The XX Factor

Why Is It So Hard to Get Women to Come to International Conferences?

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo! and just one of many high profile working moms who have foregrounded the issue of work-life balance.

Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

When government, business, and academic leaders from both sides of the Atlantic converge at the German Marshall Fund’s eighth annual Brussels Forum this weekend, 28 percent of the 400-odd participants will be women. For an event that attracts leading policymakers—heads of European Union institutions, foreign ministers, Obama administration officials, and corporate leaders—this is, unfortunately, an unusually high number.

Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Michele Flournoy, among others, have made the women-at-work conversation a robust one, including in the pages of Slate and/or Double X. But a look at the international policy conference circuit shows just how far we have to go for gender parity at the highest levels. The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, instituted a 20 percent quota for women in 2011, but has yet to reach it in practice (17 percent this year). This year’s Munich Security Conference drew 15 percent women attendees. Excuses for the low numbers abound, ranging from a lack of women in senior positions in the foreign policy, security, and economic fields to the difficult balance professional women face between work and family. And it perpetuates a vicious circle. Without taking advantage of these networking and learning opportunities, women can have a harder time advancing in a field dominated by men.

Over the past nine years, I have helped produce more than a dozen conferences like the one happening this weekend. From the very beginning, we have been concerned with having a balanced room in terms of gender, age, and background to ensure a vibrant conversation that pushes past tired policy tropes. Our diversity has improved (20 percent women at the 2008 Brussels Forum, 26 percent last year), but only with great effort. This includes trying hard to include a woman on every panel. A few years ago, we were preparing for a similar weekend conference when The New Yorker came out with this cartoon. In our office, it hit a nerve.

There is a lot of advice out there on how to feature more women at major international conferences. Our six-month planning process begins by brainstorming an invitation list. We do not have a quota, but we have impressed on our staff that women must be present on all lists in significant numbers. As the acceptances roll in, we monitor them closely and calls go out for even more women to be invited.

This year, one of our early skull sessions generated an idea we hadn’t heard before: offer free on-site, licensed childcare throughout the weekend. Our targets are the mid-career professionals who are beginning to take on important jobs in the transatlantic community. The goal is to neutralize the complexity of attending a weekend conference for working parents, women or men. Despite our high hopes, only three parents have signed up.

We do not consider the effort a failure, but it also is not the silver bullet we had hoped for. This is no doubt in part because of the added expense most participants would incur to bring a child with them, not to mention the decision to remove Johnny from school or take Sally away from weekend swimming lessons. There is also parental guilt to be reckoned with since, for working parents, the weekend is the time they have to spend with their children.

There is at least one promising sign that our diversity efforts will take root in the near future. On the sideline of our conference is a smaller effort to develop new leaders on both sides of the Atlantic—a young professional’s summit for those under 30. We expect these rising policy stars to take higher-level jobs in the future and become part of the main Brussels Forum conference.

When that happens, the group will help our gender balance as well. This year, the young professionals are 44 percent female.