describe their real domestic arrangements, including whether their husbands stay home and shoulder most of the parenting. She would also encourage discussions about new ways to think about structuring one’s career to allow for flexible periods when they’re needed, and honest revelations about the trade-offs and compromises involved. And she would talk about what kind of action is needed to really change corporate culture. To further that goal, companies—even the NFL—could actually do something concrete, such as appointing more women to their boards, in return for the good PR, as journalist Ann Friedman recently suggested in New York magazine. “Not ‘Gee, you can do anything you want if you just try hard enough,’ ” Slaughter says. “That’s corporate rah-rah-ism. That’s not the reality.”

“This mess, it’s crumbling. A snake always fights hardest when it’s going down. We need to be ready ... so that we can move on to the next level”

Preachers have long known about the power of the live appeal, the rousing sermon that precedes the passing of the basket. Marketers refer to it as “experiential” marketing, and it’s one of the healthiest segments of the conference business.

For the closing night dinner at the Fortune summit, at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, Michelle Obama was scheduled to deliver the keynote speech. The dinner was held at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, amid paintings of great figures from American history: the Founding Fathers, inventors and scientists, war heroes, etc., mostly dudes, obviously. The most successful women in American business would drink Napa Valley wines and listen to the first lady, followed by an interview with Xerox CEO Ursula Burns and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith on the subject of getting more girls interested in math and science.

There were gold brocade tablecloths and white orchid bouquets and an array of exotic ceviches on the menu. While the talk onstage for the past three days had been strictly family-friendly, the dinner tables quickly erupted into feverish gripe sessions about how exhausting it is to fight one’s way through the corporate boys’ club day after day. The attendees lamented that there seemed to be so few junior-level women working their way up behind them. After all that they had struggled to accomplish, what had really changed? Then Obama appeared behind the podium in a navy dress, her eyes gleaming, and the room fell silent. She was there to talk about her new initiative, Let Girls Learn, created to help girls around the world who don’t have access to formal education. She was asking the most powerful women in America to help.

Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama, Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit, Oct. 13.
Photographer: Paul Morigi/Getty Images

“You lead organizations that are changing people’s lives. And by shattering just about every glass ceiling imaginable, you have shown us that a woman’s place is truly wherever she wants it to be,” Obama said. “You are all the living, breathing proof that when women get a good education and have their voices heard in the halls of power, they don’t just transform their own lives, they transform the life of this nation, and the entire world.”

The first lady described the awful plight of 62 million girls in countries such as Afghanistan and India, who at age 12 or 13 are filled with dreams and ideas about what they want to be. “And then one day, someone taps them on the shoulder and says, ‘Sorry, not you, you’re a girl. You have to stay home. You have to marry a man 20 years older than you and start having children of your own.’ Think about what that would have been like for you.”

As she spoke, the female masters of the universe listened intently. “We need to be these girls’ network,” the first lady continued. “We need to do for them what so many women did for us. Women who fought, so we could walk through those classroom doors and down those halls of power. And into those C-suites. We need to get these girls into school.”

The lady executives furiously Instagrammed her with their phones as she talked. By the time she finished 16 minutes later, though, most of us had put our phones down and were choking back tears.