There was a definite buzz in the air. The new co-working space in downtown Toronto had a gigantic flower wall for IG-worthy photos on one side and a long buffet table with cute pastries and bubbly drinks on the other. Helium balloons punctuated the front of the room, spelling out “EMPOWERED” in round gold letters—but as I moved around the largely white and seemingly well-heeled and well-connected crowd, I wasn’t sure who exactly lacked this golden status.
Women’s empowerment events are the hottest ticket in Canada (a search on Eventbrite lists more than 15 such events taking place in Toronto this February alone) for those interested in building connections, sharing encouragement and exchanging knowledge. There isn’t yet data quantifying how many women’s empowerment conferences happen each year, but organizations like Lean In Canada have seen a distinct rise in both the prevalence and demand for these events. Despina Zanganas is a co-founder and current founding advisor for Lean In, a network of professional women interested in career advancement. “In the past five years we’ve grown from 20 women in my office to over 6,000 members across Canada,” said Zanganas. “Our events always sell out and we have trouble keeping up with the demand.” [Editor’s note: FLARE has also hosted multiple women’s empowerment events in recent years.]
The unifying message around most women’s empowerment events—including those hosted by Lean In—largely surrounds the barriers women face and how to rise above them. But if these events don’t include the most marginalized among us—including WOC, transgender women, queer women and women with disabilities—are we really doing anything other than celebrating each other in an echo chamber?
Creating spaces for all women
When I first moved to Toronto just over a decade ago, I attended women’s events on a bimonthly basis. As a creative entrepreneur, doing so was a way for me to meet other women and build a social circle. But looking around, I was consistently one of a handful of Black women in the room—and year after year, it remained that way. Keynote speakers often seemed so out of reach that their inspirational messages were not relatable to my life. Panels never seemed to feature a diverse array of voices. So, I started producing my own events. Over the past four years, I’ve hosted and organized “Mirror Images,” a panel on diversity in media, and “Curls, Coils, and Cocktails,” celebrating natural hair and Black women’s beauty. I created the spaces that I wished were already present for me—and figured if I felt that way, maybe other women did too.
My very first Mirror Images event featured Black Canadian women in media, like Big Brother Canada host Arisa Cox and TVO’s Namugenyi Kiwanuka. It sold out quickly and on the day of, the venue owner was so excited by what was happening that he allowed us to sell more tickets until it was standing room only. Feedback from attendees was overwhelmingly positive, with people most notably feeling like they got what they needed—inspiration, affirmation, new connections—from the event. And four years later, people (including my incredible panelists) still talk about the impact Mirror Images had on them.
Women’s empowerment events, and broader expressions of feminism, have a history of overlooking the experience and activism of Black women and other women of colour. “One of the easiest ways to see how white feminism is alive and well is noting who are the most visible people out there,” feminist activist Wagatwe Wanjuki told Mic in 2015. “Very often, we only really see the privileged white women as leaders or spokespersons.”
Emily Mills, founder of the How She Hustles network, can relate to issues of inclusivity, especially as a Black woman and a new entrepreneur. “I rarely saw women who looked like me. As speakers. In the audience. As event organizers. There is such incredible work being done in the startup space, but I still found it predominately male, white and tech-focused,” says Mills.
While working in media communications, Mills encountered many—especially women of colour—who were in various stages of their careers and looking for mentorship, motivation and reassurance that they weren’t alone in their struggles. So Mills began hosting events to bring all of these women together. Similarly to the demand seen by Lean In Canada, How She Hustles has grown from an initial event with around 50 attendees in downtown Toronto in 2010 to sold-out events with more than 250 attendees.
“I know that following your vision and pursuing your passion isn’t always easy,” says Mills. “I try to create spaces where diverse women know they are not alone—we are all on a journey to find success on our own terms, as entrepreneurs, in the community or in the corporate world. I want attendees to feel fuelled to keep going.”
That was a completely new vibe for Kiana “rookz” Eastmond. The 30-year-old is the owner of Sandbox Studios, a recording studio in Toronto that has hosted everyone from Cardi B to upstart artists looking for a place to hone their skills. As a queer Black woman working in a male-dominated industry, Eastmond has often felt left out of multiple spaces. “I don’t look like (other women),” she says. “I’m not ‘woman’ enough for the women’s events and I’m not ‘gay’ enough for the gay events.” Mills’s May 2018 Startup & Slay event, which featured a panel of women entrepreneurs, was Eastmond’s first time speaking on a panel at an event for women. She revelled in the opportunity to share what she had learned as an entrepreneur in the music industry, and reminded attendees that, “we as women may look different and lead different lives, but we all have something to offer.”
I was reminded of that very lesson in 2016 while hosting an event for Women’s Health In Women’s Hands, a Toronto-based community health centre for racialized women. The crowd included a number of disabled, queer and trans women, and I wanted to know what made them feel welcome and safe in this space. One of the trans women in attendance told me that since she had already built a relationship of trust and respect with people at the centre, she knew she could expect those same tenets of trust and respect at the event. The discussion made me realize that cis women often don’t build relationships with trans women, let alone create spaces where all women feel welcomed.
Doing that can be challenging because it often requires us to think very differently about safety, womanhood and what constitutes a welcoming environment—and it forces us to think more deeply about the actual purpose for gathering in these spaces. In an essay published on Them, a Condé Nast outlet focused on stories from the Gen-Z LGBTQ community, writer Meredith Talusan advises that, “if we want to address the oppression of women, we must assume the larger goal of abolishing a binary gender system that oppresses all of us.” As women’s empowerment is largely borne out of our fight against various oppressions, this message is one that we need to heed.
Biko Beauttah, a human rights activist and founder of TransWorkforce, the nation’s first job fair held specifically for transgender job seekers, had never attended women’s empowerment events until last year. “I didn’t think I would be welcome at such events,” said Biko, who is a Black trans woman. After seeing her profile rise in 2018 with connections to UNHCR and being featured in a nationwide Nordstrom campaign, Biko started receiving invitations to speak at women’s events—and has had generally positive experiences, using her presence to advocate for trans visibility and to highlight issues that trans women experience.“I am someone who is the biggest champion for transgender visibility because the more hearts and minds I can win by putting my best foot forward when the opportunity presents itself, the better the experience will be for me,” she said. “But even more amazingly is that, it means I will be creating a world that will be more accepting of all the transgender kids out there.”
It’s not just about inclusion, it’s also about accessibility
Improving women’s empowerment spaces, and making them not just inclusive but also physically accessible, is what disability advocate Keya Osborne is also working towards.
Osborne is a team lead in program development at the CNIB Foundation, and is partially sighted. “For persons with sight loss, as I can only speak to our community, we still have to advocate for large-print materials, braille or request materials be delivered in electronic format if the event has a planned PowerPoint presentation,” she said. In learning to advocate for herself, Osborne has used a proactive approach, thanking event organizers for their time while offering helpful recommendations on how to make future events more accessible.
Other accessibility issues like childcare and ticket costs can create additional barriers for women. Some offerings, like Tanya Hayles’s Black Moms Connection Summit, include on-site childcare so that attendees can enjoy the day without worrying about where their children will be. I attended the Summit in September 2018 and saw how stress-free it was for women to attend, enjoy the panels and discussions, and know that their children were being cared for nearby.
Women’s empowerment events are *finally* changing
Like Emily Mills, I started organizing women’s events in part to create spaces for the representation we felt was lacking in other arenas. Thankfully, larger organizations are finally taking notice of this issue, and more importantly, taking action. Stephania Varalli is the co-CEO of Women of Influence, a Canada-wide organization that supports women looking for mentorship and guidance in the corporate world. “When my partner and I took over this established brand—Women of Influence is going into its 25th year—we were aware of existing criticism that it wasn’t inclusive enough,” Varalli said. The organization has since taken steps to shake up a pretty homogenous picture.
In addition to making it a priority to profile women and feature speakers that “represent a much broader range of race, religion and sexual identity,” Varalli and her team also want to make their events more financially accessible. Varalli spoke to Women of Influence’s plans to remove financial constraints for women who want to attend their events via corporate sponsorship and the WOI Membership, which offers discounts on events, among other perks. “We’ve also partnered with Confidence Through Conferences, an initiative to help get more women into conferences and networking events by minimizing the financial barrier,” Varalli said.
Yes, some of the recent focus on women’s empowerment gives off a sort of opportunistic vibe. I mean, just look at the example of Caroline Calloway, an influencer who charged what the New York magazine described as an “overwhelmingly white” crowd $165 for a workshop on creativity and “how to begin architecting a life that feels really full and genuine and rich and beautiful for you.” That said, there is still a lot of good intention and solid benefits behind the idea of women supporting women. With greater inclusion and better consideration for women’s extenuating circumstances, these events will begin to succeed at doing the very thing they claim to do—empowering us to aim for higher heights without leaving any woman behind.
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