An Expedition to Women’s Conference

I mentioned last week that Denisa and I were presenting at a women’s conference at my church. (The presentation on budgeting, remember?) That happened Saturday, and the presentation itself went very well. (Well attended, great questions, and I feel like people got what they paid for. Even though they didn’t pay anything, so I suppose that statement could be misleading. It’s the thought that counts, right? Right.)

But there were a few things that surprised me about the conference. Enough so that I thought it would be interesting to write a blog post about them. Ready?

First up, I wasn’t really anticipating just how out of place I would feel. I work in a profession that’s largely dominated by women: more than 80% of the library field is female. So I’m very used to going to meetings where I’m one of the few men in the room. That doesn’t throw me for a loop at all. There were something like 175 women at this conference, and maybe 10 or so men, but I don’t think that alone would have made me feel like I didn’t fit in. Yet I still felt very much like an outsider.

Part of that is no doubt due to the theme of the conference. If I went to a library conference that was all about “Women in Libraries,” I imagine I’d feel the same way. But it goes further than that. For the bulk of the day, I was there in a support role. I was watching our kids (well, keeping an eye on them from time to time as the iPads did the heavy lifting), getting food ready, setting things up, and taking things down. And during those times, I felt like an outsider simply because I was apart from the rest of the conference. Watching it happen instead of being part of it happening. I also made observations about how different this conference seemed to be from the church meetings I’ve gone to that are dominated by men.

(A few observations. First, the main course for lunch was salad. There were a plethora of toppings to put on that salad, but it was still salad. The toppings that went first were tomatoes and cottage cheese. By the end, most of the toppings were gone. There was still plenty of sliced chicken, however. At conferences for men that I’ve attended, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see some of the attendees skip the salad entirely and just pile some sliced chicken on their plate. There were also 18 beautifully decorated cakes that were centerpieces of each table. The salad disappeared like mist on a summer morning. The cakes went away one thin slice at a time. By the end, there was probably still the equivalent of 10-12 uneaten cakes. Trust me. I went around and tried many a slice once lunch was over. (My conference loophole on sugar still applies if I’m just helping out around the conference, right?) Again, at a meeting for men, those cakes would have been gone in a blink. Probably well before the salad.

A second observation would be how well run this conference was, especially in the small details. Men’s conferences I’ve gone to in the church are very utilitarian. The bare minimum is done. There are meetings. Between the meetings, there are breaks. There are no decorations. There are no snacks. You go from one meeting to the next. End of story. This conference had citrus water stations. It had homemade cookies that went out during the morning break. It felt much less thrown together than the other conferences I’ve attended.)

But beyond that, I felt the most out of place during my presentation. It wasn’t that the women did anything to make me feel unwelcome. Rather, it felt very odd to me that I was speaking at a conference so directed at women. Granted, I’d been asked to speak by my wife, who had been the person invited to present. So it wasn’t like I’d heard she was doing a presentation on budgeting and I said, “Better let me do that presentation instead, honey. I’m a man, and men are better with budgeting,” right after I grunted a few times and burped for good measure. But I very much wanted to just say my piece and then back off so that Denisa could do as much of the instruction as possible.

As I looked over the paneling for the day, I was interested to notice how many of the sessions were being presented (at least in part) by men. Good men, and all of them teamed up with their wives, but men nonetheless. And no doubt they were on great topics, and the men were qualified to speak on those topics. But here’s the thing: I have never in my entire 38 years of living in the church seen a single woman present at a conference directed at men. Not even once. I’ve seen them serve food at them, just as I helped serve food at this one. But to have them present? It’s never happened that I can recall.

And as I thought more about it, I noticed more things. In General Conference (a twice-a-year meeting for all church members at large), women will sometimes speak (10%-15% of the speakers are women, I’d guesstimate. Though now that I took the time to actually check, I realize it’s much less than that. Of the 28 speakers in the last conference, 2 were women. 7%. There’s also a session just for women and one just for men. At the one just for men, 100% of the speakers were men. At the one just for women, 25% of the speakers were men. And the one man who spoke occupied the final “keynote” position, as is typical for the session, from what I understand.) And even when women do speak, they often do so with the disclaimer that they’re aiming their talks primarily at other women or children.

Are we a religion that has been trained to listen to men, and to occasionally listen to what women have to say? It would certainly appear to be the case.

This isn’t really a post about how men shouldn’t talk at women’s conferences. Or how women *should* talk at men’s conferences. I actually feel like presentations by men and women teamed up (as we were at this women’s conference) might be ideal much of the time. There are vital perspectives that are heard when multiple viewpoints are given on a topic, and I feel like we are lessened as a church when women’s voices are silenced or not as strong. We are certainly lessened at a local level when they are ignored or only listened to in passing.

Then again, I wonder what would happen if women were asked to present on a topic to men at a local meeting. Would they offer the women the same respect and attention the women at this conference offered me? I don’t think the men would be openly hostile toward women. That definitely would go against church teachings. Instead, it would be something more subtle, like just not going to whatever presentation was offered by a woman, choosing instead to go to the one being given by a man. (If I were a social scientist and wanted to conduct an experiment, it would be interesting to have two identical presentations offered. Same topic. Same conditions. But have one where the speaker is a woman and one where it’s a man, and then see how attendance stacks up in comparison.)

But these were all private thoughts I had during the conference. Food for thought that Denisa and I discussed later on that night. The conference itself was a smashing success. I’d happily go again next year, but perhaps if I do, it would be simply to help serve food, clean up, and watch my kids watch their iPads. Or perhaps if the men ever have a general meeting on how to live life more fully in today’s world, women and men will be paired up to speak.*

*Who am I kidding? In my experience, the only way men show up at a regional meeting is if it’s mandatory and implied that part of our eternal salvation rests on us showing up. A voluntary meeting on a Saturday? We’d be lucky to get half as many attendees. Which only serves to strengthen my thinking that my gender has much to learn from its counterpart.

2 thoughts on “An Expedition to Women’s Conference”

  1. I wonder…what if the presenters had “gender neutral” names, like Taylor, or MacKenzie, and people didn’t know their gender? Would it impact attendance? Or don’t advertise presenter, just topics?

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