Con­fer­ences for women are boom­ing. Do they change any­thing?

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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.”

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.

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

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 male­dom­i­nated 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, 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.”

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.

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.

“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”

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 sel­f­repli­cated 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 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 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 Broad­way­cal­iber 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, 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.

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 trade­offs 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.”

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.

“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 i nto those C-suites. We need to get th­ese girls into school.”

The lady ex­ec­u­tives fu­ri­ously In­sta­grammed her with t heir phones as she t alked. By t he time she fin­ished 16 min­utes later, though, most of us had put our phones down and were chok­ing back tears. <BW>

Lands’ End CEO Fed­er­ica Mar­chionni, Women in the World Sum­mit, Apr. 23

Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, For­tune’s Most Pow­er­ful Women Sum­mit,Oct. 13

Thandie New­ton, Women in the World Sum­mit Dr. Re­nee En­gel, Women in the World Sum­mit,Apr. 24

Michelle Obama,For­tune’sMost Pow­er­ful Women Sum­mit,Oct. 13

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